Warning: Spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
By mixing compelling storytelling, intense action sequences and just the right amount of franchise fan service, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a superbly successful spinoff experiment for Disney and Lucasfilm. While its plot centered on Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso, the callbacks to 1977’s original entry A New Hope such as the digital resurrection of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and a de-aged version of the recently departed Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia Organa became dominant topics. However, it was Rogue One’s long-known inclusion of Darth Vader that arguably stole the show, not only exceeding expectations, but potentially changing the way the iconic villain is perceived.
Indeed, with just a few select scenes, Darth Vader’s appearances in Rogue One – essentially a preamble to the events of A New Hope – managed to simultaneously interweave complementary elements of his character, while breaking new ground. Thus, with the idea of spinoff films now being “a thing” with productions operating under the “Anthology” label such as 2018’s yet-to-be-titled young Han Solo spinoff film starring Alden Ehrenreich, it’s natural to speculate that ideas for a Darth Vader spinoff film are floating around the Lucasfilm Story Group.
Here are some things to consider.
Dispense with the generic pleasantries:
A prospective Darth Vader spinoff film cannot get away with rolling out old tropes to anchor some random story – it needs to serve the canon or it has no reason to exist. Just as Rogue One delivered poignant, context-altering details about the coveted Death Star plans of A New Hope, the Vader movie must deliver elements that expands upon his mythology. The premise only need answer basic questions. For example, how did Vader complete the Jedi purge? How did Vader, stuck in his short-range fighter, escape the Yavin system after the Death Star was destroyed? What did Vader do to find Luke Skywalker after their fateful encounter on Bespin?
Even if the Story Group can’t conceive of a workable idea, there is plenty of inspirational material from the vast library of the Expanded Universe “Legends” apocrypha such as Steve Perry’s popular 1996 novel Shadows of the Empire. Dark Horse Comics’ classic one-shot issue Purge and their Empire series has also made attempts with gap-filling storylines. Plus, Marvel Comics’ recently concluded new canon Darth Vader series has shown the Sith Lord busy with his own agenda in the post-A New Hope, pre-Empire Strikes Back era.
A new enemy even more evil than him:
Interestingly, a Darth Vader spinoff film would contend with a problem that similarly plagues Superman projects, namely, how do you pose a compelling mortal challenge to a nigh-invincible character? While Vader hardly possess Kryptonian durability, his marked fate in the continuity renders him untouchable; a privilege that newcomer Jyn Erso and her Rogue One teammates did not enjoy. However, while it would be interesting to see Vader challenged with moral dilemmas during his duties as the Empire’s enforcer, it would be especially intriguing to see him meet his match physically against a peer of an enemy.
In terms of challenging Vader, the obvious choice of a movie focused on the Jedi Purge – potentially seeing more killing of Jedi children – might render him a poor protagonist. However, such a challenge might be achievable with a powerful Dark Side-wielding competitor for the position of the Emperor’s Sith apprentice. While Vader’s sins are at least attributable to the Dark Side’s irrepressible manipulation of his own personal pain, an even more threatening Dark Side user with an agenda that’s unfathomably sinister, even by the Empire’s standards, attempting to usurp Vader would make for an intriguing dynamic and a reversal of traditional roles. Vader, the man who wants to rule the galaxy, would be the lesser of evils against an enemy who wants to watch the galaxy burn.
For example, elements from The Force Unleashed video game series, which depicted Vader’s secret apprentice Galen Marek, a.k.a. Starkiller could be mined, utilizing a Dark Side twist on the rogue apprentice concept.
About that pledge to Palpatine’s teachings:
The narrative of the entire Star Wars Prequel Trilogy showed how Anakin Skywalker’s inability to accept life’s inevitable losses of loved ones became the ironic cause of him losing his loved ones, with the consequences transforming him – physically and spiritually – into the dark, armor-clad, ominously-wheezing fearsome enforcer of the Empire. However, from a logical standpoint, the crucial moments of Prequel film finale Revenge of the Sith where Anakin thinks he can prevent the prospectively prescient dreams of his pregnant wife Padme’s death by becoming a child-killing, wife-strangling genocidal traitor – all based on Palpatine’s vague promise to "work together" to save her by discovering eternal life – never quite made sense. Sure, Anakin was in an irrational state, but it’s a mighty large leap.
Pertinently, one of Rogue One’s unsung accomplishments was its context-altering plot points. Notably, the film shut down a frequent argument of Star Wars skeptics that questioned why the Empire would be so careless/incompetent as to overlook such a gaping and destructive design flaw as the Thermal Exhaust Port that Luke Skywalker ultimately bulls-eyed, destroying the entire moon-sized battle station. Indeed, a cleverly retconned plot detail in Rogue One revealed that the flaw was incorporated into the design as an act of sabotage by Jyn’s father Galen Erso. Likewise, a film exploring Vader’s pathos could provide details about Anakin’s Faustian bargain with Palpatine, explaining how and why that Dark Side turn completely robbed him of his own volition.
Sure, it’s possible that 2017’s Star Wars: Episode VIII might touch upon this aspect – especially if Rey’s parentage is revealed to delve into the Skywalker family tree. Yet, finding out what makes Vader tick and his role in the whole "Chosen One" dynamic would be an essential step in making him into a workable protagonist.
Alter the evil deal:
Turning Darth Vader into a kind of underdog protagonist is not only a tough sell, but runs the risk of irreparably weakening his character. An interesting and believable antagonist – which we already touched upon – can do that. Yet, with Vader on a constant crusade to implement the Empire’s fascist aims upon the galaxy, any agenda marked on his to-do list – even when it comes to inter-Imperial squabbles – would inevitably reek of evil. However, Rogue One effectively demonstrated uncharacteristic shades of grey and arguable evil when it came to certain elements of the Rebellion. A similar contradiction could apply to Vader.
Relevantly, Rogue One gave viewers some great Vader pathos, showing him at his most vulnerable, as a shocking, pitiable sight, soaking his immensely immolated, limbs-hewn naked form in the familiar regimen of a Bacta tank in a frightening sanctum surrounded by a lava moat on Mustafar, the planet on which he originally sustained those injuries. Yet, we also saw him immensely empowered, putting Ben Mendelsohn’s ambitious Death Star developer Orson Krennic in his place with a Force choke and, in an impressively macabre, applause-generating sequence, slaughtering a cadre of cornered Rebel troopers. They are both inescapable elements of Vader’s character and an expansion on a similar dynamic could portray him as a reluctant soldier and an anti-hero of sorts.
Appropriately, the Vader spinoff film could showcase a rare ethical convergence in which Vader’s Dark-Side-saddled Imperial agenda somehow – despite itself – ends up serving the galaxy’s greater good. In fact, the aforementioned Marvel Comics Darth Vader series depicted the Sith Lord, demoted and disrespected by the Emperor, engaging in unauthorized secret activities to acquire experimental technology. Said endeavor put Vader in a curious partnership with a wise-cracking human female archeologist named Doctor Aphra, who not only conjures a smidgen of defiance in Vader, but some cheeky remnants of the old Anakin Skywalker beneath the dark, helmeted villainous visage. A film using a similar dynamic could be an intriguing way to show a different aspect of Vader, his place in the Empire and how he interacts with people he’s actually not trying to kill .
Be careful not to choke on action scene convictions:
Of course, all that complexity involving accidental heroes would be for naught if the Darth Vader spinoff film doesn’t blow audiences away with slick, mind-blowing action sequences, especially after Rogue One so effectively whetted appetites for more material in which Vader utterly decimates everything. However, while spectacle is the necessary adrenaline-imbued glue that holds together tragic tumult, it needs to be exercised with discipline. Turning the film into a 3D-minded showcase of CGI chaos would be walking a dangerous line between the sublime and the mediocre.
Case in point, the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith, which needed to showcase the legendary duel that fans had been imagining for decades. Thus, coming into it with stratospheric expectations for this confrontation, the film went ALL out, to its detriment, creating a prolonged and ostentatious sequence whose overly-choreographed nature detracted from the visceral emotion it needed. It was, from a tonal and visual perspective, not at all complementary to their more rudimentary, but tension-filled rematch later in the timeline in A New Hope.
Likewise, trying too hard to show more impressive depths of Vader’s Force powers in the spinoff film would only further make the Sith Lord’s showings in the Original Trilogy seem that much more innocuous and inconsistent. While Rogue One’s Vader sequences – out of necessity for evolution – showed Vader utilizing powers beyond anything he ever showed, it still managed to effectively walk a fine line between the extremes of too much and too little. That is the best lesson a spinoff film can learn from the surprisingly poignant Rogue One appearance.