In 1977 Darth Vader walked through an airlock, over the bodies of his enemies and into cinema legend as one of the most recognizable villains to ever grace the silver screen. He projected menace and power, crushed his enemies and nearly pulled a hero from the path of righteousness. His silhouette alone is instantly recognizable. To bring him to life required the towering presence of a bodybuilder, with a stunt double to fill in for his lightsaber battles, two separate costume designers, one to build his suit and another to craft his skull-like helmet, the boneshaking bass voice of James Earl Jones and a sound design team to add in the uncanny rasping of his breath. Any character portrayed in film is a mix of multiple contributors but Vader combined the parts so thoroughly, made each piece so much a part of the identity, that to remove one would be to destroy the character in his entirety. Like a chimera or Frankenstein’s creature, Vader is many parts stitched together into a single whole. His very existence is somewhat monstrous.
Every other villain to share the screen with Vader faded into the background. Even Grand Moff Tarkin and the Emperor were defined primarily by the fact that Darth Vader, the biggest bad guy in the room, deferred to them. Other villains in the franchise that had a role similar to Vader’s were carefully crafted to be distinct from The Man himself. Darth Maul was lithe and exotic, and very much a loner where Vader was comfortable with authority. General Grievous was wiry, shifty and stooped over. Count Duku was refined, polished to the point of being borderline greasy, and charismatic. Care was taken to make sure these characters wouldn’t have to compete with Vader, to make sure they could have a strong impact on the story and catch the attention of audiences.
Then along came Kylo Ren.
Unlike other Force using villains in Star Wars lore he is a deliberate attempt to homage Vader. But the problem is he doesn’t actually homage Vader.
He wields the Force but still has some strange sort of inferiority complex. He has incredible power but he comes across as largely ineffective and silly. Where Darth Vader was a villain who was a credible threat even when he failed and barely displayed visible power in the first film, Ren couldn’t even come out on top of verbal sparring with Poe Dameron even after stopping a laser blast with the power of his mind. If the intent was to create a villain to continue Vader’s incredible legacy of villainy on the silver screen then the movie failed entirely.
It seems to me that the point of Kylo Ren was to show a person aspiring to greatness and finding the model for that greatness in a force of incredible evil. There’s nothing wrong with watching a person aspiring to great and/or good things and slipping into evil along the way. If done right it’s both a beneficial lesson and an entertaining show, as anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad can attest. One of my favorite video game villains, Kefka, started life as a humble official and steadily undermined others until he was the chief political force in his nation and, ultimately, the greatest physical power in the world as well.
But these characters were interesting villains because they grew into their roles and became steadily more and more dangerous as time went on. Kefka was left eating the heroes’ dust at first but he quickly graduated to murdering towns, regicide and attempted genocide. Kylo Ren starts strong when he orders the death of a village but quickly stumbles when he can’t hang on to his prisoners or win any of the following ground battles he participates in.
The worst bit for Kylo’s character comes when he is saved from total defeat by Rey entirely because of happenstance. He didn’t have a clever way out, or force a draw by pulling up some deep reserve of power we’d seen glimpses of throughout the film, he was bested in an arena he was trained and experienced in by a complete novice. In short, he looked pathetic.
And yet, all of this would have been acceptable. Except everything about the character was designed to cause comparisons to Darth Vader.
There’s a phenomenon where you deliberately back yourself into a corner, where you make grandiose claims in order to spur yourself to greater heights, with the catch being that failure makes them look like an idiot. Kylo Ren’s deliberate comparison to Vader was the storytelling equivalent of backing oneself into a corner. It created such high expectations for the character that failing to meet them basically doomed the character’s effectiveness as a villain.
Now it’s possible Ren isn’t meant as a villain for future movies, that he will be redeemed at some (hopefully early) later point. But if that’s the case then so thoroughly and obviously ruining his ability to serve as a villain in the future still served to reduce interest in him and what he could become since he pretty much can’t work as a good villain anymore.
The hard truth is that villains need a certain amount of menace to them in order to work as villains. It doesn’t have to be a physical threat, the Mean Girl archetype works in school settings because they can threaten social ostracization for example, but all villains are somehow threatening. But when you implicitly invoke a certain level of threat then you have to bring that level of game or all ability to look threatening is lost. And that’s the problem with Kylo Ren. He’s not a bad villain. He just has too much to live up to.
You can’t always avoid standing in the shadow of greatness. You can even try to own that fact. But in the end that’s a double edged sword, so be careful. If it comes back to bite you it will do so twice as hard as if you’d downplayed the fact instead.
On to other matters – we started this run of nonfiction posts on Star Wars heroes and we end on Star Wars villains. Next week look forward to the start of a new story set in the only place we know less of than outer space… Yes, that’s right. Our favorite salvage sub is back in action. See you at crush depth!