The physical changes we see in Darth Vader across the four saga films where he plays a role tell a fascinating story about the character through posture and presence.
In Revenge of the Sith, Darth Vader is downright awkward. As he takes his first steps from the operating table, he hasn’t learned how his new body works, clumsily stumbling forward. This is Vader at his most embryonic, the beginning of his journey of hate. Later, when he’s watching the construction of the Death Star over Geonosis, he seems to have more of a handle on his new body. But is he comfortable in it? I would doubt he ever truly is. He gets accustomed to it, maybe, but never comfortable.
The Vader of A New Hope is much more self-assured. He’s angry, but never quite out of control. Though he takes orders from Tarkin—based as much on a begrudging respect than any issue of rank—Vader is at the height of his power and it shows in every interaction he has and even in the way he stands.
Here, Vader’s rage is in check and he’s a master of it. Even when confronted by his former master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, he’s able to maintain his fury and channel it, not allowing it to get the better of him. During their previous confrontation, Vader was sloppy and his emotions were out of control. Because of this, Kenobi won. But on the Death Star, Vader was in perfect control of his emotions. Although Kenobi had other plans for the fight and “defeating” Vader was never part of the plan, Vader emerged victorious over his former brother.
After the destruction of the Death Star, Vader seems to become unglued. We know from the comic books that between his appearances in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Vader learned the name of the young rebel who destroyed the Death Star. Luke. Skywalker.
And of course this made him unhinged. When The Empire Strikes Back opens, he’s obsessed with finding the boy he knows is his son. To that end, he’s killing officers with impunity for their failure and lashing out emotionally at every corner.
Through the performance, there’s a frenetic anger to Vader during his search, but we’re not quite sure what his plans are. Does he really want to turn his son so Palpatine can use him? Or does he want to supplant his master entirely?
I’m not sure Vader is even sure until he reveals to Luke that he is, indeed, his father. This is a huge departure for Vader. He’s hidden from any acknowledgement that he and Anakin Skywalker were the same person for so long that this reveal seems to be as stunning to Vader himself as it is to Luke.
We can see him transform again when the Millennium Falcon gets away. Admiral Piett steps forward and regards Vader, knowing that his failure is going to lead to his death. But Vader has become introspective. This time he simply walks away.
Vader is confronted with something that he hasn’t considered since before he was in the suit: humanity. His son reminds him of it and it churns up all of the feelings he had before he turned to the dark side. This is reflected in all of Vader’s interactions with Palpatine and with his son in Return of the Jedi. He’s more somber. The anger he held in Empire has vanished. Somehow, through the mask, you can see the wheels turning in Vader’s head, taking him slowly back to the person he once was. And the voice becomes more quiet. At the beginning of A New Hope, could you have imagined Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader having a heartfelt conversation? But we see it for ourselves when Luke surrenders himself in Return of the Jedi.
This brings us to the heart of Vader’s transformation. Luke is in mortal danger, attacked by the Emperor. As Vader watches, his eyes moving between his son and his master, we can imagine what he’s thinking. It’s a subtle change in Vader’s demeanor, but it marks the largest change.
What’s most remarkable about this character arc is the fact that never do we see Vader’s face beneath the mask, but we can feel his anguish. It’s a transformation anchored by physicality and vocalization alone. Impressive. Most impressive.