Pretty much everything about screen storytelling has changed since George Lucas made 1977’s Star Wars, or as it’s now known in the canon, A New Hope. Cameras are smaller and more mobile, special effects have exploded in complexity, computers changed everything from shot choices to editing to color grading to sound design. And all those factors made fight choreography much more complicated and demanding than it was 45 years ago. Just look at the difference between Darth Vader fighting his old mentor Ben Kenobi in A New Hope, and the two of them facing off in the 2022 TV series Obi-Wan Kenobi.
One eternal question spans all of pop culture: "Who would win?" This week we have answers. Prepare yourself for Polygon's Who Would Win Week.
The Darth Vader of Kenobi would absolutely wipe the floor with A New Hope’s Vader, and it would take him about three seconds to do it.
Let’s be clear: This isn’t a problem. This isn’t a continuity error, just as Kenobi being played by two different men over that time period is not a continuity error. This isn’t a burning issue that should send loyal fans screaming to the internet. It’s just an observable fact that highlights how much has changed about on-screen combat (and about Star Wars) over the last four and a half decades.
Given how much space the Darth Vader of A New Hope takes up in the collective consciousness of American pop culture, given how terrifying audiences found him in 1977, it’s fascinating to go back and revisit the final lightsaber combat between Vader and Kenobi, and see how stiff, short, and minimal it is. Alec Guinness, who played Kenobi in the original trilogy, was 62 when the film was shot, and looked considerably older. The duel plays out with the careful blow-by-blow choreography of two amateurs sword-fighting in a stage play. Neither combatant uses the Force against their opponent.
And when the movie opened in 1977, none of that felt like a limitation, because the stakes were so high and the drama was so intense. The dialogue between the two men makes it clear that they’re old rivals who used to be close, until a final breach divided them. Kenobi is making space for his younger allies to escape the Death Star with their lives, and possibly teaching his old student Anakin Skywalker one final lesson about the Force in the process. (The context wasn’t as nuanced as it would become later in the series, but the idea was there even in 1977.) Besides, no one had ever seen a lightsaber duel between masters before — there was no reason to expect it to look like anything specific.
But today’s audiences have potentially seen a lot of lightsaber duels over four decades of Star Wars media, and they expect something much more dynamic. The face-off between the same two men in Kenobi — less than a decade before their New Hope battle — happens on an entirely different scale. The combatants smash their way through the barren, dark landscape, ripping down stone spires and causing earthquakes and landslides. They fling huge rocks at each other with the Force. Kenobi dives, spins, and rolls to evade his opponent. He flings Vader himself through the air to smash against stone, while Vader parries his opponent’s lightsaber with a hand gesture and his own sheer will. It’s a completely different kind of combat than the New Hope fight, one where the environment is as much a weapon and a defense as the combatants’ lightsabers.
Pop culture quibblers can complain that Vader and Kenobi both lost a lot of their skills in the comparatively short time gap between Obi-Wan Kenobi and A New Hope. Full-time continuity justifiers can also make plenty of reasonable, rational arguments for the comparatively scaled-down fight. Vader does appear to just be toying with Kenobi in A New Hope, holding off his attacks while trying to rekindle the old fear his mentor once felt for him. Kenobi, on the other hand, isn’t actually trying to kill Vader: He’s stalling for time for Luke and the Millennium Falcon crew, and moving the fight to a venue where it can be a distraction to enable their escape. Viewed through the lens of story filled in by the prequel series, their fight in A New Hope can easily be seen less as two men trying to murder each other, and more as old frenemies carefully testing each other — until Kenobi consciously throws the fight.
Or maybe Vader doesn’t want to wreck the Death Star by ripping it apart for improvised weapons. It’s worth noting that the Vader/Kenobi fight in the TV series is meant to serve as the show’s big action climax, and the payoff of all of its themes about hope and renewal, while their fight in A New Hope is just a small event leading up to the movie’s real climax — it takes place more than half an hour before the end of the movie. Or maybe we can all just collectively acknowledge that two fights choreographed 45 years apart are going to look different from each other, especially given the challenge every sequel and spinoff faces in upping the ante from the last version of the story. (A few years ago, a hugely popular fan film used CG to reimagine the 1977 fight as it might look if it were shot today.)
But from a certain point of view, as Star Wars likes to put it, you could also argue that the Darth Vader of modern media is just a hell of a lot more powerful than 1977 Darth Vader, for reasons fully explored within the story. The Vader of Obi-Wan Kenobi is still flush with conviction and rage, especially aimed at Kenobi himself. He’s still out for revenge against Kenobi for dismembering him and abandoning him to slowly burn to death in a lava flow — a choice Star Wars media has never adequately or reasonably justified.
And as of Kenobi, he still thinks he’s capable of getting that revenge. The fury-driven Force powers he shows throughout Obi-Wan Kenobi are above and beyond anything he does in the original trilogy, where he’s portrayed as calmer, far more in control of himself, and far more measured in using his abilities to awe, intimidate, or kill anyone who crosses or disappoints him. Nearly 20 years after Padmé’s death in Revenge of the Sith, his grief and anger have clearly settled significantly, and he seems more focused on his job as an Empire functionary than on personal grievances.
Arguably, part of that is because of what happens in Kenobi, at least if you choose to accept the Skywalker Saga as anything like a coherent, consistent continuity instead of a bunch of different strung-together stories from different sources and storytellers. Kenobi definitively beating Vader in a fight and choosing to walk away and let him live may have broken something in Anakin, forcing him to turn his focus away from the past and on to the future. After that confrontation, he seems to have given up on finding and fighting Kenobi, putting his energy into the Empire instead. (The fact that leaving Vader alive yet again was a ridiculous choice for Obi-Wan, unsupportable by Kenobi’s actual storyline, and ham-handedly forced on the narrative by its nature as a prequel, is a whole different conversation.)
Certainly by the time they meet again in A New Hope, Vader still has plenty of contempt for his old teacher, but he’s smug and superior instead of furious in the way he once was. Granted, in his combat sequence in Rogue One — which would take place not long before A New Hope — he’s back to flashier uses of the Force to slam his opponents around, and what seems like real anger when he’s stymied. But he still isn’t ripping the ship open around him. Possibly that contempt, and underestimating Obi-Wan Kenobi for the umpteenth time, is what holds him back so much in A New Hope.
But that still leaves the fact that Obi-Wan’s Darth Vader is a full-on rage machine at the peak of his powers, willing to rip anything and everything apart to destroy an enemy, while 1977 Vader comes across more like a dark diplomat, used to getting his way and only rarely having to fight for it. If Star Wars ever went multiversal the way the MCU has, and these two versions of the same villain faced each other in combat, 1977 Vader might have age and experience on his side, but the Disney Plus version of Vader is madder, hungrier, and more desperate to prove himself, and in the end, he has the absolute edge.
The real question is what would happen if A New Hope’s Kenobi came up against Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Kenobi. The latter is faster, more flexible, and also flush with the Force. But the older Kenobi would probably just say something insightful and disarming that would completely shut down his younger self, who still had a lot of emotional growth ahead of him.
And then they’d probably go get some blue milk together. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed about screen stories since 1977: The heroes still tend to get creative about their conflicts, finding solutions that the villains would never consider.