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Kylo Ren: is he a bad villain or is he just a complicated character?

This May the 4th (be with you) is a good moment to look back at one of the most debated aspects of the sequel trilogy: Is Kylo Ren a bad villain?

When the sequel trilogy (composed of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker) was first announced, a lot of Star Wars fans were filled with excitement. The last trilogy, now known as the prequel trilogy (composed of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), was very popular when it was first released, but time made people see all its faults, making them known as “the bad Star Wars movies”.

But when The Last Jedi was released in 2017, the sequel trilogy started getting awful comments and reviews (for reference, The Force Awakens has an 85% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes; The Last Jedi has 42%, and The Rise of Skywalker has 86%).

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It was at this moment that Star Wars fans started seeing through the cracks saying, “Rey is just a Marie Sue”, “they have forced diversity”, “the story doesn’t make any sense”, and “Kylo Ren is a bad villain”.

You might find interesting: Villain face-off: A comparison between Darth Vader and Voldemort

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Darth Vader vs. Kylo Ren

Darth Vader is one of the most iconic villains in pop culture. Even if you haven’t seen a single second of any Star Wars movie, you’ve seen Darth Vader at conventions or other types of media.

We got 6 movies telling his story (7 if you count Rogue One), with 3 more talking about the legacy of the character inside the universe he lived in. His story is expanded in comics, books, tv shows, video games, and more.

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He’s a character that has inspired generations, and even with (what seems like) all of his story being told, Darth Vader still seems mysterious and has an unknown motivation for what he does. We have seen everything about the character, and fans want even more.

And then comes Kylo Ren.

He seems like a kid because he throws tantrums when things don’t go his way and looks up to Darth Vader (his grandfather), he takes off his helmet, he lets his emotions get the best of him, he’s confused and doesn’t know if he’s doing the right thing. He isn’t fully on the dark side.

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And yet, his story is similar to Vader’s: a character who joins the dark side (and wears a helmet) and does really bad things, but at the end of the day, someone believes they’re not fully bad and tries to get him to the light side. Vader is redeemed before passing, and so does Ren.

So why is Kylo Ren perceived as a bad villain?

What makes a good villain?

It is said that the villain of the story is what makes or breaks it.

The villain has motivations and actions that oppose those of the protagonists and is that battle that makes the plot move. They usually have a desire to commit acts of cruelty and immorality, but they also should have:

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  • A strong connection to the hero. The best villains have a deep connection to the hero, and help is the hero’s character development through their opposition to them. In this way, Darth Vader was the father of Luke Skywalker, making the connection known, and helping Luke know who he was.
  • Clear morality. The morality of your villain means that their reasons for doing their actions should be believable. The audience must know exactly what is driving them to commit those acts. Why is Vader hunting down Luke? Because his master told him to.
  • Compelling backstory. An interesting and credible backstory creates a deep and three-dimensional villain, which makes the audience identify and even sympathize with the villain. For this, Vader’s backstory was explained in three movies: the prequel trilogy.
  • Villains should be fun. They can have a sense of humor or have a very specific worldview, but they generally possess qualities that audiences love to hate. This is more evident in classic Disney villains, like Jafar or Ursula. But you can see this in how people see Darth Vader: a menacing force not to mess around with.

While Vader has these four points, Kylo Ren doesn’t: His connection isn’t to the hero (Rey and her group of friends), it’s to his parents (and uncle) who barely have on-screen time; he doesn’t have a clear morality, especially when he starts doubting about what he is doing; his backstory is told shortly in The Last Jedi, and it’s hard to say if it’s compelling (not a lot of people believed in Luke’s involvement); and how fun he is to watch depends on each audience member, but it’s saved to say that not a lot of people do.

The problem with villains in modern storytelling

If you have seen a Disney Movie in the last 10 years, you’ll see that the newest movies don’t have an iconic villain. While The Beauty and the Beast has Gaston, Frozen has a relationship between sisters and shows how it’s a type of love that is very important in someone’s life.

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This trend has also been met with the humanization of villains, starting with Maleficent. Now, not a single villain can be seen as pure evil, as it was in decades past. Villains have a reason to act as they do, and sometimes they’re trying to right a wrong, like in Cruella.

This translates to Kylo Ren in the sense that he’s the most developed character in the sequel trilogy, we know that he’s struggling and why he’s doing it, we know his motivations, we know him. But he doesn’t connect with audiences.

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Most people were expecting a new Darth Vader, but that type of character isn’t what modern audiences want. It’s very hard for movies to show the world as “black and white”, they’re showing how the world is actually very complex (a lot more gray than black or white), like in Black Panther where Killmonger had very good counterpoints to T’Challa, so good that they were later implemented by the King of Wakanda.

The faults of Kylo Ren as a villain for the trilogy don’t rest solely on him, it rests on bad planning for the trilogy. There wasn’t a vision for the trilogy, they only had the idea of making three movies to make money.

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To me, Kylo Ren shows that you can’t make everyone happy (especially in the Star Wars franchise) and that the most important part of telling a story is your passion for it. Money will come and go, but your characters can and will stay with audiences for years, even decades.

Happy May the 4th, and may all your favorite characters get a good story.

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