Kylo Ren and the Iconography of “Star Wars” Villians

We’re little under a month away from Star Wars making its return to theaters for the first time in a decade and the amount of news stories, rumor discussions, and think pieces posted online concerning the film have reached a boiling point. But one more couldn’t hurt, right?

I was inspired after walking around Target a few weeks ago purchasing a beard trimmer when I was struck by the desire to visit the toy section and peruse the new Star Wars merchandise. Because no matter how much of a grown-ass man you are, if you’re a Star Wars fan, new toys still give a spark of excitement rivaled only by children on Christmas. Action figures, Legos, even freakin’ Micro Machines are back in this new lineup of toys! Then, as I was observing the new electronic lightsabers, I mused at how Kylo Ren, the main villain of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has already risen to such prominence in the fanbase. I’m not just talking about his crossguard lightsaber or even the speculations surrounding his origin, but more specifically that his face is plastered on all the packaging for the film’s merchandise, that his toys are the most sought after, and that fans already feel familiarized with Ren, myself included. I even saw a youngling no older than seven wearing a Kylo Ren costume a few weeks ago, obviously stoked for Halloween.

Then I had flashbacks to 1999 when The Phantom Menace was being hyped. Darth Maul’s face was on all the packaging and everyone was talking about his double-bladed lightsaber, and I had this thought: how is Star Wars able to make a new villain like Kylo Ren so iconic before the film is even out? Moreover, how do Star Wars villains stand so far above the rest compared to villains in other franchises?

Now, I’m not saying that other movie villains haven’t taken the spotlight before. When it comes to superhero films and sequels, one of the first questions is always “Who’s going to be the villain?” Go back to 2008’s The Dark Knight where every trailer was basically building hype for the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. Hell, look at the whole Batman film series and see just how much focus is given to the villains of each movie. Jump ahead to present day where the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in full force with movies named after villains such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even the James Bond films, which make their name by introducing a new set of exciting of villains every film, have finally come full circle with the reintroduction of SPECTRE into the franchise.

These are only a few examples. And yet, none of these villains have generated such instantaneous hype, speculation, and iconography compared to Kylo Ren, who has been the most talked about new character in the film ever since we first witnessed him igniting his lightsaber in that first trailer almost a year ago. Yes, people were very pumped for The Joker in The Dark Knight and fans of Bond are wondering how SPECTRE will tie into the storyline of the newer films. But compare all that to the fact that Stephen Colbert made an argument for the crossguard lightsaber on his show almost immediately following The Force Awakens’s first trailer. How was this hype achieved? Well, there is the boring answer: because of Disney and effective marketing strategies. But there is actually more to it than that.

The first answer is a bit of a broad copout: because it’s Star Wars. When you think about it, Star Wars has always had a reputation for villains that exude dominance, that feel larger than life, and, most prominently, embody badassness (bombadness? No?). When someone mentions Star Wars, who’s the first character that comes to mind? Luke? Han? Leia? Jar Jar? Sure, many people do think of those characters first (except maybe that last one), but we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Darth Vader is the most iconic character in the Star Wars saga. He almost always has the largest presence on the film posters, even in this one for The Phantom Menace. He was on all the packaging for the action figures back when the Power of the Force lineup started in 1995. Going beyond that, his breathing is a sound recognized by many, his famous “No, I am your father” line lampooned ad nauseam. And, referring back to Halloween, of all the Star Wars costumes out there, what kid isn’t going to want to be Vader? Vader is everywhere.

Now think about other villains from the saga. When The Phantom Menace was being hyped, Darth Maul took up the mantle as head baddie. I remember before the film even came out I was already very familiar with Maul’s red and black tattoos, his spiked head, and, of course, his double-bladed lightsaber that got fans really excited for the new film (seriously, tell me this image doesn’t stick with you). Even Boba Fett, a character who has maybe fifteen minutes of screen time in the whole saga, is not a Sith, and doesn’t actually do anything badass has still earned a fan favorite reputation.

Kylo Ren now follows in the same footsteps, his face plastered everywhere and his lightsaber being one of the most discussed points of the new film. He’s a villain we’ve become intrigued by without even knowing what he’s all about or even if he’ll make it past one movie (such was the fate of Maul).

That brings me to the next iconic aspect of Star Wars villains: mystique. Ever since the original film, the various Darth’s (or Ren’s) have all had a mysterious quality to them. We know that they’re evil, feared, and totally badass. But what did we really know about Vader in the first two films? That Obi-Wan was his former master, that he “killed” Anakin Skywalker (from a “certain point of view”), and that he became obsessed with finding Luke Skywalker after the young farmboy blew up his space murder ball. That’s really not a lot to go on, but we the audience watched with the comfortable duality of yearning to find out more about Vader while also enjoying not knowing anything. Even when we finally found out the truth of Vader’s identity, that only brought on more questions that wouldn’t be fully answered until 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.

Now, I know some of you are thinking that Darth Maul was so one note and that he didn’t possess the same kind of mystique as Vader, but that’s not true. First, there’s his film’s title: The Phantom Menace. Now, think back to a time before the film was released. What did that title mean? Was it referring to Maul? Seems like the most obvious answer. And upon viewing, many people have probably concluded that, yes, Maul was the titular menace.

Or was he?

Okay, yeah, it’s not that much of a mystery since we know that Palpatine is really Sidious, he’s the master, the title is ambiguously referring to both, unlimited power and yadda yadda. But even after all is said and done, we really don’t learn much about Maul’s backstory. Some may call that a shortcoming of his character, but is it really? Is he any less interesting because we didn’t learn about his family relations like Vader? No! He’s a saber staff wielding badass who commands your attention onscreen. Sure, he says all of two or three lines but he’s still damn cool. Fans couldn’t wait for the Expanded Universe to get its hands on Maul just so that we could have more of him. We were dying to know what he was all about long before The Phantom Menace was released. Fans wanted more so bad that it’s now canon that Maul comes back from the dead in The Clones Wars television series.

When it comes to Kylo Ren, I think the appeal of his character’s mystique is pretty obvious thanks to various rumors and teasers dropped by Abrams and the associated merchandise: Is he related to any of the original three characters? Who are the Knights of Ren? Why is he obsessed with Darth Vader? We don’t know yet but goddamn the Internet is trying desperately to find out. Hell, people have written articles and recorded videos about this doll, discussing his voice and trying to interpret what his lines might mean. There’s no doubt Ren had a tight grip on the fanbase as soon as he ignited that crossguard lightsaber.

Both the monumental nature of Star Wars and the mystique of these villains pool into the final aspect that makes them so iconic: timelessness. Think about the most famous villains across all mediums: The Wicked Witch of the West, The Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Dracula, just to name a few. Every one of those characters has received some kind of modern update, remake, or has had multiple versions that differ only in slight ways, but enough to make them distinct from one another. Not every version of the character is part of the same canon and some versions deviate from the original so much that they share only a name.

And yet, for nearly four decades, there has only ever been one Darth Vader.

No one ever decided that the character symbolic of an entire franchise needed some kind of marketable reboot or a new costume (unless you count this Square Enix figurine, which I don’t). Vader has always been Vader. The man in the black mask that first walked onto a smoky, body-strewn ship in A New Hope is the same one that recently graced television screens on Star Wars: Rebels nearly forty years later.

But, you may wonder, how can Kylo Ren be considered timeless when we didn’t even know his name until roughly nine months ago? Well, keep in mind that when I talk about timelessness, I’m not just talking about Star Wars villains; I’m talking about all of Star Wars. The timelessness of Star Wars has remained intact for so long that imagining the new films as anything other than a continuation is unfathomable. Ever wonder why no one thought to remake Star Wars? Because anyone who did was probably laughed out of the room. And then taken to the secret dungeon under Skywalker Ranch for the rest of their days.

Seriously, look again at how many franchises have been remade and rebooted between the release of A New Hope and now: James Bond, Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so many others. You may argue that of course Star Wars is timeless; it’s a futuristic space opera set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Well, I know another futuristic space franchise that is always a breath away from Star Wars, and that particular franchise did in fact receive a reboot and a sequel that included updating a classic villain. Now, I’m not trying to say that Star Trek isn’t timeless or that it’s worse than Star Wars (seriously, I’m not going to argue about this), but no one ever decided Vader needed a new spin because he doesn’t need it. And neither does anything else related to Star Wars.

Coming back to Kylo Ren himself, his taking the place of Vader cements his timelessness in this franchise. We all know what to expect from a Star Wars villain by now and the amount of footage we’ve seen so far, though small, has delivered on the most important front: this guy is dangerous and will probably not hesitate to give your larynx a hug with the Force. At its core, Star Wars is the struggle between good and evil, a simple concept that is the basis of almost every classic story. Despite this, it is always something we welcome with open arms, comforted by its familiarity. For the most part, we always know what we’re getting into. You only need one brief look at Vader and Maul to decide “Oh, yeah he’s hella evil”, and you get that same feeling from Kylo Ren. You get the sense that the heroes of The Force Awakens are going up against a formidable foe, one that likely has the better odds. We don’t know much about him in detail or what his intentions are, but when we see Ren onscreen, we’re going to have that same feeling we had when we first saw Vader: “This guy is not going down easily.”

I’m sure a lot of you are thinking “But what if The Force Awakens is bunk/Ren turns out to be a terrible villain?” Well, I don’t know, I guess you’ll have people lamenting that it’s The Phantom Menace all over again. Star Wars fans have learned to embrace disappointment by now it seems, but that’s not really the point of what I’ve put down here (though I do like the prequels, sue me). What I’m saying is that when you inevitably see all those fans lined up outside theaters all around the world waving lightsabers around and making Chewbacca noises, you’re going to notice more than a few fans dressed as Kylo Ren, the main villain from the movie that they haven’t even seen yet. At the very least people will be carrying around that crossguard lightsaber, feeling like a badass without even knowing how badass the villain actually is. That kind of reputation, my friends, is something you’ll only find in a galaxy far, far away.

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