Kylo Ren – or Ben Solo – the primary antagonist in The Force Awakens – is a really interesting character study; especially for this early in the narrative.
I liked Kylo Ren for most of the film. I like that our perception of him evolves over the course of the movie, which is interesting and is a testament to good writing.
For the first half of it, he is menacing and pretty bad-ass, very deliberately reminiscent of Vader in ESB. But then our view of him starts to evolve as we see more and more that he is highly charged, emotionally unstable and essentially a spoilt brat. He smashes up consoles in anger and, unlike Vader, draws his lightsaber to do so.
The key turning point is when Rey goads him into removing his mask. Then we see he is a young man; unstable and conflicted, even weak.
What I like about Kylo Ren is that he is written to be somewhat pathetic. He isn’t a tortured sadist like Vader, nor a total bad-ass like Maul, nor an evil genius like Palpatine. Instead, he’s essentially a confused, idiotic little kid with a major complex. He is emotionally volatile and utterly immature. The mask and the bad-ass demeanour/visage is an act, a case of projecting.
We still don’t know enough about his backstory, but I like watching him rip into consoles and bulkheads with his lightsaber in fits of rage and impotence.
We also are shown fairly early on that he isn’t the one in command or the chief villain of the scenario; rather, he is under the guidance of the mysterious Supreme Commander Snoke (who at this point is a pretty lame character) and is also vying for power with the more straight-fascist General Hux. This is reminiscent of Darth Vader in the first movie, where he is essentially just a henchman and is secondary in authority to Governor Tarkin. It is also clear that Kylo’s training isn’t complete, as stated by Snoke.
I also like very much that his weapon is essentially a faulty, amateur-made lightsaber that doesn’t quite function properly and seems extremely volatile and dangerous – just like Kylo himself. That works brilliantly, as the weapon being a flawed extension of its flawed owner.
‘Amateur’ is, for that matter, a good description of Kylo Ren.
He is basically an amateur, wannabe Sith, with a Darth Vader obsession. He is a Vader fan-boy, wanting to make himself as powerful and as feared as his famous grandfather. Whether he turned Dark first and then adopted this Vader obsession or whether it was his fascination with Vader that drew him towards the Dark Side is unclear; but I would guess the latter, as he seems like his obsession with Vader is his underlying motivation.
This is borne out by the implication that – prior to his reunion with his father, Han Solo – Kylo is very conflicted and isn’t entirely ‘on the Dark Side’ yet. He seems to have said as much to Supreme Leader Snoke, begging to be strengthened in the Dark Side of the Force in order to continue.
The backstory of why exactly he rebelled against Luke is yet to be told and it’ll be interesting to learn exactly what happened. We are told that Kylo led a number of Luke’s former students in a slaughter of the other students; a scene we are briefly shown during Rey’s vision sequence.
But again, what isn’t clear is why “Ben Solo” would reject the living Luke in favour of the deceased Vader.
It’s a story we’re going to need.
But what is also fascinating about Kylo Ren is that his inner struggle is an inversion of the classic Star Wars Jedi/Sith motif. Where Anakin was good and was turned to evil, and where Luke was good and was able to withstand seduction to the Dark Side, Kylo Ren is Bad and is trying desperately to *stay” Bad – which is a fascinating take on the whole pattern. We are shown that there is still some residual good in him and a great deal of conflict, and he is trying to kill that lingering conflict off and be fully immersed in the Dark Side.
This is very interesting writing and characterization, it has to be said, and was something I wasn’t expecting. I was genuinely surprised by how layered and interesting Kylo is.
And in this respect too, Kylo’s murder of his father does make some dramatic and thematic sense – by killing Han, he is firmly taking that final step into the Dark Side; he is literally taking a step from which there is no turning back. And he knows it.
Han is literally there, appealing to the good in him that we – as an audience – sense has been there throughout what we’ve seen of the film; and at that crossroads moment, Kylo realises that he can either go with his Dad and find redemption or he can take the ultimate step to the Dark Side of the Force.
In doing the latter, he is now utterly Dark Side. It is basically equivalent to Anakin murdering the Younglings in the Jedi Temple.
What’s also interesting about this is that, although Kylo is obsessed with Darth Vader and being the new Vader, he clearly doesn’t understand the real story of Anakin Skywalker or Vader. Anakin, although at the end he did make a choice to do dark things and be a Sith, was generally not someone who actively *sought* the Dark Side. He was essentially tricked into turning against the Jedi and the people he loved, and then he suffered the price forever.
But Kylo is wilfully, knowingly seeking the Dark Side and actively seeking to emulate the fallen Vader. And unlike Anakin, Kylo didn’t have a life of tragedy as any excuse.
His understanding therefore of the very figure he worships is highly deficient, and Kylo in general is a pathetic figure. He is almost like a moody Emo kid rebelling against his parents and his uncle because they don’t understand his piercings or his taste in music. He throws tantrums.
Now, on paper that sounds like a lame-ass character. But in actual fact, it works surprisingly well.
Because, as I wrote ages ago, Star Wars has already done its job too well; you can never write a villain as layered and complex as Darth Vader now, nor a villain as ultimate and as definitive as Palpatine, nor even a villain as bad-ass as Darth Maul.
Therefore you have to do something new in a fictional universe where there aren’t that many options.
And Kylo Ren is it. I know a lot of people are dismissing Kylo Ren as a lame villain, but the best thing about Kylo Ren is that he isn’t anything like as brilliant as Vader, but is in fact just a second-rate, Vader wannabe. That one fact justifies everything else; it justifies why he wears a mask, for one thing, and pretty much underscores all of his motivations and actions.
He is an echo of Vader because he is *literally trying* to be an echo of Vader.
He can be bad-ass; but ultimately we already know he is pathetic. Part of the reason this also works is because, at the other end of the equation, we have Rey (probably his cousin). These are both grandchildren (probably) of Anakin/Vader, but one has grown up being somewhat privileged (raised by Leia and Han, loved, and trained by the galaxy’s last Jedi), while the other was abandoned and left to live on her own on some god-forsaken planet.
Yet the former has rebelled and sought darkness, while the latter has emerged a self-sufficient, grounded, centered person and will probably be the hero of the trilogy.
Getting back to the point I touched on earlier, if we’re talking thematic resonance throughout the broader saga as well, it’s interesting that – assuming Anakin and Padme have only these two grandchildren – one of them is now of the Dark and one is very much of the Light; thus reflecting the dual nature of Anakin Skywalker himself, who was both a Jedi and a Sith.
This has all kinds of deep, mystical connotations and possibilities.
For all the negative talk of Kylo being too pathetic to be a convincing villain, I have to say I disagree. His pathetic, confused nature actually imparts to him a real, palpable sense of danger and unpredictability.
It isn’t serene, focused Dark Side like Darth Maul or clear-headed motivation like Palpatine; Kylo is a complete loose cannon who might do *anything*. And that’s interesting. And I give full credit here, because one of the things I immediately doubted about there being new Star Wars films was the issue of how you come up with a new villain; and the answer is that you don’t try to create a better villain than the old ones (because you can’t), but a villain with a new twist, a new layer, to him.
I like too that we’re getting different uses of the Force that we’ve never seen before; stopping the blaster bolt is the best example, but his invasive use of mind power to literally pull information from people’s minds is interesting and genuinely menacing, and that scene where he renders Rey utterly immobile using the Force is great.
Some will argue that this takes us into a problematic area where a spoilt, poorly trained brat like Kylo appears to be capable of Force powers that even great masters like Sidious, Vader, Dooku, Yoda or Windu never seemed to be capable of.
However, there’s a couple of counter-arguments to that. Firstly, we can just assume that other Jedi/Sith had these kinds of powers but that we just never saw them used on-screen. But more than that, it’s reasonable to assume that the Force and the use of the Force is a fairly evolving and diverse thing, which changes among different Force-users at different periods of time. We can also bear in mind that Kylo exists in a period of time where there are no Jedi and Sith, certainly not in the organised sense that there was in the past. Regardless of what went down at Luke’s short-lived Jedi Academy, there is no Jedi Order as such anymore and there are no great, wise teachers like Yoda or the others; which means, in essence, that there is no dogma or prevailing framework for Jedi training.
That in turn means that someone like Kylo is self-teaching himself the Force; this is evident in the amateur-job he’s done on his lightsaber. That being so, it stands to reason that his use of the Force would be different and unorthodox.
Because there *is* no orthodoxy anymore; there are probably no manuals and no archives.
Therefore someone like Kylo isn’t learning ‘the rules’; and consequently makes up his own rules and ends up using the Force in whole new ways. I like that and don’t have a problem with it.
All in all, I think Kylo Ren has been given a good starting point in this trilogy: with potential for a really interesting character journey. I even wonder if what might work best, narratively, is for the trilogy to see Kylo going towards the Light and Rey towards the Dark Side: an inversion of our expected tropes, which would be in keeping with the inversion themes touched on in TFA.
But it all remains to be seen.
For now, I really like both Rey and Kylo as presented in step one of the new SW era: and I really like both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver’s portrayals of these young new characters.