Star Wars: Episode ?: The Search for a Compelling Villain

Whether you’re a die hard Star Wars fan who has seen every film, cartoon spin-off, and read every book, or just a casual viewer who saw some of the films once or twice, odds are that you know who this guy is:

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Darth Vader: a villain so captivating that the American Film Institute ranked him in the top 3 greatest villains of all time. As we found out in The Empire Strikes Back, though, Vader had a master:

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Emperor Palpatine; a tyrannical political leader and master of the Force, who could shoot lightning out of his hands. Even though he was the man behind the Galactic Empire, and wielded electricity, he wasn’t quite as interesting as his servant.

Vader was one of the first characters we saw in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. and boy did he know how to make an entrance. He marches onto Princess Leia’s ship after his stormtroopers mow down everyone in sight, chokes a man to death, captures Leia, and does it all while rocking a cape and sounding asthmatic.

Palpatine gets a small appearance in Empire Strikes Back but it’s not until Return of the Jedi that we get a proper introduction to him. Meanwhile, Vader’s been a central figure the entire time, always trying to thwart the plans of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and the Rebel Alliance.

The prequel films took place when Anakin Skywalker, the man who would become Darth Vader was just a kid. Obviously then, Vader couldn’t serve as the villain. Interestingly enough in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Emperor Palpatine wasn’t the villain either; he’s still playing politician. So instead, we get these guys:

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Leaders of the Trade Federation. Remember them? No? Well, they were there. Yup, the bad guys of the movie were a political body with a non-existent backstory.

Perhaps you think the villain was this guy:

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Darth Maul. Well, he was a villain for all five minutes of screen time he had. Sadly though, by the time the movie’s over, he’s not half the man he used to be:

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Maybe you’re more familiar with Count Dooku, the villain from Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Surely being played by Christopher Lee would make him memorable:

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He even had a bigger part than Darth Maul, he had at LEAST 15 minutes of screen time across two films. Still don’t remember him that well though?

Okay, then there’s General Grievous from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith:

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We got to see him for about 10 minutes, and look how many lightsabers he has! Four of them! FOUR LIGHTSABERS! …But it also turns out that was his only defining character trait.

Fortunately, Episode III also brought back Palpatine not as a politician, but as Darth Sidious; otherwise known as the bad guy we knew he was going to end up as since we saw Return of the Jedi all those years ago. All the other villains we come across in these prequels are smokescreens and obstacles Sidious throws at the heroes while the movies try to pretend that Sidious being Palpatine is some dark secret.

Each of the prequel films show Darth Sidious as a cloaked figure, deviously plotting things, but then they show him being all innocent and unassuming as Senator/Emperor Palpatine. It’s not until Episode III that the series drops the charade that everyone saw through anyway and fully embraced the character.

That’s the problem with the prequels, there’s no defining villain, and certainly not one as utterly compelling as Vader. The first time we see Darth Vader, his presence is so arresting that we don’t need to know his back story. We do still get his history bit by bit over time, and that’s something that draws us close to him in each film. This kind of development is not present at all in the prequels. Who’s going to be interested in Nute Gunray of the Trade Federation?

The need for a compelling Star Wars villain was understood back in 1991 when Timothy Zahn wrote the first official continuation of the franchise, Heir to the Empire. The first thing the book does is introduce us to the story’s main villain:

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Grand Admiral Thrawn. Within the first chapter we find out that this alien is a tactical genius and is as insightful as he is ruthless. The success of Zahn’s novel led to a trilogy of books that included Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. All three of the novels have Thrawn front and center as the antagonist and he makes them incredibly entertaining reads. In fact, some Star Wars fans will argue that Zahn’s books tell a much more interesting story than Episodes I – III do.

Christmas 2015 will mark a new chapter in the Star Wars franchise as Episode VII: The Force Awakens debuts in theaters. For the time being, all fans have to go on is rumor, speculation, minor production details and trailers to try and determine what lays in store for them. One of those details is this character:

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Kylo Ren. The information about him is shrouded in secrecy, but it’s clear that his design is a callback to both Vader and Maul in his intimidating presence, unique lightsaber, and foreboding visage. Will he have a personality to match his appearance? Will he be a primary antagonist over the course of the next three films, or will he be a “one and done” villain; only to appear in this upcoming film and never be heard from again? If Disney wants to return Star Wars to the glory of the original films, they’d do well to remember that more often than not, a hero is only as good as the villain who challenges them.

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