In the months leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the marketing materials showing the new villain with a distinctive black mask made him look an awful lot like a rip-off of Darth Vader. However, as the movie would eventually show, he was actually inspired by Vader and wanted to finish what he started, so it made sense for his look to rip off Vader’s.
As a character, he’s been met with a mixed response. Some call him complex; others call him whiny. Here are 5 reasons Kylo Ren is a great villain (and 5 why he’s not).
10 Great villain: He’s conflicted
Villains who are evil for the sake of being evil are never all that interesting because they don’t feel like real people. When we see them conflicted over their worldview, then the audience is more invested in the subplot scenes focused entirely on the villain. We could see why Thanos thought he was the good guy in Avengers: Infinity War, and we saw him consider alternatives when he was faced with having to sacrifice Gamora.
Kylo Ren is not as spectacularly written a villain as Thanos, but he is often shown to be conflicted, questioning his allegiance to the Dark Side and regretting some of the terrible things he’s done. And we never see him realize he’s right; we just see him double down and decide to press on as the villain.
9 Not a great villain: He doesn’t really have an ethos
This point applies to the whole First Order. We knew what Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire wanted: to dominate the galaxy and rule it with an iron fist. But that doesn’t seem to be on Kylo Ren’s mind. From the past two movies, it seems as though he’s just using all of the First Order’s armies and resources in an attempt to destroy the Resistance.
But it’s not a chicken-and-egg thing – the First Order clearly came first, otherwise, the Resistance wouldn’t have had anything to resist. But what are they resisting? An evil organization that’s resisting them. Kylo Ren has no ethos. We don’t know what his goal is.
8 Great villain: He’s very emotional
In The Force Awakens, when Kylo Ren has a temper tantrum and starts thrashing around with his lightsaber, he comes off as pretty pathetic. When Darth Vader lost his temper, someone was getting choked out. He hardly ever raised his voice, because he let his Force powers and his lack of mercy do the talking.
The two Stormtroopers who hear Kylo Ren lashing out and decide to turn around are basically saying, “Yikes, he’s in one of his moods again!” They’re not really terrified of him; they just know to avoid him when he’s mad because he becomes a real drag.
7 Not a great villain: He’s easily defeated
Shown by the fact that an untrained Rey managed to defeat him at the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren doesn’t seem very powerful. He has a strong control of the Force, but he lets his emotions get in the way. This also makes him easy to trick, as he fell for a Force projection of Luke Skywalker on Crait and held off his entire fleet so he could go down on the ground and fight him, unwittingly allowing the Resistance to escape.
If he’d seen through Luke’s trick or not fallen for his obvious bait, he would’ve wiped out the rest of the Resistance already. As a result, he doesn’t feel like much of a threat.
6 Great villain: He’s sympathetic
Since Kylo Ren veers back towards the Light Side of the Force every five minutes and was also almost murdered by his uncle over a hunch while he was sleeping, it’s easy to empathize with him. You can still see him as the bad guy and you don’t want him to succeed, but you can also see where he’s coming from.
And while Snoke himself wasn’t a great villain, his manipulation of Kylo Ren made him a more interesting villain. Adam Driver has brought an extra degree of nuance to the Force user formerly known as Ben Solo that a lesser actor wouldn’t have been able to do.
5 Not a great villain: He has openly ripped off an earlier, better villain
If the black mask and evil empire didn’t telegraph clearly enough that Kylo Ren was a rip-off of Darth Vader, then the fact that he kept hold of Vader’s charred mask from the ruins of the second Death Star and vowed to finish what Vader started would do it.
This plot point would probably work since Vader was Kylo Ren’s grandfather, but only if he was setting out to finish what Vader started in an effective way. Vader was doing a far better job of what he started, so there’s no way Kylo Ren will be able to finish it, so we’re not scared.
4 Great villain: Fans love to hate him
Star Wars fans absolutely hate Kylo Ren, but in the best way. It’s not because he’s a bad character, it’s because it’s fun to hate him. He’s basically a whiny brat who took running away from home a little far by starting up a militarized empire and setting about dominating the galaxy. In his first on-screen appearance, he killed a defenseless old man.
By the end of that movie, he’d killed Han Solo. This is not a character that we like, but due to all the terrible things he’s done, we are actively rooting against him, which is all you can ask for in a villain.
3 Not a great villain: He’s basically an edgelord
In The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams established Kylo Ren as a Darth Vader fanboy who hid behind a mask and didn’t know what he was doing. While that doesn’t make him very formidable, it did at least make him an interesting character. However, Rian Johnson dropped all of that in The Last Jedi and had him drop the mask and the admiration of Vader and basically turned him into an edgelord.
Some fans have analyzed Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy as a metanarrative that’s really about itself – especially with the “Let the past die” refrain – and Johnson hammered this home by characterizing Kylo Ren as a Star Wars stan.
2 Great villain: He’s reflective of today’s real-world villains
As a villain, Darth Vader reflected the villains of the time: faceless dictators that needed to be taken down by military intervention. In the real world today, the villains are school shooters and wealthy, deceitful politicians with delusions of grandeur, and Kylo Ren is sort of a combination of the two.
Ben Solo was born into privilege and shipped off to his uncle’s boarding school where he was taught how to use a dangerous weapon and then had his mind polluted by an evildoer who saw his potential to be manipulated. He’s not a badass who has all the answers and a practically unbeatable strategy, but he does idolize someone who was.
1 Not a great villain: The First Order would thrive under someone else’s leadership
Kylo Ren is the intergalactic equivalent of a rich kid who becomes a CEO because he has the money and the connections, not because he has the experience and the know-how. A lot of the First Order’s most embarrassing failures – from the destruction of Starkiller Base to letting the Resistance escape on Crait – can be blamed entirely on him. Frankly, if there was a mass mutiny by the First Order officers who believe in its cause, but don’t believe in its current leader, they’d probably be able to overthrow him and the First Order would be able to thrive under its new leader.