In 2016, millions of fandom voices cried out in triumph, when perhaps they should have been expressing some concern. As Darth Vader sliced and diced his way through hapless Rebel soldiers in the climax of Rogue One the mood, for many longtime fans, was celebratory. Finally, Vader was unleashed! This was a level of badassery that had never been glimpsed in the faraway galaxy. And yet, seven years after releasing to almost universal critical acclaim, one has to wonder; was the big Darth Vader moment in Rogue One all that great? Or had Star Wars jumped the fanservice shark?
Notably, Rogue One was directed by Gareth Edwards, who’s making a splash with his new science fiction film The Creator. It looks very much like a Gareth Edwards movie: as he did in Rogue One and the 2014 Godzilla, Edwards is good at bringing high concepts down to Earth. It’s something countless sci-fi movies and TV shows claim to want, but few pull off. In 2022, the prequel series Andor upheld Rogue One’s mantle by becoming Star Wars’ most realistic and character-driven series. Even if you don’t love Rogue One, no one can deny the film has a grown-up vibe.
Then the last five minutes arrive, and the entire movie sacrifices its integrity for two sequences of egregious fan service that undercuts nearly everything great about the movie. The Vader scene, which leads to the awkward CGI Leia, has not aged well, which is frustrating given that Rogue One was nearly perfect.
At almost exactly the two-hour mark, Rogue One presents a perfect possible ending. We see Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) on the Scarfi beach as they watch the blast from the Death Star. A giant shockwave hits them as they embrace. We know they’ve sent the Death Star plans to the orbiting Rebel Fleet, most of which has already jumped away. But instead of just ending the movie right there and letting the audience put it all together, Rogue One ruins itself with a silly and unnecessary coda. Maybe it would have worked better as a post-credits scene but, as it stands, it feels like a bad decision that panders to the worst aspects of Star Wars fandom.
With the story essentially over, Darth Vader boards the Rebel ship that’s just been sent the plans. Once there, he slays a platoon of soldiers so we can see the desperate handoff of the plans to another Rebel ship that’s really only there so this silly dot-connecting scene can happen. Yes, seeing Vader go bananas on some chumps was fun, but it diminishes the characters we’ve actually been invested in. Again, imagine ending on Jyn and Cassian embracing, and then the final music isn’t the upbeat Star Wars theme. It would be far more tonally and emotionally appropriate.
Second, Vader’s murder spree, and the subsequent launching of the Tantive IV, creates several unnecessary continuity errors. Notably, it renders Leia’s attempt to claim diplomatic immunity in A New Hope pointless and ridiculous. Thanks to Rogue One, Vader sees the Tantive IV escape with plans conveyed on a physical disc. In A New Hope, Vader says “several transmissions were beamed” to the Tantive IV, but that’s nonsense now; Vader knows everything he needs to because he was just busy slaughtering Rebels two hallways away.
This retcon not only detracts from Rogue One’s characters, but minimizes Leia’s contributions too. Instead of imagining Leia as a savvy senator smuggling stolen data while pretending to be on a diplomatic mission, Rogue One makes her an obvious Rebel soldier with zero espionage know-how. Leia’s ship exists in the belly of another ship as a kind of literal Easter egg, and when Tantive IV hatches, we’re supposed to believe A New Hope is born.
This leads to the scene’s third problem: it changes how we’re supposed to think about Vader. At the beginning of A New Hope, he sends his troops in first, then arrives to methodically mop up and take charge. Arguably, this is a detail Obi-Wan Kenobi got right: Vader can be a bruiser, but more often than not he’s a strategist, not someone who defaults to ax-murder mode to get what he wants.
At the end of Rogue One, Vader is no longer Darth Vader, a character in the Star Wars saga; he’s Fan Vader, an action figure people play with. His motivations come from what countless fans wanted Vader to do, rather than what the character would do. Maybe Rogue One could have pulled off a similar Vader scene elsewhere in the film, but stapling it to the end of the movie reveals its unseriousness. It’s pure action schlock. There’s zero respect for the original film, and its lack of restraint doesn’t work with the subtler, smarter movie you’ve just been watching. It’s a videogame cutscene added to the end of a spy movie.
In 2021, Gareth Edwards confirmed the Vader scene was “a last-minute decision” for a movie that was essentially already done. For Rogue One’s reputation, this was perhaps the most transformative reshoot of them all. Edwards admits the moment became “the thing that most people reference or remember.”
Which is a shame. Rogue One had an ending, and didn’t need another one that was quite literally tacked on in post-production. It may look cool, but it doesn’t work on a narrative level. If Rogue One was trying to prove that you could make a great Star Wars movie without copious references to the Skywalkers and lightsabers, the Darth Vader scene was the moment the movie shrugged its shoulders and said, “Ah, never mind.”
Fans have long debated the nature of good fanservice versus bad fanservice, but the Darth Vader ending of Rogue One is trickier. And that’s because when fan service turned to the Dark Side we barely noticed, as our objectivity died to thunderous applause.