We wanted a hero of the same stature as the villain he became. We wanted a glorious Republic that melded Camelot and Rome and 50s kitsch. We wanted a love story that made sense of it all, something that made us more comfortable with our own attraction to the monster.
Instead we got this.
There’s no passion. No chemistry. And we’re afraid to admit it, but Vader seems a little shorter, a little less imposing now as we watch him emerge through that smoking doorway.
But what if there’s something more? What if we read the hollow acting and the courtship scenes not through the lens of what we wished they were, but as they actually are. Yes — dear God! — I’m suggesting we do a close reading of the prequels.
Consider the infamous scene where Skywalker and Amidala (last/coronation names only please — we don’t have to be too close to the subjects) are alone in a fire-lit room, and he leadenly proclaims his love for her. This scene was largely panned when the film came out. One reviewer even quipped that it smacked of an older man trying to write romantic dialogue for a nineteen-year-old.
Let’s take a step back and consider the characters. Skywalker grew up as a slave. Think about that for a moment. The servant-to-hero trope is so ubiquitous that I think it is hard to realize in the middle of a narrative how damaging this is. Being freed doesn’t erase the abuse that occurred in his formative years. Now he’s trying to live up to a highly ordered religious-warrior lifestyle, and on top of all of that, his still-enslaved mother just died.
Before scrutinizing Skywalker too deeply, let’s move on to Amidala. Crowned at a young age, she watched her planet be subjugated in blitzkrieg fashion. As a queen and senator, she watches other young women die in her place. Beginning at the ripe old age of 14, everything has to be subordinated to her people’s needs. And we expect more than for her to latch onto Skywalker like she’s Betty Draper?
We want this to be a beautiful romance. We want Luke and Leia to come from something meaningful. But these characters are incapable of that. We are expecting a romantic fantasy from people who are stunted emotionally. We are trying to be emotionally fulfilled in broken characters.
There’s another way. Instead of citing the lack of chemistry as a detriment, it could be something more. We’re watching an unhealthy and dysfunctional relationship. Skywalker is jealous. He’s only known loss. He becomes controlling and finally abusive. Should we really expect more from the man who later passively watches a bureaucrat destroy a planet?
Think about his fall. It’s anti-climactic. In a moment of passion, he’s betrayed the Grand Master to his death. He seems regretful, suggesting some vestigial sense of conscience. But then he suddenly takes on Vader’s mantle. Why? Because evil isn’t dramatic. It isn’t epic. There’s nothing bright, or exciting, or inspiring about evil. It’s the non-eventful succumbing to a new master. It’s the sound of a sad man breathing through a respirator.
Skywalker’s tale may be hard to watch because it doesn’t make evil shiny or attractive. We don’t want to imagine ourselves in the relationship. We don’t want the glorious Republic to remind us of our own petty bureaucracy.
When a narrative has been expected for decades, it can be so easy to see it against what we had hoped for. But if we let go of that lens for a moment, then we might be able to make even more meaning.