"Star Wars" Has Created A Villain Too Real For Its Own Fantasy Universe
Kylo Ren is the greatest and most troubling part of The Last Jedi. Spoilers below.
The best and worst idea the new Star Wars trilogy has had is to make Kylo Ren a school shooter.
This isn't a take, something Rian Johnson's unexpectedly divisive The Last Jedi has spawned a seemingly inexhaustible supply of — enough to fuel online skirmishes right through whatever that new spinoff trilogy turns out to be. This is right there in the text, a truth that was revealed in The Force Awakens and then shown, in the new installment, in two converging accounts of a massacre that differ only on one central (but in the end inconsequential) point. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), born Ben Solo, the moody, powerful son of Han and Leia, attacked his teacher and left him for dead. Then he slaughtered most of his classmates before setting fire to the Jedi Temple where they'd been studying. He's a galaxy-far-far-away riff on an uncomfortably familiar figure out of the last few decades of news.
In the annals of Star Wars, Kylo's heel turn is nothing compared to that of his grandfather Darth Vader, who spent a whole trilogy getting seduced by the dark side before succumbing to evil, choking out his pregnant wife, killing a roomful of children, and turning against his longtime master. Vader's transformation was grand and tragic in its arc — the predetermined stuff of a space opera in which there is good, and there is evil, and the two forces continue to vie for supremacy in a galactic civilization spanning many species and star systems.
Kylo's break with his old life and old identity, on the other hand, is portrayed as a half-regretted act of resentful rebellion, an abbreviated self-immolation he still sometimes seems befuddled to have survived. Vader was an epic villain. Kylo was a kid who started idolizing his infamous grandfather because his parents were too busy to pay him enough attention, and even as a man he holds on to Vader's burnt-out helmet like a teenage outcast hoarding Axis memorabilia left behind by the generation no one talks about at family reunions. He wears his black robes like a high schooler in a trench coat — like he's playing dress-up in a uniform he's not yet big enough to wear.
Despite his aspirations toward it, there is no grandeur in Kylo Ren. But as a character, he verges on being too big and too complicated for the movies he's been a part of, especially as Adam Driver plays him, with a mixture of pain and hurt so raw it threatens to rend the fabric of the series every time he's on screen. Driver is terrific as Kylo Ren, so good that his wounded smoldering sometimes puts the character at odds with castwide acting that's otherwise calibrated to the straightforward pitch of an interstellar adventure. It feels as if Driver's working in 24-bit when everyone else has committed to 8.
That's never more clear than in Kylo's climactic showdown on the mining planet Crait with his own former mentor Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in The Last Jedi, in which a serviceable Hamill offers up a satisfying, cartoony shoulder brush — an unapologetic applause beat, the crusty older fighter shrugging off a blaster barrage like it's nothing. Meanwhile, opposite him, Driver roils like someone dredging up a lifetime's worth of bad memories for the sake of the scene; his face is blotchy with complex emotion, his shoulders rounded like someone who long ago accepted that grace was not for him, but that brute strength could be. He's mesmerizing in his method-heavy, contemporary-feeling angst — more than it feels like he should be, given that he's not the one we're supposed to be invested in at that moment.
Kylo's brooding, his temper tantrums, his petulant desire to carve out his own path, and his overall air of fetching, long-locked gothiness made him into a instant meme when The Force Awakens came out in 2015. He spawned the infinitely enjoyable Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account (whose two follows are Hot Topic and Darth Vader), Tumblrs devoted to his imagined awkward adolescence at home, and an army of shippers rooting for an alluringly dysfunctional endgame in which the character would end up with pure-of-heart hero Rey (Daisy Ridley). The Last Jedi, with its shirtless scene and its earnest, Force-enabled interplanetary conversations between Kylo and Rey (akin to late-night DMs), gives shippers plenty of fuel to recontextualize the relationship between the characters as a tortured, war-torn romance.
Kylo Ren is too appealing for straightforward villainy. But the cute-ification he's constantly subjected to speaks to how audiences are struggling to contend with a character who wasn't turned to the dark, but instead chose it. He is relatable in spite of his acts of monstrosity, not because he's misunderstood. Kylo trembles right on the verge of being too real a creation for Star Wars' good-versus-evil dichotomy, even in The Last Jedi, which has blurrier borders between the two.
He is laughable at some moments, and relatable at others. He's frightening without being a straightforward, power-hungry antagonist like his boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, or a slimy pantomime villain like his rival General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who might fit in better in Spaceballs. Kylo Ren doesn't seem to want anything at all, except to shed the past and the person he was, and to maybe have some company while doing it. He has gone to huge lengths to prove how little he cares about anything, when, obviously, he cares a lot about everything.
The apparently overwhelming desire in fans to soften Kylo’s edges and brush over his wrongs — he murdered his father, one of the franchise's most beloved characters, in the previous film — is a testament to just how compelling Driver and his commitment to the character are. But it's also the darkest trick that these new films — for all that criticism The Last Jedi is getting about its humor — have pulled off. In making Kylo so magnetic, the filmmakers have managed to turn us all into apologists, doing the fictional equivalent of online fans cooing over serial killers, or the neighbors who give quotes to the media about how the shooter seemed like such a nice guy.
Kylo Ren is such an intriguing villain that, despite everything he shows us about who he is, we — like the characters in the film — keep trying to turn him into something else: an anti-hero, a romantic lead, someone due for a happy ending instead of just possible redemption. Star Wars continues to struggle to introduce moral complexity into its fictional universe. But in Kylo Ren, the franchise has certainly introduced some complexity to its fandom, by reminding us how susceptible we are to giving unlimited chances to sad, angry young men. ●