Applauding for Vader

Note: there are very mild spoilers here. I think I’ve provided no surprising details if you’ve seen the other movies, nor will the general descriptions of characters ruin your experience of the film. But as always, caveat lector.

I saw the new Star Wars movie Rogue One on Sunday, the eve of the Electoral College meeting in the U.S.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I especially appreciated the way in which it presented the viewer with a multiplicity of responses to tyranny. Its main characters represented different individual choices about how to live under or respond to authoritarian rule. One tried to stay under radar unsuccessfully and was dragged into the fight upon reaching adulthood. Another embraced the rebellion’s fight against the “evil” of the Empire but himself fought dirty, making at least one fairly morally reprehensible choice in the name of the good; others chose organized resistance and loyalty to that collective. We also saw people who could be called sleeper agents, collaborators who embraced the authoritarian rule, a resistor trying to work from within, someone who early on paid a price for choosing emotion and moral urgency over strategy, and urban insurgents. Additionally, we saw in Forest Whitaker’s character someone who has given up on both tyranny and organized resistance, someone whose despair, disappointment, and loss has led him to create his own community with no regard for the laws and morals of either side of this epic battle. Gerrera, I suspect, was designed to shake our faith in the rebellion’s cause, even though we all know how the saga eventually plays out.

Some friends and reviewers have complained that Rogue One’s characters lack development. Their motivations and backstories remain thin. I cannot argue with this assessment.

Star Wars, however, presents us not with richly painted individuals but with archetypes. Archetypes we recognize and identify, and then watch as they encounter otherworldly and unimaginable challenges. What kinds of choices do these cultural archetypes make? Will they fulfill our expectations for them, or will they let us down? Will they show us new paths we didn’t imagine possible? That, I think, is why we watch Star Wars.

So what rattled most was not Saw Gerrera, the character who most troubled the franchise’s clear division of the world between Good and Evil/Light and Dark.

What rattled most was the audience.

At one point in the film, Darth Vader raises his hand and using the Force begins from afar to choke one of his minions.

In my theatre, the audience applauded. The audience applauded for Vader.

It’s possible, of course, that they were applauding the shout out to that iconic scene in Star Wars (otherwise known as “A New Hope” but which to this child of the 70’s will always be simply “Star Wars”), when Vader chokes Admiral Motti. Researching this blog post — er, googling stuff for this blog post — revealed that Vader’s force chokes have become a meme, even a fetish for Star Wars fans. And of course in Rogue One Vader was choking the villain of the piece (played by the brilliant and underutilized Ben Mendelsohn), someone for whom we should feel no sympathy, right? So perhaps it’s as simple as that: excitement at seeing our pop culture icon reprising his iconic role tormenting another bad guy.

And yet….

The words of Stephanie Coontz in October 2016, right before the election, echoed in my mind:

“I was very struck by the female supporter who said Trump is like the bully you want to beat up on the other bully. There is longstanding social science evidence that people with fewer resources, educational or economic, tend to look heroes — or villains even— to stand up for them. Somebody they think has some kind of power that they don’t have.”

(Now, I am loathe to disagree with Coontz, but I would argue that such a move—to look to villain to defend one’s interests- is not limited to the economically or educationally underprivileged.) Coontz here is explaining the phenomenon of women voting for an authoritarian misogynist who not only admitted assaulting women but who asserted a right to assault women.

The applause for America’s iconic “dark father” signaled more than consumer joy at a popular franchise.

As characters throughout the franchise discover, you can turn to a tyrant to beat up on the other tyrants and bullies in your life, but at any moment that tyrant can turn on you. Not unlike the homeowners in the Central Valley who suddenly realize that their candidate has empowered the man who ran the bank that foreclosed on them and many others under very shady circumstances during the Great Recession; that CEO will now be our Treasury Secretary.

When I told an acquaintance I saw the movie, she told me about a friend of hers who said of the franchise: “I’m on the side of the Empire. Why not? They represent the rule of law.” I suspect he was partially joking, but there lies the rub: we cannot even jokingly conflate power with law. My response was: “Uh, except for that whole blowing up a planet thing.”

My response should have been: no, the Empire is lawless authoritarianism.

And yeah, I know — tyrants make laws to support their rule, my formulation is simplistic. But nonetheless, it starts in no small part with a disregard of existing law in favor of power for oneself and one’s cronies.

And so, even though I still laugh at the domestication of Darth Vader in our culture, that moment in the theatre has stayed with me.

I cannot applaud for Vader.

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