Now more than ever, we need Darth Vader explained. One of the most iconic Star Wars characters, the Sith Lord has entranced fans of the franchise since he first stepped onto Princess Leia‘s ship in A New Hope. He’s pure menace, dressed head-to-toe in black armour, including a custom facemask, made all the more ominous by his heavy, slightly laboured breathing.
Though presented as a movie villain, Darth Vader’s arc in Star Wars is a good deal more complicated. It involves intense heartache and tragedy, duplicity and manipulation, making his eventual redemption a true whirlwind of emotions. He’s not quite in anti-villain territory, but he’s close enough to be completely captivating.
Between the nine-episode main Star Wars movies, and all its spin-offs, we learn quite a bit about the mighty Sith. His humble background, the extent of his pain and anger, and just how powerful he can be with a lightsaber in one hand and the Force coming through the other. In case you’ve any lingering questions from your first jaunt to a galaxy far, far away, or you’d like a refresh, we’ve compiled it all for one complete Darth Vader explained that makes the Dark Side only a little tempting.
What is Darth Vader’s origin?
Before he became a genocidal space fascist, the ultimate Star Wars villain Darth Vader was a lonely boy named Anakin Skywalker. He was born to Shmi Skywalker, a slave on the planet Tattooine, by divine contraception. In the now non-canon expanded universe, Shmi was impregnated due to Sith interference with the Force, fulfilling a destiny foretold centuries before.
Both mother and son are sold around as property, eventually landing in the hands of Watto, a greasy mechanic and pod-racing aficionado. Anakin proves a strong asset through his proficiency with robotics and general mechanics, and his sharp reflexes make him a formidable pod-racing pilot. It’s at home here that he starts building what would one day become C-3PO.
When Anakin is nine, the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn appears with Padmé Amidala. They need help fixing their ship, and when Watto refuses to deal with them, Anakin steps in to assist. He offers to try to win a new cooling unit in a pod race, much to his mother’s chagrin. She relents, however, and Anakin enters the race.
While this is happening, Qui-Gon senses that Anakin is strong with the force – they attempt to quantify this with midichlorians, but let’s all agree that doesn’t matter – and his performance in the race solidifies his abilities. Despite being sabotaged, Anakin manages to recover from his pod losing power and definitively wins the race.
Qui-Gon had bartered for Anakin’s freedom as part of his bet for the race, and tells the young Skywalker that he’d like to enrol him to train as a Jedi. Unfortunately, Shmi can’t join, because the deal was only for Anakin. Shmi convinces her boy to take his chance and live the dream.
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While accompanying Qui-Gon Jinn, and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin becomes embroiled in the Battle of Naboo. He soon finds himself in the cockpit of a jet, taking part in a full-on star fight. Initiations to Star Wars seem stressful, eh? Anyway!
After Qui-Gon is killed in the fight to defeat Darth Maul, Anakin becomes Obi-Wan’s apprentice. They’re inseparable, working for the Jedi council as political matters worsen within the Trade Federation. Through his teen years and into adulthood, Anakin serves as a loyal member of the Jedi, starting a romantic relationship with Padmé – but his loyalties become gradually tested.
The fate of his mother haunts him. Eventually, he abandons his official duties in order to find Shmi. She’d actually been freed from slavery by a moisture farmer, but tragically, before Anakin got there, Tusken raiders had kidnapped her.
When he finds her, she’s in a bad state, and dies in his arms. In retaliation, he kills the Tusken tribe, a move that shatters him emotionally. Later, amid the Clone Wars, he has visions of Amidala dying, something that Emperor Palpatine manipulates in Revenge of the Sith by hinting that the powers of the dark side can preserve life.
It works, and Anakin betrays Mace Windu by defecting to the Sith, making his own fulfilling his own prophecy. He’s dubbed Darth Vader, and as part of Order 66, kills all the Jedi younglings in a galaxy-wide eradication. Obi-Wan and Padmé find him on Mustafar, a planet covered in molten rock. They plead with him, but it’s no use.
In the ensuing lightsaber duel, Obi-Wan outdoes his former padawan, in one of the most emotive moments in the entire franchise. Anakin, now missing some limbs, cries out in pain and anger as fire consumes him, while Obi-Wan and Padmé eventually leave. She gives birth to twins in secret, and Yoda and Obi-Wan decide to separate them to hide from the Galactic Empire.
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Meanwhile, Anakin is treated for his wounds, and is given a custom, jet black suit of armour to mask the damage. His transformation to Sith lord is complete, and Darth Vader is born.
What are Darth Vader’s powers?
Vader is one of the more powerful force users in Star Wars. His status as the chosen one has always been an indicator of his strength. Even in the Original Trilogy, when the force was ill-defined, his wielding of telekinesis and force choking made him terrifying because, well, how many can do that? And to that extent? Not many!
He can send and absorb energy blasts, catch and deflect them in kind, and use telepathy. He can use Force shields, send out waves of Force energy like a living bomb, and use Force cloak, if needed. His lightsaber abilities are among the most dangerous, with heightened strength, power, and agility, and that’s before you add the cybernetic additions in his suit.
The one moveset he isn’t great at is Force healing, and that’s because a reprieve from the physical side of his injuries grants him such mental clarity he loses touch with his own rage and frustration. He needs to feel the totality of what he did to himself, coupled with the memories, in order to tap into the maximum amount of the dark side of the Force. Gnarly.
When is Darth Vader’s next appearance?
Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin and Vader in the Prequel Trilogy, returned to the franchise after over a decade away, portraying the character once more in Obi-Wan Kenobi, a limited series on Disney Plus, and Ahsoka.
The two present a duality: in Obi-Wan Kenobi, we got pure Darth Vader, freshly knighted and seething, wherein in Ahsoka Tano we’ll get Jedi Anakin, who helped train a young Ahsoka. Between them, we should get a fuller picture of Darth Vader as the complicated, terrifying, tragic antagonist that he is.
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You can also find Darth Vader, as played by Spencer Wilding and Daniel Neprous, and voiced by the iconic James Earl Jones, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on Disney Plus, where he unleashes fury in one of the best Star Wars scenes of all time.
For more faraway galaxies, check out the best sci-fi series or learn more about Star Wars with our guides to the Death troopers and the best Star Wars bounty hunters. Alternatively, embrace the new Star Wars series Andor with our guide to the Andor season 2 release date, as well as the Andor cast of characters including Syril Karn, Dedra Meero, Luthen Rael, and Mon Mothma.