EDIT: SPOILER ALERT. JESUS WEPT, SO MANY SPOILERS.
EDIT 2: FYI WELL, YEAH, THIS IS JUST, LIKE, MY OPINION, MAN
I’ve seen a few hot takes so far on The Force Awakens, and more specifically on Kylo Ren as the primary antagonist. Summed up, they largely go as follows: “The Force Awakens is a re-tread of A New Hope. Let’s list the ways in which it differs, and pin these as failures on the Big Board of Abrams Hatred.” One of the points that comes up a lot is that Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. Look at him! With his troubled brow, his pigeon chest and his crossguard lightsaber!* He isn’t even slightly scary!
My hot take: that’s the point. He’s not meant to be imposing. He’s not meant to have presence. He’s the very opposite of sinister. And he’s terrifying.
Kylo Ren is the First Order in microcosm. Powerful? Yes. Experienced? No. Look back at A New Hope. Every leader in the Empire is easily 40+. You’ve got a command structure built out of people who have been doing the job a long, long time. It’s why Vader chokes one of them to death: he’s made a major mistake that could conceivably cost the Empire a victory (and, in the tradition of the Dambusters, it does).
Meanwhile, the First Order is the Empire after that entire command structure gets wiped out. Everyone (save for Snoke) is so very young, and it shows. Hux has to stand screaming his guts out, because he doesn’t know how else to lead. He can’t delegate because he barely even trusts his equal, let alone his lieutenants. Phasma has to put her troops into reprogramming – she doesn’t seem surprised that Finn needs a top up – because for all the screaming rallies they have to stand through, the horror of actual war is breaking them. And Kylo Ren is far, far out of his depth. From the moment Poe Dameron looks him square in the mask and asks “so who talks first?” right up to the very end where he desperately tries to convince Rey that she needs his training and she responds by plucking it straight out of his head, he can feel his grip on the world slipping. Where he was once sure-footed, he fumbles. He throws tantrums that undermine him in front of his own troops. When Hux clipes him in to Snoke for letting the plans escape, we can see the pure playground villainy that swirls beneath the surface of the First Order. Hux kicks him when he should support him, and it just makes Ren even more aware of how vulnerable he is.
When he take his mask off – and oh, the message of that mask: look how heavy my mask is! LOOK AT ME! HOW STRONG I AM! – he can’t meet Rey’s gaze. He looks uncomfortable, he stumbles on his words. He’s uneasy, and that frightens him. And in the sudden awareness of his own fragility, he drives himself to act. To do the very worst thing he can think of, because that will show them he means business.
And frankly I find that terrifying. It would be easy to have a giant, dark pillar of death that stands as a banner of pure evil. Instead, we get a young man, shoulders hunched as though to shield himself from the world, punching himself in the gut to psych himself up, so desperate for recognition that he casts himself into the abyss. Set against a backdrop of escapist fantasy, The Force Awakens gives us a villain who is all too real.
*NB: if you spent the first half of 2015 bitching about how the crossguard lightsaber was a travesty and you want to now tell everyone about your love for Star Wars? PLEASE GET IN THE SEA. THE SEA IS WAITING FOR YOU. TOOT TOOT, THIS TRAIN IS HEADED FOR THE SEA. ALL ABOARD.