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He's No Vader: Why Kylo Ren Works

I love bad people—in movies, of course [clears throat]. It’s not because they’re bad. It’s because I love the exercise of exploring the deeply mysterious inner workings of people who do bad things. 

Who is this baddie? Why did they become bad? What drew them into badness? How do they decide who to be bad to? 

Star Wars” has tried to answer those questions, but it hasn’t always been successful. Think "Star Wars--Episode II: Attack of the Clones," when Anakin and Padmé discuss different political models, resulting in the most awkward bit of dialogue of the saga. 

But what “Star Wars” has always done well is provide big bad villains that, while not necessarily fleshed out, at least impose a significant presence, and one you can’t help but relish. One-dimensional though he was, Darth Maul was truly menacing. Senator Palpatine showed just how easy it is for charming evildoers to blandly walk among us. General Grievous gave a preview of what happens when someone becomes part machine—and likes it.

Darth Vader is, of course, the most satisfying villain of them all. When we were first introduced to him in "Star Wars," masked and foreboding, his power seemed absolute. But we quickly discovered that he isn’t the one in charge. Hell, he’s even following orders from the decidedly non-magical Wilhuff Tarkin. Eventually, he becomes torn between his allegiance to the dark side, and a fatherly affection for his son. The latter leads to both his demise and his redemption. The villain as a character with agency and the ability to grow: that’s what made Vader awesome. 

When I went to see “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” with a group of friends, one of them bemoaned that Kylo Ren was no Vader. But even Vader turned out not to be Vader. In the same way Kylo idolizes and channels the darkest side of Vader to silence the parts of himself that are still Ben, Vader struggled to maintain his Vaderness once he realized Luke Skywalker was his son.*

What’s interesting as well is that we meet Kylo as he’s about to relinquish any light that might be left in him, and commit to the Purely Evil thing. He’s a bit like a petulant teenager, trying to latch onto an identity to show how grown-up he is. That means he’s clumsy, erratic, overly emotional, and, if you ask General Hux, kind of a liability.

In junkets, Adam Driver describes Kylo as reckless, and “The Force Awakens” makes no effort to gloss that over. He’s mastered the martial arts of The Force, but he’s also cocky with his skills, and consistently unprepared when Rey challenges him. He can’t control his rage, destroying equipment with his lightsaber at the slightest hint of bad news. He’s also exceptionally cruel, killing his own father to prove to himself just how cruel he can be.

Kylo is a villain in the making, and his journey, though it’s just beginning, is already more intriguing than young Anakin Skywalker’s. I don’t know why the dark side seduced Kylo—we may never know—but I’m very interested in his messiness. It means there’s room for improvement: either he’ll clean up and become a better bad guy, or he’ll backslide into goodness. Probably a bit of both.

It’s true that Kylo Ren is no Vader, but I’m okay with him being his own type of villain. He’s more conflicted than Vader ever was, and that gives him the potential to be even more evil, because his light side will be a bigger obstacle to overcome.

Since we know this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of him, there’s a sense that—like the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader arcs in Episodes IV, V, and VI—these stories will be as much about Rey’s development as Kylo’s. I’m looking forward to seeing just how sadistic he can be, and what it’ll take to defeat him.

* Shakespearean footnote: people have often argued that Lady Macbeth is strong because she asks demons to “unsex” her to give her the strength to kill King Duncan; but I’ve always said that she’s weak because she can’t kill King Duncan without invoking demons. When her guilt ravages her mind later in the play, it confirms that she really was incapable of that crime. 

Olivia Collette

Olivia Collette is based in Montreal, and has written for the Montreal Gazette, World Film Locations: San Francisco, Sparksheet, Indiewire’s Press Play blog, the Spectator Arts Blog and other outlets. She discusses pop culture at Livvy Jams.

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