After two movies of increasing evil, it’s time to admit that Kylo Ren is a better Star Wars villain than Darth Vader. The turned Ben Solo returned to the galaxy in The Last Jedi with a vengeance. Adam Driver’s nuanced performance was already one of the highlights of The Force Awakens, and he only outdid himself in the new Rian Johnson film, which centered on the dichotomy between Kylo’s story and Rey’s, offers a compelling story of conflict and the possibility of redemption.
The sequel trilogy shares some clear parallels with the original trilogy, with Ren consciously taking the reins from Darth Vader. Both characters take on the role as the primary antagonist, a powerful dark side Force user who tempts the developing Jedi during their journey of self-discovery. However, Kylo Ren does not simply replicate Darth Vader. Instead, Driver offers a new and fresh villain that stands apart from previous Star Wars films.
Straight up, Kylo Ren is a better villain than Darth Vader because of his complexity – his flaws, his misgivings, his emotions, and his growth over the course of the films. Kylo is constantly evolving and grappling with his relationships with Luke, Han, Snoke, and Rey. He is impulsive, and at times juvenile and weak. But Kylo Ren’s weakness is the strength of his characterization. While Darth Vader is a simple character whose redemption is a plot device rather than a characterization, Kylo Ren’s messy journey through the sequel trilogy shows him to be dynamic – and still evolving as a person through the end of The Last Jedi.
It is not that Ben Solo is more powerful or more successful than his grandfather; in fact, Kylo Ren’s flaws and failings make him all the more interesting as a character. Neither is it a question of whether or not Kylo Ren is more villainous or evil than the Sith Lord; both Vader and Kylo have committed egregious acts of violence that cannot be quantified or compared.
Darth Vader Plays a Role, Not a Character (This Page)
Darth Vader Plays a Role, Not a Character
Darth Vader is the original trilogy’s monolithic villain. Through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, he represents the pure evil of the dark side of the Force and the Empire. He chokes his subordinates, tortures his prisoners, and kills without mercy. Vader doesn’t change – and doesn’t need to change – in the original trilogy.
In The Return of the Jedi, Luke says that he senses good in him, but this good is not visible to the audience until the final moments of the film, when Vader intervenes to save Luke from the Emperor. This ending is part of the classic story arc of the original trilogy, but Vader’s redemption isn’t something that develops over time; it’s a function of the story rather than a reflection of his character development.
Of course, the prequels develop a backstory for the character of Anakin Skywalker, and illustrate Darth Vader’s history over the course of three additional films. However, this is only retroactively applied to the original trilogy and the character he became. Nothing in the Darth Vader performance in the original films suggests this complicated history, with him remaining largely stagnant through the original trilogy. It’s also worth noting that what we have with Ben Solo is a close but altogether better approximation than what Episodes I-III delivered with Anakin.
This doesn’t take away from his menace; Vader is an all-time great screen villain. But he has limitations. Darth Vader’s costume is intimidating and dehumanizing. It defines him, making him a terrifying and even generic symbol of evil. However, it also restricts the ability of David Prowse to emote, as it eliminates the nuance of a human face. Vader’s characterization is almost solely tied to James Earl Jones’ voice. As a result, Vader’s inner thoughts and emotions are obscured from the Star Wars audience.
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