So, by now it’s steadily becoming clearer and clearer that the gestation period for Star Wars: Episode VII is basically going to be one belief-defying development after another. First there was the very existence of these films, still considered a minor miracle by many. Then there was the announcement that the holy trinity of Hamill, Ford, and Fisher would be returning for active roles in the new film. Now, it’s finally sinking in that the film may well make it to theaters with its plot still largely ensconced in director J.J. Abrams’s mystery box. With barely five months left before it hits theaters, the story and character details for the latest installment in the most intensely scrutinized geek property in existence are all still unknown chemicals. Both of the trailers that have been released so far were exercises in iconography and tone, and the big centerpiece at this year’s Comic Con was a behind-the-scenes reel rather than anything more narratively substantial. We are going into the final stretch while still being kept, to an astounding degree, in the dark.
Well… almost. The filmmakers are letting a few bits of light slip through the cracks, and perhaps the most tantalizing of these was a Comic Con panel where they spent some time discussing the film’s villainous coterie. After months of rumors and speculations, fans were finally thrown some morsels about Episode VII’s baddie trifecta. Domhnall Gleeson plays General Hux, who leads the remnants of the Galactic Empire from somewhere called Starkiller Base. (Sounds nice, no?) Gwendoline “Is There Anywhere I’m Not a Badass?” Christie plays the chrome-armored stormtrooper we glimpsed in the trailers, now identified as Captain Phasma. And, last but not least, Adam Driver plays lightsaber claymore-wielding Kylo Ren.
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) July 11, 2015
In keeping with Abrams and company’s stated intent of bringing the franchise back to its classic trilogy roots, it’s relatively easy to see these villains as mirror images of the rogues from A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, at least from the little we’ve seen of them. A dark force user hidden behind a black mask, a military despot operating out of a deadly base, and an armored warrior who distinctly telegraphs as the strong, silent type? Bells are ringing to say the least. But well, if you need to take cues, take them from the best, and the Star Wars films of yesteryear are the home to some of cinema’s most classic baddies. As long as the entire internet is abuzz with Star Wars villains talk, we thought we’d take a moment to rank our favorite rogues from a galaxy far, far away, talk a bit about what makes them so great, and see what lessons they can pass on to Kylo, Hux, and the Captain. There’s a lot of awesome baddie to cover, so let’s get started with –
Okay, hang on. Quick disclaimer before we begin: we’re going to be focusing on the villains from the theatrically released films of the Star Wars universe, not counting the various attendant books, video games, graphic novels, television shows, board games, and so on. Abrams and the other filmmakers have stated that they are not taking the Expanded Universe into account as they move forward, and a survey of all the relevant material would take months. So just to get it out of the way: Grand Admiral Thrawn? Kreia? Jacen Solo? Darth Krayt? The Yuuzhan Vong? All terrific baddies that score top marks on the nefarious scale, but today we’re focusing on the classical slate of villains. Starting with…
5. Darth Maul
All right, so Phantom Menace isn’t a lot of people’s favorite Star Wars film, but it’s hard to write off Darth Maul’s villainous charms. Namely, have you looked at the guy? Sporting a look that says, “I’m the Devil’s kung fu-practicing cousin” and a color palette that basically makes it look like his red-bladed lightsaber is an extension of himself, Maul’s character is built around a simple visual message: I will mess you up. So what if he comes out of the most maligned Star Wars film? Maul’s distinctive design and Ray Park’s fiercely physical performance seem to stand oddly immune to the various foibles that infect the rest of the film. Too much time spent talking about trade embargos and midichlorians? Not from the bad guy, who barely says five words in the entire film. Too much pandering to the infantile crowd? Uhhhh, yeah, no. All of the above, combined with the fact that he was able to slice through Liam Neeson’s Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (a feat that has actually gotten more impressive as time has gone by…) Darth Maul is the standout villain from a lackluster movie.
The Lesson to Be Learned: Don’t discount the power of a silent physical presence when it comes to your villains. Not everyone has to be Professor Moriarty. Darth Maul doesn’t have a single moment of “Bua-ha-ha-ing” or grand scheming in all his scenes, and he still manages to be more threatening than Count Dooku and General Grievous combined. There is a time and a place for the nefarious puppet schemer, but if your design is impactful and your performer is imposing, you can have all of their physicality do the talking.
Now with that said…
4. Emperor Palpatine
The other standout villain from the prequels trilogy, Emperor Palpatine is Darth Maul’s master and the smooth-talking puppet master of the Star Wars universe. Where do you even start with this guy? He mastered the dark arts of the Sith at a time when they were thought to be extinct, manipulated the galactic senate and the Jedi order, played both sides of a interplanetary civil war, and got himself legally declared autocratic dictator of everything everywhere. Phew. But even more impressive than Palpatine’s formidable game of galactic chess is the way that he is able to get the galaxy’s scariest bad guys to lay down their life for his whims. When we first met Palpatine in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, he might just seem like a frail old man, but we know better. Anyone that can command so much respect – and fear – from people like Darth Vader is a force worth reckoning with. And, indeed, when Palpatine does rise up from his chair we are treated to dark side powers that were unthinkable before we met the Emperor.
The Lesson to Be Learned: Remember – a big, burly guy is scary. The tiny guy that the big, burly guy is afraid of? He’s terrifying. Palpatine builds his presence not just through his insidious (sorry, we couldn’t resist) manipulations, but also through the effect that he has on others. This is a lesson that might be very important to the character of General Nux. Sure, Domhnall Gleeson isn’t exactly the most terrifying figure in the world, but if a guy can look like that and still have the dude with the lightsaber claymore cowering in fear? Then you might be onto something.
3. Boba Fett
One of the problems with the prequel trilogy’s treatment of villains, at least from where I stand, was that there was too much of an imbalance between the Force-sensitive villains and the… Muggle villains, for lack of a better word. What do I mean? All of the villains that were actually scary or imposing, or at least the ones that the films tried to present as such, were the lightsaber-toting Sith warriors. Practically every other bad guy was a sniveling toady, a cowardly bureaucrat, or a personality-deficient droid. But Empire Strikes Back knew better, and took care to create characters that could face off with every part of the heroic team. And that’s how we got Boba Fett.
When you get down to it, Boba Fett is really a villain for Han Solo. They both come from the same criminal underworld, they’re both engaged by the same plotline, and their focus is squarely where it belongs – each other. It would make no sense for Solo to go up against Vader; that’s a villain for someone in a different weight class. (And, indeed, we see how well all five seconds of that fight go for him at Bespin.) But Boba Fett is an opponent that is well matched for Solo, so much so that he is able to outsmart him and out-skill him for almost all of Episode V. There’s something to be afraid of.
The Lesson to Be Learned: Star Wars is not just about the lighsabers. Remember that there’s a full cast of non-magical people to be served by the story, and that they need villains to face off against. A hero is only as stalwart as his adversary is dastardly, so having people like Boba Fett around can make characters like Han Solo and Chewbacca rise up to the occasion without having them go head-to-head against the Force users. And if those villains can be cunning, calculating, and implacable enough to actually derail the heroes’ plans, all the better. Captain Phasma, take note.
2. Grand Moff Tarkin
Tarkin is criminally underrated as far as Star Wars villains go, often written off as playing second fiddle to Darth Vader’s ominous figure for the duration of A New Hope. But when you sit down to actually watch the film, you’ll find it’s actually the other way around, with Vader acting as the ruthless attack dog to Tarkin’s coolly calculated mastermind. In a sense, he plays the role that the Emperor would later come to fill throughout the whole series, but there’s something to Tarkin’s immediate sliminess that’s enjoyable. He’s less subtle than Palpatine, but no less well prepared and scheming, always having an ace up his sleeve or a tracking device in the Millenium Falcon. And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, he is responsible for the Star Wars’s saga’s most emblematic act of evil: the destruction of Alderan. Even worse (or more deliciously diabolical, as the case may be) is that he lies about it. He holds up the gun to Princess Leia’s homeworld, gets what he wants from her, and then pulls the trigger anyway. Now that’s evil.
The Lesson to Be Learned: Go big or go home. Tarkin sets the tone and the stakes for the Star Wars saga with the destruction of Alderan, an act that is not only genocidal and cruel but, ultimately, unnecessary. If Vader establishes the Empire’s threat and malice, Tarkin is the one the supersizes it and establishes the Empire’s stance as a threat not just to individual characters but to entire planets. Now that Palpatine is gone and the Imperial infrastructure has been dismantled, it’s going to be especially important for The Force Awakens to have a villain that can step up and raise the game to this level, or even higher. Looking at you, Nux.
1. Darth Vader
Yeeeah, you didn’t really think we were gonna go with anyone else for the top slot, did you? The mask. The cape. The breathing. The James Earl Jones. Everything about this character is one hundred percent proof iconographic and scary. It transcends the world of the films, it’s entered public consciousness and defined George Lucas’s films in the minds of the masses. Forget the best Star Wars villain, Darth Vader has become so synonymous with the concepts of “bad guy,” “terror,” and “butt-kicking” that he often ranks as one of the best villains in all of cinema. What is it about him that’s so appealing? Is it the tantalizingly mysterious back-story of how he ended up in that suit, peeled back in layers over the course of the series? The unfathomable depths of his dark magic? The way that he kills the main character’s mentor and best friend within a one-hour span? It’s a deadly mix of all of the above, combined with the character’s unmistakable design. Any one detail of his appearance would be enough to establish his unique presence beyond a shadow of a doubt, but put it all together and you get the definitive Star Wars villain. Accept no substitutes.
The Lesson to be Learned: Umm… good luck Kylo Ren? You’ve got some really big shoes to fill. Honestly, there is so much that goes into crafting Vader’s menace and imposing figure that you can’t really hope to imitate its success without coming across as a pale shadow. Darth Maul and General Grievous both learned this lesson to a degree, and the new films need to understand what they’re getting into. Kylo Ren, with his distinctive mask and all-black attire, seems to be a riff on Vader’s design, but the filmmakers are going to have to work on building a character that is as memorable and iconic as the original Star Wars villain. Then again, thanks to its first teaser trailer, Ren has been pretty conclusively tied to the image of the lightsaber claymore, so maybe the filmmakers may be onto something.
The Force Awakens is going to face a lot of challenges that are new to the Star Wars saga, most palpably the lack of George Lucas as the film’s principal architect. But only slightly less immediate than that concern is the fact that this is going to be the first Star Wars film without either the figure or the threat of Darth Vader looming over the film, and the new villains are going to have to go head to head with that challenge. From the little we’ve seen of the characters, Captain Phasma, General Hux, and Kylo Ren seem to map roughly onto the roles played by Boba Fett, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Darth Vader, but can they break through their predecessor’s high standard and actually surpass them?
We’ll find out on December 18th. May the Force be with them.