What Do the Buttons on Darth Vader’s Suit Actually Do and What Really Caused the Emperor’s Deformed Appearance?
It’s said that the best villains are the ones where you know almost nothing about them. However, thanks to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we know almost everything about Darth Vader, even how he poops, and he’s still consistently voted to be one of the greatest cinema villains of all time. As proof of the “no stone left unturned” mentality of Expanded Universe content, we even know what all the buttons on Vader’s suit do.
But on that note, as with our previous article about why Chewbacca didn’t get a medal at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, most of the information we’re about to cover is from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, a vast wilderness of occasionally conflicting information that Disney have expunged from official canon to give themselves more creative freedom with the franchise, and open the door for them to make a boatload more money with a (hopefully better managed) new rebooted Expanded Universe. As a result, most of what we’re about to say isn’t technically canon anymore. However, it is interesting if you like Star Wars and I’ll be cold in my grave before I cease to acknowledge certain elements of the current Expanded Universe, like the Thrawn Trilogy, as anything but canon.
In any event, after the injuries sustained on Mustafar in the duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi, for all intents and purposes Vader became wholly depended on the self-contained life-support system that is his suit. This suit takes care of all of his bodily needs, essentially replacing or subsidizing most of his internal organs and taking care of Vader’s breathing, heart rate, eating and, yes, even pooping. In regards to the latter, because how could we not talk about how Darth Vader defecates, the novel, Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, notes that the Sith Lord relies on a complex series of “catheters, collection pouches, and recyclers” so that he can pass waste.
All of these systems work, for the most part, autonomously without any direct input from Vader himself. However, they can be interacted with via the buttons on his chest plate. According to such sources as the reference book, Darth Vader: A 3-D Reconstruction Log, which goes into detail about the specifics of Vader’s armor, the big red button on Vader’s chest was a “manual override” switch which allowed Vader to exert himself more than his suit would normally allow with the proper tweaking of some of the other controls on his chest plate and belt.
The blue button located above this red one, on the other hand, returns control to the suit’s automated systems. The other buttons on his chest are noted by the book to be “programming touch plates” save for the rightmost, red button, which when pressed, would reset all of Vader’s life-support systems, including heart rate regulation. During the reset process, Vader would be more or less disabled for a time and near death while things came back online.
So, yes, Vader would be easily defeatable by any Jedi via said Jedi simply using the force to press the reset button on his suit, then sweeping in quickly while he’s partially disabled and lopping his head off. As such, in any duel, Vader always had to carefully guard his chest piece above anything else, both with his lightsaber and the force. Nevertheless, something like this happened in the Expanded Universe when Antinnis Tremayne almost defeated Vader by pressing a button on his chest panel, causing Vader to collapse while gasping for air.
Vader also has a belt that has three small control boxes on it, with the left one including controls for regulating his breathing manually (particularly handy when trying to sneak up on your son in a dark corridor in Cloud City). As for the other boxes, the middle one is said to contain spare energy cells and some basic communications equipment for emergencies, as well as audio sensors. The buttons on the rightmost box are temperature controls, allowing Vader to adjust his suit’s internal temperature to suit his needs. (This same type of environmental control is also found in storm trooper suits.)
If you’re wondering why Vader’s suit has external, very vulnerable controls that could kill or incapacitate him if someone fiddled with them, Vader was curious about that too and though it’s never explicitly confirmed by the Emperor, a popular theory that is echoed by Darth Vader himself in some novels is that the suit was specifically designed that way to make sure he was always vulnerable.
For instance, in the book, Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, Vader expressed both confusion and annoyance at the poor quality of the cybernetic implants he’d been given, especially in comparison to the much more modern cybernetic limb he had previously had installed after Count Dooku lopped off one of his limbs.
You see, the suit that was crafted for Vader was using obsolete technology when it was meticulously installed on his charred body. Even General Greivous’ many decades old suit was superior in many ways to Darth Vader’s, particularly when it came to mobility.
In novels and comics where you’re granted a brief glimpse into Vader’s mind, the Sith Lord makes it clear that his armor is both uncomfortable and ill-fitting, painfully “snagging on his ruined flesh” as he moves. Beyond this, the synthetic flesh they chose to use to replace his old skin is noted to itch constantly. The suit also included needles that were uncomfortably jammed into his head to interface with his mind and the “monitoring panel [on his chest] beeped frequently and for no reason”. Beyond being outdated, the equipment was also conspicuously spotty in its reliability, with parts regularly breaking down and various bits of his life support system regularly on the fritz, constantly reminding Vader of how tenuously he was clinging to life.
All this hindered his ability to ever relax or even get anything better than short stints of sleep here and there. (No wonder he was so grumpy all the time.) This ensured Vader was always suffering from some level of exhaustion to go along with being uncomfortable and having limited mobility, including it being extremely difficult for him to even raise his arms above his shoulder level.
Then there was the weight of the suit. This was such that one of the few areas of his body that wasn’t damaged after his battle with Obi-Wan- his spine- actually largely had to be replaced over time as it could not support the bulky suit.
One of the droids who outfitted Vader with the suit, DD-13, even wondered as they were working on him if the limitations they were being forced to work under in saving Vader were purposeful. Beyond the fact that better cybernetics to give Vader a more normal bodied outcome were available, they could have also performed reconstructive cosmetic surgery to make him look more or less normal if they had not been given budgetary limitations and limited equipment.
You might be wondering at this point why Vader didn’t simply get a more modern suit made for himself that would be comfortable, drastically less vulnerable to damage, not make him feel claustrophobic all the time, and give him back his old mobility. Such a suit was designed, but unfortunately without the Emperors’ help to sustain his life during the transplant of his body from one suit to the other, such an operation would likely result in his death. And even with said help (which would require a great deal of trust in the Emperor on Vader’s part), it would have been a risky procedure, so the suit was never built. He did, however, create special chambers he could sustain himself in for short periods to recharge his suit and rejuvenate somewhat. On occasion, he also made attempts to use the Force to sustain his body without need of the suit- but all efforts ultimately failed.
Because of the limitations of the outdated suit, Vader was unable to ever truly tap the full extent of his connection to the Force, something the Palpatine was all too aware of.
You see, it’s revealed in the Expanded Universe that Palpatine was of the mindset that Vader’s inability to tap into his full power was all due to his mental state and not from his injuries, as is sometimes suggested and Vader himself wondered about on more than one occasion. For instance, Vader stated, “You are so far less now than what you were, you are more than half machine, you are like a painter gone blind, a composer gone deaf, you can remember where the power was but the power you can touch is only a memory…”.
And keeping Vader down was of vital importance to the Emperor. As various sources, like the novel The Last Jedi, states, even in this weakened, distracted, and permanently exhausted state, Vader was still almost as powerful as the Emperor and could theoretically best him in combat.
A final piece of evidence that corroborates this is that Darth Vader’s suit was designed in such a way that many of his vital systems were extremely vulnerable to simple electrical shocks. This was revealed to Vader by the Emperor himself, after Vader began to chafe under the Emperor’s rule. The Emperor made sure Vader knew that any time he wished, he could use Force Lightning to irreversibly damage Vader’s life support systems. After learning of this, Vader re-submitted himself to the Emperor and on the side added some electrical insulators to the vulnerable parts of his suit to help mitigate the problem.
But it wasn’t enough.
In the end, it was this vulnerability that ended Vader’s life. When he picked up the Emperor to save Luke, even the non-directed Force Lightning was sufficient to severely damage Vader’s respiratory control system, leading to his death aboard the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi.
Fans may remember that in Episode III, Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidius, tries to kill Mace Windu with force lightning, only for the balding Jedi master to deflect it back at the Emperor’s face with his lightsaber, causing Palpatine’s face to melt. Or did it?
It turns out, according to the Expanded Universe, all that really happened was Sidius’ true appearance was finally revealed.
You see, extensive use of the Dark Side of the Force progressively damages the body, particularly soft tissues like the skin, very much like certain drugs. The more you use it, the more damage it does to you. Darth Sidius had been an exceptionally powerful user of the Dark Side for a very long time and, unlike some like Count Dooku, did not seem to feel the need to ever moderate his usage of it- hence his damaged face and body.
To get around the issue, he used a powerful Sith technique called the “mask” to make himself appear to be a kindly old man out for the greater good. This made it much easier for him to ascend to the position of Emperor.
However, when Mace Windu was attacking him, whether because the Emperor was truly in peril and had to drop the mask to bring the full extent of his powers to bear to keep Windu at bay, or (more likely given his actions during that scene) because he simply found it to be an opportune time to appear vulnerable to get Anakin to willingly aid him, he dropped the mask during the fight.
Had these been fresh wounds from the lightning, he’d have needed significant medical attention right away and one would think his clothing would have been damaged as well. But once Windu was dispatched, which he had no problems doing, while he now appeared deformed, his skin and body seemed otherwise unharmed and he was instantly back to his normal self.
After this, he used his damaged body to elicit sympathy from the masses and help turn people against the Jedi given their supposed coup against him. At this point, he no longer had need of diverting a portion of his powers to maintaining a false appearance, so didn’t bother.
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