Former US vice-president, torture afficianado and rotten hunter Dick Cheney has recently said (not for the first time) that he likes, and is even honoured by, the nickname "Darth Cheney" given to him by some opponents.
This is, of course, just a bit of politicking by a politician. But it illustrates a phenomenon that is starting to drive me nuts. Ever since the prequels, or at least since the last of them, Darth Vader has been moving in the popular imagination from what he really was--a genocidal maniac who experienced a rather unconvincing last-minute change of heart--into some sort of hero.
I doubt whether comparisons to Darth Vader would have been so readily embraced by a politician in 1977, 1980, 1983 or even 1999. In the course of the original three films we see Darth Vader torture a princess, participate (at least as an accessory) in the complete destruction of an entire planet, murder an old man (although Kenobi admittedly let him do it), sufficate several underlings (usually to death), torture a man without even asking him any questions, cut off his own son's hand, cavort around the galaxy in transports bearing names like "Death Star" and "Star Destroyer", and repeatedly do things he consciously knows to be wrong in the name of "the power of the Dark Side of the Force". He is about as bad as a movie villain gets in a film that can legally be shown to a six-year-old.
How, then, has Darth Vader now become an acceptable, and even adorable, way for Germans (of all people) to sell Volkswagens to the world?
The answer cannot lie in the last fifteen minutes of Return of the Jedi alone. It is all very nice that Luke finally got to see his father's pale and scary face before he died. But what would have happened had he not died? What would Luke have done with him after dragging him onto that imperial shuttle? He could hardly take him to Endor for the Ewok barbeque. "Hey everyone, this is my dad. He's been blowing up planets and trying to kill you for years, but it's cool, he's good now. Could someone get him a beer?" If the rebels were saints, they would arrest him and put him on trial for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against just about every other species in the galaxy. More likely the film would end rather like it did--with Vader's body burning, but alive.
Vader's death-bed confession was the least convincing part of the original trilogy. (A close second was Obi-Wan's explanation to Luke that he had not really lied about his father, he had in fact told him the truth "from a certain point of view". Dicky-Wan Kenobi might be as appropriate a nickname for the former vice-president and his WMD-imagining pals in the Bush Jr White House.) Had Joseph Stalin shown affection for a long-lost child in the last 30 minutes of his life, he would still have fully deserved to go down in history as a murderous thug. But at least Lucas did not dwell on this implausible bit of happyendingism: the final scene between Luke and Vader, which is admittedly dramatic and even somewhat touching, ends quickly enough not to give the viewer time to start questioning whether it makes any sense.
Then come the prequels. Now Lucas tells us the entire concept of Star Wars from the very begining was that it would tell the tale of Darth Vader's fall and redemption. Of all the many mistakes one can find in the prequel trilogy, this is pre-eminent. The prequels should not have revolved around Anakin Skywalker. The tragic hero of the prequels ought to have been Obi-Wan Kenobi--an immensely talented but arrogant young man who allows his ambition and self-confidence to delude him into taking on as a pupil a younger man (not a five-year-old, not a teenager) whom he was incapable of properly preparing for the demands of life as a jedi. Kenobi's vanity not only ruins the life of Anakin Skywalker--whose flawed training from Kenobi proves wholly inadequate to the task of controlling his immense innate powers--but leads directly to the fall of the entire republic and the coming of the Galactic Empire.
I did not invent that storyline. George Lucas did. It is what he told us happened between Obi-Wan and Anakin in the original trilogy. But then he decided he wanted Liam Neeson.
The rest of the story is too drearily familiar to state in any detail. The prequels are awful and Vader is recast as an object of pity. Nobody capable of tying his own shoes is persuaded by this, but there are enough children and morons in the world to make it almost true. And Lucas is more than happy to encourage woolly thinking about Darth Vader, partly in a desperate bid to depict the prequels as having actually had some sort of satisfactory plot, but mostly because Asian electronic companies will pay him large licensing fees to use Vader's likeness on telephones and Vader's voice on GPS navigation systems.
In short, the Dark Side is looking sunnier, and more banal, all the time. Dick Cheney is right: Darth has become a compliment.