The response to The Force Awakens brought, remarkably, a few areas of genuine consensus – with a small number of exceptions, Rey is generally beloved while Starkiller Base is usually derided. Other elements are divisive, but perhaps none more than the antagonist/anti-hero/Byronic dark prince/space Hitler/dudebro fanboy that is Kylo Ren.
Not merely in terms of popularity – depending on who you speak to, he’s either the best or the worst thing about the film – but also whether or not he is heading for (or deserves) redemption. Even the fundamentals of what exactly the character is, what he stands for, and how we are supposed to respond to him are the subject of a wide variety of viewpoints.
Kylo occupies an unusual space in a saga with clearly-defined characters – a postmodern figure in a world of archetypes.
Everything leading up to TFA made us believe that Kylo would occupy the same space in the drama as Darth Vader in the original trilogy. He was an ominous figure, his mask plastered over every poster, toy box and tote bag. He was to be the icon of the movie, Vader for a new generation.
Indeed, the beginning of the movie makes good on that promise. In the first ten minutes he murders an unarmed old man, coldly orders the execution of dozens of innocent villagers, and demonstrates chilling and hitherto unseen dark side powers as he effortlessly freezes both a blaster-bolt and our hero, Poe Dameron.
Soon enough, though, the contrasts begin. Unlike Vader, his anger is not focused and purposeful, it is immature. Not for Kylo the casual sarcasm of “be careful not to choke on your aspirations” – instead he smashes up a console with his lightsaber like a child throwing things around his bedroom. His walk is a stalk – jagged, awkward, a man bursting with rage and uncomfortable in his own skin.
Even when we begin to explore his motivations, something is off. He talks of wanting to “finish what [Vader] started”, and we have to imagine this means the destruction of the Jedi and the rebirth of the Empire. Yet where Vader’s tyranny came from a misplaced idealism – a belief that the Jedi had betrayed the Republic, and that order from above needed to be imposed for everyone’s benefit – Kylo just wants to live up to his grandfather’s “legacy”, whether by killing Jedi, ordering stormtroopers around or wearing a cool-looking mask.
But the First Order is not the Empire – this time it is the stormtroopers and superweapon that represent the insurgency, the destabilizing force, and it’s hard to imagine Vader agreeing with their tactics. The criticism that Kylo is a “Vader cosplayer” has some merit, because based on TFA, he’s drawn more to the iconography and the legend of Vader than to developing a vision for the galaxy.
The real surprise comes when the mask is removed, and we realize that Kylo actually has his own character arc in this film. He is tortured by the “call to the light,” that scrap of compassion inside him, and fearing that Snoke senses it, he makes it his mission to snuff it out, and fully embrace the dark side.
Beneath the Mask
Kylo’s first removal of his helmet is a disquieting moment. I remember reading reports of audible giggles from audiences because his appearance is so unexpected – though in his thirties, Adam Driver looks like an awkward teenage boy here, and his performance is closer to the Anakin of Attack of the Clones than it is to Vader.
This scene – the interrogation of Rey – has led to a wider variety of readings than any other scene in the film. As a contrast with the interrogation of Poe, some see in Kylo a fascination and connection with Rey, even flashes of compassion as he tells her not to be afraid and senses her loneliness – a compassion Snoke himself chides Kylo for in the novelization. Other viewers see him as predatory, manipulative and downright creepy – his delivery of the line “you know I can take whatever I want” has unsettling real-world connotations of male entitlement.
This dissonance between his actions, his line delivery and his appearance is at the heart of the different readings of the character. Visually he does indeed have the looks of a tortured, Byronic anti-hero, with his flowing black hair and his sad but intense eyes. His looks make it easy to romanticize him, to see him as a brooding character in the mold of a Severus Snape or a Heathcliff, or even as a victim to be saved, given the hints from Driver and JJ Abrams of a troubled childhood and an absence of parental love. This reading, though valid, risks minimizing the scale of the evil of a man prepared to order the massacre of civilians, as well as his responsibility for his own choices.
In one sense, Kylo’s evil is more unsettling than Vader’s. Vader believes he is doing the right thing, and that the ends justify the means – if people die, well, that’s the price that has to be paid for an ordered galaxy. Kylo, though, knows that what he is doing is wrong – he feels the call to the light, he is torn apart as he faces his father … and yet he murders him anyway. Compare the similar scenes where Padmé confronts Vader on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith, and where Han confronts Kylo on Starkiller Base. The villains are pleaded with by their loved ones, asked to come back … but where Anakin talks with certainty, a manic gleam in his eye as he lays out his vision for a better galaxy, Kylo is tortured, lost, tearful. Yet he still commits the act, still murders his father, despite knowing it is wrong, all in an attempt to “snuff out the light.” Vader thinks what he’s doing is right, but Kylo wants to be evil, and hates the compassion that is making it so difficult for him.
Even at the end of the film, interpretations of Kylo vary wildly. Initially, the response from many was that Kylo’s arc was that he successfully killed the light within him, supported by Abrams’s comments that TFA is “an origin story for a villain” and the visual symbolism of the light dying as Kylo stabs his father. Yet Driver’s performance tells us he is more lost and broken than ever – something that has been backed up with the novelizations and published screenplay, the official databank and Driver’s comments about The Last Jedi (“patricide isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”)
This speaks to a more general issue with TFA: even the fundamentals of the main characters are left vague and uncertain. The character arcs make sense, but the movie is paced so quickly that you have to really look for them, because it doesn’t spend time developing them. Is this intentional, to give Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow more flexibility with the story going forward, or does it speak to a failure of storytelling on Abrams’s part? Fortunately, TFA just about gets by with it through the strength of its performances.
The Post-Modern Villain
So how is it that Kylo Ren can be all of these things, depending on your point of view? I’m reminded of the parable of the Elephant and the Blind Men: a group of blind men who have never encountered an elephant each touch a different part of it, and describe the whole in entirely different ways. They each believe that the others are lying about what they felt, and end up fighting over it. The moral is that we tend to project our partial experiences onto the whole, when we should be aware that we each see only part of the picture – an important lesson when thinking about any work of art.
In the case of Kylo, the issue arises from his bizarre place as a postmodern figure in what is fundamentally an old-fashioned story. Star Wars is a world of Jungian archetypes – the hero, the wise old man, the shadow – broadly following a story based on ancient mythology, following an old-fashioned value system built on friendship, compassion and serenity. It is not just this: there are many modern influences on Star Wars too, and all of the characters have something of the modern world about them. Kylo, though, is on a new level entirely.
Kylo is fully aware that he is in a Star Wars movie – he just sees the previous movies as we would view a myth or legend in our own culture. Such a character can only exist in TFA, because that film exists in the shadow of the original trilogy. He seeks to emulate the past. He wants to own the iconography of those movies – Vader’s helmet, the Skywalker lightsaber – because that is where he thinks he will draw his power. This knowledge of the text around him – and before him – is what makes him a postmodern figure, and it brings with it certain contemporary associations.
The Story Group’s Pablo Hidalgo has compared Kylo Ren to an “original trilogy purist” who hates the things that such fanboys hate – the Senate, the Jedi – and wants to make the Star Wars galaxy the way he thinks it should be, built on nostalgia. We can take this further: Kylo’s obsession with legacy reflects our own preoccupation with the lineages of Star Wars characters, where every new character has to be related to someone we know or they have no value to us.
Then there are the political connotations. Kylo is a privileged, young white man, full of entitlement and rage that he doesn’t have what he wants, revering fascistic movements of the past that he never had to personally live through, and battling a young woman, a black man and a Latino. It’s hard not to look at this and see echoes of the rise of neo-fascism and the “alt-right.” This is where the postmodernism sits uncomfortably with the old-fashioned mythology of Star Wars, because it complicates the debate about whether or not Kylo will be redeemed, or deserves to be.
Compassion is the most important message of the Star Wars saga: finding empathy for all, living selflessly, and through that achieving harmony. It’s most clearly seen in Luke’s love for his father and in Vader’s reciprocal sacrifice for his son, actions that ultimately save the entire galaxy. Redemption only comes about through compassion. Vader’s redemption, though, asks us to put aside the evil he has done and not dwell on it too much, because the story is more interested in the archetype, the value system and the message that compassion can redeem all.
With Kylo, things are more complicated. As a postmodern figure with so many unsettling cultural connotations, many are inclined to be more resistant to his redemption. Are we going to be asked to feel sympathy for a young fascist, to see him as a “lost boy” who just needs to be set back on the right path? In the current climate, that’s a hard sell. Kylo is real and relevant to us in a way that Vader wasn’t. Equally, though, Driver’s layered and vulnerable performance makes redemption seem more likely, and other fans root for him all the more – he was so close to coming back to the light at the end of TFA, and surely we want to see Leia’s son (if a reunion is no longer possible) choose to follow her legacy, and not Vader’s?
As we now know, it’s dangerous to predict what will happen in TLJ and Episode IX based on TFA, because there was no trilogy outline. Johnson and Trevorrow were not mandated that the story must do this or that – it will be based on their responses to TFA and its characters. Kylo’s future depends less on Abrams’s intent than it does on the way Johnson and Trevorrow have interpreted him, and as we have seen, that could be any number of things, depending on their point of view.