A Study of the Foils of Darth Vader

I finally saw the new Star Wars movie. To me, it was a mixed bag. The heroes were very likable, but the villain was flawed, and not in a good way. Overall, I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars. But this is not a Star Wars review.

I was trying to pinpoint why the villain didn’t work for me. To do so, I compared him to his own hero, Darth Vader. I was explaining to my husband about how Vader was made more sympathetic through the skillful use of foils, when I wondered if that new Star Wars villain is, in fact, a foil for that other evil dude. But then I realized that that didn’t work–we didn’t see nearly enough of that other guy for him to require a foil.

What do I mean by a foil? Here is Wikipedia’s definition:

In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character.

I have no way of knowing if this is what Lucas intended, but I could identify two Vader foils. In A New Hope, it is Grand Moff Tarkin.


This is the general-like character, who is first introduced in a meeting of Imperial officers when he orders Vader to stop his choke hold on another character. Vader obeys with an “As you wish,” and immediate obedience. It makes an impression. We already know Vader’s a badass–and this is the guy that Vader obeys.

The movie hints at a bit of friendship between them. In a later scene, he says to Vader, “The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion.” He seems sincere when he calls Vader “my friend”.

How does he contract with Vader? One way is to examine the reactions of characters who know him.

  • Leia, when first seeing Vader: “Darth Vader. Only you could be so bold.”
  • Leia, when first seeing Tarkin: “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”

Vader is merely “bold”, while Tarkin provokes a somewhat unhinged response.

Finally, we have Vader’s preferred method of coercion vs. Tarkin’s. Vader uses a torture robot brandishing a needle and a high-pitched whine. Tarkin blows up an entire planet.

So yeah–Vader is bad, but Tarkin is much more ruthless. At the end of A New Hope, he’s blown away, so we need another foil. A bigger, badder foil.

Enter, the Emperor.


With the Emperor, we have two movies to establish him, and contrast him to Vader. As the movies reveal the Emperor, they are also revealing Vader. We first see Vader without his mask–albeit from behind–and we know that there’s a terrible reason he wears it. But there is a man under there. He is no cyborg. The Emperor barely looks human even though he has skin. Something has twisted him.

At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, there is evidence of discord between Vader and the Emperor when Vader proposes that he and Luke rule the galaxy as father and son.

It continues in Return of the Jedi, where we see and hear much more of the Emperor. Here’s a good scene that shows the contrast:

Moff Jerjerrod: The Emperor’s coming here?

Darth Vader: That is correct, Commander. And, he is most displeased with your apparent lack of progress.

Moff Jerjerrod: We shall double our efforts.

Darth Vader: I hope so, Commander, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.

It makes you wonder, because Vader has hardly been forgiving so far. We especially see Vader’s struggles in the scenes with Luke, especially this one:

Luke: Search your feelings, Father, you can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.

Darth Vader: It is too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.

Luke: Then my father is truly dead.

The words, “It is too late for me” is laden with regret. After the scene, Vader is left alone in the corridor, and there is a moment of silence.


So what do you think? Do you agree that these two characters served as foils for Vader? Can you think of any foils for the other major characters?

4 Thoughts to “A Study of the Foils of Darth Vader”

  1. I love foil characters! I hadn’t thought of General Moff as a foil for Vader, but you’re right. He is the hands-off guy who is much more ruthless but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty.

    In the first Star Wars episode, I think Obi-Wan and Han Solo are foils for each other. They’re both mentoring Luke, but they have opposite views. Han is more cynical and he’s teaching Luke survival in a corrupt world, while Obi-Wan is a spiritual mentor who wants to nurture Luke’s idealism into honorable action. (Does that makes sense? Sort of that super-ego, ego, id thing, except I can never remember which name goes with which trait.)

    As for the new Star Wars movie, I love the main characters but you’re right that the villains aren’t that well developed -yet. Hopefully they’ll be able to round them out in the future movies without concentrating on them so much they take the focus off our heroes.

    1. I can see what you mean about Han and Obi-Wan being foils of Luke. I didn’t quite see that until now.

      Judging by the storyline, I tend to doubt that Kylo Ren will ever be redeemed. Having Rey almost an heir of Han hints rather strongly at a very personal rivalry.

  2. Yeah, Kylo Ren has already crossed the moral event horizon, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be fleshed out more as a character. What’s up with his anger issues? It feels like plot-point, but so far remains unexplained. Why did he turn his back on his parents? Did he just feel like he couldn’t live up to the legend, or is there some exact moment in his backstory where he turned against his parents that we may eventually find out about?

    Did Snoke (and where did Snoke come from?) deliberately target Kylo Ren because he knew loosing their son would tear the heart out of Han and Lea? Seducing the son/nephew of the greatest heroes to the dark side should be more than a coincidence. It should be a deliberate thrust-the-knife-in-and-twist type of personal vengeance.

    And maybe my biggest question- if Kylo Ren is so all-fire impressed with Vader, why hasn’t Anakin Skywalker’s blue force-ghost come back to give his grandson a severe talking to along the lines of look kid, I destroyed my life. Wise up and don't make the same mistakes I did.' It seems like a very obvious thing to have happen. I mean, that was my first thought when they showed Vader's mask:why isn’t Vader talking some sense into this kid? Doesn’t he care about his own grandson?’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s a major plot-hole that I’d like to see the screen-writers address. (I’m willing to believe there is a reason the screenwriters are keeping as a mystery for the moment, I just want them to eventually reveal that my trust in them was not unfounded.)

    I love the grandfatherly connection Han had with Rey. I really like all the new characters. 🙂 `The Force Awakens’ doesn’t have the same nostalgia factor for me as the original trilogy (it takes time for nostalgia to build up) but the movie is already growing on me, and seeing a Star Wars film actually in theater for the first time was a great experience. 🙂

    1. I love your thoughts about Vader’s force ghost. You are absolutely correct–he already demonstrated that he had attained that power at the end of the original trilogy, so he certainly could do so now.

      I liked the new characters as well, and the only problem I had with the plot was that Kylo Ren was so undeveloped. I also read with interest some reviews where Rey is way too skilled and should have been about as much of a challenge for Kylo as Luke would have been for Vader in the first episode of the original series. It could be partially explained by Kylo’s “awakening” of her powers with all his attempts to use force to get information out of her.

      I’ll probably re-watch it when I have a free Saturday with all your thoughts in mind.

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