Pop Culture Icons #1 : Darth Vader

From the very first novels centuries ago to the latest movies and video-games, the history of pop-culture is full of characters who all marked our lifes and society in many ways. All of these characters had and still have their importance in the history of pop-culture and all have different profiles to analyse. This article is the first of a twelve episodes series, one per month, each one focusing on a character who became a pop-culture icon. Across these articles you’ll read about 12 characters from the world of cinema, video-games, litterature and super-heroes. How these characters were created, their background, why they are so special, why they had such an impact on the pop-culture and what’s their legacy. Each article will also feature an interview with someone who knows perfectly the character and the universe it belongs to.

For this first episode we’ll be travelling to a galaxy far, far away and we’ll be talking about one of THE most iconic vilain in the history of cinema. Fallen Jedi, dark lord of the Sith and one of the most feared member of the Galactic Empire : Darth Vader.

The creation process

Darth Vader’s creation process starts at the very beginning of Star Wars creation process itself. While Star Wars was only a project in the making, George Lucas and his team already had a pretty clear idea about the kind of vilain they wanted to have.

The character of Darth Vader is highly inspired by many legends and characters from medieval litterature. The concept of who Vader is and the threat he represents is directly inspired from what is known as “The Dark Knight”. A recurrent character in medieval legends and writings who’s describe as a lonely knight, dangerous, often using dark magic and serving an obscure master. At the same time, the inspiration for Vader also come from Japanese Samuraï fighters. The armor and especially the helmet are clearly modernized version of Samuraï’s armors (like many elements in Star Wars, Vader is partly the product of George Lucas’ passion for Akira Kurosawa’s movies). Finally we can also notice that Darth Vader may have been inspired by other movie characters such as “Sherif Ali” in 1962 Lawrence of Arabia and “The Lightning”, a vilain from 1938 The Fighting Evil Dogs. But Darth Vader is not only about the look. It’s also a voice and a breathing. As Vader had this cold and frightening mechanical look, he needed to have a voice that fits with his look. If David Prowse acting was definitely relevant, his voice wasn’t. George Lucas engaged James Earl Jones to voice Vader who was able to provide a deep, calm and threatening voice to Vader. However there is ONE element that makes Vader so special and so unique : the way he breathes. Directly derived from a diving mask sound (then arranged and modified to sound a little bit deeper), the way Vader breathes firstly came from the idea that he needed a respirator in order to… well in order to breathe in the space void ! The link with Anakin Skywalker being injured and having breathing difficulties only came later during the creation process. This very particular breathing sound makes everything with Vader. It’s the incarnation of the threat he represents. Even if you can’t see him, you can hear him, and when you hear this cold and mechanical breath, you know the heroes gonna be in trouble. A unique look, a unique sound, acted by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones, Darth Vader was ready. In 1977, the public finally discover the one who’s about to become an absolute legend…

Darth Vader’s first appearance – Star Wars Ep.IV: A New Hope (1977), Lucasfilm.

The background

Darth Vader is not only a character. It’s a story, or more precisely : a tragedy, the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader’s background and origins are probably as interesting as the character himself. At the very beginning, Anakin Skywalker is a kid from Tatooine who’s apparently the chosen one of a prophecy saying that he’ll bring back balance to the force. In any book, movie or video-game there is this rule of the “chosen one” : a kid with a classic and boring background who’s destined to become a hero (Harry Potter is a great example of this “rule”). What’s interesting with Anakin Skywalker is that he doesn’t follow this rule as at the end of Episode III, he embraces the dark side, betrays the Jedis and becomes Darth Vader. Vader’s background is what makes him even more interesting than he already is. There is an entire emotional part with Vader, it’s not only the machine who’s frightening the galaxy. It’s first of all a broken hero, consumed by anger, fear and sadness, someone who’s constantly suffering. Vader’s tragic story from his fall to his redemption has been slightly introduced during Episode VI, before being fully developed during Episodes I,II and III (the prelogy), three episodes that are fully focusing on the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, from his childhood on Tatooine to the moment he becomes the cold machine we all know about. Vader’s story is what makes him so unique, besides his look. In most of stories, the vilain generally been a vilain since the beginning, and the hero always been a good guy right from the start. Darth Vader is a complete and complex character, who’s inspiring fear and compassion at the same time. There is definitely a whole fascination around Vader’s story, especially in when the first movie released as the public didn’t really know who Vader really was. The story of Darth Vader is a mix of epicness, sadness, suffering, tragedy and redemption.

In order to know more about Darth Vader’s success, I had a talk with “Sidemaul”, Star Wars content creator on YouTube and a huge Darth Vader fan. Here is what he told me :

If I had to describe Darth Vader in a few words, I’d say impressive, powerful but more importantly very sad. Three words that perfectly describes the character throughout his adventures in the extended Star Wars universe. We’re clearly seeing a sad man trying to hide the sadness with his anger. The movies showed us the machine without emotions (except at the end of episode VI) while the extended universe showed us the sad and desperate man. It’s a great balance between the movies and the extended universe. My passion for Darth vader mainly comes from the extended universe. As I said, this is where you can see the man behind the armor, all the issues he has, his regrets regarding his relation with Padme and the complex relation he has with his master. It’s great seeing all of this. For me Vader is clearly the best character of the extended universe. Darth Vader and Anakin are the two sides of a same piece who enjoys breaking the rules, it’s what makes him so special. It’s a character with a tragic story, we easily show compassion for Vader’s past, his journey as a hero of the Republic, his relation with Padme and his sadness regarding his status of slave. It’s thanks to all these elements that Vader built himself. He built himself upon desperation, sadness and anger. Despite the fact he looks like a machine, he’s way more human than a bunch of humans in the Star Wars universe.

In my opinion, Vader’s success in the pop culture can easily be explain by his look, that was clearly unprecedented back in 1977. Watching such a tall man in a black armor with this impressive helmet, I don’t think it was very common back then. I think we can also add Vader’s most famous element : his breathing sound. The immediat succes of Star Wars made Vader an icon of the pop-culture forever.

Regarding the idea of Vader being a problem for Star Wars in a way that it’s really hard to find a character as much iconic as Vader, I don’t think it’s a problem. Vader is for sure a amazing element for the universe of Star Wars. Everyone loves him, everyone knows him but the extended universe gave us other original characters who are all as much interesting as Vader, whether they are good guys or bad guys. With the new period of the “High Republic” hapening 200 years before episode I we have the proof that the universe also works very well without Vader. I think that the goal is not to find Vader’s successor but more to find characters who can be iconic, without being like Vader. There is a lot of great vilains in the extended universe. They’re not as iconic as Vader but thir importance is the same.

I think that nowadays Darth Vader has nothing to prove in order to stay an icon of the pop-culture. He won his place forever when Star Wars released in 1977, thanks to the fans who are always maintaining his legend and his success. Darth Vader will always be famous, even without appearing in a movie, because it’s Darth Vader.

How do we explain such a success ?

Darth Vader’s success is a mix of everything. If George Lucas often said that he didn’t expect Star Wars to be so popular right after the first movie released in 1977, it’s actually not that much a surprise. Darth Vader is one of many examples that explain why Star Wars has been such a success. As “Sidemaul” mentionned it in the interview, Darth vader as a character is something unique or at least not common. Moreover, a vilain like Vader was for sure unprecedented back then in 1977, whether it’s about his look, his voice or the general atmosphere and feelings Vader brings to the screen. Later in the early 2000s’, the prelogy and especially Episode III (The Revenge of the Sith) came to complete an already legendary character, adding a fantastic background story. At a time where derived products were not very common, Lucasfilm built an incredible empire around the Star Wars franchise by selling goodies, toys, clothes and any other derived products. A commercial empire that quickly became an opportunity for the a character like Darth Vader. The fans loved the character so the company had to build something in order to extend Vader’s success and Star Wars success.

Nowadays Darth Vader is probably one of the most famous character in the pop-culture and he’s easily identified, even by someone who’s not a Star Wars fan. Wheter it’s about his look, his breathing or even some of his moves like the force choke, everyone know something about Darth Vader. The icon Vader is may have caused some troubles to Lucasfilm as it’s hard to replace such a character but some movies, video-games or comics managed to deliver a great performance without using Darth Vader, even if a Star Wars fan will always enjoy the presence of the Sith Lord in any Star Wars content and Darth Vader has become so famous that you can easily find him making some apparitions in contents that are not Star Wars content. In conclusion, there is something about Vader that immediatly generated passion for anyone who watched Star Wars for the first time, and this something is still generating the same passion and interest for anyone who’s watching Star Wars for the first time. This “something” is probably the incredible mix of class, fear, respect and emotions the character spreads. A mix that was made possible thanks to unequalled look and a fantastic and fascinating background story.

Luke, I am your father“. Probably the most iconic Vader’s scene/line. A line that just like his character, travelled across the pop-culture way beyond the Star Wars universe itself.

The five most famous elements of Darth Vader :

  • The helmet
  • The breathing
  • The voice
  • The “force choke”
  • The red lightsaber

Some of Vader’s apparitions in other Star Wars content than the main movies :

  • Rogue One: a Star Wars story (2016, Lucasfilm)
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars – season 7 (2019, Lucasfilm)
  • Star Wars Rebels (2014 – 2018, Lucasfilm)
  • Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order (2019, Electronic Arts & Lucasfilm)
  • Darth Vader Dark Lord of the Sith (2017, Marvel Comics)

That’s all regarding Darth Vader ! Special thanks to Sidemaul who kindly accepted to realize this interview in order to share his knowledge, passion and opinion about Darth Vader and to my friend Clifford Carda who realized the head pic for the article.