Star Wars: The Force Awakensâ€™ Kylo Ren is the perfect villainous heir to Anakin Skywalker: He is as emotionally volatile and unpredictable in his struggle between the Dark Side and the Light, and as compelling as Anakin should have been in the prequels. Â
Some, like Han, see â€œtoo much Vaderâ€ in Kyloâ€”meaning too much of prequel-Anakinâ€™s tedious tantrums and emo moodiness. This angstiness has even inspired a hilarious parody Twitter account, â€œEmo Kylo Ren,â€ that’s amassed 323,000 followers (and counting).
Others take issue with Renâ€™s decision to unmask himself midway through the film, well before his climactic confrontation with Han on Starkiller Base.
Then there are those who agree with the Vaticanâ€™s anonymous film critic, who derides Ren as a pale imitation of Vader in Lâ€™Osservatore Romano and writes that he â€œfails most spectacularlyâ€ as a â€œrepresentation of evil.â€
But is Ren meant to be a â€œrepresentation of evil?â€ (No, of course heâ€™s not.) And why is this Star Wars villain more polarizing than any other, including those he shares DNA with? The answers, it seems, are all in his face.
Kylo Ren spends most of The Force Awakens as a robotic-voiced, masked harbinger of death. We meet him amid the destruction of a Jakku village, where we witness his formidable Force ability when he stops a blaster shot mid-air. Soon, heâ€™s sentenced those innocent villagers to death, and personally executed Lor San Tekka, an elderly figure from Renâ€™s past.
The more we learn about Ren, the more frightening he becomes: we learn that he betrayed Luke Skywalker and massacred his school of padawans. We discover his devotion to Vaderâ€™s hate-filled legacy as he channels his inner Hamlet, delivering a moody monologue to Darthâ€™s mangled helmet, and witness his destructive outbursts of anger. We see that he is consumed by wild, negative emotionâ€”the most dangerous thing a Force-wielder can be.
And we genuinely fear for Rey when Ren captures her and binds her to a torture chair. (â€œYou know I can take whatever I want,â€ he soon tells her, Force-probing her memories against her will.)
Then Ren takes off his mask.
At this point, audience reactions go scattering faster than the pulverized remnants of Alderaan. Some people laughâ€”and who could blame them? Traditionally, a sight like Driver (and his shiny, shiny hair) is not what weâ€™ve come to expect from a Star Wars villainâ€™s mask removal.
But that faceâ€”that of a normal, vulnerable young manâ€”is the most subversively terrifying thing about J.J. Abramsâ€™ reimagining of A New Hope. Rather than pure evil, Ren is something far more familiar: He is human. Just like the real-life young men with minds clouded by fear, hate, and anger who commit unspeakable acts in our world every day.
It would be impossible to make that point, however, without showing the turmoil within Ren. Those tantrums, those tears, that surprisingly young, bare faceâ€”all the visual cues that leave the character open to criticisms of not being â€œevilâ€ enoughâ€”are all signs of Renâ€™s struggle between the Dark Side and the Light. To dismiss them is to dismiss the essence of Star Wars.
When Ren lures Han Solo onto the bridge at Starkiller Base, both sides of the Force are still warring across his face. As the Death Star 3.0 absorbs the final surges of solar power it needs to annihilate the Hosnian system and the Galactic Senate, Renâ€™s face is split in twoâ€”one half covered in shadows, the other bathed in light.
â€œIâ€™m being torn apart,â€ Ren tells his father, eyes welling with tears. â€œI know what I have to do but I donâ€™t know if I have the strength to do it. Will you help me?â€ He hands Han his lightsaber hilt, a conflicted gesture that could be construed as a silent plea for an end to his pain (death, perhaps)â€”or a ploy to put Han off his guard. More likely, itâ€™s some inscrutable combination of both.
â€œYes, anything,â€ Han replies with resolute open-heartednessâ€”a trait Ren seemingly interprets as weakness. The sky goes dark and shadows consume the rest of Renâ€™s face. He makes a choice: he ignites the blade straight through his fatherâ€™s heart, proving to himself (if to no one else) that he has what it takes to devote himself to the Dark Side.
When A New Hope hit theaters in 1977, no one in the audience knew that Darth Vader was Lukeâ€™s father, or that he had ever trained to become a Jedi, or that he was once the Chosen One. He was a cipherâ€”nothing more than power, evil, and a mask.
Ren, on the other hand, is a living battleground between darkness and light, making him a far more resonant and familiar portrayal of that struggle than weâ€™ve ever seen in Star Wars. While Vaderâ€™s fate was sealed long before A New Hope, Ren still has a choiceâ€”and a face. That, for my money, makes him a far more interesting villain.