All Commentary
Monday, December 19, 2016

Team Solo or Team Vader?

Would a real-life Darth Vader command our respect, confidence, and pride?

Han Solo is a smuggler – yes, a free trader. He is admittedly aloof to the politics of the rebellion, yet his black-market trading makes him a natural enemy of the empire. He only joins the rebellion out of mercenary interest, agreeing to fly Luke and Obi-Wan to Alderaan. For payment. Few questions asked.

Han is just trying to earn a buck, and smuggle in peace. He doesn’t care about the empire, or the rebels. Nor does he discriminate when doing business with Jedi, whom he thinks are members of a bogus cult. They needed a lift, they offered payment, he offered the Millennium Falcon.

In this galaxy, the Millennium Falcon is just called “Uber.”In this galaxy, that’s just called “Uber.”

Oh, and he likes guns.

As ruthless anti-heroes go, Han Solo’s badness yields social good. His “self-interest” is truly selfish, and purely profit-driven. His self-interest merely found common cause with the self-interests of the rebels – they all desire freedom from the empire’s tyranny.

Han’s socio-political aloofness puts him at odds with principled rebels, like Princess Leia. To Han, the empire is mostly a nuisance – one he avoids by staying off the grid, and trading with crime bosses like Jabba the Hutt.

The empire is certainly a nuisance to Leia and the rebels too. However, in their case, this nuisance has manifested itself in a much uglier form than what Han has faced. Han may not enjoy the inconveniences of the anti-free trade environment, but Leia watched as they blew up her entire home planet and murdered everyone on it. Now, that is personal.

Han is your average, everyday free market capitalist. He is not an ideologue, and he doesn’t care about the big picture. I promise you, Han does not vote, watch cable news, or care who the next emperor will be. He doesn’t care what the Supreme Court has to say, either.

Economics drew him into the rebellion. And somewhere along the way, fighting for the cause became its own reward. But down to the end, Han remains the rebel among the rebels – the reluctant mercenary, driven by economic self-interest, and inadvertent champion of a great cause.

A temple of intergalactic liberty.

The Dark Side

I don’t know if George Lucas intended the pro-liberty motif running through the story, but I believe it explains the visceral attraction we have for these movies.

Humans in general want to be free from arbitrary power. We know this story, and we have seen it many times throughout history. We have seen many Han Solos.

But we have also seen a few Darth Vaders. And we should never underestimate the power of the Dark Side to obscure this desire for freedom with the siren call of demagoguery.

Humans also desire harmonious order, and we respect legitimate authority. Freedom is not an enemy of order or authority. Yet, tyranny attempts to pervert both. Tyranny tells us its prescriptions for authority and order will bring about true freedom, and protection from our enemies.

I can’t imagine that Lucas did not recognize the overtly fascist, Nazi tropes he was using with Vader and the empire. The empire is unambiguously evil, oppressive, and dictatorial. You are not supposed to like Darth Vader. He is not a difficult villain to spot. And nobody is led to think the Dark Side is a benign form of government that just hasn’t been “purely” implemented.

Would a real-life Darth Vader command our respect, confidence, and pride? Would we dismiss Han Solo as a selfish, self-serving misanthrope?It’s just bad.

So imagine my surprise when the audience kept cheering Darth Vader at the opening night showing of Rogue One. Not just the first appearance onscreen – but each time Vader came on, people cheered. They cheered as Vader was plowing through a hallway of rebels! (Albeit with crazy Jedi skills.)

I don’t mean to psychoanalyze my fellow audience members.

Well, sure I do.

Look, who among us doesn’t root for the fictional villain sometimes? Vader is a powerful Jedi who commands respect and confidence. Like Han Solo, Darth Vader is independent and ruthlessly self-interested. But Vader’s ruthlessness emerges as a desire to control others. Han is content to control of his own life, and leave others in peace.

Vader’s limitless power (and sweet black cape) make him an excellent villain. But he’s also an excellent archetype for the fearless leader – the powerful leader, vanquishing his enemies.

Tyranny is effective if it inspires fear among dissenters. But it is most effective when it inspires pride and confidence among the tyrant’s followers.

The audience’s cheers for Vader were likely a burst of pent enthusiasm for a familiar character, rather than a chilling peak at the social spirit of our age. But I wonder: would a real-life Darth Vader command our respect, confidence, and pride? Our cheers, and hosannas? Would we dismiss Han Solo as a selfish, self-serving misanthrope? Would we resent the rebels as enemies of order and authority?

Would we trade the renegade freedom of Han Solo, for the kind of “freedom” promised by the empire?

  • Thomas Smith is an alumnus of Berkeley and Pepperdine Law, and a corporate attorney.