A long time ago, in a cinema far, far away...
EVIL wore a black cloak and an obsidian mask. EVIL rasped for breath and enforced his will with basso-toned threats and a dark gauntlet crushing the throats of any who dared fail him.
That was EVIL in 1977.
Twenty-eight years later, EVIL is a plastic potato-shaped doll with press-on armor. EVIL is posing with the M&M guys. EVIL is clutching at Cheez-Its. Or throwing them. It's kinda hard to tell by the box.
How the mighty have fallen. EVIL ain't even "evil." EVIL's a bigger corporate whore than James Lipton.
All of the intimidation, all of the black enamel paint so glossy that the dark lord of the Sith was nothing so much as a walking LaBrea Tar Pit of CERTAIN DOOM... is gone. I mean, how serious can you take a guy when his head is being offered for use as a cookie jar on specially marked packages of Rice Krispie Treats? You're a marshmallow, Darth Vader. A Twinkie! Well, maybe not a Twinkie; Hostess hasn't had a Star Wars tie-in since 1980.
Obviously none of this is particularly new. Cartoon characters, TV shows and movies, etc., graced lunchpails and cereal boxes for decades prior to George Lucas' little film. But "Star Wars" -- back when that was the only title, because that was the only movie -- took the ambling oxcart of cross-promotion and gave it hyperdrive.
Of course, he had good reason to do so. Rather than accept a fat studio check from 20th Century Fox for all his work on "Star Wars," Lucas negotiated for sequel and merchandizing rights, an unheard of proposition in the mid-'70s. Studio execs must have thought he was barmy. Turns out he was brilliant. In a recent interview for Money magazine, Jim Silver, publisher of Toy Wishes magazine, estimated that Lucas has raked in more from his cut of sales of the films' products than from the movies themselves. He expects the trend to continue with Episode III.
"The key to this movie is Darth Vader," said Silver. "He is the best-selling villain of all time."
What's that? "Best-selling villain"?
Wow. Meesa shaking in my boots.
I'm afraid that's got me rethinking this whole intimidation business. What was Vader's line to Luke in Return of the Jedi? Oh yeah...
"Do not underestimate the power of the Dark Side. If you will not shop, you will face your destiny."
See? Now right there we should all have gotten a clue where this was headed. Okay, okay, so the line was "turn," not "shop," but thinking about it, the operative word is "destiny," which is being used to nauseating repetition in the marketing of "Revenge of the Sith." But check it: Vader says "face your destiny." Again, wow. Big threat. Not, "If you will not turn, I will kill you" or "If you will not turn, I'm gonna get medieval on your ass." No. "Destiny." Tell you what, I'm pretty well destined to eat lunch in about an hour, and I think that, in comparison to turning to the Dark Side, that's a destiny I'd readily embrace.
My respect for Vader was additionally diminished when we learned that the behind the grim visage was not a once great and powerful Jedi, but Anakin Crankypants. Whiny momma's boy should've been left on Tatooine. Now we're left in the interregnum between "Sith" and "A New Hope," and all I can picture is Vader skulking around his command ship, looking for a droid to kick, or sitting in his rejuvenation chamber, cutting Padme's head out of all of their snapshots.
How appropriate, then, that Anakin and Vader appear together on a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. The vanilla ice cream of breakfast cereals.
The good guys aren't without their faults, either. There's Chewbacca recording ringtones for Verizon. There's Mace Windu on a box of Honey Smacks, a doubly-damning display, as both the Jedi Master and Sam Jackson lose serious points on the bad-ass scale.
But the worst indictment of all? Yoda attempting to steal some poor schmuck's Diet Pepsi. Have you seen the commercial? Yoda's in a diner, where he pulls the ol' Jedi Mind Trick to fleece some guy out of his burger and fries. It's not till Master Yoda pushes his luck and goes for the Diet Pepsi that the guy is able to resist. That's just sad. Disillusioning. All those nutjobs who listed "Jedi" as their official religion on the last British census are going to be doing a lot of soul-searching.
At least there's one hold out, one honorable character who has stayed above the fray and remained entirely true to his character: Emperor Palpatine. Never anything less than manipulative and wretched, Darth Sidious glowers not from Pop-Tarts boxes or soda cans. (It's a fait accompli that he'd've beaten the Rebels handily if he hadn't picked Darth Marketability as his apprentice. Vader only chucked the Emperor down that bottomless shaft so he could score more consumer amity: my bet is that Kenner had a surplus of original Vader action figures from '78, but they all had broken hands. A script rewrite later, and -- ba-da-bing! -- the Repentant Vader action figure was born.)
Still, I've got faith. Lucas may brush off rumors of a third trilogy, busying himself with cameos on "The O.C." and political pontificating at Cannes, but I know there's more to the story. The villain's never really dead unless there's a body. Vader is gone, but Palpatine survived, and in a dark chamber on a shadowy world, he is nursing a new, more ruthless Sith Lord who also survived a harrowing fall, but whose body was never shown.
"Darth Hans Gruber."
Now that's EVIL.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
5.23.05 @ 9:03a
New commercial seen last night: Darth Vader having a staring contest with Burger King.
5.23.05 @ 9:09a
Heh. This is hysterical.
I especially love "how serious can you take a guy when his head is being offered for use as a cookie jar on specially marked packages of Rice Krispie Treats?"
I saw a blow-up Darth on top of a Burger King yesterday. The flaps of his helmet were waving in the wind, and his upper body and light saber did too.
Which kind of made him look like one of those giant blow-up arm-wavin' 'Jammin' dudes at a festival and thus, silly.
5.23.05 @ 9:10a
I'm so totally with you. I almost fell over when I saw the Darth Cheez-Its box.
How to cheapen a character in one quick, easy, step.
5.23.05 @ 9:10a
What's even more disgusting, though (as I should have added) is that amount of people that will actually buy into this bullshit.
5.23.05 @ 9:23a
That's because there's a secondary industry: the "collectible" industry.
5.23.05 @ 9:33a
It's bunk. The collectible industry only worked when things were rare.
How hard is it to get a box of Rice Krispie treats with Darth Vader's head on it, now?
5.23.05 @ 9:45a
I don't think that's supposed to be a collectible so much as a marketing tool for Rice Krispie treats. Star Wars, despite all of the on-screen evidence to the contrary, is perceived as a "kid's movie" (yes, I saw someone quoted as saying that). Therefor, any company trying to market to kids wants those recognizable figures on their boxes.
5.23.05 @ 9:47a
Yes! Hans rules!
5.23.05 @ 10:30a
Heresy! Apostacy! Y'all are all goin' straight to hell!
Repent now and be saved!
5.23.05 @ 10:56a
Hold on, now - Lucas made all his money on the first one by getting the studio to give him all the marketing rights. The movies probably would never have been made if it hadn't been for tie-ins that people could buy. Star Wars has always been a money-maker, even away from the box office.
5.23.05 @ 12:10p
Adam, I don't think that your point changes the fact that the Darth Vader character is cheapened by being depicted force choking Cheez-Its.
5.23.05 @ 12:20p
I'm willing to lump blame on the collectible market. Burger King now has signage stating that you can get one of their 30 collectible figures with the purchase of any ADULT value meal as well as any Kid's Meal.
5.23.05 @ 12:40p
Adam, the first movie wasn't made with an eye toward marketing, because the studio people expected it to flop. Only Lucas was canny enough to see the potential. When the subsequent sequels/prequels were made, it wasn't because the STUDIO wanted that marketing wealth, because they'd already been cut out of the lion's share by Lucas. They did understand that they'd still get boffo box office, and that was worth it. It was a win-win for Lucas and 20thC Fox.
I will agree with you that the prequels probably wouldn't have been made without thought for the tie-ins, because I honestly think that Lucas made 'em not out of love for the fans, or to complete the story, but because he hadn't had a successful movie in more than a DECADE and he needed the cash infusion.
5.23.05 @ 1:08p
I'm torn on this issue, because I'm part of the problem. I love merchandising. One only needs to stop by my house to see tons of highly prized collectible merchandising (otherwise known to most folks as "stupid, useless crap) from Movies and TV to Comic Books and Musicals. If they actually made a "Spaceballs the Flamethrower" I'd likely have one.
I've been laughing like crazy at the recent commercials. Especially the one for Burger King where Vader shows up and says "Steve. I am your father" just so he can get some of Steve's $1 Million in winnings. And those lightsaber spoons? I've got to get me one of those!
However, there comes a point where it does get stupid. That's the point where a character who ISN'T cool is being shoved down our throats. I don't have a problem going into 7/11 and being able to get an icy cold drink that I can sip out of Darth Vader's head. That doesn't make Vader any less of a badass in my eyes. Because Vader is cool. Samuel L. Jackson on a box cereal? I'm sorry... Samuel L. Jackson's face could be on a box of Tampons and he'd still be cool because he's freaking Samuel L. Jackson.
Jar-Jar Binks on the other hand? A marketing idea gone horribly wrong. Remember Episode I and how bad it sucked and how much of that was because of Jar-Jar? I find it interesting that Jar-Jar - so prominent in Episode I, had so very little to say in Episode II and uttered not a single line in Episode III. Lucas realized that shoving a character NO ONE liked down our throats in a film to sell toys wasn't working. (or did the egg come before the chicken and we were sick of seeing Jar-Jar's face on everything BEFORE the film was released and we we desinted to hate him? Hmmmm...)
Anyway... while I have embraced the Dark Side of merchandising, there is hope for my son. He wants nothing to do with the Kids toys at Burger King and the other day on the way out of BK, when the motion activated Darth Vader display started making the iconic breathing sound, instead of being awed by it, he simply said, "He's snoring!"
As long he doesn't cut my hand off someday for buying him Yoda Underoos.
5.23.05 @ 2:18p
At the same time, I had about a dozen of the original Burger King glasses (from Empire, I believe?) and if I had those today...
This movie has gone overboard in terms of number and range of tie-ins, and it's a calculated move.
Also, I agree with Dave, I got a Pizza Hut pizza box back in 99 with a picture of... hold on, let me google... Nute Gunray on it. Who?
When he re-released the movies in the 90s, Taco Bell had a number of outstanding tie-in toys like this mirror cube that if you looked at it one way was a 3D image of Vader's head and another way was a Yoda head.
So, I think it's a lot of crap being thrown at a wall to see what sticks and what sticks is what is unique and slick. The Burger King glasses and the trading cards stuck for that reason. Darth Tater will stick.
Darth Cheezits? Probably not.
5.23.05 @ 3:09p
Ah, the beloved Nute Gunray. What about Sebulba? And the blatant "Lucas hates Jews" character, um, Shylock or something...
That Diet Pepsi ad SUCKS. Hilariously, and sadly, it makes me angry that Yoda can be thwarted by that chump (who's in tons of commercials these days, I think he chose a new dinnerset over a Harley in one) and that in turn makes me sad that I care about the credibility of Yoda's Jedi powers.
I got a Darth Vader shaped watch when i was a kid, but I wanted a digital PacMan playing watch instead so I returned it. I would die for that Vader watch now!!
5.23.05 @ 4:37p
Well, to be fair, the Force works best on the weak-minded. And maybe the cheeseburgers at that diner suck.
Personally, I like closing my eyes and pretending that it's Grover from Sesame Street delivering the lines.
5.24.05 @ 2:56a
Merchandising is as much a part of Star Wars as it is the American way. If there's a sucker born ever minute, why not take advantage of them? Granted there is such a thing as overkill, but in life the one lesson I've learned and eventually will put into practice is, always cater to the lowest common denominator.
Viva la greed.
5.24.05 @ 8:02a
Samuel L. Jackson's face could be on a box of Tampons and he'd still be cool because he's freaking Samuel L. Jackson.
For the very first time, men will be begging to go to the store when their wife or girlfriend needs feminine hygiene products. The question is, once they get them home will they let the lady open the box, or demand that its seal remain unbroken to maintain maximum collectible value?
5.24.05 @ 9:44a
For me...I completely disagree with the degradation of the character. I don't quantify a character based on how it is doing its job for a sponsor.
A character earns its merit badge in its environment, in this case a movie. Darth is still an evil SOB each time I watch Star Wars, even if he is sitting on my soda can. Simply a convenient reminder that there is more Star Wars stuff out that I need to watch/buy.
From a marketing standpoint, It is actually kind of funny that one of the supposed scariest villains of all time seems like a good idea to market your product, but it works.
Post headquarters, "Darth is evil, our cereal is evil...Lets Do It!!!"
Completely off topic...
Just shows that kids these days have no concept of good and evil, just like flashy shinny things. Darth went to the palace and killed all of the Jedi children in cold blood. I would guess most kids missed that, lucas should have showed Darth disemboweling the children and falling to his knees, bloody arms raised to the sky in homage to the dark side.
Well maybe kids are just caught up in the victimization of our culture and sympathized with Darth. Nah, they just like the red glowing sword.
5.24.05 @ 9:49a
Oh, just had a funny image in my head. Remember the scene in the 2nd movie (Empire Strikes Back) in cloud city when in almost a nightmare like fashion the door to the conference room slides open and Darth enters.
They missed out on alot of product placement. They could have been sit at the conference table having a meal of Colt 45 and Corn Flakes.
5.24.05 @ 9:57a
Actually, since Anakin was using a lightsaber, all of their wounds would be instantly cauterized...no blood, which is how Lucas wants it.
Note: at no point during Ep. 3 does any character refer to the kids of the Jedi temple as children, kids, etc. In every reference, they're called "younglings." A clever way to hide the grim reality from young ears.
5.24.05 @ 11:19a
Well, here's a link you'll love, then, Russ: http://sithsense.com/flash.htm
5.24.05 @ 1:17p
Post headquarters, "Darth is evil, our cereal is evil...Lets Do It!!!"
Interesting point, though - can a fictional character really have such an impact that we'd buy something/turn away something simply because of the association?
I mean, look at the Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer - I never quite got that, but if I was a fan of the store, would I want the vehicle, too? Eddie Bauer isn't J. Peterman, after all. (In other words, not real.)
But fictional character endorsement goes far beyond celebrity endorsement in complete implausibility. Rob's Record Sleeves? Danny Ocean Eyewear? Truvvy's Tru-Stay Hairspray? Mr. Wolfe's Cleaning Service? Come on....
5.24.05 @ 2:07p
I become disgusted with movie character merchandising when I first saw Freddie Krueger grinning at me from some little kid's lunchbox.
As a committed collector of various things no one else understands, I just can't wrap my head around the idea of collectors who eagerly buy into the mass-produced marketing. Where's the challenge in THAT?
5.24.05 @ 2:23p
I successfully beat Vader at his twenty -- actually 31 -- questions, Adam. He couldn't guess "a vagina," though he was in the vicinity with "a butt."
Which only goes to reinforce my thesis: Vader is a pussy.