In 1977, America needed Darth Vader—a cold killing machine, with the black-leather-glove grip of invisible doom at the tip of his fingers. In the aftermath of the morally confounding Vietnam War, in a culture dominated by piffle like The Love Boat and Rod Stewart, the heavy breath and purposeful stride of Vader sliced through like a scythe. Here was death incarnate wielding a sword made of fire ready to strike down all the good in the world, most especially a farm boy from the outer reaches (like Jimmy Carter). The message was simple: Be afraid.
In 2017, our villains must be different. The real world is run by a menagerie of monsters, their misdeeds and grotesqueries made public with every passing hour. Who needs science fiction when we have C-SPAN. And so the Star Wars franchise, revived for modern times with a spunky, hopeful ethic that champions diversity and community, requires an evil that is more complex and more conflicted. Where once there was Vader, now there is his (only?) grandson, Ben Solo, reborn as the self-styled heavy-in-waiting Kylo Ren. As played by Adam Driver in J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren emerged as an icon of angsty millennial flail, inspiring a Twitter account and a searing collection of “dad” memes. A student of the dark side with a flair for the melodramatic, he became emblematic of every exasperating encounter with a young person in their feelings. Avocado toast was replaced as shorthand for whinging adult-baby with “Emo Kylo Ren.” The first words we hear the character utter tell us everything we need to know: “Look how old you’ve become.”
This, of course, was the genius of the character and one of the great inventions of Abrams’s movie, which was criticized as a repackaging of the original film’s best ideas. There were other innovations: Rey, a woman strong with the Force and in the cockpit, was a necessary update to the series’ power dynamic. Finn was a subversion of the (white) Stormtrooper mythos. Poe Dameron was a Han Solo for the Internet Boyfriend generation. But Kylo Ren was a real boyfriend, a lousy one, always grousing about work (ugh, General Hux) and his parents, falsely idolizing his angry dead grandfather, and never getting around to asking you about your day. We are drawn to him and yet he is pitiful. A perfect millennial man. A rebel-killer without a cause.
That this shit-hearted brute is portrayed by Driver, then best known to the world as Adam, Hannah’s on-again-off-again boyfriend on HBO’s Girls, made the character doubly poetic. Driver’s clambering gait and shaved-ape bearing gave Kylo Ren a quality of being not-quite-evolved, as if he hadn’t finished growing into his cowl and mask. When a rebel group evades his grasp, he throws a lightsaber temper tantrum that would make Darth Vader wince. Stormtroopers don’t fear him so much as try desperately to avoid talking to him.
Throughout The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren take a star tour across pop psychology’s greatest hits: He mocks the graceful heartthrob Dameron like a nerd turning the tides on the high school quarterback; he mewls at his mentor, the shadowy Snoke, desperate for his approval but unyielding in his arrogance; and in an Oedipal twist, he murders his own father, a show of faith to the dark side and also real stakes in the film.
dear diary— Emo Kylo Ren (@KyloR3n) December 15, 2017
there have been some changes
Buttressed by Snoke and the peevish bureaucrat General Hux (a vampiric, delightful Domhnall Gleeson), Kylo Ren is a rare creation: unfinished evil. When he finally faces down the omega to his alpha in the final showdown with Rey, he fights through a wound he’s suffered by bashing it with his own fist, as if pain could stem pain. He’s a child, a brat trying to be a man. Rey wins, and the two are divided by a chasm in an exploding satellite, the two poles of this story widening just as they were finally getting close. That final battle is the best scene in Abrams’s movie, not least because of that striking image when Rey calls Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber to her hand with the Force and illuminates her face with that blue laser. By movie’s end, it’s clear that Daisy Ridley will animate the future of Star Wars, but Adam Driver—sweating and simpering his way through defeat—will be the worthy adversary, wounded and maddened by everything that opposes him.
The big-top movie franchises, upon which so much of the scaffolding of the film industry is hanging, have one big problem: The villains suck. Let’s have a quiz. Quickly: What was the name of the villain in Doctor Strange? What about in The Hobbit? How about Justice League, which was released just one month ago? The answer: It doesn’t matter. These characters (Kaecilius, Azog, and Steppenwolf, for the record) make their films feel disposable, like links on a chain tied to an anvil at the bottom of the ocean. Keep following their stories, tracking their continuity, and eventually you’ll drown. In fact, the studios are counting on it. This is not a new problem. For nearly 60 years, James Bond films have subsisted on a rotisserie of malevolent evil geniuses questing to conquer the world because … well, because they want to. Likewise the mythical monsters of J.R.R. Tolkien or Transformers or the villains in The Fast and the Furious series or Mission: Impossible films. What do these villains want? Gold? Power? To take back what they believe to be rightfully theirs? Perhaps. We never really find out. Marvel’s Thanos, billed as the big bad of next summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, is a cosmic warlord affectionately referred to as the Mad Titan—he is purple, portrayed by a CGI-rendered Josh Brolin, and sports a skin-goatee that appears to have been diced by a mandoline. He’s ridiculous, already a joke. Star Wars’ Snoke, like Emperor Palpatine before him, is another manifestation of evil that makes no sense to us—he’s a slimy, scarred, aging creature of unknown origin that small children will describe as “really mean.” He is a cipher of terror, an excuse for the brilliant motion-capture performer Andy Serkis to try out a new snarl. That’s it.
One of the brilliant aspects of The Last Jedi is writer-director Rian Johnson’s willingness to dispel and detonate all of the red herrings that emerged from the film that preceded his. Rey’s parents? Who cares. Will Luke return to fight? Whatever. Who is Snoke? Why bother. Instead, Jedi zeroes in on the most crucial relationship in this series, between Rey and Kylo. Their bond, captured in a series of psychic conversations throughout, is the centerpiece. And when their union finally occurs, nearly 90 minutes in, a movie that had been pacing itself after a breakneck opening turns purely kinetic. At the end of a simmering, balletic battle, Kylo turns toward Rey and reaches out to her: Join me, he says. “Let the past die,” he says. “Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” And even though we know that Kylo has made a choice that will affirm his manhood, we can see that he is damaged, unsure of his place in the world, selfish, vain, searching for an identity. He wants to rule the galaxy, too, just like his grandfather. Is it because he was turned by an opportunistic cult leader in Snoke? Is it because he resented his parents’ legend? Is it because he was spoiled rotten? Is it because every generation wants more than the one that came before them? The answer is yes. Some of this makes Kylo Ren unusually empathetic—even as Driver stalks across the bridge of spaceships, throttling poor British actors across the room with the flick of a wrist, we can see a broken kid acting out. And that brat becomes a scorned man, abandoned by an ungrateful woman who is clearly his better, more powerful and clear of conscience. In The Last Jedi, Emo Kylo Ren discovers indie rock.
The Last Jedi makes much of his break from Luke Skywalker and the betrayal hinted at in The Force Awakens—a Rashomon-style retelling of the end of their training gives the movie a moral ambiguity that’s rare in this kind of franchise filmmaking. And Driver is abnormally gifted at conveying a weary uncertainty—vicious one moment, crestfallen the next. We still don’t quite know what happened between Luke and Kylo, not really. The mentors you have at the beginning of your career aren’t always the right ones for the next phase.
Through much of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren wears a mask that is one part downhill racer and one part paintball fetishist. It’s a sleek but purposeless apparatus, like junior playing dress up in daddy’s suit. Snoke mocks it repeatedly. In The Last Jedi, he destroys the mask in a fit of embarrassment and frustration. His lightsaber is a neon Satanic crucifix, emitting a frayed beam of fire, like the manifestation of all that angst burning in every direction. It crackles with anxiety, nothing like the silken hum of the other lightsabers in the films. These are small choices, but important ones. The kind that make us care. The kind that make us ask, Who hurt you? Kylo Ren may be a boy at heart, but he’s a villain in full.