In December of 2015, Star Wars was brought back into our world. Fans across the globe dusted off their old light sabers and costumes in anticipation for the next wave of Star Wars content. Not to say that the world forgot Star Wars until The Force Awakens was announced, of course. The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels were being aired, video games were being made, comic books were being printed. But after the excitement of the prequels settled to let’s call it mixed reviews, the larger world of Star Wars seemed to be in a stasis for the mainstream media. The original trilogy will forever be ingrained in American pop culture and in the science fiction hall of fame. But there was a sense of freshness, a sense of hope, that Episode VII would continue the Star Wars Legacy, thus establishing it as a franchise that will go on for generations.
I could write pages and pages of content on how the newest Star Wars films reflects many of the progressive values the modern generation, as the original trilogy did of the generation of its time. And maybe someday I will compare the depiction of Princess Leia to other heroines of the late 70s and talk about how similar it is to the depiction of Rey compared to heroines of the 2010s. But something that has caught my particular interest of late is the villain of the newest Star Wars Trilogy, Kylo Ren.
I see Kylo Ren as a prime example of the modern villain. At least, he reflects the parts of society I find scariest. That’s what I believe a good villain to be, a manifestation of what we find most distasteful in our own humanity. A really good villain is capable of making you sympathise with them by connecting to that part of your own humanity that you find distasteful. Kylo Ren is a very good villain. Studying the fan reactions to Kylo Ren is just as interesting as studying the character himself. With no research on the grand scale of reactions from male audiences, it has been my experience that they have had one of two reactions. Love or hatred. There seems to be that dichotomy of reaction from female fans as well, but for very different reasons. Lastly, I intend on throwing in my two cents on where I think the story will take Kylo Ren. The internet is already full of fan theories, and I’m sure mine has been stated elsewhere before I even considered it.
What makes Kylo Ren threatening to me is his rage fueled entitlement. He has been told his entire life that he is one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy and he still feels like he can’t live up to it. Where Darth Vader’s evil came from being cool and collected in his atrocity, Kylo is full of rage and blatant violence. He is unstable. He is so threatened by his potential incompetence compared to Vader, to not living up to that ideal image of masculinity. And he is told that by a woman, our heroine Rey while held hostage and tortured. And that might be the crux of it. As an outspoken feminist, what scares me most in the world is a young man who thinks the world owes him, like he has a birthright to something. I’m afraid of men who strive so hard to live up to an ideal masculinity that is ultimately damaging to them and the people around them. Darth Vader is one of the most iconic villains of all time and one of the key character conflicts for Kylo Ren is that he thinks he will never be able to live up to that. Imagine my reaction when it is Rey, a flawed and strong young woman, who stands up to Kylo Ren and spells out his fears to his face. And imagine my sense of justification at this interaction when minutes before, this entitled, angry young man whispered that he would take what he wanted from her. I don’t know much more blunt a rape metaphor can get.
I also get a pretty serious shooter vibe from Ren, which likens him back to Anakin Skywalker murdering all the younglings in Revenge of the Sith. The image of the lone, deranged shooter has been scalded into our national consciousness. After the tragic events of September 11th, we’ve seen the amount of screen time devoted to images of mass destruction of major cities skyrocket. We’ve seen post-apocalyptic themed media take over the market. We live in a post-9/11 world and that is reflected in our media as well. As a country, we are obsessed with our own destruction. And maybe it’s therapeutic, in a way, to take these traumas and examine them through our pop culture. In the same way Hollywood has displayed the scars of the country from the 9/11 attacks without directly addressing them, Hollywood will also examine the scars left by the countless mass shootings plaguing our nation. And that’s what I think they’ve done with Kylo Ren. In the 80s we were afraid of faceless men with unknown power who would kill with military precision. Men with access to weapons of mass destruction. Today, we are afraid of young, unstable men with a vendetta against the world they perceive to be neglecting them. We’re afraid of small groups of passionate and irrational people wielding weapons of mass destruction. This is the difference between Darth Vader and the Empire versus Kylo Ren and the First Order.
According to Psychology Today, one of the warning signs of a mass shooter is high family dysfunction. “Nearly everyone comes from a ‘somewhat’ dysfunctional family, but the shooter usually has a large degree of dysfunction. Said differently, there is a biological basis for a young man (or woman theoretically) to become a shooter. They lack healthy brain development, environments that support positive emotional health and usually tend to be far removed from ideal social role models” (Psychology Today). It may sound like a dream come true to be raised by a former princess/ senator and a smuggler/starship captain with the last living Jedi as an uncle, but apparently that can have it’s toll on a growing mind. Adam Driver gives insight into the childhood of Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo/Organa, regarding his choice to go dark in some Behind the Scenes content on The Force Awakens DVD.
“If you really imagine the stakes of him, in his youth, having all these special powers and having your parents kind of be absent during that process on their own agendas, [being] equally as selfish. He’s lost in the world that he was raised in, and feels that he was kind of abandoned by the people that he’s closest with. He’s angry because of that, I think, and he has a huge grudge on his shoulders” (The Guardian).
For the sake of speculation, perhaps this idea of dysfunction had something to do with Rey being abandoned on Jakku, preventing her from the stress of growing up in a similar environment. J.J. Abrams weighted in on the childhood of Kylo Ren as well. “It’s more than just having a ‘bad seed’ as a kid,” Abrams said. “Snoke had targeted this kid and knew that this kid was going to be incredibly powerful in The Force and wanted him as an ally. So this mother and father had a target as a son, someone who’s watching their boy, and these parents aren’t there enough to guide him” (The Guardian).
Another sign the Psychology Today article lists is an obsession with weapons. “Shooters tend to study how to build explosives, learn how to acquire guns from the high powered assault rifle to glock handgun […], and many have collection of weapons like knives as well as weapon memorabilia” (Psychology Today). As we know from watching the film, Kylo Ren works on a giant weapon incredibly similar to that of the Death Star (to the chagrin of many fans). But we also see Kylo’s fascination with Rey’s lightsaber once he realizes who it used to belong to. In fact, he demands it, considering it his birthright, I’m sure. But let’s take a look at Kylo’s very own lightsaber.
The lightsaber was crudely assembled based on an ancient design dating back thousands of years to the Great Scourge of Malachor. A single cracked Kyber crystal, barely able to contain the weapon’s power, necessitated the lateral vents which diverted the extra heat produced by the crystal to either side of the hilt, and gave the weapon’s red plasma blades an unstable, serrated appearance. (The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary)
What we can gather about Kylo Ren’s personality here is that he respects and studies ancient weaponry. He’s also utilized a cracked Kyber crystal in his design to make his weapon all the more powerful, if unstable. I would argue the state of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber directly reflects his own characterization. Dangerous, unstable, and crudely modeled after the evil of days long gone.
Earlier I mentioned that what makes a very good villain is the ability to empathise with them. And it’s Kylo Ren’s complete vulnerability to the world around him that makes me empathise with him. He scares me because he seems to be modeled after the entitled, powerful young men that call themselves meninists or demands a white history month (yuck). But it’s endlessly enthralling to watch him try to figure himself out on screen. We see him fighting between the light and dark side, trying to navigate the dangerous world he’s been shoved into as a powerful being. He never asked to be born with such great power. I love Kylo Ren because he took of his mask in the first movie and we saw a scared kid pretending he had it together. He’s so lost and we all know that feeling of blindly bumbling through the universe, trying to figure out what it is we’re meant for. Now imagine being that young, with that kind of power, and with a sith lord creeping on your entire life.
Now that we’ve got a solid understanding of who Kylo Ren is as a character, at least from my perspective, let’s talk about the fan reaction to him. I’d like to reiterate that I have no scholarly, academic study to cite for all the claims I’m about to make. They’re based purely on my own observations of the fan reaction and are heavily biased considering the communities I involve myself in, so take it all with a grain of salt. Let’s first talk about the male audience reaction. There are a lot of differing opinions and observations going around about the character but I feel as though I can break them down into two groups on the male side of things. Some absolutely hate him because he isn’t the kind of bad guy they want. Darth Vader was cool because he was the silent, dangerous type. Darth Vader is an image of ideal masculinity many young men grew up with. Imagine their distaste for Kylo Ren, who they found whiney and fragile. They want their old bad guy back. Where is that smooth, faceless baddie that hid his emotions behind a mask like a real man? But that’s what makes Kylo work so well. He’s a bad guy that defies the hyper masculine conventions of villains. It’s actually brilliant. The filmmakers realized how it would come off if they tried to emulate Vader. It would be a painful and agonizing attempt to recreate one of the most iconic figures in pop culture history. But how interesting if the new character himself tried to emulate him? Now that’s a story. A story we can all relate to. Too often I’ve heard laments that Kylo Ren was too emotive, indicating that anger and rage should be kept under the surface for a villain. I argue that’s what makes him the perfect villain. The second reaction from male audiences I’ve noticed is that they adore him and not for the same reason that I do. I adore him as a character because he is so heavily flawed. Seeing him struggle with the duality of his character has endless potential to be fascinating. What I fear that a lot of the male audience adores in him is born from relating to him. They relate to his plight of not being good enough, of feeling entitled to something, of his rage. And this can be dangerous. A well written villain can evoke sympathy from the audience. It’s a different thing entirely when the audience in question can’t sympathize objectively.
Some of the female audience reactions aren’t much better. There has been a huge movement within the fandom to preemptively forgive Kylo. I think they are right in sensing his redemption arc but I don’t think they’re going to like how I imagine he’ll get it, but more on that later. A large group of female audience members are portraying Kylo as a troubled young man and romanticizing him. It feels similar to how Edward Cullen was portrayed in the Twilight series despite all the signs of abuse in that relationship. Except, however, in the Twilight series, Edward Cullen was framed to be the good guy love interest with a lot of flaws. Kylo Ren has only been presented to us as a villain. A lot of people like to ship Kylo and Rey, despite the rape metaphor in the interrogation scene. Forgiving Kylo Ren of this and his other many heinous actions towards humanity in general is troubling. What else are these women willing to forgive on the basis that someday he will be apologetic for his actions? I could write a whole paper on the heated debate happening within a faction of the fandom between the Reylo ship and the Finn/Rey ship. Accusations of racism and sexism fly about and it’s a huge mess that really deserves to be examined. But right now, we are talking about Kylo Ren and only Kylo Ren.
So here are my predictions for the fate of our newest Star Wars baddie. As many of us know, Han Solo was meant to die in Return of the Jedi. Harrison Ford has made a point to make this clear to us. Ford went on the Conan show to say “It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… I thought the best utility of the character would be for him to sacrifice himself to a high ideal and give a little bottom, a little gravitas to the enterprise, not that there wasn’t some already but I just wanted in on some part of it. That was at the third occasion of filming the original three” (Cinemablend). And as the rumor goes, Han Solo was kept alive because Lucas didn’t think a dead guy would sell toys. So, were we robbed of beautifully tragic redemptive story arc, from selfish smuggler to a martyr, for the sake of toy sales? Perhaps. We should keep in mind that the first line in episode VII was “This should begin to make things right”. Some fans believe this is a coded slant at the prequels but some believe the financially driven decisions were starting to be made with Return of the Jedi. As we know, Darth Vader only earned his redemption after sacrificing himself to save his son. This leads me to believe in the final act of this new trilogy, Kylo Ren will sacrifice himself to save one of our main heros. The only way to redeem himself after killing the arguable the most popular Star Wars character, killing his own father, is to die in the name of good. Unless of course they try to keep him alive for another trilogy, in which case I will be very peeved. They would be repeating a mistake they made with Han Solo way back in the day, changing the story for the sake of profit.
So that is Kylo Ren, from my perspective. I would absolutely love to hear how other people from different backgrounds read him. It is important to keep in mind that we project ourselves into these characters. So what I see in any of these characters might be entirely different from someone else does. We all feel Star Wars on a deep, emotional level. Some of us have experienced Star Wars while still in the womb, so it’s easy to get worked up over a disagreement about a character you consider a part of yourself. So if I’ve offended you in my take on Kylo Ren, it was not my intention. Art thrives from analysis and critique from people of varied backgrounds. I am but one voice in the millions of Star Wars fans out there. But we all have one thing in common, and it’s that Star Wars is in our blood. It’s in our bones. We all live in this galaxy far, far away.
Child, Ben. “Adam Driver Confirms Parental Neglect Turned Kylo Ren to the Dark Side.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 06 Apr. 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
“Kylo Ren’s Lightsaber.” Wookieepedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2016.
“School Shooter: The Warning Signs.” Psychology Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2016.
The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 14 July 2016.
“Why Harrison Ford Wanted Han Solo To Die In Return Of The Jedi – CINEMABLEND.” CINEMABLEND. N.p., 18 Dec. 2015. Web. 14 July 2016