One night while my daughter and I were reading the picture book Star Wars: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, she surprised me (as she frequently does).
"[Luke] hopped aboard an X-Wing fighter and zoomed off to attack the fast-approaching Death Star while Darth Vader's Squadron of Imperial TIE fighters prepared to stop them," I read (Diterlizzi).
"Dad? I hope Darth Vader wins!"
Her words were like proton torpedoes entering the two centimeter wide exhaust port of my ears. Those words threatened to cause a chain reaction in my mind as thoughts of dark deeds done by Darth Vader, Tarkin, and their Imperial goons caused my mind to race with concern for my daughter. What did it mean that she liked the bad guy? I mean, he’s Darth Vader. He is the bad guy. He crushes people’s throats (both physically and through the Force), interrogates his daughter, dismembers his son, and murders younglings. How could my daughter like this guy? Then it hit me. How had she seen the character at that point? Only through the Lego Star Wars cartoons and Jeffrey Brown’s series of Darth Vader and...books. That could certainly skew your outlook on the Dark Lord of the Sith.
In the Lego Star Wars cartoon series, Darth Vader is largely played, like everything in that show is, for laughs. In “The Padawan Menace,” Vader has a small cameo where he breaks into a prequel era scene he isn’t supposed to be in only to be scolded by Lego George Lucas. This scene is followed in the next episode, “The Empire Strikes Out,” by Darth Vader at his most silly. He spends most of the episode feuding with Darth Maul, trying to prove to Palpatine which of them is the better son. Vader’s most menacing scene from this episode is a toss up between when he threatens to break Luke’s parentage to him (which is undercut when he’s kind enough to give a “spoiler alert”) and when he uses the force to make Darth Maul hit himself. The episode even ends with the “fearsome” Darth Lord of the Brick knocking a bunch of stormtroopers over like dominos to the chagrined Emperor’s cry of “Vader!”
In Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and… series of books, Vader is a loving single father. When Luke’s ice cream falls off its cone, Vader offers him his. When Leia turns sixteen, Vader provides a TIE Fighter and even teachers her how to fly it. He drops Luke off to school in an AT-AT, sweats over Leia’s clothing choices and boyfriends, and tries to keep both of his kids from hanging out with riff-raff like that scoundrel Han Solo. There’s no need for this Vader to redeem himself in the eyes of his or our children. He’s already a caring, generous, sometimes strict dad who would sooner fly across the star to help his children be happy than lop off a body part.
Both of these interpretations of Vader add up to form a much more child friendly version of the Sith Lord we all know and love (to hate and to love). Is that okay? Should we be those old Star Wars fans sitting on the front porches of our Original Trilogy shouting, “Why back in my day, Darth Vader choked people for parking their Star Destroyers too close to a Rebel Base!”? I don’t think so. Let our kids see Darth Vader through Lego built glasses for as long as they can because it is through those glasses that they may currently see their own fathers. When they are young, many fathers are their child’s hero just as Anakin was Luke’s hero in A New Hope. As kids mature they may begin to see more and more of their own father’s flaws though because kids are observant. They see when we lose our tempers, when we yell at that car who cut us off, when we blow off our responsibilities, and any other number of other little transgressions.
Luke eventually had to confront the hard truth of who his father was and our kids will too. If we can play Obi-Wan and hide Vader’s anger, hurtfulness, and self loathing from them until they are ready to see the relentless, “more machine now than man” villain of Rebels and The Empire Strikes Back, maybe that’s okay. It let Luke keep his idealized view of his dad a little longer. It allowed him to grow up, and maybe that’s why he was able to eventually forgive Anakin in a way that neither Obi-Wan or Yoda could. Luke had been given time to grow up. He had seen his own flaws and had had to come to grips with the price paid for his rashness and overconfidence. He may have seen his own dark side and in doing so, he may have understood his dad enough to allow forgiveness. I think we can only hope that all our kids grow up to give and show such compassion and grace as Luke Skywalker does.
“Dad, I hope Darth Vader wins!
“Why do you hope that?”
“Because I like him the best! He’s the coolest.”
“Well, what makes him cool?”
“His mask, his armor, he’s just awesome!”
Ah, it was as simple as that. She was not following Anakin down the slippery slope starting with being cute and occasionally annoying all the way to a force-choking, youngling killer. She just thought he looked cool. He was awesome to her then and now that she’s grown older and seen the “real” Vader; hopefully, he’s still cool. As she grows older, she may even grow to find that he’s more cool because while his body may be more machine than man, his soul is still very human.