A long, long time ago, the claim could have been made that the Sith have all the eye-catching Force moves. The dark side is certainly more theatrical than the light. It’s the way they emerge from the mist, igniting a red lightsaber blade or two. It’s their well-timed Force chokes that set an example to a reluctant audience. It’s the way they unleash a storm of Force lightning to bring down a whole fleet of starships.
Force lightning is a devastating part of the Sith arsenal, enabling them to torture, injure, or kill from a distance. This irresistible power has appeared frequently throughout Star Wars core continuity and the expanded universe, but it’s never been more surprising than on its first appearance.
It took three Star Wars films to meet the Emperor properly. In Episode IV: A New Hope, we heard he had finally managed to shut down the Galactic Senate, consolidating his power as the first Death Star warmed up. In Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, he remotely called in to reassert his authority over Darth Vader. But it was at the tense climax of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and his tense meeting with Luke Skywalker aboard the new Death Star that we saw the full extent of his dark powers.
The projectile lightning he emitted from his fingertips to punish the younger Skywalker and then devastate Darth Vader came as a surprise. It had looked like Jedi fortunes were looking up before then. We’d seen them spar with lightsabers and manipulate objects and people like Vader. But we’d also seen Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda transcend death to live on as Force ghosts.
On the bridge of the Death Star, we discovered that the dark side had a devastating ability of their own ⏤ the power to manifest Force electricity from their fingertips.
What is Force lightning?
Throughout the expanded Star Wars saga, this destructive force has been used to torture, injure, and even disintegrate unfortunate targets. The reference book Star Wars: The Secrets of the Jedi, which Luke Skywalker narrates, describes Force lightning, or Sith lightning, as the most physical form of the Force. Practitioners can conjure Force energy and throw bolts of electricity through their limbs, either one-handed or two-handed. It’s usually an offensive and potentially devastating move. As the forks of lightning branch out, they can target a single or multiple foes.
Unsurprisingly, such a powerful and painful attack was forbidden by the Jedi Order, as detailed in another reference book, The Star Wars Expert Guide. Although Jedi have been recorded using Force lightning, deliberately or accidentally, it was generally understood to be a gateway to the dark side. Force lightning is a symbol of immense power and most devastating in the hands of the most powerful Force-sensitives. As such, it’s no surprise that the most famous practitioner of the technique in the Star Wars saga is Sheev Palpatine, otherwise known as Darth Sidious, or the Emperor.
The Emperor used this iconic power as a set-piece move once in each Star Wars trilogy. He famously unleashed it to torture Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, mortally wounding Darth Vader in the process. In the prequel trilogy, he released the power during his reveal as Darth Sidious. His tense conflict with Jedi Master Mace Windu was crucial to manipulating Anakin Skywalker. The feedback from the lightning, deflected by Windu, disfigured Palpatine, creating the distinctive appearance that’s a testament to Force lightning’s danger to both user and victim. Before the soon-to-be Vader helped him dispatch Windu, the disfigured Palpatine’s scream of “unlimited power” is one of the trilogy’s most quotable moments.
The Emperor’s surprise return in the final film of the sequel trilogy saw the Sith on the offensive with the most potent Force lightning ever seen. He unleashed a tempest that targeted and destroyed the Citizens’ Fleet of 14,000 ships. There’s no doubt that Force lightning was an essential counterpoint to Palapatine’s arch-scheming. While he spent most of the saga hidden, he had mastered the most spectacular power of the dark side for his moments in the spotlight. However, Palpatine isn’t the only character in the franchise to use the power.
Sith who have used Force lightning
The only other Sith we’ve seen using Force lightning in the movies is Count Dooku, otherwise known as Darth Tyranus. He used the power against Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Master Yoda in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Although he reveled in the energy, he never displayed the same power as his master, Darth Sidious.
Star Wars stories that aren’t officially canon now sit under the non-canonical Star Wars Legends banner. There are many examples of Sith using Force lightning in that dense mix of novels, comics, video games, and more. These include Darth Malak, Darth Bane, and Darth Caedus (also known as Jacen Solo, before Ben Solo was dreamed up on screen). Galen Marek, a one-time apprentice of Darth Vader in the thrilling but now non-canon Force Unleashed storyline was an adept user of Force lightning. He even carried the power with him when he switched from the dark to the light side. But what about the most ionic Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader?
The first use of Force lightning didn’t come on screen, but in the book Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, in 1978. Alan Dean Foster’s novel was commissioned to form the basis for a low-budget sequel should the original Star Wars movie fail at the box office. When The Empire Strikes Back was greenlit on the back of its huge success, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’s contradictions made it the first piece of Star Wars to be quietly pushed aside.
Now sitting under the Star Wars Legends banner, at one point it describes Darth Vader unleashing a sphere of lightning to subdue Luke Skywalker when the two meet on the planet Mimban. Although this power was called kinetite, it was superficially related to Force lightning, even though the younger Skywalker deflected it. In a later comic adaptation, it strongly resembled Force lightning.
However, in canon, Darth Vader is not considered capable of generating lightning despite his great power as a Sith. It’s been suggested that his mechanical arms rule him out, as Force lightning needs to be channeled through a living conduit. There’s also speculation that any attempt to generate lightning could short his life support systems. It certainly has a devastating effect on him in Return of the Jedi.
The Jedi and Force lightning
Mastery of Force lightning does lend itself to the dark side, which parts of the expanded universe suggest is due to the different ways the Jedi and Sith draw on the Force. However, despite being fundamentally against their code, some Force-users on the light side have displayed the power. Force lightning has proved a helpful way to explore the difference between the two sides of the Force and where the line between them is drawn.
Count Dooku is the second most famous lapsed Jedi in core continuity, and Star Wars Legends continuity revealed him manifesting the ability during his time in the Jedi Order. Even Master Yoda is shown to have used Force lightning while exiled on Dagobah. As that appeared in the Unlimited Power sourcebook for the Star Wars: Force and Destiny roleplaying in 2018, it’s part of Star Wars canon. In the Disciples of Harmony sourcebook for the game, Luke Skywalker admitted that Jedi could reasonably use Force lightning if the situation required it.
The most high-profile example of a Jedi using Force lightning came in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. On the planet Pasaana, Rey’s anger triggered the power, accidentally destroying a First Order transport she was trying to stop.
Rey’s emerging and unpredictable powers were important ahead of her confrontation with the resurrected Palpatine. Although her journey to becoming a Skywalker led to her being on the receiving end of Force lightning, just as any good Jedi should.