some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Kylo Ren












The true protagonist of The Force Awakens is Kylo Ren. He sets the narrative in motion and drives the action, and, in fact, “changes” the most. He also functions as the antagonist of pretty much everybody else in the movie. This kind of protagonist, once a staple of cinematic drama, is more properly called an anti-hero. An anti-hero is a protagonist who is on the opposite of a hero’s journey, a person who is bent on self-destruction. Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas comes to mind. Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, or any of his major roles, really, is a classic example. And, of course, Darth Vader in the prequel trilogy.

More after the jump. Please don’t get your spoilers spoiled! 

shopify analytics ecommerce

What does Kylo Ren want? Kylo Ren wants to track down the missing Luke Skywalker, and, presumably, kill him. To do that, he needs a map that leads to Luke’s whereabouts. Luke, we’re told, has gone looking for “the first Jedi temple,” and the map in question features, it seems, the route Luke took to get to this first temple. Following Luke, therefore, would, presumably, constitute a kind of religious pilgrimage to the Jedi Holy Land.

Kylo, we’re told, has a longstanding beef with Luke. The son of Han Solo and General Leia, he was sent to train with Luke to become a Jedi. Somewhere in there, something went wrong and he, it seems, led some kind of insurrection that caused a lot of trouble and sent Luke away on his journey to The Source.

Kylo, it seems, doesn’t identify with his mother, the latent-Force-ified Leia, or his father, the devil-may-care Han Solo. He identifies more strongly with his grandfather, Darth Vader. His identification with Vader is why he wears a helmet and mask. It’s not Adam Driver’s sweet, dorky face that makes us feel weird when he takes off his helmet in Act III of The Force Awakens, it’s the fact that he doesn’t have to wear it to stay alive. He wears it as an affectation. In The Force Awakens, clothes make the man. That’s not a stray observation, it’s a defining principle. It’s the same reason why the First Order requires their Stormtroopers to wear their completely useless armor — it makes them look scary, and it denies them their humanity. The same thing that makes them intimidating also allows us to cheer when thousands of them die. At the beginning of the movie, we feel Finn’s anguish when he doesn’t want to kill villagers, but an hour later we cheer as he mows down dozens of Stormtroopers. Now that we know that each Stormtrooper is an individual with thoughts and feelings, why do we still cheer?

But we were discussing Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren puts on his black wrappings and intimidating helmet, with its pitch-shifting voice box, in order to remind people of his grandfather. As I’ve mentioned earlier, this is congruent with one of the major themes of the movie; young people trying to live up to the influence of their forebears. Rey tells herself “You can do this” as she prepares to fly the Millenium Falcon, Finn says the same thing as he prepares to march Poe Dameron to freedom. Kylo Ren’s affectation of “the Vader look” has the same function. He wishes to fake it until he makes it.

That seems to be enough for his cohort in The First Order, General Hux, a character I find interesting because he’s so clearly a child dressing up in his father’s uniform. He’s petulant, arrogant, hot-headed and easily offended. If he has worked a day in his life I’ll eat my hat. No, he behaves more like he has had his army handed to him by his father’s connections in the old Empire. Like president George W. Bush, he plays with his army like toy soldiers, and abandons them when the going gets rough.

Like Darth Vader in A New Hope, Kylo Ren looks for a droid with a piece of vital information. However, like Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, he’s also looking for Luke Skywalker. That’s why, at the end of Act II, the Maguffin of the narrative suddenly changes. The little droid everyone’s been looking for suddenly becomes completely beside the point. Kylo Ren finds something better, he thinks, than a map to Luke; he finds a living connection to him. That, he thinks, is a better bet, which leads to his undoing.

One of the things I found upsetting about the prequels was the way that characters didn’t have backgrounds or agendas, they only had “things to do.” Characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul would show up, do stuff, and get killed. Because they had no dimensions or personalities, their deaths, while given great hype by the narratives, had no center to them and their deaths meant nothing. Look how different Kylo Ren is, even from Darth Vader or Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader is steadfast and impassive in his pursuit of his goals, a Terminator of the Star Wars universe. Anakin, meanwhile (I’m aware he’s the same dude) is a shrill, pouty, rage-fueled narcissist. We could say that putting on the mask took away Anakin’s humanity, but we could also posit that it caused him to pull back from his rage and become a much better strategist.

Kylo Ren, on the other hand, we find in the midst of a change. He very much wants to be his grandfather (he apparently has taken the trouble to go to Endor and fish his helmet out of an Ewok barbecue pit) but he’s worried that he’s not up to the task. Like Finn (who we’ll discuss later), he hopes to gain his father’s powers by adopting his father’s attitudes and clothes. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful who we pretend to be.” As he strains toward fearsomeness, he’s prone to flashes of rage when frustrated. We can’t imagine Darth Vader taking his frustrations out on a control panel. That makes Kylo Ren a less mature character, but also a more approachable one. Vader, as I say, was closer to a Terminator in his effect — unbeatable and implacable. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, we see “has good days and bad days.” Anakin Skywalker is an arrogant hothead right up to the point where he’s crippled and cremated by Obi-Wan Kenobi, at which point he’s reincarnated as Vader. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, has no equivalent transformative moment (that we’ve seen) — he’s got to make the conscious effort to transform himself.

Kind of a showoff when it comes to his force powers, Kylo Ren abandons his search for the droid when Rey comes along — he knows he can get the key to Luke’s whereabouts from her. This, he feels, is his endgame — he’ll get the information he needs from Force-torturing Rey, and then he’s off to find (and kill?) Luke. But his arrogance makes him go too far. What he doesn’t know when he kidnaps Rey is that she is his equal in the Force. He Force-tortures her enough to get the information he needs from her (he thinks), but what surprises him is that she actually gets more information from him than he does from her. Mainly, she learns how to focus and control her Force powers. This, it turns out, is a disaster for him, and we see it on his face, all the doubt and insecurity he’s been hiding all this time comes out, and we see a Sith-in-training unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Star Wars movie.

Thinking he’s sealing his endgame, Kylo Ren instead creates a Jedi, thus doubling his problems. This is, undoubtedly, on his mind when he’s visited by his father, Han Solo, in the middle of a pretty important military operation. Humiliated by a mere girl, to whom he has imparted invaluable Force wisdom, he seals his fate by murdering his father in cold blood.

If he intends for his father’s murder to strengthen his Force powers, he’s wrong — within minutes, he’s forced to duel with the Jedi he’s created — and he loses. All his training and devotion to the Force, and he’s defeated by a girl who came to him as a powerless scavenger from a nowhere planet. The moment of his undoing is brilliantly dramatized. Luke Skywalker’s light saber gets thrown into the snow, and Kylo tries to pull it to himself. The movie steals that moment from The Empire Strikes Back, but then, as it does with every plot point it steals, it then yanks the rug out from under us, inviting us to ponder its meaning, because Kylo is not strong enough to pull the lightsaber from the snow, but Rey is. First we smile at the reference, then we see how it is inverted.

Kylo knows that his boss, Snoke, whom he worships, has to be disappointed by this outcome, but then, Kylo also knows that Snoke has no choice but to double down on Kylo’s potential — he’s still the closest thing to a Sith the dark side has at this point.


10 Responses to “some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Kylo Ren”
  1. Glenn Peters says:

    “If he intends for his father’s murder to strengthen his Force powers, he’s wrong — within minutes, he’s forced to duel with the Jedi he’s created”

    And shot with a bowcaster within seconds. After Ren previously showed the ability to freeze blasts like that in place even while his attention was elsewhere. My best reading of this — and his subsequent defeat by Rey, as awesome as she is, newly fledged Jedi shouldn’t be able to take on someone with his training — is that that Ren simply didn’t get the resolution he was looking for, and he was still conflicted, and afraid that he’s not as strong as Vader. We’ll see what happens when his training is completed.

    Fear seems to be his defining emotion. Fear of inadequacy. (I can certainly relate.) I wonder what his Jedi training was like. Was he teased by the other students for not being as capable or quick to learn as they were?

  2. Nat Almirall says:

    “Anakin Skywalker is an arrogant hothead right up to the point where he’s crippled and cremated by Obi-Wan Kenobi, at which point he’s reincarnated as Vader. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, has no equivalent transformative moment (that we’ve seen) — he’s got to make the conscious effort to transform himself.”

    Or, as Ian Malcolm would say, “You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any of the responsibility.”

    I do think it’s interesting that Ren, as opposed to Rey and Finn, knows precisely whom his parents are, meaning, among other things, that he probably knows more about the actual history of the previous films than the rest of the Galaxy, which seems to treat the events as myths and legends — and yet Ren still chooses to follow the legend of Vader rather than the actual man. Then again, it’s much easier to mold legends into what you want them to represent than it is actual facts.

    Either way, the rebellion needs better press corps.

    • Glenn Peters says:

      I think he gets his transformative moment by the end of the movie, although not with quite as much damage done. Of course, given Ren, what probably hurt most was his pride.

  3. Joachim Buchert says:

    It’s true that killing his father brings Kylo Ren no more strength to defeat the good guys at the end of the movie, but I think that action is still one of the more important ones to happen in the movie. In that moment, he goes from being a guy who just wears bad guy clothes to be menacing to being arguably the most villainous person we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie. Yes, in the unmentionables, we saw Anakin kill those Tusken Raiders (essentially Stormtroopers in different clothing) and perhaps more accurately the Jedi younglings, but the intended dramatic effect of the latter was just not there. Instead, it felt like a cheap trick, so I’m not counting. Kylo Ren’s true “come to Dark Side moment” was on another level.

    It didn’t help him yet, but one wonders what will happen now that the apprentice returns to his master, fully committed.

  4. Okay just read this about General Hux and now the casting choice makes more sense.

  5. Les says:

    To me Kylo is the weakest of the new characters. Kylo who has trained with THE Luke Skywalker and a Sith lord for approxately 20-25 years combined can’t beat a n00b in the force. And better yet at the end this guy who has had 20+ years of training gets recalled by a Sith lord to complete his training (cold-blooded). Luke completed his training on his own by that age.
    The force exists as a macguffin itself, never being used in the one-on-one battles in ways that would make those one-on-one’s very brief. Rey who is probably one of the strongest female characters yet, can’t carry a passed out Finn with the force, good thing that wookie showed up and had time to get out of the ship, get the guy and then run back as a group while the planet was exploding (along with my head).
    Light jedi can’t seem to train their people without one of the students going friendly fire on the school to gain the dark side. Of course the light side’s lack of training skills is made up for the fact that they seem to get the strongest/able to train themselves singular person that can affect battles of a war but not win the peace.
    As Frank Herbert said, don’t trust heroes.

    • Myles says:

      While I do think Rey’s “use the force” moment could have been executed better, Ren was unable to fight at 100% due to being SHOT IN THE GUT with a BOWCASTER. It was deliberately pointed out in the movie that this weapon is very powerful.

      I like the idea of handicapping a recurring villain in the first confrontation. It gives him the potential to be that much more dangerous the next time we see him.


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] worth reading, and his pieces on The Force Awakens are no exception. Check out his thoughts on Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, and finally Poe Dameron and General […]