Warning: This entire article is full of Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers. Do not continue if you have yet to see the film.
For over a year, the dark-masked visage and grim glowing, cross guard lightsaber of the mysterious warrior we now know as Kylo Ren was the evil poster boy in the mythic buildup to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Indeed, now that the film has finally hit, he certainly proved to be a villain as unique as his red flickering foil. Yet, Kylo has left fans somewhat divided when it came to his status as TWA's proper “big bad.”
In this edition of Blastr Debate Club, contributing editors Tara Bennett and Joseph Baxter dissect all things Kylo Ren and try to decide if he is a rogue worthy of the franchise.
Joseph: I’m going to come right out of the gate and say that I thought that for all the hype and buildup buttressed by hordes of merchandising firmly affixed with his face and his fancy lifehacked lightsaber, Kylo Ren mostly ended up coming across as a pushover. I write this, by the way, between intermittent sips from my Kylo Ren coffee mug.
That is not to say that he wasn’t without some impressive moments in the movie, but I do believe that the now-common critique relating to his brattiness and over-the-top tantrums, which made him an interestingly drawn character, also diminished his status as the default heartless unassailable mascot villain role that Darth Vader filled so perfectly in A New Hope. Don't get me wrong, I get that J.J. Abrams was trying to create a more dynamic antagonist who was almost equally as undeveloped as new heroes Rey and Finn. To set up the villain's evolution to run parallel across the next two movies with heroes' is a unique idea. However, I’m really left with mixed feelings on how Kylo was portrayed… at least this time around.
Tara: I'm going to counterpoint you, Joseph, as we geeks like to do. There's no question Darth Vader is a legend and an icon. But as a well-rounded villain, up until the very end of Return of the Jedi, he was also simply a very angry, ambitious, evil asthmatic with one hell of an invisible death grip. We never got to know anything more about him until the prequels and those didn't salvage his context very much. What I loved about Kylo Ren is the fact that he was introduced in the same fashion as his grandfather but quickly separated himself as a much more grounded and accessible villain, which is inherently interesting for this franchise.
The prequels had plenty of one-dimensional Darth wanna-bes. But Ren is like the ultimate Darth Vader fanboy. He's created his own homage costuming, adopted Pop Pop's evil ambitions and found his own aged Svengali. But in Ren's epic snits and acts of evil, we also get a taste of the psychology that put Ren on that path and it's fascinating to consider where it will go. Did he go dark simply because of genetics as Han and Leia suggest? Or maybe imagine how a fragile personality might react to having two parents who are legends in the galaxy, and an uncle representing the pinnacle of the Force. How do you try even try to create an identity outside of those cast shadows? Maybe you go First Order and per Rey's visions, we'll likely get to see what led to his deadly confrontation with Luke and his other Padwans. All of that is stuff I'm now excited to discover as the next installments arrive.
Joseph: I mostly agree that Kylo is a captivating character. However, I can’t help but feel that The Force Awakens was trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to positioning Ren as its main villain. The reason that Darth Vader worked so effectively as the primary poster boy villain in A New Hope is because with minimal backstory, his portrayal as a black-clad, wheezing, stoic sentinel of evil made him the perfect introduction to the film's unique good vs. evil struggle. In essence, it effectively conveyed the motivations of the bad guys (The Empire) with the brevity necessary for a film whose prospects for a sequel were not exactly strong back when it was first released.
Now, with Kylo, we have a familiar tale of a powerful, talented, but whiny youth drawn to the Dark Side for some unknown reason. While that’s all well and good, I can’t help but feel that the former Ben Solo’s dalliance with The Dark Side is a concept from the past continuity that’s over-asserting itself too soon in the present. While we first met Kylo Ren in a similarly stoic Vader-esque manner as a black-clad badass demonstrating his impressive powers by holding blaster bolts in mid-air and instigating Force-powered mind probes, his menacing exterior quickly faded when we started to see cracks in not only his composure, but his very ideology. While that’s a natural trajectory in a character arc, the fact remains that we JUST met the guy.
Additionally, his struggle throughout the movie in resisting The Light Side of The Force is odd and seems to contradict everything Yoda ever told us about The Dark Side being "quicker, easier, more seductive" and "forever will it dominate your destiny," etc. This concept may depend upon his relationship with Supreme Hologram...err, Leader Snoke, but thus far, we received very little insight on that front. With a premature peak beneath his exterior, the character that was seemingly marketed to best represent the galaxy’s new face of fascism in The First Order must now be defined by his ambivalence. I'm not even sure that the devastatingly emotional killing of his own father Han Solo clarified any of those issues related to his still-vague motivations.
Tara: See, I never saw Kylo as whiny. He was a villain as soon as he wiped out that Resistance enclave in the open of the film. From there, he continued with consistent acts of power over First Order peons (and unlike Vader, used his own hands to wrench the breath out of those who disappointed him) and was suitably menacing in his pursuit of Rey and Finn. Now in A New Hope, Luke absolutely hit some whiny notes. And while Ren had temper tantrums they never undercut his menace. I would say, like those prudent Stormtroopers, Ren's saber rages made everyone have an even wider berth around him. Even when he failed to violate Rey's brain successfully for the map details, when summoned by Snoke, Ren never turned into a Wormtail (yes, I'm mixing my mythological franchises). He just stated his case for more training and guidance.
Where I say Ren out eviled Vader was his patricide of Han Solo. Vader threatened to kill his son but he only took a hand and in Jedi, he ultimately sacrificed his Guru of Bad Juju, the Emperor, to save Luke's life. On the other hand, Ren, who I would venture to assume from what was presented, started as a child of the Light. The Dark Side found root at some point, so it makes perfect sense that he's still figuring out how to purge his conscience at the point we meet him. But as the last rays of light are sucked out of the sun feeding the First Order's big ass gun, so too are they sucked from Ren as he decides to do the ultimate Dark Deed against Han. As an audience, we get to see his struggle (beautifully played by Adam Driver) come to a head. We may have only witnessed a fraction of his journey but that doesn't make his choice to become one with the Dark Side any less potent. In fact, I'm hoping there isn't a huge time jump between A Force Awakens and Episode VIII so we get to see Kylo flush with the power of his decision and what it does to him. Is the Light completely vanquished? Or will he suffer more in the shadows with what's left of his conflict? Will Rey and her destiny with Luke bring out any last vestiges of good in Ren or will they be battling a newly empowered monster?
Joseph: That's the thing, though. For all of his particular brand of evil deeds, some of which were undoubtedly the coldest acts we've seen in the Star Wars movies, Kylo seems to be working through motivations that are exclusively his own and not so much for "the cause." This state of mind would be fine to see as his character evolves and gradually becomes more obsessed/unhinged. However, for a necessarily exposition-heavy movie like The Force Awakens, the over-focus on his puzzling pathos wasn't what we needed; at least in this first outing, anyway.
If the movie is going to "go there" with a character's poetic transition to the Dark Side, then we need to know why. If not, then, like Vader in A New Hope, they should have kept his inner-turmoil minimal. For Kylo, that could mean only subtle hints of his mindset and parentage. This would have made that revelatory moment on the narrow bridge in Starkiller Base, when Han inexplicably confronts the dark warrior who turns out to be his own son, far more potent. Instead, we got not-so-subtle hints about the "surprise" throughout the film, including the moment when Han told Leia, "I saw our son" after his initial spotting of Kylo. It almost felt as if kids turning to the Dark Side was something that, at this point, has become pedestrian; almost like some TV miniseries about misguided youths joining cults in the 1970's. Rather than being a unique set of circumstances reserved for mythical prophecy-inspired moments like Anakin's transition to Darth Vader, it just felt like we are immediately made to accept that it's something that "just happens" now in the Star Wars universe.
Tara: Honestly, I'm happy to see a Star Wars villain finally working through their darkness. Again, prequel fans might be squawking about Anakin's decent, but I don't consider watching a block of wood look stern over two films a substantive emotional arc. Villains just appear in the Star Wars world, so allowing us a slight window into Ren's soul is actually refreshing and different. I don't want an over share of it in The Force Awakens, and we didn't get it in my estimation. It's enough when Ren takes off his mask, that we get a human with flaws making Ren more relatable in his temptations and worth watching as the story progresses.
To your next point, I will give you that Han and Leia were less devastated about Ben in their chat about him than maybe they could have been, but there's also a weariness about them that implies he has been a troubled kid for awhile. I read in that moment that they carry the sadness of parents who tried but failed almost like parents who have addicts they can't get through to no matter the effort. Plus, those Skywalkers are a troubled clan. This kind of drama is par for the course in their family tree.
Joseph: Lastly, I don't by any means dislike the Kylo Ren character or Adam Driver's performance. I also happened to love The Force Awakens in general. However, when the audience is chucked immediately into the mindset of a villain character struggling with very familiar issues without a substantive explanation, I believe it contributes to the beliefs of naysayers who call the movie a "rehash" and "glorified remake." Moreover, Kylo's "Sith Street Cred" wasn't helped by the fact that he ended up devastatingly losing a lightsaber duel to Rey, mere minutes after she picked one up for the first time ever. It was almost like (timely reference alert) he became the bully Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story; embarrassed and made to look weak after initially inspiring fear. I don't know if that means Rey is Ralphie, but that's probably as far as we need to crawl into that rabbit hole.
With all of that said, I, too am still excited to see where Kylo's evolution takes him throughout the Sequel Trilogy.
Tara: Fans screaming "rehash" need to catch up on their Joseph Campbell and his monomyth and Hero's Journey concepts. George Lucas built Star Wars on the back of Campbell's storytelling archetypes and J.J. Abrams went right back to it with The Force Awakens. When using a story structure as old as man itself, it's going to feel "basic" and to some "derivative". I would argue it's a refashioning of a classic structure, which let's face it is all storytelling. I found it smart that Abrams and Kasdan and Arndt go back to basics for the new generation of fans, which in turns goes right to the feels of the old school fans.
And to Ren losing to Rey in their battle, she was very much losing to his rage and fury of entitlement regarding her swiping and using Luke's lightsaber. He kept egging her on towards her own rage but in the end, Ren was the one who reminded her to actually look to the Force which allowed her to beat him. A hefty lesson for her, us and a sobering one for Ren. I think it's a humbling defeat that is going to confuse him more on his journey to darkness and in understanding how true power is attained.
For all those reasons, and despite our differing viewpoints about Kylo Ren, it's pretty fantastic that in the end we have a villain and a Star Wars future we can't wait to see more of.
What do you think? Is Kylo Ren the new Star Wars Big Bad we've been waiting for, or just a Dark Side disappointment? Let us know in the comments!