Friday, January 22, 2016

Why Kylo Ren Is the New Darth Vader

Yes, Episode VII spoilers.

Months ago when the merch for The Force Awakens started showing up in stores, I was somewhat indignant that Kylo Ren was everywhere, trying to replace Darth Vader as the main villain. I didn't know who Kylo Ren was, so why would I be interested in seeing him everywhere (well, I did like Rey just because of her costume--but that's a different matter)?

And then we come to the character he establishes in the movie. When he first appears, it seems that he is an attempt at another dark, ruthless, evil character. So your first instinct is to compare him to Vader, to see how his mask's voice is different from Vader's, how (though tall) his figure is not as physically imposing as Vader's, how he walks about with such force and power and yet not somehow quite the same command that Vader had. And then at some point you realize that all of this is intentional; for me, the moment came when he takes off his mask while talking to Rey. In that moment, his character clicked into place.

As I've said before, I came to realize that Kylo Ren isn't just a character we call a wannabe--he is written as a wannabe. He wants to take the place of Darth Vader. He isn't wholly successful yet--but he's trying. And that's just as sinister, if not more sinister, than if he were a full, blown-out, flat baddie character (like Darth Maul, who always felt rather temporary and therefore not terribly powerful or important in the long run).

Back when I started thinking about Episode VII, I wondered how it was possible to continue the story, where the writers would take it. Both the OT and the PT are Vader's story, Anakin's story: it is his character arc that informs the most important part of both trilogies. He was Star Wars. So how do you make Star Wars without Vader? (And I realize that there are and have always been plenty of books and such that focus on other characters--but I'm focusing on the movies here.) Well, you have to create a new Vader. And what made Vader Vader not just as himself but also as an important feature of both trilogies was his character arc. That was where the value was, where the themes were, and where all my greatest interest was. So if you want to try and replace that, you can't just create a villain: you have to create someone with a significant and engaging character arc. And Kylo Ren is just that.

I keep getting more obsessed with this character (Vader will always be Vader--liking a new character doesn't have to replace the old ones). I love the theory that he's secretly trying to take over the First Order from the inside; it's so easy to find evidence for this. But the reality is more complicated, isn't it?

I keep pausing on his conversation with Vader's melted helmet. "I will finish what you started . . . grandfather." We've been so focused on the first phrase that what about that last word? "Grandfather?" Does that seem a little odd to anyone else? Okay, it can just be a line in there to reveal who Kylo Ren is, but that isn't really necessary because Han and Leia (and even Snoke) talk about who he is. Think about it. If he's such a fan of Vader/his accomplishments, then wouldn't he feel the need to have a little more decorum? Wouldn't he have some other title, something else to call this powerful, dark figure? Grandfather? It's such a familiar term, so informal, and it hints so much of kindness. (This could also just back up the idea that Ren simply believes he is in the right and isn't "evil"--but I like to think otherwise.)

So perhaps people are right. When he says grandfather, it means that he is talking of Anakin, not to Vader (Anakin's Force Ghost for Episode VIII, anyone?). And when he fears that he will never be as strong as Darth Vader, it is that he fears he will never have the strength to turn away from the darkness in the end as Vader did. There is that line of his, where he talks of feeling the pull to the light again as if it's a bad thing--but maybe it's a bad thing just because the timing isn't right? Or just because he knows he needs to continue the farce for a little longer, in order to accomplish something.

Whenever I try and remind myself of how creepy and sinister Kylo Ren could be, I keep getting reminded of that constant duality that is in him. When he's talking creepily/threateningly to Rey, he also could seem almost reluctant to actually look in her mind for what he wants--it's like he's trying to put it off (which could also mean that there is something about his "mind power" that works at a cost to himself, even that it's simply unpleasant to do). When he kills Han Solo, he cries. He talks for the whole movie about hating his father but then he cries when he kills him. It's just the best thing ever. Is he trying to be dark or secretly trying to be good--and does he even know what he's trying to do?

There wasn't so much mystery around Darth Vader in Episode IV as this, was there? Kylo Ren, if you're just getting started, this is a good start and I can't wait to see what else is in store. . . . So many years of guessing and theories and imaginings, that's what. (This reminds me of the time before Episode III came out. There was a joke about how Darth Vader's face was burned when he was taking cookies out of the oven . . . it's so funny now to think that we once didn't know how Vader became the burnt, mostly-machine figure he is in the OT.)

(Oh, and what's with the face-slashing of Kylo Ren by Rey? Usually the bodily deformations [hands and arms getting chopped off] happen in the second episode of a trilogy. So why does he get them now? Will he have scars? And why do the slashes on his face look suspiciously like the scars on Snoke's face? Snoke must be him from the future [has anyone built up evidence for that theory yet?] Maybe the slashes are just a physical representation of the deterioration that took place within him when he killed his father. I could talk about this all day--but I've already filled up the space of two or three posts, haven't I?)

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