“You have too much of your father’s heart in you, young Solo” snarls Supreme Leader Snoke at his apprentice, Kylo Ren, in the wake of the younger man having just murdered Han Solo. It is a clear taunt, part of a broader litany fired at the troubled Knight of Ren by the Supreme Leader – a dressing down that informs the character’s behavior for the rest of The Last Jedi. As part of that same passage, Kylo Ren is compared yet again to his grandfather, Darth Vader. It is a comparison invited and encouraged by Kylo, and the idea that he might not measure up to “the most hated man in the galaxy” is an easy way to wound him, as we have seen on multiple occasions.
Kylo Ren, the former Ben Solo, does not only draw his inspiration from the iconic Darth Vader however. Whether he likes it or not, the influence of his parents is indeed apparent in his behavior and his choices, as suggested by Lor San Tekka when we first met the character in The Force Awakens. It is these alternate influences that make Kylo Ren such a dynamic, exciting, and perhaps more terrifying villain than anything that has come before in Star Wars. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in many respects, and as the character channels his resilient mother and particularly his unpredictable father, we see the emergence of a new kind of challenge for this new generation of heroes to overcome in Episode IX.
“The droid…stole a freighter.”
Although there is a faintly dry edge to many of the best Vader lines (particularly in the hands of Lawrence Kasdan), the smartassery of Kylo Ren as demonstrated particularly in the first half of The Force Awakens is arguably more reminiscent of the verbal barbs fired by Leia Organa and Han Solo in the original trilogy – quick-witted, tetchy and designed to undercut any overblown pomposity in the room. Seething frustration isn’t foreign to Luke and Anakin Skywalker, but it’s the way that Kylo deals with it that feels more germane to the son of Leia and Han. “I had no idea we had the best pilot in the Resistance on board” feels like it’s in the same wheelhouse as “You came in that thing? You’re brave than I thought.” “They’re obviously skilled at committing high treason” has its ancestry in “It’s a wonder you’re still alive.” Intimidation perhaps isn’t quite the name of the game for Kylo Ren as much as it is debasing his opposition.
Perhaps in the case of Hux it might have been Kasdan resurrecting the excised rivalry between Vader and Moff Jerjerrod from Return of the Jedi, but whether intentional or not, this is part of what gives Kylo a distinct vibe. Because he is ostensibly less powerful than Vader within the entity that he serves, he must find different ways to cope. He isn’t as outwardly scheming as Hux, electing to remain on the Finalizer as Starkiller Base is fired at the Hosnian System. He is not at the forefront of the First Order, not quite as emblematic as Vader. Part of this is because of the conflict in him, but it may also have something to do with who his father is.
Han Solo, despite being an Alliance general and one of the great heroes of the Galactic Civil War, is more gambler than political idealist. His moral obligation to return at the Battle of Yavin has more to do with his friendship with Luke than with “the cause”. This prompts much of the friction between him and Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, and again she is more key to his interests, at least as portrayed in the films, than the defeat of Palpatine’s Empire.The arc of Finn in The Last Jedi is the first time Star Wars digs deep into that question, but like his father we are never quite sure of what Kylo Ren’s political sensibility might be. Is he a defender of the faith, a hardliner like his mother? His frothing rage at Finn as they confront each other on Starkiller Base suggests that this might be so. Or perhaps his rage is a case of protesting too much…
“When he gets what he wants he’ll crush you. You know it’s true.”
The righteous rage of Kylo Ren is perhaps a source of parody for some – he has some comic similarities with the characters of The Young Ones (a program referenced overtly in The Last Jedi – which shares a cast member), that of an impotent Angry Young Man who rails against everything and feels hard done-by. This is only partially true. Or at least, it is only true for a select period of the time that we have known Kylo Ren. This is something that the sequel trilogy is doing that is rather bold, which is that it is somewhat more overt in the character development of the villain as well as the hero. Often the villain is merely revealed, or the depth of their treachery lowers, but Kylo transforms before our very eyes. And someone who is ever-changing is a harder target to hit, and it makes the outcome of a clash with a hero who is evolving in an entirely different way that much harder to envision and anticipate in terms of outcome.
To go back to the duel on Starkiller Base, perhaps Kylo’s pure rage at Finn suggests a deep-seated envy, that this nobody has been able to cast off the yoke of oppressive, supremely powerful masters of his own volition, against all odds. This man, who unlike Kylo was raised within this neo-Imperial culture, was able to make a decision and be a face in a crowd of masks. Kylo has only just confronted and murdered his father prior, but it is not drawing a long bow to suggest that Finn might remind Kylo of Han – who, after all, was able to free himself of Imperial servitude as well. Han’s final warning that Snoke would destroy him once he had served his purpose is not rebuffed by Kylo Ren at all.
And so this is where the character’s feeling of impotence comes to bear – that the character is not empowered to affect his own outcome. His embarrassment is deepened by losing his duel with Rey, and then the cutting line from Snoke that “young Solo” is too much like his father. That Kylo Ren’s fratricidal act, eliminating one of the great heroes of the previous era, isn’t enough hurts, but that he is still too much like Han is the worst thing Kylo Ren could have heard at that moment. What better way, though, to wreak revenge on someone who would say such a thing, than by proving the statement to be true in the most cunning way possible?
The rebellion is reborn
Kylo Ren takes his first step into a more rebellious world by doing away with his mask, his most significant callback to his grandfather – an infantile way to respond to Snoke’s rebuke but something that suggests a shift in stance and aspiration. The next time we see him in The Last Jedi he leads an attack that deals a stunning blow to the Resistance (although of course he cannot bring himself to kill his mother). There is still a conflict within him, but his connection with Rey, who is struggling with the recalcitrant Luke Skywalker, opens up new ideas. As does a vision of the future that he experiences (as do Rey, Snoke, and perhaps Luke). At what precise point Kylo decides upon his next course of action isn’t exactly clear in the film, but that doesn’t matter – it is a change in tack from when we first met him.
Kylo’s thoroughly deceitful betrayal and murder of Snoke is the best possible comeback to the accusation that he is like his father. It’s absolutely true – what could be more anti-authoritarian, more wildly unpredictable, the greatest middle finger raised at an overly dramatic and theatrical old goon who uses the word “alas”? This isn’t a new Vader, this is the son of Han Goddamn Solo, and he is going to use a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense to fuck up your day. Doing it when there’s a whole bunch of armored guards standing around to watch you do it is the bad guy version of chasing a squad of stormtroopers down a Death Star hallway with a berserker yell. The character is still of course morally repugnant, but he finds the agency that drove his father and also his mother to resist and rebel. Again this is different from Anakin, who is instead driven both times that he betrays his masters to save a loved one.
The character’s sense of agency is what now makes him dangerous, and this can cut both ways. The fact that his old master and uncle is able to thwart him with sleight of hand is telling in this sense and allows Luke a final triumph, but looking to the future we have here a villain who is a self-professed iconoclast. We don’t know what to expect now, because unlike Snoke or Palpatine he is not trying to resurrect an older ideology. He is not seeking to exact the revenge of the Sith, or to resurrect the Empire. He wants the Jedi gone for the same reasons that Luke does, because they are part of an older, dying system that has consistently brought woe to the galaxy. He is questing for something that has never existed before, at least that we know of. This somewhat echoes what we see of Leia in the sequel trilogy – she herself does not mention the restoration of the Republic (only frustration with it in a deleted scene), she merely wishes to stop the forces of evil marching forward unchecked and maintain the values she fought for previously. But like Han before him, Kylo is thoroughly uninterested in the existing structures and religions.
Curiously enough, this has now allowed Kylo Ren to take a step beyond what Darth Vader could. He has indeed finished one of the things his grandfather started, in betraying the master and seizing control of the galaxy. He just made sure the “you must join me” pitch happened after the work was done. Like his mother and grandmother, Kylo now holds high office, and has reduced his opponents to the smallest of cores. What this bodes for the future of the galaxy far, far away we won’t know until next Christmas, but for now, two films in, this villainous offspring of two great movie heroes is a progressively intoxicating blend of each, a fresh antagonist for this saga who we see evolve and develop tremendously from scene to scene. In short, when Lor San Tekka cautions Kylo Ren that he cannot escape the truth that is his family, he is indeed “so right”.