Of all the many sins of the Star Wars Prequels the most mortal might be the way the trilogy recast Darth Vader as a petulant, whining brat whose first moments in his iconic suit involved him doing a hugely comedic “NOOOOO!” that became a major meme.
Shedding light on the backstory of Anakin Skywalker cut Vader off at the knees, and the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy compounded matters by subbing in Hayden Christiansen over Sebastian Shaw as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker. It’s not just a shitty connection the Prequels, it’s a confusing choice - is Lucas saying that Anakin died that day on Mustafar and that everything since then wasn’t truly Anakin? Wasn’t the whole point of the movie that Luke believed his father was still somewhere inside all that metal and evil?
By the time Vader showed up at the end of Revenge of the Sith a powerful part of his mystique was lost. The Dark Lord of the Sith just wasn’t quite the same after he had been exposed like that. I don’t know what was worse - that Anakin had been shown to be a total lame-ass, or that the characterization of Darth Vader bore no resemblance to Anakin. These were two different characters, smashed together by an abuse of canon, not by storytelling.
Star Wars Rebels is here to fix all that. The show, which aired its season two opener this weekend, has already proven itself to be the absolute best Star Wars thing since Return of the Jedi, but with the introduction of Vader into the proceedings it is getting absolutely next level. Set about five years before the events of A New Hope, Rebels has Vader at his peak bad guy level, and it isn’t afraid to show that - and it’s more than happy to get the taste of Anakin Skywalker out of your mouth.
In the season two premiere, The Siege of Lothal, Vader first appears in bureacratic mode, ie not the most inspiring or frightening version of the character. But once he confronts the two Jedi heroes, Kanan and Ezra, all bets are off. As the titular rebels attempt to steal an Imperial shuttlecraft Vader appears at the entrance to the dock, shot from a distance and framed in a deep black doorway. He ignites his red saber as a squadron of Stormtroopers run up behind him and any viewer with a connection to the OT must feel a shiver run down their spine. This image is classic Vader, an image that almost instantly wipes away the softening of Anakin.
The battle that ensues is, without hyperbole, one of the best duels in the history of the franchise. Ezra and Kanan are laughably overpowered by Vader, who fights with one hand and casually tosses them around. Rather than even bother killing Ezra, Vader forces the young Padawan to bring his own lightsaber to his own neck using Force powers, a moment so ruthless and dripping with danger I couldn’t believe it was part of a TV show on Disney XD. Of course Ezra isn’t killed - he’s saved in the nick of time! - but the casual cruelty of Vader’s attempted murder method is extraordinary.
The heroes can’t hope to defeat Vader, and they only manage to get away from him when their allies blow out the knees of a couple of Imperial Walkers; the duo Force push Vader into the path of the crashing, exploding metal… but that’s not enough to kill him. In a moment as iconic as any from the Original Trilogy Vader stands and pushes the twisted mass of metal over his head, framed in a red glow of fire.
This is Vader the intergalactic badass. This isn’t the podracer or the murderer of babies, it’s a truly great villain who is at the top of his game and who presents a tremendous and unbeatable opponent for our heroes. In the original Star Wars Darth Vader was scary - Rebels makes Vader scary again. He has the relentless quality of a slasher movie villain, and the show’s version of his helmet, more like the original Ralph McQuarrie concept art, gives him an even more sinister look, if you can believe it.
At the same time Rebels is a Lucasfilm production, so it’s not going to throw the Prequels totally under the bus. What this season premiere did was connect the Vader of the first Star Wars with the Anakin of The Phantom Menace by having him show up in his TIE Interceptor - alone! - and beat the hell out of the fledgling Rebel fleet. The Prequels picked up on a throwaway Obi Wan Kenobi line about Anakin being a great pilot and focused on that in a big way, but Vader only was a pilot in one of the Original Trilogy films, and even there he didn’t seem particularly extraordinary. Watching Vader do barrel rolls and fly his TIE with supernatural precision in Rebels I finally saw the great pilot we had been told about - not the guy flying in a straight line in Star Wars, and not the kid who was operating on the universe’s greatest bout of luck in The Phantom Menace. By coming in alone Vader shows his confidence (veering towards cockiness) and then he backs that up by really blowing shit up.
Darth Vader has always been a weird villain because Lucasfilm always merched him heavily, and he was always strangely beloved. Vader’s turn at the end of Jedi can be seen as less ordained by story forces and more ordained by the number of kids hanging Vader posters up in their bedrooms, like he had to be redeemed for the fanbase. Even still, Vader was a frightening bad guy in the first two films (and in parts of the third), and Rebels gets back to that iteration of the character. Having James Earl Jones voice him only adds to the weight of this version - he feels much more canon than any novel or comic book can, since it’s Vader’s actual voice coming out of your TV. This weekend on Rebels Darth Vader felt actually threatening for the first time since 1983 - an astonishing feat. I don’t know how involved the character will be in this season of the show, but just a few more appearances should be enough to totally clear the loser slaveboy and the sand-hating teenager out of our memories and re-cement the brutal, ruthless and plain old mean Dark Lord of the Sith as the pre-eminent villain of our time.