This emperor has no clothes

The new ‘Star Wars’ is a letdown in many ways, but especially how it neuters an all-time classic villain.

This emperor has no clothes

The new ‘Star Wars’ is a letdown in many ways, but especially how it neuters an all-time classic villain.

“He has control of the Senate and the courts! He’s too dangerous to be left alive!” — Mace Windu, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Ever since he strolled across the landing bay of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, ever since I held him in my five-year-old hands as a hefty hunk of Kenner-manufactured plastic, I have adored the Emperor. I’ve tried the other Dark Lords, and much as I might enjoy them, they’re just not the one: Sauron is a giant flaming eyeball, Voldemort is just Ralph Fiennes with no nose, Thanos is a finger-snappin’ Genocide Fonzie. But Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine, the ruler of his galaxy and the series’ ultimate villain, is a star — pure evil in the form of a weird, wrinkly old fart who can shoot lightning from his fingers.

The Emperor rules. Figuratively, I mean, not just literally. And I didn’t need JJ Abrams to resurrect him in The Rise of Skywalkernow disappointing fans in a theater near you! — to convince me.

Why? Because he’s not just evil. He’s a dick about it. And that’s an evil I recognize.

The primary antagonist of the gigantic franchise from a galaxy far, far away had relatively inauspicious beginnings. In the first chapter of the saga, 1977’s O.G. Star Wars, he was just a name dropped by Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin — an even more powerful bad guy than Darth Vader, the world-beating man-machine who seared himself into pop-culture immortality with just a few voiceover lines from James Earl Jones. He appeared via hologram in the sequel, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, but it wasn’t until 1983’s RotJ that he emerged in his final form.

And what a form it was. Played by Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor is a prune-faced old man determined to recruit young Jedi Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force. To do so, he pits Luke against his own father, Darth Vader, in a battle where the Emperor wins no matter the outcome. But he draws out Luke’s own dark side with a less Oedipal and more relatable technique: He trolls him.

Ensconced in his throne room aboard the second Death Star, this sinister old bastard doesn’t simply declaim about the power of the Dark Side or the futility of rebellion — he’s a real asshole about it! He gloats about luring Luke’s friends into a trap, both on the forest moon of Endor where he has thousands of troops lying in wait, and in the void of space surrounding the Death Star battle station, where the Rebellion’s attacking fleet will be sitting ducks for the unfinished base’s very much finished planet-killing laser gun, protected by a force field Luke’s friends won’t be able to shut down in time.

“Oh,” he says, his voice full of faux concern. “I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive.”

His face shifts from mock empathy to sinister glee, and in that moment the entire worldview of the Dark Side’s emissaries, the Sith, is made plain. It’s not enough to defeat and destroy your enemies. You’ve got to make fun of them, too. You have to make them feel dumb for having hope. You have to take both pleasure and pride in their failures. You have to rub their faces in it. What’s the point of being a bad guy otherwise?

Faced with the prospect of chronicling a pre-Empire galaxy, creator George Lucas wisely determined his prequel trilogy needn’t be pre-Emperor, too. He essentially bifurcated the character, giving him a mild-mannered public-facing secret identity in the person of genteel politician Sheev Palpatine while establishing his black-robed alter ego Darth Sidious as the titular phantom menace, manipulating an entire civilization into its own undoing.

But the trick to what Lucas and McDiarmid did with the character in Episodes I-III was to maintain that air of mirthful, malevolent smarm even when Palpatine was simply the junior senator from Naboo or whatever. Watch McDiarmid’s performances throughout the prequel trilogy, particularly the scenes where he’s out in the open and hobnobbing with queens and Jedi and so forth, including poor trusting Anakin Skywalker. He has the subtle but unmistakable air of a guy who’s in on the joke, even as all those around him fail to realize that joke is on them. He really is the smartest guy in the room, and how often do you get to see that in a character?

Some of the finest moments of acting in the entire eleven-movie franchise arise from the Emperor hiding in plain sight. Personally, I adore the moment when Palpatine barks “Do it!” at Anakin when the young Jedi is on the verge of beheading Count Dooku, Palpatine’s catspaw leader of the rebellious Separatists — both for McDiarmid’s sudden viciousness, and for the look of complete and total shock on Dooku’s face as he realizes his secret boss legitimately couldn’t care less about him.

Even better: Palpatine’s seduction of Anakin at some kind of alien opera house (I wasn’t going to get into whether the prequels are good or not, but I lied, because alien opera houses rule). He all but dares Skywalker to suss him out as he tells the story of Darth Plagueis, a Sith Lord who figured out how to create life and cheat death before his betrayal and murder at the hands of his apprentice. Palpatine is cool and collected on the outside, but McDiarmid makes him seem like he’s on the verge of screaming “It’s me! I’m the murderous apprentice, you stupid handsome young asshole!” at any moment.

He does plenty of screaming when the shit finally hits the fan. When the Jedi wise up and realize he’s the Dark Lord of the Sith, Palpatine completes his corruption of Anakin by inducing him to attack Mace Windu, the Jedi Master (played by Samuel L. Jackson, whose lightsaber is as purple as his dialogue) who has him at his mercy. Once the deed is done, it’s mask off: “UNLIMITED POWER!!!!!!!!!!!” Palpatine shrieks as Windu gets blasted into oblivion. Three movies of manipulation, machination, and fucking trade disputes get melted down into a triumphant roar encapsulating every shitty, shifty little bully’s wildest fantasy. By the time he gets around to calling Jedi Master Yoda “my little green friend” during their subsequent duel, his M.O. is established: He kills ’em with condescension.

An Emperor who trolls is an Emperor I recognize just from looking around at his equivalent figures in real life — men who aren’t content just with being in power, but who also have to be massive pricks about it.

I think that’s what makes the Emperor of The Rise of Skywalker feel so alien, despite the continued yeoman’s work of McDiarmid and all the usual Dark Lord trappings: He’s not a dickhead anymore. He’s now just some weird Frankensteinian carcass in a mech rig, ordering Kylo Ren to kill Rey rather than seduce her, then without so much as a word of explanation shifting gears and ordering Rey to kill him so he can occupy her body with not just his own spirit, but that of every Sith ever.

Let me repeat that with a question mark: With every Sith ever??? What happened to the egomaniacal narcissist whose endgame was always making everyone else look comparatively dumb, other Sith included? Would the guy who was willing to sacrifice Darths Maul, Plagueis, Tyrannus, and Vader on the altar of his own awesomeness ever subsume his own identity like that? And if so, couldn’t he at least do a little sarcastic clapping beforehand or something?

I miss the dickhead version of the Emperor. Not just because he’s more entertaining, though he is, and not just because it’s more in keeping with his previous appearances, which it would be. An Emperor who trolls is an Emperor I recognize just from looking around at his equivalent figures in real life — men who aren’t content just with being in power, but who also have to be massive pricks about it. That resonance with the real-world ghouls who bedevil us daily is why Palpatine has become the central figure in the saga despite never being more than a supporting character, if you go exclusively by screen time. In real life, Emperor types have a starring role.

The Emperor I believe in is the Emperor who treated you mean and really did mean to. An Emperor drinks from a mug reading “JEDI TEARS,” who calls Jedi snowflakes and asks if they’ve been triggered, who has the attitude of a chan shitposter or a groyper frog made flesh. (Maybe that was one of Darth Plagueis’s talents too.) An Emperor who’s just a conduit for an impersonal Sith collective is, in the final reckoning, a snooze compared to the sneering tyrant of old. His personality lacks its old obnoxious specificity, which makes his defeat fall flat. Ditto the revelation that Rey is a Palpatine. This impersonal embodiment of all things dark has a grandkid? It's hard to picture, and harder to care.

I want an Emperor who’s having the time of his life being a complete and total jerkoff, a Dark Lord of reply guys, a Darth Donald Trump Jr. That’s an Emperor I recognize, an Emperor I want to beat into dust.

Sean T. Collins has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork. He and his partner, the cartoonist Julia Gfrörer, are co-editors of the comics and art anthology MIRROR MIRROR II. He is a columnist at The Outline.