I won’t mince words here. Confession time : I did despise Kylo Ren in TFA.
One of the annoying persistent Star Wars problem was the “not a boy but not yet a man” situation. Understandably, Star Wars franchise have been built as a journey to manhood and the ongoing struggle to achieve some degrees of masculine emotional maturity. Sometimes they did it good and sometimes they did it badly.
The Original trilogy have been largely about Luke Skywalker’s journey from being a farm boy to a legendary Jedi Master and the Prequel trilogy followed Anakin Skywalker from being a slave boy to a onerously whiny teenage boy to a legendary Sith Lord.
But the start of The Force Awaken, Ben Solo have no such luxury of having such a backstory. Clearly, his name was inspired from the Extended Universe’s Ben Skywalker and Jacen Solo turned Darth Caedus. But anyone who are familiar with the lore and these two characters, they all would say there’s nothing Ben Solo had in common.
Instead, Ben Solo turned Kylo Ren was introduced as a menacing masked figure terrorizing an entire village on Jakku. Through a very brief conversation, it was revealed he was a formerly a Jedi Padawan, trained by his uncle, Luke Skywalker who turned to the dark side except he was not-exactly Sith and he served a dark master named Supreme Leader Snoke of the First Order.
Throughout the movie, he killed and tortured people, he violently invade people’s mind. He force choke his officers. He destroyed military equipments with his flashy cross-guard lightsaber after being delivered some bad news. He brood on a melted mask of Darth Vader. He kidnap a girl and tried to force his way into his mind and instead she blocked him and manage to read his mind too. He killed his own father because Snoke told him so. He did it and got shot by Chewbacca who probably raised him too. While heavily wounded, he tried to kill a traitorous stormtrooper and then his kidnapped girl who never have any training at all managed to defeat him.
By the end of TFA, I already decided that he is a one dimensional whiny not-a-Jedi-but-not-Sith whack who can’t decide whether he wanted to be Darth Caedus or Darth Vader or Darth Revan.
The Force Awakens was a disappointing movie despite being strangely beloved by non-Star Wars fan. All the time I am looking forward to another believable Star Wars villain who I could root for but the movies since the prequels never really pique my interest. Because around that same release date, I was already spoiled by the likes of Emperor Valkorion, Arcann and Vaylin in the Knights of Fallen Empire. Fantastic Star Wars villains, all exploring multiple facades of antagonistic archetypes. (Will talk more about these three in other post..)
Throughout the countdown to “The Last Jedi” premiere, I was not expecting anything out Kylo Ren or Adam Driver himself. (The only person who loved him was my 7 years old nephew because Kylo Ren is cool). Plus, the trailer of him about to press a trigger with the intention of killing Leia really doesn’t make him endearing at all!
And while it was lightly hinted in TFA but after multiple viewing of TLJ, I am utterly convinced that Rian Johnson did play Knights of the Old Republic and Knights of the Fallen Empire.
Even back in TFA, it was not a coincidence that Kylo Ren’s mask was clearly inspired by Darth Revan and his crossguard lightsaber was later revealed in Rebels to come from Malachor.
Meanwhile, Rey herself was stylized more to be like Bastila Shan. Even if the movie confirmed that Rey came out of nothing, but it was determined by Snoke himself that her bloodline was something more…. and being a descendant of the Shan seemed like a logical sense to me.
…and this is probably the moment where I reveal my personal headcanon that Star Wars The Old Republic’s Lord Wrath of the Sith Empire and Emperor Arcann of Eternal Empire were direct ancestors to the Skywalkers because Ben Solo finally made the family proud!
Ehem… my Skywalkers are always royalty.
And I came fully expected TLJ’s Kylo Ren to be nothing more than the person he was in TFA; Reckless, whiny, angsty, emo, daddy-killing and Vader-wannabe…. which was the fairly one-dimensional villain that JJ Abrams had clearly written for himself and his story….
But damn, it was like Rian Johnson played KOTFE and suddenly Kylo Ren had an Emperor Arcann upgrade! And it was glorious!
Now, before anyone get sidetracked…. let this Knights of the Fallen Empire trailer roll…
Or if you don’t want to watch that gloriously awesome short film, its about an emperor who was emotionally abusive to his sons. That his sons became so obsessed with wanting every ounce of his attention that they invade planets just to please their father… who remain unimpressed and this drove Arcann into the darkside. But in his rage, he accidentally killed his older brother instead.
Of course, the only link between this Prince Arcann and TFA’s Kylo Ren was both wanted to kill their own father.
Unlike TFA’s Kylo Ren, Arcann would do anything to have his father’s love, but Valkorion was incapable of that love. Arcann’s backstory was much more tragic. Arcann accidentally sacrificed his own beloved twin brother and his father approved this. And yes, Valkorion rewarded Arcann and made his dark side permanent and throughout the entire Fallen Empire story, Arcann became worse and drowning in his hatred and rage. He became a tyrannical ruler and all he care was to completely destroy his own father.
While Arcann was painted as the cruel villain but in my story (because its an RPG, duh), Arcann’s reason was completely sound. My protagonist was also a villain in his story. She was a Sith Lord and formerly served his father as the Emperor’s Wrath. And because of Star Wars’ penchant for the dramatic, by the end of the first chapter, she became the final vessel for the immortal Lord of Many Faces. She carried the connection to Valkorion’s force spirit to the living and Arcann interrupted this ritual by keeping her body inside carbonite block for years.
…and she kicked his ass.. and knock some sense into him. That’s how we Sith ladies roll with guys we like…
But throughout “Fallen Empire”, Arcann was never portrayed a one-dimensional character. He was a very methodical person, who made calculated move and he doesn’t force choke every knights that annoys him. He let his own crazy sister loose. And when the failures became overwhelming, he can be extremely ruthless in his punishment. Bombing cities in several sectors to show his might. Putting up huge space station to control the galactic population. Made a battle royale out of his knights to make them fear to fail him even more.
And this is where The Last Jedi’s Ben Solo aligned with Arcann’s characteristics… both characters do things they both believe themselves being completely justified. And both did sacrificed the people they loved. Arcann killed his own beloved twin brother and Ben Solo killed his own beloved father.
Yes, TLJ did made it very clear that Ben loved his parents and this is why Snoke forced him to kill off that part of him. Instead of awarding Kylo Ren, Snoke still punished him for carrying his father’s death inside him. And when he sensed his mother’s presence and just like in TFA, he had the hardest time to actually kill her. Both times, he made it obvious it was tearing him apart.
Something that even Rey managed to feel through the Force Bond that was formed between them (which Revan and Bastila also shared). Initially, she respond his presence in her mind with aggression and violence. She accused him for being a monster who killed his own father. Except that through the bond, they were attuned to each other. It was very impossible for Ben to lie about his true feelings about it and she felt Ben’s pain and self-hate. They were able to see through each other.
Just like Rey, Ben was able to glimpse her true self. Her desire for the love of her absent parents that kept her strong-willed that she grew attached to others; in Han Solo, in Luke Skywalker and in Leia. Rey was trying to find someone to belong to and she repressed this part of her inside so much that she was in complete denial of the truth of her existence. Her situation and her past that she was completely miserable and hopeless. They were both vulnerable to each other and just like lonely souls, they gravitated to each other.
“There were always three sides to every event—yours, theirs, and the truth that lay somewhere in the middle.”
This is where “The Last Jedi” also became Kylo Ren’s origin story and Luke’s greatest personal failure. Ben Solo became the person he was because he was betrayed by his own beloved uncle who tried to murder him and Luke’s momentary struggle with his own fears and darkness had directly driven his own nephew to the dark side. Fulfilling his own dark vision of Ben’s destiny.
Rather than admitting this mistake and dealing with it, Luke let his shame drew him away from everyone. He isolated himself from everyone he loved; letting Leia deal with the aftermath even. He went back to the place that was the beginning of the Jedi to live like a hermit monk, similar to Obi-Wan’s story and yet very different.
Of course, Ben hated his uncle so badly. His uncle was the reason he become this hateful being. Serving under a hateful master that kept a leash on him, pushing him to commit atrocities, being a monster simply because his own grandfather was one.
Just like Arcann, Ben Solo was filled with hatred and rage. Rather than deal with it, he lashed out at everyone and everything because he felt justified and wronged. That if he let himself drown in pain and his own darkness, maybe he would finally stop to care and stop punishing himself for being so weak.
This is the Ben Solo that Rey wanted to save.
Even in her naivety, she was convinced Kylo Ren could be redeemed and she could save Ben. She was very upfront for Luke being a coward; For not doing anything to stop the madness he had helped unleashed. For not standing up to his family and be accountable for his own mistakes. This belief lead herself to a trap, yes. But upon meeting with Kylo Ren, she was still addressing Ben Solo inside him.
When she bravely confront Snoke, she still languished in her belief in her shared bond with Ben Solo. This belief was unwavered even when Snoke gloated that he had somehow strengthened the bond between them and bragged that he would end the rebellion once and for all and tortured her for Luke’s location.
And it was very clear, that Snoke could easily manipulate Rey to the dark side even without herself realizing this herself. Predictably, she responded with anger and become murderous when she tried to kill Snoke.
Whereas Ben himself already knew that exact fate awaits both of them. If he did turn to the light at that moment, Snoke would sense this and would just kill him off and corrupt Rey in the process. If he killed Rey, he would also kill his other half and condemn himself to Snoke’s servitude eternally. The only option was left for him was to manipulate the situation that benefit both of them.
But when Ben Solo looked at an empty throne, it was an enigma that still plague both Original trilogy and the Prequel trilogy.
The Galactic Empire was born because the Galactic Republic grew comfortable and corrupted. They let an ambitious senator from Naboo to become a chancellor, not knowing fully that he was a Sith Lord, intending to destroy the Jedi Order. Darth Sidious manipulated the events, manipulate the people who favored him. Turned loyal clone troopers against the Jedi. Turned Anakin to the dark side. Reinforce his ruling beyond what democracy have to offer. He was made an Emperor and was applauded by the entire parliament as they crown him as their new Caesar.
And later, The First Order emerged because of the power vacuum left after the destruction of the Darth Sidious’ Empire in “The Return of the Jedi”. While the leadership was left empty, beings like Snoke usurped an empty throne so easily. There will always be people like Hux and his burgeoning army that wanted to reclaim the glory days of old. There will be people like those on Canto Bight that thrive under this continued conflict on both sides.
Ben saw the chance to change the galaxy to fit his own vision, he made her an offer that was sounded more like a plea for her to rule with him. Of course, she rejected him and he was left hurt and again, went back to his old ways of lashing at the people who had hurt him.
As the only way for him to reassert his control, even with a broken fleet, he still pursued his mother with intention to annihilate her entire rebellion. He would succeed if he wasn’t distracted by the presence of Luke Skywalker.
Again, Ben Solo assumed his Kylo Ren’s persona to confront his own uncle. He ignored Luke’s apology and his temper kept reigniting whenever Luke partly taunted him. Not realizing the little signs shown in front of him; how Luke looked barely age since the last time Ben saw him as his Padawan, Anakin’s lightsaber in Luke’s hand and the undisturbed salt underneath his feet.
And it all come in full circle, especially for a lot of most characters in this new trilogy. The movie is about failures and everyone having to face it and learn from it. Ben Solo was not exempted from this narrative and as Kylo Ren, this failures will have consequences and it was clearly shown through the dissent in his ranks.
Another thing that TFA and TLJ made it clear, Kylo Ren doesn’t earn true respect of the First Order. He was a servant of Snoke and unlike Darth Vader, Kylo Ren does not incite fear or loyalty in others, with or without his mask. General Hux in particularly, was shown in multiple of times that his loyalty was not yet earned. This wild card, might be an overarching arc in the next movie.
Not surprisingly, I emerged out of the cinema being slightly overwhelmed and amazed that finally the trilogy have its own notorious well-written antagonist that was worth to root for. Maybe not exactly identical as Darth Vader, but as Kylo Ren himself.
I like that TLJ opened so many potential for his story and unfortunately, unlike Arcann, the path of redemption through his mother is impossible now. Maybe, Rey will mean that for him. Or the next movie will became a crowd pleaser or this Kylo Ren might fall back to being one-note villain. Or maybe Knights of The Eternal Throne’s Arcann might change the next writer/director’s mind about their villain. Maybe in the movies’ future, we will have our own Empress Vaylin?
Hopefully, the next movie could still surprise me to write like this again.
And I could finally let this one out of the bag now; I really love Kylo Ren.
Yep, never expected that.