In "The Last Jedi," Kylo Ren becomes Star Wars' best villain
Spoilers for The Last Jedi follow. You’ve been warned.
“When I found you, I saw raw, untamed power. And beyond that, what all great masters seek. The potential for something truly special. A new Darth Vader. Now, I fear I was mistaken.”
That neg-tastic monologue delivered by Supreme Leader Snoke to Kylo Ren early in the proceedings of “The Last Jedi” sets up the true villain of the sequel trilogy’s character arc. Spoiler alert: It’s not Snoke. Ren destroys the mask meant to hide the identity of the man formerly known as Ben Solo, exposing himself to the world.
The Darth Vader cosplay artist is (mostly) no more. Instead, his look is much more reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker in “Revenge of the Sith.” Everything from his tight, black apparel to his haircut resembles his grandfather. From there, Ren and Vader go on diverging paths in their second films.
We leave “Empire Strikes Back” with only a glimpse of The Emperor, the Big Bad of the original Star Wars trilogy. Not so in the sequel trilogy, where Snoke is introduced in hologram form in “The Force Awakens,” and unceremoniously dispatched in “The Last Jedi.” That’s done to service Ren’s growth as a villain, and boy does it work. Entering the yet to be titled Episode IX, Ren is the best villain the Star Wars saga has given us yet.
That might sound sacrilegious when considering Ren’s lineage, but it’s not a knock on Vader so much as it’s a credit to the character building done by J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson. Ren is a complicated, fearsome monster from the moment he’s introduced in “Awakens.” Buoyed by an incredible performance from Adam Driver, Ren carries a different kind of weight than Vader. He’s unpredictable, and because of that, terrifying.
Ren is also a significantly more complicated villain than Vader ever was, even after the big reveal near the end of “Empire Strikes Back.” When we meet Han Solo aboard the Millennium Falcon we see a man who has fallen right back into his old ways, someone who has given up on the Rebellion and everything he stood for. Upon finding out the monster leading the charge in the First Order is his son, it’s not too difficult to put the puzzle pieces together — no one turns to darkness on their own. In an hour, Abrams made Ren’s turn more cinematic and hear-wrenching than Anakin Skywalker’s.
“The Last Jedi” does more to flesh out Ren’s character, using Rey, Snoke and Luke to build him into the trilogy’s primary villain heading into its final chapter. Rey and Ren meet one another in the middle before being driven apart by the film’s climax, while it’s Snoke who ultimately pushes Ren to step into the limelight. That appears to be Snoke’s plan all along, just… not in the way the Hugh Hefner wannabe had planned.
Vader never got these kind of character moments. His role in the original trilogy was to stand around menacingly and move Luke’s character arc. That’s all well and good, but a character whose most memorable lines are murder-related puns can’t compete against a fully-fleshed out villain with motives that go beyond “being evil.” If you think I’m being trite, think about what Vader wants when he realizes Luke is his son: Turn him to the dark side so he and Luke can rule the galaxy because… it would be dope. If Luke won’t do it, Vader definitely plans to murder him. He turns in the third act of the movie, after a fight sequence, because the Emperor begins zapping the shit out of his only son.
That doesn’t make Darth Vader a bad villain, but it certainly makes him a less interesting one than Kylo Ren. While Vader is certainly a product of his time, the creators of Ren deserve a little bit of credit for keeping “baby Vader” from being a product of his. At a time when Marvel struggles to create memorable villains, the newest Star Wars trilogy has managed to offer up antagonist that, in many ways, surpasses the most memorable cinematic villain of all time. That’s high praise, and it’s well earned. Impressive. Most impressive.