Kylo Ren: Not Another Darth Vader

Happy May the 4th! And May the 4th be with you...alwayth.

To commemorate, we decided to write a Star Wars themed post:

SPOILER ALERT!!! (but not really, because, what, do you live in a cave on Mars with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears?!)

We’ve heard some criticism of Kylo Ren. Most of it is just different ways of saying he isn't as awesome as Darth Vader; that he's too awkward and childish. Also, he looks and sounds kind of goofy, so when he took his mask off early in the movie it eliminated much of the fear factor a villain "ought" to have. Coincidentally, this would probably be Kylo Ren's criticism of himself. But instead of drawbacks, we believe these character flaws are exactly what make him interesting and a great villain! J.J. Abrams thankfully did not try to out-Darth-Vader Darth Vader, and because of that, we think he may have created a unique villain with equal if not greater potential for rich character development and plot substance.

Think of the villains in most of the biggest blockbuster hits in recent years: finely-tuned, superintelligent, frightening, pure evil. The badder the baddy, the more heroic the hero, right? And what did you learn from the villain? Probably that if you have a super power, you'll beat that bad guy/gal, and everything will work out in the end. Even Darth Vader started out this way (we'll post again about him soon). Today’s movie plots are so monotone in their character development that villains and conflicts seem to only serve as an obstacle for the protagonist's supernatural soul-search. And even the hero's character development usually comes as an afterthought to babes and explosions.

Depth of character in both a hero and a villain helps us understand a deeper moral than “things will all work out in the end.” In a deep protagonist, we see ourselves; we see that if we choose the Light, our triumphs and losses will have meaning; we will thwart evil, or die with honor. In a deep antagonist we see ourselves as well; we see that if we choose the Dark, the satisfaction is short-lived and destructive; victories are hollow, and dishonor is inexorable. The moral accentuates the importance of choice.

In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren was to many supervillain-loving western romantics a disappointing villain—childish, insecure, awkward, etc.  And yet, these are the very reasons why Kylo Ren was an excellent antagonist. You despise him and pity him. You fear him—not because he is a fully developed “bad guy” but because he is a young, fragile, and moldable kid who is making the wrong choices before your eyes and wields far more power than he can appropriately control. His power feeds an idealism which is misguided by insecurity rooted in unrealistic comparison; he wears a mask he doesn’t need. And most importantly: you can relate with him.  

Kylo Ren is not the embodiment of evil. His personal conflict mirrors the fact that there is good and evil in everyone, and most importantly that evil is a choice—his choice—our choice. But the moral to his story is even deeper than just choice. In a way that is a reflection of our reality, his choices are so nuanced that he believes the path he has chosen is the right path, and what we see as evil, to him are necessary sacrifices to achieve a greater good; or at least they began that way. The good guy and the bad guy both think they are the good guy.

So, which one am I? And who am I becoming every time I justify a minor cruelty for the sake of some distant, abstract good? How accustomed will I be to moral abstraction, how thick the waxing layers of numbing superciliousness, when at the crossroads of character? We don’t think Ben Solo is pretending when he says he’s being torn apart. His morals are skewed, but they are still morals. Apparently sealing his fate, he does the unthinkable! But murdering his father was neither improbable nor predestined, but a choice at the culmination of myriad choices—seemingly insignificant allowances of insecurity. We find microcosms in some of our own behaviors—we are Kylo Ren—and we wonder: was it irredeemable? Even after the unthinkable brutality, we all hope it wasn’t.

May the Force be with us.