The Star Wars saga is blessed (or should that be “cursed”?) with more than its fair share of memorable villains. Of these interstellar baddies, easily the most iconic is Darth Vader, who ranks as one of the most recognizable antagonists in cinematic history. But is he really the best evildoer at large in a galaxy far, far away?
The answer seems obvious, but don’t be so sure. After all, there are several strong candidates for the title of “Greatest Star Wars Villain” to choose from, including fan favorites like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Maul. However, for our money, Vader’s only true competition on this score is his own grandson, Ben Solo — otherwise known as Kylo Ren. It’s a controversial call, but as the following list amply illustrates, Ren outshines Vader just as much as he’s overshadowed by him.
10 Better Than Vader: His Love Story
We’re going to be totally frank — the Anakin Skywalker/Padmé Amidala love story is hands-down one of the weakest aspects of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Thanks to a combination of atrocious dialogue, stilted performances and, crucially, the absence of any chemistry between stars Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, the doomed romance that culminates in Anakin transforming into Vader is hard to emotionally invest in.
By contrast, the sexual tension between Kylo Ren and Rey is one of the strongest elements in the sequel trilogy. This is largely thanks to directors J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, neither of whom overplayed their hand. The attraction between the Ren and Rey is palpable, but their feelings for each other remain unspoken for now. As a result, anticipation surrounding the eventual pay-off of “Reylo” has only continued to build as we approach The Rise of Skywalker.
9 Not As Good As Vader: His Suit
Darth Vader’s suit is a brilliant example of intelligent costume design. Not only does it look super cool — he’s a black knight, dark samurai and space cyborg, all rolled into one — but it’s also totally believable as a functioning mobile life support system, too.
In fairness, Kylo Ren sports a suitably intimidating outfit as well, but it comes across exactly for what it is: Sith Lord cosplay. Ren is clearly trying to ape his grandfather’s unmistakable aesthetic, right down to his superfluous breath mask. From a behind-the-scenes perspective, that makes the costume an effective bit of business — communicating a lot about the character; chiefly, his aspirations and insecurities — but it’s still not a patch on what inspired it.
8 Better Than Vader: His Force Powers
Before y’all go crazy, we’re not saying that Kylo Ren is more powerful than Darth Vader — or even that Vader doesn’t unleash several staggering displays of Force power during his Sith Lord career. And it’s not like we’re ever going to forget the first time we ever saw him telekinetically choke out one of his subordinates.
Yet despite being the Chosen One, Vader’s repertoire of Force-based attacks is fairly modest — dude essentially just relies on the same basic powers, albeit executed scarily well. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren pulls off stunts that his gramps really should have bothered to learn, like freezing blaster bolts in mid-air and painfully peeling back the layers of his enemies’ minds.
7 Not As Good As Vader: His Voice
Adam Driver is a talented actor with a resonant voice, and the distortion effects applied to his sinister-yet-seductive tones when wearing Kylo Ren’s helmet are very on point. But honestly, you just can’t beat James Earl Jones when it comes to villainous vocals.
While it’s easy to focus on the menacing aspects of Jones’ performance as Darth Vader, what impresses us even more is how he’s able to convey Vader’s few moments of vulnerability, too. That said, if we’re also counting the brief period where Hayden Christensen portrays a non-barbequed, mask-less Vader, then Driver (and Ren) would probably have the edge here after all…
6 Better Than Vader: His Independence
Face it, Star Wars fans — at the end of the day, Darth Vader is a glorified henchman. Sure, he’s Emperor Palpatine’s right-hand man and has legions of stormtroopers at his beck and call, but he’s still at the mercy of his boss’s whims. It’s true that other media in the official canon — most notably, Marvel’s Darth Vader comic book series — have depicted Vader pursuing his own clandestine agenda at times. However, it’s abundantly clear that Vader remains very much under Palpatine’s thumb until his eleventh-hour moment of redemption.
Kylo Ren is an entirely different beast. While he claims unwavering loyalty to Supreme Leader Snoke, by the time The Last Jedi rolls around, Ren’s tolerance for bowing and scraping is wearing thin. This culminates in him overthrowing his manipulative master a whole movie-and-a-half earlier than Vader did — and in decidedly more calculated fashion, at that.
5 Not As Good As Vader: His Tantrums
Both Darth Vader and Kylo Ren have notoriously short fuses, but how they behave once they’ve lost their temper differs wildly. In Vader’s case, he typically expresses his displeasure in the form of cold fury — telekinetically throttling Imperial officers without even raising his voice — which only serves to make him more terrifying.
This controlled aggression is the polar opposite of the embarrassing spectacle that is Kylo Ren venting his rage. As he lashes out blindly at his surroundings with his lightsaber, Ren looks more like a petulant toddler than a fearsome dark lord. Even director J.J. Abrams seems to acknowledge the immaturity of Ren’s conduct, since at least one of these tantrums is played for laughs in The Force Awakens.
4 Better Than Vader: His Success
At the height of his tenure as a Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader was the second most powerful guy in the galaxy, which is nothing to be sneezed at. Even so, it still means that Vader was perennially number two in the galactic pecking order, despite expressing the desire to claim the top job on at least two separate occasions.
Decades after Vader’s demise, Kylo Ren would achieve his grandfather’s dream of heading up an evil empire, after betraying Supreme Leader Snoke and seizing control of the First Order in The Last Jedi. Yeah, he’s only the self-appointed ruler of the galaxy — and the Resistance is working overtime to topple him — but for now, he answers to no one, which is more than Vader could ever lay claim to.
3 Not As Good As Vader: His Facial Scars
Granted, Kylo Ren probably isn’t too upset about falling short of his hero where disfigurement is concerned. But from a fan perspective, Ren’s relatively blemish-free visage isn’t half as cool as Darth Vader’s scar-covered mug.
There’s just something indescribably compelling about Vader’s mangled head — which is both grotesque and disarmingly pitiful — that the barely visible mark running down Ren’s face can’t compete with. On the flip side, Ren retaining his good looks allows him to serve as a twisted romantic foil for Rey, which is a pretty decent trade-off.
2 Better Than Vader: His Internal Struggle
Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader is undeniably tragic, but it’s hardly unique. Indeed, Luke Skywalker goes on an emotional journey that was designed to intentionally mirror his father’s, with the only difference being that Skywalker Junior ultimately resists temptation.
What’s more, variations of Vader’s basic character arc crop up repeatedly throughout the wider Star Wars canon — unlike the internal struggle that Kylo Ren endures in the sequel trilogy. In a refreshing twist, Ren isn’t grappling with the darkness inside his soul, but rather the light. This subversive spin on a slightly tired formula singles the former Ben Solo out as unique within the saga; he's a sad yet frightening figure who surpresses his urge to do good by committing great evil.
1 Not As Good As Vader: His Swordplay
Now, don’t get us wrong — we’re firmly in the camp of Star Wars fans who recognize Kylo Ren as a gifted lightsaber duelist. Those who point to his defeat by Rey in The Force Awakens forget that he had the would-be Jedi on the run until she drew upon the Dark Side, and that he bested Finn earlier with little real effort — all while carrying a serious injury.
Even so, we’ll be the first to admit that Ren’s swordplay skills don’t hold a candle to those of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Whether it’s the lightning-quick swordsman who outclassed Count Dooku or the more deliberate powerhouse who trounced Luke Skywalker on Cloud City, Vader is head and shoulders above his competition.