THE CASE FOR REN
DARTH VADER AND Kylo Ren were introduced in identical fashion: black-clad, striding into enemy territory with implacable confidence and using the Force to extract information. But the distance between them widened, because while Vader never surpassed that iconic introduction, Kylo Ren only became more interesting as we got to know him.
Vader was a fantastical sight, a black-clad bogeyman straight out of nightmares. The stature, the cloak, the mask and wheezing breath: they’re alarming and alien. But five films attempted to give him more interest and complexity, to explain what he was trying to achieve when he tortured a princess or stood behind a planet-killer, and only detracted from that impression of cold, relentless death. He’s not a figure who permits depth. There was pathos, admittedly, in his plea to his long-lost son to join him, but he offered no ideology, no incentive beyond the doubtful value of his affections. Sure, as Anakin he whined something about order and seemed fond of the mother he didn’t see for a decade, but beyond that, none of his actions make much sense. He’s just a Bad Guy (and a terrible boyfriend).
Kylo, however, has even more power and menace: he almost casually freezes a bolt of pure energy in the air and — spoiler — doesn’t just seethe behind his boss’ back, but acts against him. He adds an unpredictable, almost irrational edge. We don’t need Leia to tell us that this guy is bold. Nor do we need Luke to claim that there’s good there; we can see it in tiny hesitations of body language even before he abandons the affected helmet. Vader was nothing without the helmet; Kylo gets better when he shows his face.
A less obvious shortcoming, but one that viewers will nevertheless intuit, is that Vader doesn’t mean anything. He stands for general fear, maybe, the general ‘dark side’ of our worst natures, but there is no metaphorical meat to him. Kylo is a better villain for our times, an avatar for the formless, misdirected rage that seems to drive our current politics. He’s the internet troll, the privileged boy lashing out when the world doesn’t give him exactly what he wants, when he wants it. But there is good in him, if he’s willing to allow it. It took Vader a lifetime to realise that embracing anger and impulse was an awful way to survive; Kylo’s already grasping at the edges of that truth.