Star Wars newest Big Bad has slashed his way across the silver screen, but as with every villain since Darth Vader, the question is: Does he live up to the hype?
(You will experience the full power of the SPOILERS!)
Vader was the bad guy for kids growing up in the late 70s and 80s – with his stilted, almost inhuman voice, impressive frame, and ruthless techniques – but in reality he was very much a lapdog for Emperor Palpatine. Still, he was a fearsome foe and his look is iconic for a reason.
When the prequels came out, new villains appeared. Visually speaking, Darth Maul is probably the most impressive cinematic Sith, but he was cut down before making a lasting impact on films (though he did return in the animated series). General Grievous had the look and – in the Tartakovsky cartoon at least – had the skills to match, but he too died in his debut film. Count Dooku lasted two films, but despite Christopher Lee’s brilliance, does not leave a lasting impression on general audiences.
In that respect, Kylo Ren’s visual passes muster. It is a distinctive and foreboding look – unfortunately it gives off the effect of Vader-light. His helmet is smaller, less detailed, and generally meant to evoke his predecessor, rather than establish his own presence.
Similarly, he’s not as impressive a fighter as Darth Maul, as distinctive as Grievous, or as brutal as Vader. In fact, although Kylo can take out Resistance fighters with ease, he struggles with the inexperienced Finn and Rey.
Here’s the thing though: Kylo Ren is exactly what this film needs in a villain.
Maul was an impressive fighter, but he went up against experienced Jedi with the resources of the Jedi Order to call upon. Vader was a powerful fighter (possibly weakened by age and cybernetics), and he was fairly matched with the somewhat trained and very passionate Luke, slightly overpowering his son in most respects.
In the case of Kylo, we are looking at a galaxy 30 years after the fall of the last known Sith and at least a decade after the last Jedi disappeared. For the story (and for new audiences), it was important that the main characters be new-but-somewhat-familiar with the Force. It was important that the heroes be neophytes, and as such, they would have been ill-matched with an experienced Sith warrior. It helps that when Kylo Ren fought the plucky pair, he was injured and bleeding, further handicapping him in the fight.
Also, Kylo’s Vader obsession may have made him appear as a moody emo teen, but given that many older fans were frustrated by the rather lack-luster prequels, and many younger fans were eager to see what the big deal about Vader was, it was useful that the film acknowledged all that in Kylo’s character. He advances the story while recalling the glory days, even as he doesn’t quite understand what those glory days were.
So between his distinct-but-not-groundbreaking look, his impressive-but-lackluster skills, and his obsession over a previous generation’s nostalgia, Kylo Ren was exactly the villain the franchise needed at this point.
By the next episodic film, however, faith in the franchise has been restored, the heroes have been established and may be allowed to grow, and audiences will be expecting something new. So by the time Episode VIII comes around, Kylo Ren’s training should be complete, and hopefully his look will be even more his own.