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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Sunday supervillainy - Cass Sunstein on Darth Vader

I've been reading Cass R. Sunstein's The World According to Stars Wars, which examines the Star
Wars franchise from many angles, allowing the author to discuss moral and aesthetic points, issues to do with the social reception of ideas and cultural products, analogies between the development of a movie series and the development of a legal tradition, and much more. It's a fascinating, likeable, and accessible book.

Sunstein observes at one point:
Say it loud and say it proud: Vader steals the show. Who's the most memorable character in the series? Vader is the most memorable chacter in the series. No one else comes close.
Sunstein examines why Darth Vader is such a memorable figure - alluring; cool; possessed, even, of a kind of erotic power - despite being coded through most of the original trilogy as a figure of evil. Taken as a whole, the original trilogy and its prequels can be viewed as the story of his moral fall and ultimate redemption. Certainly, Darth Vader seems to dominate those six movies more than Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, or any other character; and that's true of the original trilogy, taken by itself, independently of Vader's manifestation as Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. As Sunstein insists, it appears that Vader was the character who most caught George Lucas's own imagination.

A great villain can do that - can dominate a story and capture imaginations - and the best villains possess a certain allure that causes many of us in the audience to identify with them and admire them, partly embracing their values and attitudes, even as we also absorb the lesson that they are not actually role models for anybody to follow. When they are (partly or wholly) redeemed, we cheer for them even if they've previously caused death, pain, and destruction that seem virtually unforgivable when pondered more objectively.

Sunstein rightly observes that we can look forward to more examples of evil choices and character redemption as the new series of Star Wars films, begun with The Force Awakens, unfolds. This trope looks a bit like the workings of a religious, or even specifically Christian, concept of redemption. But I suspect that it goes even deeper than that.

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