When finally visiting the market around Camden Lock last year, I couldn't resist buying a T-shirt with Darth Vader on it and the caption: "Come to The Dark Side - We have cookies". To me, it neatly summarises the appeal of The Dark Side in the Star Wars films.
First, there's Dark Side poster boy Vader. We villain-lovers have Darth Vader to thank for a lot. Talk about misleading the young: I think I've yet to meet a child who doesn't think Vader is really cool. I thought it myself as a kid, and I still do to some extent. The mask; the swirling black cape; the under-water breathing; the stentorian voice; the great sound track which I keep meaning to download as a phone signal: DA-DA-DA-da-da-DA-da-da-DA. And then he turns out to be Luke's father. I mean: wow.
Of course he is not a subtle character study - in spite of efforts in that direction being made in the prequel films. But as a bad guy in an epic fairy tale set in space, he will do nicely. And we get to see that old friend, the road-to-redemption plot line, also known to villain-lovers as the having-your-cake-and-eating-it plot line. See, we weren't weird for having a soft spot for Darth Vader after all, because he turns good at the very end. Admittedly, for such a short time that even the characters in the new film - which is excellent: I will be getting to that eventually - have a problem remembering his conversion (or, to be precise, re-conversion) to the light.
What about the cookies, then? My first fond memories of the original Star Wars films are from my childhood. When I rewatched them as an adult, it slowly dawned on me that being a Jedi didn't sound like much fun at all. At one point, Yoda (whom I had found unfailingly delightful as a child) upbraids Luke for wanting to break off his Jedi training in order to help his friends. Mere friendship is not something a Jedi should get hung up about, it seems: it's much more worthwhile getting stones to fly around in a deeply meaningful way. The same message returns in the prequel films (I've only seen them once, so forgive me if I'm a bit hazy about the details) where Anakin Skywalker - the future Darth Vader - becomes vulnerable to The Dark Side because of his excessive love for his pregnant wife. Well, excessive for a Jedi (they're not even supposed to have a wife). There is a lot of guff about how these petty worldly concerns get in the way of a Jedi's spiritual enlightenment. Family? Friends? Forget them. They only come between the perfect Jedi warrior and the Force.
It's interesting, and not a little distressing, that some thoughts keep recurring in wildly different contexts and belief systems throughout the ages. Take the idea that self-denial and emotional restraint are good in themselves, even when they do not lead to any discernible increase in happiness for any human being. Don't enjoy yourself. It's sinful/common/bourgeois/decadent/hostile to the environment/unsolidaric to the Third World/harmful to The Force. From puritanism to "fat shaming" and faux mysticism in sci-fi films, there always seem to be people about who equate being virtuous with being a killjoy.
No wonder Supreme Chancellor Palpatine found it child's play to scoop up Anakin Skywalker. No more harnessing emotions, no more denying instincts, no more self-abnegation. Here, Anakin, have a cookie.
Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens is mainly good because it is an expertly crafted yarn with engaging characters, thrilling action and some truly moving moments (plus better dialogue than the original films). But an incidental pleasure is the relative absence of waffle about the Force. Instead, it's all about the human relationships: friendship, romantic love and family ties are what makes the protagonists care about each other and what inspires them to heroism. In spite of the fact that The Dark Side still has some cookies at its disposal - like Kylo Ren, who is seriously yummy behind his mask, and General Hux (I'm a sucker for a redhead) - it's really not hard to root for the good guys when they're as likeable as this. And honestly, at the end of the day, and all sophistry apart: when you find yourself serving a giant lizard straight out of Evil Noseless Creatures' Central Casting and destroying a world looking suspiciously like a planet-sized Manhattan you know you've gone wrong somewhere, cookies or not.
Incidentally, what was is that finally turned Darth Vader against the evil Emperor in the original films? His love for his son. Put that in your transcendental pipe and smoke it, Yoda.