Kylo Ren had a huge legacy to live up to in the new Star Wars, because Darth Vader is one of cinema’s all-time great villains. But Vader’s legacy is also a huge part of what makes Kylo Ren so fascinating—because he’s everything that Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels.
A warning: there will of course be major spoilers for the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens below. If you’ve not seen the movie, turn back now.
The Star Wars movies have always featured villains who are cold, calculating and in control of their emotions. Vader, the Emperor, Dooku, Maul—the Sith always acted with a chilling precision. But Kylo Ren is anything but precise. He’s brash, raw, sullen, and just bursting with emotion. This is something we’ve seen before in the Expanded Universe of books and comics, but never in the movies.
Kylo Ren howls and loses his mind, whenever anything goes wrong. When he discovers that the First Order failed to capture BB-8 on Jakku, he ignites his lightsaber and eviscerates a nearby computer console. When Rey escapes her confines on Starkiller base, he destroys an entire room in a fit of rage (almost comically so, as two nearby Stormtroopers decide to patrol in the other direction when they see smoke coming out of the cell—and yes, you’ve probably seen that Twitter account everyone’s chuckling at, too). Image via Beck-Solo
Kylo Ren harbors a bitter resentment for the expectations thrust upon him in his former life as Ben Solo, Jedi-in-training and a son of legends. Even his lightsaber itself is unstable and angry, flickering with sparks and heat—just like its owner.
When you think about the angriest another Star Wars villain has been in the other films, the closest I can think of is Vader choking Admiral Ozzel for bringing the Empire’s fleet out of hyperspace too early in Empire Strikes Back. Even then, Vader’s rage is contained and suppressed—he calmly strangles the life out of Ozzel while telling Piett that he’s just gotten a promotion. This isnothing like Kylo’s roiling internal turmoil, which makes him unpredictable and scary every time he’s on screen. Kylo’s internal conflict is easy to see on the surface, and this makes him one of Star Wars’ most emotional, and hence most resonant, villains.
But that’s what the dark side is meant to be, right? Anger. Hate. Suffering—and above all those, passion. That’s not passion in terms of romance (although it can be), but the strength, the amplification, of your emotions. In George Lucas’ original conception, the Jedi were meant to be the warrior monks, skilled and precise and in control of their feelings. They harness power from that control. The Sith are the ones who give into their passion and seek power from jumping into that swirling sea of emotion. They’re angry and sullen and screaming at the world, at the legacies handed to them, because that’s what empowers them.
It almost sounds like a certain Skywalker, doesn’t it?
Because really, when you think about it, on paper the young Anakin of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith has a lot in common with the angst of his future grandson. Young Anakin is torn between the dark and light, compromised by his feelings for other people—feelings that send him on a path to the Dark Side. A man who’s angry at his lot in life, at the people around him, with a sense of betrayal and abandonment that eventually solidifies into a decision that he can never take back.
But “on paper” and “on film” are two different things, and the Anakin we see in the prequels is infamously whiny and pathetic, rather than the tumultuous sea of emotions that he was meant to be. Due to the fatal mix of a less than stellar performance from Hayden Christensen, and George Lucas’ sterile approach as a writer and director, mean the moments of raw emotion that are meant to punctuate Anakin’s fall, and resonate with the audience, never quite hit right. Anakin’s emotional journey in the prequels simply doesn’t work, because there’s so little real, believable emotion there.
When you think about those big moments—Shmi Skywalker’s death, Anakin’s confession to Padmé about slaughtering Tusken Raiders, the death of Mace Windu, confronting Obi-Wan on Mustafar—none of them really hit home. A flat performance here, a clunky line there, it all makes Anakin’s arc fall completely flat. He’s clearly supposed to be a passionate, tempestuous young man whose emotions are too intense for his Jedi discipline to control.
In Revenge of the Sith, we ought to be seeing the darkest moments in his life, but Anakin is moaning that he wasn’t made a Jedi master, or sent to hunt down Grievous. The closest we ever get to seeing him feel any emotional conflict is the moment when he breaks down in the Jedi Temple, alone and separated from Padmé—arguably the most effective scene in the movie, but one that can do nothing to compensate for the dearth of real emotion elsewhere.
We never feel Anakin’s conflict, or his resentment towards the Jedi’s static ways. We barely even see it. His fall to the Dark Side becomes a bullet point, something that we know has to happen because he becomes Darth Vader in the original trilogy. It’s left to ancillary material like the Clone Wars animated series to fill int he gaps. And the Clone Wars cartoon does a remarkable job with Anakin, to the point that it makes his slow descent into rage and sadism actually stomach-turning at times.
Compare the two young men’s crucial “no going back” moments: Kylo’s murder of his father Han, and Anakin’s march on the Jedi Temple. For Kylo Ren, it’s a painful, almost pitiful moment, as he delivers a grand and heartbreaking speech to his dad about being torn apart by indecision and the pull between light and dark—only to twist things around at the last moment and use his father’s devotion as a lure to bring him in for the kill, to seal Kylo’s path to darkness.
The march on the temple is… well, it’s a march. We don’t get to see Anakin’s reaction, feel something about it, or even understand why he’s doing it (other than the fact that it’s simply what Palaptine tells him to do). He just silently ignites his lightsaber in front of some Padawans. There’s no personal connection there for the audience to understand, or even be shocked by, like you are with Kylo’s sudden twist. No anguish. For a man meant to be driven by his emotions—his love of his wife, and his need to do anything to keep her safe—it’s such a sterile moment that it feels perfunctory. The raw edge that is meant to catapult Anakin from promising young Jedi to powerful Sith is simply never there, and when you see rawness in almost every moment Kylo Ren is on screen in The Force Awakens, its absence from the prequels becomes even more apparent.
There’s something a bit ironic in the fact that Kylo Ren’s ultimate desire is to become the man he thought his grandfather was—because as an outsider looking in on The Force Awakens, to me he’s already a far more interesting, and therefore more tragic, version of the man that would become Darth Vader than the Anakin Skywalker we saw in the prequels ever was.