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Character Study: Kylo Ren, a Villain Unlike Any Other

The most original creation of the new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy faces a choice heading into ‘The Rise of Skywalker’: redemption or full-on descension into evil

Disney/Ringer illustration

Darth Vader is terrifying because, at least at first, he’s utterly unknown. The robotic, rhythmic breathing; the head-to-toe uniform; the impenetrable mask—there’s someone behind that disguise, but for virtually all of Star Wars original trilogy, we don’t know who that person is. That’s why the saga’s most iconic reveal lodged itself so deeply into the cultural unconscious: the yawning chasm between a heartless automaton who casually Force-chokes his minions and an individual who’s done something as human and messy as father a child. No wonder George Lucas made an entire prequel trilogy dedicated to his origins.

Kylo Ren wants nothing more than to be like Darth Vader. But much to his chagrin, and much to his franchise’s benefit, he’s a very different kind of villain.

Headed into The Rise of Skywalker, Kylo Ren stands out as the most original creation of this Disney-overseen, J.J. Abrams–led version of Star Wars. Depending on who you ask, the story laid out in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is either a brilliant homage or a shameless rip-off; either way, the echoes of their predecessors are very much intentional. Force Awakens crescendoes with a raid on what is essentially a supersized Death Star, while hero Rey is another pure-hearted Jedi who grows up in arid obscurity before training in an aqueous backwater. The blueprint is unmistakable even without the reappearance of core characters, but Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and Yoda are all present and accounted for, and, if The Rise of Skywalker’s trailer is to be believed, Emperor Palpatine will be back as well.

Kylo Ren works in part because he makes this third trilogy’s reverence for the first explicit and raises it to the level of commentary over mere reprisal. Kylo—née Ben Solo—is Vader’s literal descendant, carrying the Skywalker saga into a new generation as the only son of Han and Leia. Yet even though his connection to this quasi-mythic figure is automatic, he’s as obsessed with the legend of Vader as a thousand fanboys, monologuing to a crumpled mask like he’s in a high school production of Hamlet. There’s a meta slant to Kylo’s yearning to recapture the greatness of a prior generation, the desperate intensity of which automatically dooms him to failure. (Star Wars in the 2010s is wildly successful, but what it succeeds at is invoking a classic tale to shatter its own box office records, not crafting a new classic of its own.) But there’s an emotional note, too—one that resonates with contemporary anxieties even as it deepens this specific character. What’s more millennial than inheriting an institution well past its glory days and trying to make do with the scraps?

As played by Adam Driver, Kylo is a large adult son forever trapped at the kids’ table. It’s no coincidence that descriptions of Kylo tend to fall back on modern-day references like Gamergate and Hot Topic (which in turn completed the cycle by stocking an entire line of Kylo Ren merch), many of them cataloged on the perfect Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren, operated by Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri. Where withholding, often eerily motionless Vader represents the dark side, pun intended, of the strong-and-silent type, Kylo fits into a more updated understanding of male angst and the many ways it can turn violent, or even deadly. Driver may not know what “toxic masculinity” means, but he plays its most notorious and finely drawn example.

The story of Anakin Skywalker waited nearly two decades for a detailed account, but as of The Last Jedi, we know everything we need to about Kylo. Ben Solo always resented the burden of his birthright, but Luke Skywalker’s suspicion finally drove him over the edge. Much like an actual teenager, Kylo is so consumed by renouncing his parents and everything they stand for that his identity ends up hopelessly entwined with theirs. (In the real world, people become trapped at the age they first become famous; in Star Wars, it seems, Force users are trapped at the age their Jedi master nearly tries to kill them.) This is part of what makes Kylo slightly pathetic, in a way that earns both sympathy and scorn: His evil isn’t even a result of his own malevolence, but the failings of the adults in his life who could’ve led by example.

We also meet Kylo before he’s fully formed, or committed himself to the dark side to the point of no return. Throughout The Force Awakens and even The Last Jedi, Kylo is visibly struggling with lingering attachments to his family. He repeatedly insists he feels nothing, whether about literal wounds like a gash in his face or spiritual ones left by, say, killing his own father. But he’s incapable of fully suppressing his feelings, with both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi containing meltdowns that can be described only as temper tantrums. (The second has the pleasing side effect of wrecking Kylo’s helmet, ensuring Driver’s face is on display for most of the movie, not just half.) Such volatility arguably makes Kylo even more dangerous, but it also inspires false hope—first in Han, who tries to plead with his son face to face, and then in Rey, throughout the “Force Skype” sessions that form the most compelling scenes in the new trilogy, and possibly the entire franchise.

What elevates Kylo from an intriguing villain to a masterful one is how perfectly his arc complements Rey’s. There’s a Batman-and-Joker quality to their surface opposition and underlying connection, though instead of order versus chaos, their contrast is more about search for family versus rejection of its strictures. Rey’s abandonment by her parents is the central event of her life, and she throws herself into the Resistance in part because it resembles a makeshift clan. But she also senses a kinship with Kylo, another budding Force user at a developmental crossroads. Their appeals to each other’s best and worst instincts result in a stalemate, one that finally breaks after the two team up to defeat Kylo’s manipulative master, the generic CGI creation known as Supreme Leader Snoke. Rey wants to help the Resistance; Kylo wants to take over as galactic despot, with Rey at his side.

Driver’s delivery of “Join me … please” is a pure distillation of Kylo’s pathos, his lower lip practically quivering as he lets a hint of desperation slip into his empty posturing. But the more telling line comes right before: “You’re nothing. But not to me.” Star Wars gives us plenty of reasons to like Kylo Ren: his vulnerability; the surprisingly-obvious-for-kids’-movies tension with Rey; Adam Driver. But it also doesn’t shy away from showing why understanding Kylo doesn’t excuse his impact on others, and how he’s crossed over from a victim of poor choices to making plenty of his own. Kylo may offer Rey companionship, but a kind contingent on denigrating and isolating her. One of the first things he says to her in The Last Jedi is a classic neg: “You’re not doing this. The effort would kill you!”

Few among us haven’t been tempted by the trap of a damaged person, usually a man, to take responsibility for and eventually fix. In reality, dysfunction is a two-way street: The other party stands as much of a chance of rubbing off on you as you do them. The Last Jedi allows Rey to realize this, cementing her and Kylo’s paths in rather definitive fashion; their Force connection is severed when she slams the door of the Millennium Falcon in his face, leaving Kylo looking like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network after Rooney Mara rips him a new one. Pop culture has trained us to empathize with tortured brooders’ pain more than those they’ve hurt, but Star Wars is ultimately unequivocal about the state of Kylo’s soul, no matter how well we understand how he came to be this way. The ultimate Vader move, of course, would be for Kylo to have a deathbed conversion in The Last Skywalker, redeeming himself in an act of self-sacrifice. For now, at least, there’s ample cause to doubt that prediction.

Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader.