Kylo Ren, the Millennial Dark Lord — A Star Wars Character Analysis

(This article contains spoilers from Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. You have been warned!)

Promotional image for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (image by Walt Disney and Lucasfilm Ltd.)

In the opening minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to an ominous fanfare composed by musical legend John Williams, a black robe-clad warrior strides forth from the depths of a space shuttle. The expressionless silver and grey helmet masks a countenance bedecked with menacing determination as he marches into a village, newly conquered by his bone white armoured minions, surveying the desolation before his eyes. To a film goer observing this tenebrous figure’s parade on the 17th of December 2015, it bears a remarkable similarity to a scene involving another dark lord. A scene which hit the big screen 38 years prior, as an introductory to an asthmatic icon of Western film culture whose unmistakable visage appears on birthday cards and teacups everywhere.

It is this comparison of Kylo Ren to the legendary Darth Vader, his grandfather, that serves to drive forward his character. To begin with, his entire aesthetic is well in line with the First Order, the successor to the Galactic Empire, being darker and edgier than its antecedent. He is much more prone to fits of berserk rage, as many a starship computer terminal can reliably attest. His cross-guard crimson lightsaber seethes with greater intensity than Vader’s elegant scarlet blade. Even his mask, evoking the distant image of a skull, is showier. By comparison to Vader, who radiates dread and class in equal measure, Ren is more obviously loaded with bitter, seething anger.

Despite all the wrathful pomp, there is nothing sophisticated at all about his conduct. For all of his showmanship, he remains profoundly conflicted, perhaps even confused. He is shown as longing to be like his grandfather, and even goes as far as to murder his own father to try and crush any prospect of returning to the light side. Unlike Vader, however, Ren’s devotion to the dark does not end with the untimely demise of the Palpatine-figure that is Supreme Leader Snoke — indeed, Ren quite literally seizes leadership of the First Order by the throat. And there is no forgiveness for his former Jedi Master, none other than Luke Skywalker, for having failed him as badly as he did. By the end of The Last Jedi, it is blindingly obvious that Ren has his own ideas for how the galaxy should be ruled, and nobody else gets a piece of the pie.

The appearance of Kylo Ren in the tail-end of this decade is perfectly timed, as the millennial generation either has or is about to enter the rigours of adulthood. There many of them will face the same great problems that Ren has faced through the course of his development as a character: dissatisfaction, fear, anger, confusion and disappointment. He has had two primary mentors in his life — Luke and Snoke, both representative of opposite poles of the spectrum of light and dark. In both, Ren has found only disappointment. Luke betrayed him and almost killed him in the heat of passion, thinking he was an irredeemable monster. Snoke, while appearing to be an (almost) kindly father figure at first, proves himself to be a cruel monster who berates and beats his “unbalanced” apprentice when the outcome of his grand schemes start to look less certain.

Indeed, the only character to whom Ren relates on any meaningful level is Rey. By comparison to Ren, she is almost pure, with the sole uncertainty in her short life being her parentage. His repeated attempts to take her under his wing serve to exacerbate his inward struggle with himself, this being most evident when he attempts to torture the location of Luke out of her in The Force Awakens. There, she reveals his deepest dread, a stark reality that the audience itself is all too aware of — he will never be like Darth Vader.

So, instead of making a desperate effort to emulate greater men than himself, he must carve his own bloody, computer debris-strewn path through the depths of the galaxy. Our only hint as to what that trail will look like, as it will be unveiled in the grand finale to the sequel trilogy next year, comes from his mantra to let the past die — and I for one can’t wait.