Any doubts I had about Kylo Ren as a Star Wars villain after seeing The Force Awakens evaporated the moment The Last Jedi ended.
[Warning: The following contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.]
Villains are an important part to any story. They represent, if not drive, the conflict for the heroes to overcome. Villains give context to the heroes’ deeds and virtue. Dramatic villains have shared some traits going back to Shakespeare, and some more recent qualities have come to be accepted as integral.
Here’s where my opinion may differ from others on what constitutes a good villain: villains are not monsters.
Kylo Ren is a memorable, well acted villain because he’s not a sadistic, blood-hungry character. There are moments when his anger rages beyond control, such as when he orders all the guns of a ground assault force to fire on a lone Luke Skywalker. But for the majority of the movie, Kylo Ren is unsure.
Director Rian Johnson strips Kylo Ren down to his core: a young man who’s terrified of the world around him. Kylo Ren wants to be feared, because he wants to be respected for who he is, not what his legacy proclaims him to be. His form of teenage rebellion is to align himself with the other side of the war, turning on his parents and finding his own path of glory. The murder of Han Solo, his father, and the ongoing feud with his uncle-turned-mentor, Luke Skywalker, is more than a sadistic desire to kill.
After slaying Snoke, another master who questioned Kylo Ren’s intentions and cast doubt about Kylo’s future, he tells Rey that sometimes the only way to move forward is to let the past die, adding she should “kill it” if she has to. Kylo Ren has so much hatred for the person he was destined to be, and the people who set him up to be the future of the Resistance, that he struck down anyone who made him feel like he had no choice over his own life.
He’s also someone who knows right from wrong, and still chooses time and again to perform the worst act. He didn’t have to kill his father, but he did. He didn’t have to kill Snoke, the master who was grooming him to be the next to command, but he did that, too. At the heart of Kylo Ren’s personality, and what makes him a true villain, is selfishness. He can see what needs to be done for the greater good, and he turns his back on it to ensure he gets what he wants.
In those moments, where Kylo Ren is struck by the conflict in his decisions — to pierce Han Solo with his lightsaber or to not fire on the bridge of the ship his mother commands — I can empathize with him. If villains aren’t monsters, there needs to be a humane aspect of their character. Kylo Ren is an important character to me because I can understand the suffering he’s continuously going through. I can see the pain in his character, portrayed beautifully by actor Adam Driver, and how much each decision eats away at him.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi removed Kylo Ren’s mask for the majority of the movie, both figuratively and literally, and showcased someone different from the madman we saw in The Force Awakens. It’s difficult to gauge whether his connection with Rey is genuine or an ingenious ploy (much like how difficult it is to figure out whether the story of Rey’s parentage is real or not), but I was left with the feeling that we saw some of Kylo Ren’s true self.
What I love most about Kylo Ren’s character, however, is his obvious sadness and vulnerability. Kylo Ren takes pleasure in his status, claiming the title of Supreme Leader for the First Order, but he doesn’t find any joy in the death of his family. Kylo Ren isn’t celebrating Han Solo or Luke Skywalker’s death as much as he’s sighing with relief over the weight those actions will have in his climb up the ranks. It seems that part of the reason he wears the mask in the movie, especially around Snoke, is because this part of his character is unwavering and noticeable. He can’t temper his emotions or control his facial expressions.
Kylo Ren is so desperate to have people see him as the villain he imagines himself to be that he hides behind a mask that inspires fear — much like his idol and late grandfather, Darth Vader. Much like how scared Anakin Skywalker was, and how heavy handed his turn to the dark side was in belief that he could save his true love, Kylo Ren doesn’t know what he’s doing; he’s just trying to survive in a world that planned his destiny before he had the chance to explore the future himself.
I see Kylo Ren as a fantastic villain because his actions, and the roots behind those actions, intrigue me. The fact that Johnson gave me a bad guy that I can root for until the very end because I can empathize with him is a big part of why I loved The Last Jedi as much as I did. The way Johnson set up the end of The Last Jedi and what Episode 9 may be gives me reason to believe that Kylo Ren’s personal journey will play a big part in it.
This new Star Wars trilogy is as much a villain’s redeeming tale as it is a story of a hero’s journey, and I’m excited for what comes next.