“I have been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner; now I am the master.”
- Darth Vader, STAR WARS
And thus began the final confrontation between Obi-Wan Kenobi and his fallen disciple, Anakin Skywalker. With only a few tantalizing lines of dialogue in the original STAR WARS, a mysterious and legendary history had been established, and their final battle was one we sensed had been decades coming. After witnessing Vader’s relentless pursuit of Luke and his friends throughout THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, it wasn’t hard to imagine the young Dark Lord of the Sith who nursed his broken body, rebuilding himself through sheer will, and surviving on hatred and a thirst for revenge; one who returned at last from the brink of death to search the galaxy for the man who’d physically destroyed him and who had now gone into long hiding. Their confrontation aboard the Death Star takes on a mythic tone, and one that paints, in wide brush strokes, an epic tale of betrayal and vengeance in vague but striking images, like a dream half-remembered.
And like Vader himself, we too waited decades. We waited to see this story told.
In 2005, it finally was.
The film was called REVENGE OF THE SITH.*
Here at last was the tale of Anakin Skywalker, a “young Jedi” who “was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.” The tragic series of events leading to the fall of the Jedi and rise of the Empire was what we all wanted from the Prequels; is it any wonder why THE PHANTOM MENACE was so disliked when, regardless of quality, it barely touched on any of this? But here we were: no more foreshadowing, no more setup. REVENGE OF THE SITH contained the most important, untold secrets in the STAR WARS universe. Secrets you literally waited a lifetime to hear.
But like so many mysteries, the speculation is always better than the delivery. The story we were finally given is one at odds with the information as originally presented in STAR WARS, EMPIRE and JEDI, both in terms of ordered events, and the depiction of Anakin Skywalker himself. We're left with incompatible scenarios and characterization that crumble beneath the sheer weight and enormity of errors, the scrutiny of which owes less to personal preference for the "old ones" over "the new ones" than to a hastily delivered, poorly-thought-out product.
Now, I’ve already laid out my issues with the presentation of the Jedi order in my discussion of THE PHANTOM MENACE, but for those just now tuning in, I can sum it up with the following: as presented in the Original Trilogy, the Jedi had to have been a secret and widespread collective of errant space knights abiding by a general code, lurking in the shadows of planetary systems to emerge and disappear only when needed. Yoda, too, had to have lived in secret on Dagobah, training each new recruit, one at a time, for centuries. This was the only way for the Jedi existence to have fallen into dispute by the time that Han Solo was laughing off Luke’s early training, despite the fact that the Jedi had participated in the fabled Clone Wars -- which, given Luke’s young age of nineteen, clearly took place during Han’s lifetime. This isn’t “head canon” – it’s math.
So this brings us around to Anakin’s age. One of the most common complaints about THE PHANTOM MENACE was the introducing us to a nine year-old who clearly ought to have been closer to Obi-Wan’s age. Juvenile performance aside, the problem with starting Anakin off so young is that 1) by the time we catch up with him in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, ten years has passed, and he’s become a brand new character we no longer know; and 2) he’s significantly younger than the Anakin Skywalker we meet in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Sabastian Shaw was nearly 80 (!) when he played the man beneath the helmet, and while some have tried to argue that casting a septuagenarian allowed for a Darth Vader who had been physically aged by the Dark Side, this still doesn’t explain the healthy -- but elderly -- man we see as an apparition during the Ewok hoedown.
Because THE PHANTOM MENACE takes place thirty-two years before STAR WARS, and because Anakin is nine in that first Episode, this places Darth Vader at 41 when he first steps aboard the Tantive IV in search of the stolen Death Star plans. Three more years pass between STAR WARS and EMPIRE, followed by six months between it and JEDI. By the time he dies, Anakin Skywalker is a whopping 44 - 45 years old; just over half the age of the actor specifically chosen to play the unmasked (and spiritually renewed) version of the character. Interestingly, Lucas opted to remove Shaw from the final moments of the Original Trilogy by pasting an outtake of Hayden Christensen’s creepy, leering face over the previous actor’s mug, prompting one to ask: if the goal was to smooth out some of these plot wrinkles (along with the facial ones), then how do we rationalize Kenobi still being an old man…?
(Speaking of which, it’s also worth noting that this timeline creates issues for Obi-Wan as well. If we accept that “old Ben” was between 65 and 70 when Luke meets him on Tatooine, this renders the character around thirty years old by the time Qui-Gon decided to let the trainee off the leash -- and then only because there was a new kid to be taught. The Obi-Wan of EPISODE ONE never struck me as being intentionally played as that age until you examine the timeline.)
In short, with the Prequels making the Jedi public figures, and by portraying Vader as younger than expected (and Kenobi as older than expected), you end up with 1) characters who are incorrectly aged by as much as decades, and 2) the baffling mythologizing of a galactic peace-keeping order of space knights who led armies in a war that involved thousands of planetary systems...twenty years ago. That's sort of like "forgetting" Christianity.
But okay, let’s just roll with it. Let’s talk about Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader. That’s what this story’s been all about, right?
I don’t think anyone but the most militant Prequel apologist will correct me when I say that it’s made clear in RETURN OF THE JEDI -- albeit through implication -- that Anakin was poorly trained by Obi-Wan, who chose not to send his Jedi recruit to Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force from Yoda. One can extrapolate from there. Without the isolation of a secluded environment, and with other events unfolding around them, Kenobi couldn’t give Anakin the attention he needed. Anakin found himself without guidance, and when caught up in the rush of his newfound abilities, he delighted in their use to resolve (or even instigate) situations involving conflict, be it of a physical, personal, or political nature. Shortcuts and the rapid development of selfish, greedy power corrupted Skywalker, and made him easily recruited by Emperor Palpatine, who offered Anakin the chance to become his Muscle: a black ops commander with a badge, and a license to do whatever he wanted. Knowing how to find the invisible Jedi scattered around the galaxy, the newly-dubbed Darth Vader sniffed each one back to their homes and slaughtered them. Why did Yoda escape? Because Vader didn’t know Yoda existed. His location had to be a secret passed to each new trainee who was sent off to become a Jedi. Since Obi-Wan skipped this step and tried to train Anakin himself, he unwittingly created, through neglect, Darth Vader, who he accepted as his sole responsibility to destroy. This confrontation ultimately played out atop a volcano, ending with Vader burnt nearly to death, and Kenobi in hiding, waiting for the day he could guide Luke to Dagobah and make amends for his pride and hubris.
Maybe the finer details differ, but that’s more or less what we take away from the bits and pieces of backstory we’re given in the Original Trilogy. So how is that different from what we got?
The Anakin of the Prequels was never “seduced by the Dark Side of the Force”; he’s conned by Palpatine after experiencing premonitions of Padme’s imminent death during childbirth. Palpatine offers to help him learn the secrets of immortality -- allegedly a Dark Side skill -- in return for Anakin’s service. Anakin agrees. Then, about a day later, Obi-Wan chops off both his legs and leaves him on the side of a molten river. Thus is Darth Vader born.
What we see in REVENGE OF THE SITH has nothing to do with what we’d been previously told. Apart from some lip service jammed in every once in a while, Anakin never desires power, per se: he just wants to get laid. He wants to have a girlfriend and pouts when he can't. He gets butthurt when he’s placed on the Jedi council without the rank of Master (despite the kid he kills an hour later calling him “Master Skywalker” before being saber’d to death). It’s all just petty bitchiness from a petty, bitchy kid. No nobility, no wisdom or goodness that’s tragically and irrevocably lost. Seduction isn’t an immediate thing, you know: there’s a luring, cat-and-mouse quality that never occurs here. One can always unpack the old “from a certain point of view” excuse, but the Darth Vaders of the Original and Prequel trilogies have nothing in common beyond the name. Hell, even his title loses relevancy: rather than being specific to Anakin himself (a bastardization of “Dark Father”), it turns out that “Darth” is a generic name, like calling every Sith Lord “Mister” in front of a variation of “Bad Guy.”
Much of this inconsistency -- and indeed the abruptness of Anakin’s turn -- comes back to my previous discussion of writing in the editing room. By his own admission, Lucas banged out the screenplays for ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH literally days before filming began, and then contractually obligated his cast and crew to return for multiple reshoots so that he could "find" the story as he assembled footage and saw what worked and what didn’t. Anakin’s conversion to the Dark Side was a prime example of this method, originally involving the erroneous belief that the Jedi were trying to overthrow the Republic. When Lucas screened the film for his colleagues, they found this to be wimpy, resulting in the “dying in childbirth” angle. You can literally see the seams in the two edits during Palpatine’s knighting of Anakin: the pupil is panting and sobbing “What have I done?” over having just killed Mace Windu, followed by him begging Palpatine to help him save Padme’s life; then, a moment later, he’s cool, cold, and dispassionate, agreeing -- for no reason at all -- to go to the Jedi temple to murder children. This continuity shift creates weird moments in the third act as Vader repeats that “the Jedi are evil” and other such First Draft elements that no longer harmonize with the rewrite.
Either way you cut it, the Anakin we see in REVENGE OF THE SITH is killing preschoolers because either 1) he was misinformed that the Jedi were acting outside the law, or 2) he believed his wife was going to die. In neither case is he “seduced” by power, and in neither case should he suddenly become a sociopathic Space Hitler. We don’t even see him “hunt down and destroy the Jedi knights”; the clones do that. Anakin just kills defenseless kids. He isn’t a good man corrupted by power; he’s a fucking punk. Darth Vader, as depicted in the Original Trilogy, carries an air of failed nobility. This must first be obtained in order to be lost.
Finally, there becomes the issue of family. The RETURN OF THE JEDI screenplay contains a scene that was filmed and then deleted in which Obi-Wan explains that Owen Lars was his brother, not Anakin’s; this was why hiding Luke with “family” (who, not coincidentally, had a last name that wasn’t “Skywalker”) made sense. Regrettably, this dialogue was removed, creating the troublesome question of why Obi-Wan would leave Anakin’s son -- the future "new hope" of the galaxy -- with Anakin’s own family, on a farm that Anakin knew the location of, on Anakin’s home planet. The fact that Luke is hidden in the most obvious place imaginable makes Vader look stupid, and Obi-Wan even stupider than that.
Not long after the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS, several friends tagged me in a Facebook article making the claim that Kylo Ren was the Anakin Skywalker we should have gotten: young, powerful, troubled, and relatable. Kylo Ren is a topic for another day; but my reply to this theory was a simple No no no no NO. The Anakin we should have gotten was played by Sean Bean in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Consider Boromir: a kind and noble man, peerless in battle and lordly in bearing, confronted by a threat to all he holds dear, and cannot vanquish; and then, ultimate Power comes within reach -- a Power he has sworn to reject. It gnaws at him. These are End Times. War is coming. Mankind will fall. The Power calls to him, knowing the weak spot in his armor: his pride. So he betrays his vow and tries to kill an innocent to seize that Power for himself. He’s a good man doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, and in the end, he pays the price for his lack of vision. That was the Anakin we should have gotten.
The truth is, we still haven’t met the character we all heard about in Ben's hut back in 1977. He remains as mysterious and legendary as he was when Obi-Wan first teased us with clues, inspiring us all to imagine what really happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
* A title which depressingly summarized the state of the franchise: "STAR WARS: ROTS."
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)