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In Empire Strikes Back, Vader nearly kills Luke without hardly seeming to try. Then, in Return of the Jedi, Vader hardly fights at all and he's falling down and then Luke cuts his prosthetic hand off. What happened? How did Vader suddenly become so weak?

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up vote 56 down vote accepted

Early in the fight, Vader is going very soft on Luke, specifically trying to direct the fight as he wishes.

From the novelization:

Vader was impressed with Luke's speed. Pleased, even. It was a pity, almost, he couldn't let the boy kill the Emperor yet. Luke wasn't ready for that, emotionally. There was still a chance Luke would return to his friends if he destroyed the Emperor now. He needed more extensive tutelage, first --- training by both Vader and Palpatine --- before he'd be ready to assume his place at Vader's right hand, ruling the galaxy.

So Vader had to shepherd the boy through periods like this, stop him from doing damage in the wrong places --- or in the right places prematurely.

But Luke has been training since their last encounter, and the Emperor has been egging him on. Luke is flirting with the Dark Side.

Luke stood above him, at the top of the staircase, heady with his own power. It was in his hands, now, he knew it was: he could take Vader. Take his blade, take his life. Take his place at the Emperor's side. Yes, even that. Luke didn't bury the thought, this time; he gloried in it. He engorged himself with its juices, felt its power tingle his cheeks. It made him feverish, this thought, with lust so overpowering as to totally obliterate other considerations.

It's only then that Vader realizes that he has underestimated Luke.

For the first time, the thought entered Vader's consciousness that his son might best him. He was astounded by the strength --- not to mention the boy's timing, which was honed to a thought's breadth. This was an unexpected circumstance. Unexpected and unwelcome. Vader felt humiliation crawling in on the tail of his first reaction, which was surprise, and his second, which was fear. And then the edge of the humiliation curled up, to reveal bald anger. And now he wanted revenge.

[...]

His anger was layered, now --- he did not want to win if the boy was not battling to the fullest. But if winning meant he had to kill a boy who wouldn't fight... then he could do that too. Only he wanted Luke to be aware of those consequences. He wanted Luke to know this was no longer just a game. This was Darkness.

From here on, Vader fights with more skill and ferocity, as one would expect.

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And I see in a comment to this question, scifi.stackexchange.com/q/2951/47603, that Vader's suit may have malfunctioned, though in all my viewings I've never noticed that. – Kirby Jan 12 at 6:45
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“Luke is flirting with the Dark Side” — [Joker voice] Ooooh, you’re a big bad Dark Side aren’t you? [winks] – Paul D. Waite Jan 12 at 13:03
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Wow, the novelization is practically an entirely different story than the film, if these passages are any indication. – TylerH Jan 12 at 15:04
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There are a number of major differences that were later retconned out (e.g. Owen is Obi-Wan's brother, Padme lived with Leia for years, one of the Rebel pilots at the Battle of Yavin knew Luke's father), but I don't really see this as one of the big differences. – phantom42 Jan 12 at 15:08
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This... I think i just missed half of what really happened in the universe. Looks like just watching the movies isn't enough. – jagc Jan 13 at 5:55

I think it has less to do with Vader being weaker and more about Luke being stronger, but I think circumstances play a big part as well. But first, consider this:

Prior to his defeat against Obi Wan

Darth Vader was a formidable fighter. There were not many that would be able to hold their own against him, especially with the Dark Side at his disposal, had he not been forced to wear his clumsy life supporting armor.

Even if he didn't need his suit, he'd still have nobody to fight as the Jedi are thought to be extinct. My point being that lightsaber combat wasn't really a priority for him any more.

Nonetheless, he could easily defeat Luke when Luke was at the beginning of his training, no surprises there.

However, Luke must have been training a lot, and being strong in the Force and with a young healthy body, he would have made excellent progress.

Now, at the beginning of the fight, Luke still has no real chance against Vader, especially since he is more focused on getting Vader back to the light. Since Luke arrived, the Emperor was manipulating him, trying to get him to turn to the Dark Side. This must have been an extremely hard test for Luke, which he alomst, almost, failed.

When Vader mentions Leia, Luke surrenders to the rage. His anger does indeed make him stronger, and he is no longer concerned about turning Vader back to the light. His prior training would be amplified and his only goal is to defeat his opponent. Meanwhile, it is not impossible that Luke actually got through to Vader, which would have had Vader unfocused and confused.

Luke got a sudden huge boost in power, which Vader probably wasn't ready for. This would be especially true if Vader was indeed confused by Luke's earlier persuasion.

Also, note that Luke defeated Vader pretty fast, consider that Vader was able to defend himself for just a little longer. Luke's anger would fade and Vader would get focused. It is very possible that Luke wouldn't be able to defeat Vader if that happened.

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I like the spoiler tag for stuff from the prequel as though it's new still. – Dean MacGregor Jan 12 at 15:30
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I know people that have yet to watch any of the Star Wars movies, and I recall even surprising someone once by mentioning _____ is Luke's father. – Chan-Ho Suh Jan 13 at 1:37
    
Note that in the Legacy EU, Darth Vader actually continued exterminating the Jedi after the fall of the republic - there were at least dozens left, and he tracked them down, one by one (even falling into a trap when multiple Jedi fought him at once). – Luaan Jan 13 at 8:33
    
Good point. Though I feel, but I could be wrong, that that happened closer to EPIII than EPVI? Nonetheless, I don't think Vader spent all that much time practising lightsaber combat. – Schweinryder Jan 13 at 8:48
    
As for Luke getting through to Vader, learning he has a daughter could have thrown Vader off balance. – Stephen Collings Jan 13 at 14:13

See, I've wondered that very thing and here's my conclusion.

Luke's attack came in fierce and violent and initially the attack seemed to catch him (Vader) off guard. If Vader were inexperienced in battle I can see him not recovering. Vader, though, is strong and well trained in the Force, reputed to be a great Lightsaber duelist, and a battle tested, battle hardened combat vet.

Though initially being thrown off guard, someone like Vader should be able to recover from the surprise attack. Especially since Luke's attacks were very wild and out of control and missing with the wide swings.

The theory that Vader needed Luke to be ready to kill the Emperor (and please don't think I'm saying you're wrong), seems a bit risky. What if Luke had killed him? My take on it (and I could be wrong) is Vader realized he couldn't bring himself to kill Luke so, facing that possibility, he sacrificed himself.

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