'In Character' Conversation

Meet the Other Intern: Justin Hienz

Readers and listeners: I'm Justin Hienz, an intern at NPR. Every day, I see nominations and comments you submit, and I've been excited to remember with you all those fictional personalities that influence our lives. In reminiscing, I feel compelled to suggest another.

Darth Vader (a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker)
From the Star Wars films, created by George Lucas

Vader mask - close up

Dark victory: Intern Justin Hienz (who's finishing up a religious- studies degree, so we worry) says Darth Vader thrills us because we secretly long to be bad. LucasFilm/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption LucasFilm/Twentieth Century Fox

Of characters from American fiction, few have elicited as enduring a fascination as Darth Vader. The stiff black suit, the mysterious, ominous mask, the deep, commanding voice, the red lightsaber — he is the personification of evil and anguish, and we love him for it.

He kills subordinate Imperial officers on a whim, and we cheer. He threatens destruction, and we silently hope to see it done. At every stage, we both fear and hope for his success.

In Episodes 1-3, Vader became a more complex character for viewers. We gained a greater understanding of how a promising Jedi could fall so far from the light. And yet, watching Anakin Skywalker start down the path to becoming Darth Vader by killing a village of Sand People, I still feel a satisfying rush. They did kill his mother, after all. It was retribution — justified evil; in the words of the aspiring emperor Senator Palpatine (a.k.a., Darth Sidious), I always think to myself when watching, "Do it! Kill them!" Am I a bad person because part of me wants to see Vader thrive on the Dark Side of the Force? I think not.

George Lucas's Star Wars films make relatively simple commentary on the quest for power and the internal duality we all face; to do right or wrong, particularly when wrong would feel so good. Yet unlike in most other stories of duality, in Darth Vader, the Dark Side seems attractive.

Vader allows us to imagine what a full embrace of the dark would be like. There is a fascination with acting on the reverse of socially agreed upon morality. Because a rejection of norms is taboo, tasting the forbidden fruit through Vader is a guilty pleasure. That we don't, for the most part, openly cheer for him makes our secret support feel as if we too are breaking all the rules.

In our galaxy, in our time, existence is rarely as clearly understandable as "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong" as in Star Wars. The ambiguities of everyday life leave us wondering what side of the Force we follow; usually our path is lit by the gray light of uncertainty.

But through Vader, with his unchecked power sans foreseeable consequence (save for Return of the Jedi), we can know the Dark Side, embrace it for two hours, and return to our uneasy wanderings through the gray.

Comments

 

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Your new intern, Justin Hienz, is an excellent writer and a provocative thinker...I look forward to more of his reflections!

Sent by Leigh Ann Dillinger | 5:25 PM | 1-18-2008

Darth Vader is no less nor more evil than any number of human conquerers and rulers whose only justification for the use of power was power itself.

Whether they go by the name of Xerxes, Alexander, Khan, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin or Bush, the leaders we both revere and fear have all subscribed to the might makes right philosophy, cloaked in whatever fashionable ideology ruled the day, be it imperialism, republicanism, socialism, communism or democracy.

Darth Vader hunted down and silenced his enemies; pursued his goals with strength and determination; ruthlessly thinned out incompetent inferiors; and expanded the reach and strength of his empire; all characteristics for which we praise our political and business leaders. Darth Vader is nothing more than the personification of leadership ideals.

Why then, is he considered a villain? Because he killed and ordered others to kill? Then so are all our generals evil. Because he killed those who were innocent? Then so are presidents who wage wars that result in the collateral death of civilians evil. Because he recognized no authority other than his own power? Then so is the unitary executive espoused by the current administration evil.

Darth Vader teaches us that power is all and that good and evil are merely pathetic attempt by the weak to justify their own powerlessness.

Sent by John Brown | 8:00 PM | 1-18-2008

My cousin, when he was about 5 and Star Wars obsessed, told his mom that Darth Vader was his best friend. His mom, at first a little shocked, realized that who wouldn't want Vader as your best friend? He could take care of the "bad guys with a gesture!

Sent by Rachel | 11:34 AM | 1-19-2008

Interesting point of view. This writer is going places in the future. Excited to see what else he can come up with!

Sent by Alex | 11:56 AM | 1-22-2008

I think a lot of people love Darth Vader because of James Earl Jones' pitch-perfect delivery of one liners, from "I'm here to put you back on schedule" to "Apology accepted." He's a man of few words, but when he says them, they're so powerful you want to use them as ringtones and calendar reminders on your desktop.

Speaking of which, that's one thing that always bothered me about the Anakin movies- he lacked the cleverness, the acid tongue, a lack of conviction when delivering his lines. Granted, having your legs chopped off and being burnt to a crisp my sharpen one's wit over time, but that still seems like a stretch.

Sent by andy carvin, npr | 4:15 PM | 1-22-2008

The music that played when Darth Vader entered Princess Leias ship made it clear that he was the personification of Evil itself. In "The Empire Strikes Back," I was horrified to learn that he was Lukes father. In "Return of the Jedi," I learned that he was once Anakin Skywalker, who was good until he fell to the Dark Side of the Force. For people of my generation (X), I think Darth Vader was the ultimate movie villain.

Sent by Peter Whitcopf | 9:13 AM | 1-25-2008

It's interesting to observe what happened to Anakin Skywalker as he grew up. Anakin is living a peaceful, simple life as a goodhearted child with his mother. Obi-Wan arrives and recruits him as a Jedi. As he grows up and goes through his training, lots of truths confront him about the world around him. He begins to stumble in confusion as he falls in love with Padme. Through all of this, he desperately tries to cling and hold on to whatever he has in his life, which ultimately leads to his demise. He went from a wholehearted child to a self-centered "Jedi" who lost trust in all who surrounded him. In this, I'm sure we can all see a side of ourselves. It is human nature to want to hold on to the things we love for as long as we can. And in doing so, it can lead us exactly to the place that we don't want to be. That is, being without the things we love or losing ourselves in our passion.

Sent by Garin McInnis | 9:14 AM | 1-25-2008

There are rare characters that, once they are beheld by the mainstream, immediatly become a generic archetype Darth Vader is one such character.

Even since the release of Episode IV in 1977, Darth Vader has been a cultural symbol for evil, and the quintessential villain. Without a doubt, it is impossible for anybody not to attribute Vaders baritone voice, and black armor with him. In fact, this ubiquity in pop-culture has resulted in more than a handful of parodies, and it relfects how Darth Vader has become an archetype in and of itself.

Also, Darth Vaders archetype provides warnings to an American society in moral decay. His own fall from grace reveals the stark coost of not having a disciplined, stoic mind capable of discerning virtue from the chaos of life. In todays Epicurean American society thats ensnared in a "do-what-fells-right" philosophy, Vaders saga serves as a warning against how emotions can blind ones judgment.

Darth Vader is the greatest American character ever produced due to his archetype.

Sent by Harrison Searles | 9:15 AM | 1-25-2008

Villain? Anti-hero? Object lesson? Evil personified? Archetype?

No, no, no, no and no.

What Donald Trump wishes he could be?

Yes.

Sent by John Brown | 1:13 PM | 1-25-2008

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