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?