Darth Vader is one of pop culture’s universally recognized figures. His respirator-enhanced breathing, massive frame, and intimidating armored costume, as well as his tendency to enforce discipline in the Imperial ranks by summary execution, combine to make him the baddest of cinematic bad guys. Voiced by James Earl Jones, Vader is a truly awesome presence onscreen, easily one of the most convincing monsters ever to menace a princess and her rescuers. From the beginning, Vader represents the antithesis of the warmly human Ben Kenobi, who is full of wisdom and slow to anger but quick to defend others. Vader, on the other hand, lashes out casually at those who displease him, though he does so as if motivated by a cool, almost rational anger, rather than a raging fury. Vader’s conscious goal is to inspire fear wherever he goes and to use the anger and hatred this fear stirs up to control those around him. However, the surprising thing about Vader is that the monster turns out to be human after all.

For all of A New Hope and most of The Empire Strikes Back, Vader is a static character: the relentless foe of our heroes. At the end of Empire, however, comes the revelation that stunned twelve-year-old moviegoers everywhere in 1980—namely, that Vader is Luke’s father, whom Luke, up to that point, believed to have been slain by Vader himself. Much of the subsequent drama of Return of the Jedi hinges on Luke’s efforts to awaken the good that Luke believes, on rather little evidence, to be dormant within Vader’s soul. The change finally comes when Vader is at last beaten and spared by Luke, who is then nearly killed by the Emperor. Vader’s mask, impassive up to this point, is now lit cleverly in the glow of the Emperor’s force-lightning so that pained expressions seem to flit anxiously across Vader’s face. Finally, Anakin Skywalker reemerges from within Darth Vader, and he destroys the Emperor and saves his son. His last act is telling: he asks Luke to remove the mask so that he may see Luke with his own eyes—a rejection of the sinister man/machine aspects of Vader’s being. In the end, Anakin Skywalker stands, purged of Darth Vader, with Yoda and Obi-Wan, the masters he once rejected.