Going into Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the trailers, posters, toys and myriad promotional materials presented new characters and questions about them. Who was the Stormtrooper experiencing a moral and identity crisis, compelling him to change sides? Who was the scavenger on a desert planet living off scraps but feeling the pull of a greater calling?
But perhaps the most mysterious figure was the new bad guy, dressed in black robes with the unusual cross-hilt lightsaber (with red blade, so you knew he was evil) that was the most memorable image of that first teaser trailer. This shadowy presence loomed as the new embodiment of the Dark Side.
A few months later, we got a better look at the villain. Under that hood was a smaller, sleeker Darth Vader-like helmet. Of course, many of us had likely seen concept art or stills prior to that second trailer. Though still a rumor, it was pretty widely known that the character’s name was Kylo Ren. Playing the man under the mask was Adam Driver, known primarily from playing Hannah’s boyfriend on HBO’s Girls, but viewed as one of the more intriguing young actors in Hollywood.
Judging from him keeping Vader’s charred helmet as a memento or shrine, Kylo Ren was apparently a disciple of the galaxy’s most infamous Sith Lord. But was he truly a student of the Dark Side and a heir to Vader, or was he more of a wannabe, aspiring to reach the heights (or depths) of his idol? His more ragged, less refined appearance — along with that lightsaber that looked more fiery, almost sputtering — suggested someone that wasn’t as much of a finished product as Vader.
This new dark knight, if you will, certainly didn’t cut as imposing a figure as his presumed predecessor, though was no less menacing as the proverbial man in black of the story. With his face and expression unseen behind that ninja-like helmet, we didn’t know what Kylo Ren was capable of and how fearsome he was. Yet he was obviously on the Imperial side of the battle, so it was pretty clear that his intentions were far from noble.
Here’s where we’ll put up the SPOILER ALERT for those who still haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Though it’s curious that you’d read this article otherwise. Not that we mind. But consider this your warning that significant character and story details from the movie will be discussed from here on. May the Force be with you.)
Now, of course, we know all about Kylo Ren. Though the story of The Force Awakens doesn’t belong to any one character — following Rey along the hero’s journey and Finn’s existential evolution — he is every bit the antagonist of this tale, setting the narrative in motion by pursuing the map that reveals the location of the missing Luke Skywalker. Presumably, Kylo is acting on orders from the new Imperial puppet master, Supreme Leader Snoke, to find Skywalker in order to prevent him from reviving the Jedi Order and balancing the scales of power.
Right away, there seems to be something more personal to this quest for our villain. Lor San Tekka, the old man who has the map in his possession alludes to what Kylo used to be, where he came from. The two knew each other in an earlier time. Tekka has seen what’s under that mask. Yet if there was any sentimentality, it’s struck down decisively as Kylo dispatches the elder with his lightsaber. Cold and merciless, just like Darth Vader.
However, roughly a third of the way through the story we learn the truth about Kylo Ren while he consults with Snoke. And it’s that information which establishes what makes this character so compelling and potentially the greatest villain the Star Wars saga has ever had. While fleeing the First Order (the story’s new version of the Empire) with the map to Skywalker in their possession, Rey and Finn encounter Han Solo. The connection to the original trilogy, the bridge from the past to the future, is now explicit. But Solo isn’t just in the story for reference to familiar stories, for nostalgic fan service. He has a very direct role in this story. We learn that Solo is Kylo Ren’s father.
With that revelation, Kylo becomes an infinitely more interesting character. He’s not just the muscle and mysticism behind the First Order, a lightsaber-wielding figurehead for the Dark Side. He used to be with the good guys, alongside his parents on the Light Side of the Force. That doesn’t just make Kylo a Darth Vader disciple; his heritage gives him birthright. He is a true successor.
But Kylo is more conflicted than Vader ever was. Yes, Anakin Skywalker was mentored by Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, before being lured to the Dark Side by Emperor Palpatine (Darth Sidious). Yet there was no prior connection to either side, especially no familial ties. Anakin followed his own path to good, then evil, and finally redemption before his death. Kylo was raised by Han Solo and Leia Organa, the latter of whom is Anakin’s daughter. The power of the Force is within her. Her brother, Luke, sought to provide guidance. All of the influences Anakin never had were present for Kylo, whose real name we eventually learn is Ben (presumably in tribute to Obi-Wan).
But Leia and Luke can’t overcome the deeper influence in the Skywalker bloodline. As Han says to Leia when discussing their son, “There’s too much Vader in him.” That heritage presumably sways Ben to the Dark Side, rejecting Luke’s teachings and embracing his more sinister, power-hungry tendencies. Unlike Vader, however, Kylo hasn’t gone all-in with the Dark Side. He admits as much in a confessional moment, seeking further guidance and inspiration from the empty, charred helmet of Vader. He still feels the pull of the Light. Rey later learns this too, as Kylo attempts to control her mind. His ultimate fear is that he’s not as strong as Darth Vader.
Kylo Ren isn’t an irredeemable character. His parents believe there is still hope of bringing him back and saving his soul. That, more than any kind of obligation to the Resistance, is what compels Han to accompany Finn on his mission to sabotage the new Death Star, Starkiller Base. His true obligation is to Leia and their son. Ben represents Han’s greatest failure.
All of this leads to the most powerful scene in The Force Awakens, the confrontation between father and son. Han calls Ben by his given name, reaching out to him despite the inherent danger in approaching an evil figure (not to mention all of the Stormtroopers nearby or standing on a bridge with no railing over a seemingly bottomless pit). He has to try to save his son. Yet does Ben wants to be saved? It certainly appears that the possibility exists. He removes his mask to face his father. He confesses that he feels torn apart inside, unsure if he’s strong enough to do what he knows he must.
That builds to perhaps the biggest question of this story. Was Ben actually conflicted in that moment? Was he expressing his true feelings of conflict to his father? Or was it all a ruse intended to lower Han’s defenses? Director J.J. Abrams, Harrison Ford and Driver build the tension in this scene so well, with Ben handing his lightsaber to his father yet won’t quite let go of it. As both Han and Ben hold on to the weapon, we don’t know what is going to happen. Ben’s face appears to soften and tears well up in his eyes. But is it remorse or weakness in that expression?