Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Great Characters: Emperor Palpatine

It is hard to think of iconic characters such as Boba Fett, Yoda and the Emperor as supporting characters. But that they are. They are part of the world that our heroes inhabit in the Star Wars movies, they impact on the main characters, but the story is not about them. Yet they are some of the most loved characters in the Star Wars Saga. Here are my reasons for why Emperor Palpatine is my favourite Star Wars villain.

This viewpoint will be sacrilege to many fans who consider Darth Vader to be the greatest villain in the series, as these fans tend to be those who grew up as the films were released. The Emperor was not properly introduced until Return of the Jedi, therefore that group viewed Darth Vader as the ultimate embodiment of evil. For those who have come to the Saga since, it may be easier to choose the Emperor over Vader. Even in the classic trilogy, Darth Vader may be evil but in comparison to his deranged Master he is as cuddly as an Ewok.

When introduced in Return of the Jedi, the Emperor was given a suitably imposing entrance – hundreds of Imperial Troops lined the room as his shuttle touched down and he emerged, with Lord Vader on bended knee (immediately visually identifying the relationship). For the rest of the movie, nothing is explained about the Emperor other than the fact that he is the Emperor. Yet through the excellent make up, throne room set piece and performance of Ian McDiarmid the audience immediately understands that this is the most evil dude in the galaxy. He sits for almost the duration of his encounter with Luke, demonstrating his absolute confidence in his power. The convoluted plot he has orchestrated to defeat the Rebellion also demonstrates his villainy, as the good guys are rarely that deceitful. 

During The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, the character became even more appealing. He was shrouded from view as Darth Sidious, and his agenda shrouded from the heroes’ view as the effective politician. Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Palpatine in these films is great fun, as every time he is on screen he throws out a line full of dramatic irony. This also led up to the ultimate reveal in Revenge of the Sith, when it is clear from the beginning that Chancellor Palpatine is not messing around anymore. His recounting of a “Sith legend” to Anakin in a voice of seductive evil, ending with chilling implications, is when the audience begins to realise the inevitable of what is to come.

For the rest of Revenge of the Sith, pretence is gone and Palpatine is Darth Sidious. Seeing Ian McDiarmid unleash the full evil again is nothing but joy, especially as the Dark Lord gets more physical than he did in Return of the Jedi. His duel with Mace Windu and epic confrontation with Yoda show the absolute evil mastermind back in the open. The line he delivers to Anakin, “Once more the Sith will rule the Galaxy” – delivered with great menace, before dropping his voice to a soothing tone –“and then, we shall have peace”, is a great example of McDiarmid playing the full deranged nature of this character. 

All of this is achieved with no-one knowing his motivation for taking control of the galaxy, other than him being a Sith Lord. In the films, no-one even knows what a Sith Lord is other than the opposite of a Jedi. But like Yoda, Palpatine works so well through being so enigmatic. The audience can only imagine what made him so ruthlessly evil. This is a character that the Expanded Universe would do well to avoid telling an origins story for, as he works so well with a mysterious background.

There are so many awesome villains in Star Wars, the Sith Lords inparticular, that it makes choosing a favourite difficult. But none of them, and no movie villain in the history of cinema, are as evil as Emperor Palpatine. Seeing him as both the subtle manipulator and then the deranged despot gives him variety, and a performance that is a masterclass in portraying evil make him an unforgettable icon of Star Wars. 

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