I recently watched the new Star Wars film for the first time since its global premiere. I remembered being favorably impressed despite its awkward conclusion at Starkiller Base. However, I also remember leaving the theater thinking, “Kylo Ren is going to get a LOT of hate.”
As funny as it is to see Kylo Ren portrayed as a whiny emo fanboy (“you haven’t really heard the Imperial March until you’ve heard it on vinyl”), the character represents a tragic missed opportunity. While Ren might be worried he won’t live up to Darth Vader’s legacy, the audience is already sure of it.
Kylo Ren suffers from two problems. The first is simple, and one of the most insidious issues for a good writer to tackle. The author knows that their character competent and powerful, spends an opening scene establishing that the character is competent and powerful, then spends the rest of the film on the “interesting” stuff. The character’s fears and flaws.
Unfortunately this doesn’t usually work. An audience is in a relationship with the character onscreen. We’re spending time with them and we need to enjoy that time. A favorable first impression only goes so far. We get an excellent first impression of Kylo Ren’s fearsome capabilities in the opening sequence. The rest of the film shows us him being a (seemingly) incompetent fanboy that spits on the legacies of all our favorite characters. Even his hero-worship of Darth Vader comes off as pathetic, as Vader himself saw the error of his ways.
There are explanations for why it makes sense when Ren failed repeatedly in the second half of the film, but it’s still hard to be intimidated by a guy you watch run away from his own restrained prisoner and wind up beaten down into the snow. Rey was already established as a badass. It wasn’t necessary for her to triumph in this battle. A brilliant escape would have been more than enough.
The second problem is much more interesting. Kylo Ren isn’t ill conceived as a villain. In fact, he’s caught between two utterly different and completely effective ways of approaching his character. Unfortunately the writers tried to do both at once rather than picking one, and both approaches undermine each other.
The authors decided to create a merciless killing machine, then try and show conflict by revealing weaknesses and lack of conviction to make him more likable (or at least interesting). In the process we see Ren as a monster because of the innocents he butchers and the beloved characters he assassinates, making him distinctly unlikable. The weakness in his conviction and his rebellious whiny teen fanboy side undermine his menace (as do his defeats).
There were two options to make the character work. Here they are.
The most obvious option first, Kylo Ren could easily have been portrayed as Darth Vader 2.0. A confident predator who demonstrates pure conviction in his path. Darth Vader does not appear noticeably conflicted for the first two films, he’s a force of darkness in the setting. Vader does not whine, he does not cringe, he does not run, he does not doubt his path. It is up to Luke to try and bring out good when no one else sees any.
This approach would have been even more believable the second time around. We know Darth Vader was redeemed by the unwavering faith of his son. There’s precedent that anyone can come back to the light. What’s more, this isn’t Vader. This is Ben Solo. We’d have more faith in this kid than we ever did in the robotic menace. We don’t need to see evidence of Ren wavering in his room and claiming to feel the pull of the light.
This approach would barely change the script. The scene of Ren expressing doubts would be cut. He would not remove his helmet in Rey’s interrogation (leading to a more powerful reveal when the robotic monster reveals his youthful face unscarred by the dark side to Han in the climax). His reaction to Rey’s own insight would be the one burst of uncontrolled rage we see in the film, his blade flashing to her throat as if about to kill her… Before he wrestles himself back. Rey is the one person who could get under his skin. Foreshadowing eh?
The second option is to explore Ren as the gentleman Sith. Imagine if Ren, upon being asked what to do with the villagers in the opening scene, did not respond after a pause “kill them all” but rather, “We’ve got what we need. Pull out.” When reminded that Snoke will not approve of this he locks the subordinate in a force choke.
A Kylo Ren that demonstrates he isn’t yet entirely gone through actions rather than monologues would be infinitely more effective and likable. He would be established as always finding an excuse not to step off the deep end. He would argue strongly against the use of the Starkiller weapon, citing not mercy but rather that it will raise resistance or perhaps gain Skywalker’s attention, and will insist on a mind probe interrogation of Rey rather than drugged torture (as Leia experienced in New Hope).
Then he meets Han Solo… And kills him. With this lead-up to his character, that moment would come as a far more powerful shock.
Either approach for Ren would be a far stronger use of the character. Ren is one of only two major flaws with the film, the other being the way the film completely changes its plot halfway through the movie (Map? What map? We’re blowing up planets now!).