One of the first characters revealed for Disney and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the new villain Kylo Ren.
We were introduced to this tall, masked figure in the first teaser for the film. With his fiery red lightsaber and cloaked in black, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, had big shoes to fill.
Coming off classic villains like the menacing Darth Vader and devilish Emperor Palpatine, Kylo had a lot of expectations thrown his way. Some of them fair, others not. Though some of the expectations may seem unreasonable I believe Kylo Ren is the character Anakin Skywalker should have been.
In the original Star Wars trilogy we only see Darth Vader brandish his lightsaber three times. He only drew that lightsaber during duels. Vader was always in control of his emotions and used that to fuel his power. He was menacing without ever getting outwardly angry. He only used the Force to punish the people beneath him because people already knew the power he commanded. The mere presence of Vader was enough to inform us that he was not to be underestimated. He didn’t need to resort to brutish tactics to command respect as a villain.
Kylo on the other hand is not in control of his emotions. During The Force Awakens he throws violent temper tantrums when things don’t go his way. His anger is as uncontrolled as his lightsaber. Between wanting to be as powerful as Vader, his late grandfather, and the pull of the Light Side he is shown emotionally torn and conflicted throughout the film.
This conflict makes him more relatable than Vader. We all struggle between both sides of our human nature. I think that’s why Kylo Ren has gotten a lot of negative criticism from Star Wars fans who find him angsty and whiny. He makes us feel uncomfortable about the very nature of our humanity. He had two parents who were legends in the Rebel Alliance and an uncle, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor. The burden of that legacy must have weighed heavy on his shoulders. Struggling under such a burden is understandable and makes him more sympathetic.
Throughout the film we see Kylo trying desperately to show off his power. Kylo Ren is a powerful user of the Force. We are shown that in the opening scene when he freezes a blaster bolt in midair, something we’ve never seen demonstrated in previous films before. We are also witness another new power when he dives into the mind of the resistance pilot Poe Dameron and extracts information. He tries to be as bad and powerful as Vader yet fails. In a scene halfway through the film we see Kylo discussing his struggles with The Light Side. It is revealed to us that he is talking to the burned helmet of his grandfather Darth Vader. We see in this scene how unsure of his own power he is and his ambition to exterminate the Jedi and finish what Vader started.
His final act of darkness in the film is perhaps one of the most evil in the whole Star Wars saga, when he kills his father Han Solo (Harrison Ford).
Kylo is genuinely struggling between the Dark and the Light, two common themes in the Star Wars series. When confronting his father he pleads with him to help him be “free of this pain.” we are led to believe that he is talking about redemption from the Dark Side. Once Han Solo is close enough and reaches for his son’s lightsaber do we see Kylo’s true intent.
In a twist on the typical Star Wars themes, Kylo rejects the Light and embraces the Dark Side. To add to the air of conflict that permeates the character, Kylo is pained by the murder of his father. It was an extremely difficult moment for him as indicated by the pained look on his face after his act of murder. I doubt we’ll see a redemptive arc from Kylo Ren in later films like we saw with Vader in the original trilogy.
Throughout the Prequel Trilogy we see Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd then Hayden Christensen) succumb further and further to The Dark Side.
The first step we see is when he slaughters an entire village of Tusken Raiders, desert dwellers on the planet Tatooine, after his mother dies. This should be a powerful moment where Anakin gets a taste of how power makes him feel. Instead we were subjected to him yelling in a garage to Padme. The emotional significance is lost in combination to Lucas’s writing and Hayden Christensen’s acting.
In Revenge of the Sith we learn that Anakin became Darth Vader to protect Padme from dying in childbirth. He was manipulated by Palpatine to become the very thing he swore to destroy out of desire to protect his family. That should be a powerful message but it’s lost because the emotional core of the Prequel films feels hollow and artificial. Anakin just comes off like a whiny punk who wasn’t given everything he thought he deserved.
It helps that Kylo Ren was written well and acted well in order for us to establish an empathy for him, even if he did kill our childhood hero. The last time we saw Kylo Ren he was defeated by the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) on Starkiller Base with his uncle’s old lightsaber.
Consumed with hatred, anger and the pain of killing his father I think we’re going to see a more dangerous and unhinged Kylo Ren than we witnessed in The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren is the character I’m most looking forward to seeing return and I think his arc could be the most interesting in the entire Star Wars saga.