Is Darth Vader the greatest movie villain of all time?
As with most of these columns, the reasons why Darth Vader is unique also reach into why he's the best. From the moment the black-caped and armored character marched onto the screen, surrounded in starkly contrasting white stormtroopers, you knew: this guy is bad. The idea that with only a little crawl of backstory, and just a few moments of establishing shots, a villain of this magnitude could be introduced in such a nonchalant yet impressive way is so foreign to modern cinema.
Once you've been introduced to the instantly imposing figure, his screentime is relatively brief in that first film. You don't usually see a villain held back quite that much anymore, either. When he's on screen, however, his presence is so strong that you feel it throughout the entire film. A force choke here, an angry one-liner there, and suddenly you're at the final battle. When Vader enters the fray, you can instantly tell he's different from the other pilots. He actually defeats and kills several of the heroes, letting us know this is really a war, and he's as powerful as he looks. While the Death Star is destroyed, Darth Vader survives, and with an expressionless helmet, you can still somehow see the seething anger and revenge build within him.
When you get to he second film, The Empire Strikes Back, this is Vader's time to shine. There's something especially terrifying about a villain who takes their time. Every movement Vader makes, especially in hand-to-hand combat, is slow and deliberate. When others would turn and run from him, Vader would walk toward them. When Luke strikes as hard and fast as he can, Vader looks like he's almost moving through water yet somehow easily deflecting every attack. Indeed, because of Darth Vader's uncanny speed-without-speed, I had a recurring nightmare as a child, where I was running as fast as I could, and he was just walking behind me, yet somehow keeping up. That kind of visceral fear is wholly unique, and when you find such a thing you've struck gold.
Of course, in Return of the Jedi we get Vader's redemption, and in the prequels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, we get his backstory. Through these moments of past and future, we see a side of the character that was unexpected during those fearsome moments: a relatable one. There's something twisted about someone's fall into the Dark Side being primarily precipitated by love. This boy who loved his mother, this man who loved his wife, this aging beacon of hate who still found love for his child; that was always his real, primary emotion, and thus could be the only source of his downside. It's one of the most frustrating and perplexing parts of the entire Star Wars mythos, the idea that Jedi must remain wholly detached. Most heroes are fighting for something or for someone, but the Jedi believe you must instead fight for everything and everyone, and if your focus is too narrow, you fall, either in battle or in standing to the Dark Side. Anakin Skywalker's fault was that he loved too strongly, and that's a hard, crazy twist that changes the way you look at everything he does from then on.
The other aspect of Darth Vader that makes him such an enduring villain is his constant struggle with destiny. When you're told from a young age that you're "the Chosen One" and meant to bring balance to the Force, that will undoubtedly take its toll. If you believe in your fate, then anything you do moves you toward that. When Anakin falls to the Dark Side, you can argue that at any point from there on, he brings balance to the Force. First it's evening things out, taking the Jedi down a few thousand pegs. Then there's the eventual killing of his master, who had amassed too much power for the Dark Side, bringing things back into a swing for the light side. Each move got things closer to a true balance, as his destiny intended.