You probably don’t care that much about Darth Vader unless you’re knee deep in the extended universe of Star Wars, and to be honest I certainly don’t blame you. Thirty-nine years of branding, adverts and merchandise have turned one of the most iconic villains of science-fiction into a joke, and the confusing prequels seemed to be the final nail in Vader’s coffin.
Until Rogue One came along. Vader only has two scenes in the film, but both carry great significance in completing his characterisation. To understand them let’s take a brief look at what we knew about Vader pre-Rogue One.
In the original trilogy Vader is introduced as a high-ranking member of the Imperial government, of unknown age and origin, answerable only to the equally mysterious Emperor. He practices a forgotten martial and spiritual art, is clad in an imposing suit of armour and wields a weapon that seems incongruous with the hyperadvanced military technology at the disposal of the totalitarian war machine he heads, but which nevertheless becomes a deadly instrument of his power. More of his backstory is revealed as he comes into contact with his estranged son, and we watch as he is torn between service to the Emperor and a desperate desire to rectify the mistakes of his past.
The prequel trilogy shows us his early life as Anakin Skywalker, a young slave turned Jedi. Troubled by the institution that surrounds him and the strife concerning his own impulsions, he is coerced into turning against those who mentored him in a futile attempt to save his beloved wife. He is consumed by his anger, his pain, and his regrets, twisted into a physical and psychological form that is no longer recognisable.
Both exhibitions of Vader’s character seem somewhat lacking, but Rogue One completes the cycle in two important ways. In the first Vader scene we are transported to his arcane fortress which, thanks to the novelisation of the film, we know is situated on Mustafar overlooking the location where he was defeated by Obi-Wan Kenobi twenty years previously. We know that he has aides and that, when he meditates in the healing bacta tank at least, he is protected by members of the Imperial Royal Guard. The bacta tank is the most interesting feature of this scene for one very good reason: it shows us Vader without the suit. Although we catch glimpses of the man behind the mask in the original trilogy, and we see him being encased within the armour at the end of the prequel trilogy, it is easy to forget exactly what is beneath that menacing carapace.
After his encounter with Obi-Wan on Mustafar Vader had all of his limbs replaced with cybernetic prosthetics. His skin was burnt away, his organs (including his eyes, tongue, stomach, lungs, etc) were blistered by the heat and he suffered a severe loss of motor skills and damage to his nervous system. The suit acts as a life support system outside of which he cannot survive unless he is in a bacta tank. It feeds him, gives him control of his limbs, allows him to breathe and see clearly, removes his waste and protects his body from infection. But it also restricts him. It is heavy and uncomfortable, sticking to his permanently unhealed skin, penetrating his body with tubes and wires necessary for the aforementioned processes, preventing him from sleeping. The man is in a constant state of torture which can only be alleviated when the suit is removed and he is placed in a bacta tank. In Rogue One we see him in this wretched condition and we are reminded of the tragedy of his mere existence.
The second Vader scene shows him in a new light, set literally days before the events of A New Hope. Apart from a handful of duels and his chastisement of Imperial peons we see very little of Vader in combat, and the suggestion that he is a force to be reckoned with is hard to believe considering the restrained style of his violent actions. Rogue One brought Vader into the spotlight as the most feared man in the galaxy, shattering previous attempts to tame him.
Igniting his saber at the end of a dark corridor crowded with frightened Rebel soldiers, Vader unleashes his full might. He parries their shots almost lazily before advancing, slamming one man against the ceiling and cleaving him in two. He cuts down the remaining troopers with unparalleled ferocity, disarms them, crushes their throats and deflects their blaster fire with his bare hand. The onslaught abates only when the spacecraft is uncoupled from its parent ship and flees for hyperspace. We see that these men stood no chance against him, and by inference we see that neither would anyone else. Remember that most of the people who encounter him at this point in the Star Wars timeline don’t remember the Jedi and the Force, let alone have the ability to comprehend them. Vader’s power is by all accounts inexplicable. Rogue One shows him as a true enforcer and gives us a reason to fear him once again.