From the moment he was introduced, Kylo Ren was obviously designed as a sympathetic villain with a redemption arc. But characters that straddle the line between good and evil are tricky to write, and the first two movies had a lot of blunders. Fortunately for us, those blunders are common problems. Examining what they are and how The Rise of Skywalker (RoS) did better offers us a great lesson in creating redeemable villains.
Spoiler Notice: This articles covers the major points of what Kylo Ren does during Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, including what happens to him at the end. It also spoils important ending plot points in the previous two movies.
Staying on the Right Side of the Moral Event Horizon
For a redeemed character to be a success, the audience must want them to be redeemed. If a villain does anything that’s too despicable, the audience will never support a more positive role for them. Of course, an upright individual wouldn’t need redemption at all. Making a sympathetic and redeemable villain requires a careful balancing act, where the character technically does bad things, but not actually anything that makes the audience hate them too much. The line dividing acts that don’t rule out redemption from those that do is called the moral event horizon.
But in The Force Awakens (TFA), Kylo Ren jumps right over it. Viewers will tolerate all sorts of bad deeds that happen offscreen, and they won’t shed tears when unscrupulous people die onscreen, but murdering a beloved protagonist right in front of them is out of the question. Not only does Kylo kill his own father, but he doesn’t even do it in the heat of the moment. The murder is planned ahead and executed when Han Solo lets his guard down. While Kylo Ren’s tears over the act might enhance the moment if the audience sympathized with him already, but without that they accomplish little.
Even discounting the murder of Han Solo, Kylo tortures Rey and Poe, and then he slowly drives the edge of his lightsaber into Finn during a fight. Those incidents are probably easier for viewers to forget, but together, they don’t create a great impression.
As expected, Kylo’s evil behavior turned many fans against his inevitable redemption. Making everything worse, The Last Jedi (TLJ) doubled down on the budding romance between Rey and Kylo, complete with a special psychic connection and scenes where Kylo was shirtless. Naturally some fans were interested in their romance, and those fans had to endure the wrath of everyone who hated Kylo. Besides the chaos of fan battles, this put the series in a position where it couldn’t please everyone.
While the damage from TFA was already done, RoS did the best it could with what it was handed. In the final installment, Kylo harms very few people. He does kill an Imperial officer* who voices dissent in a particularly annoying manner. Viewers aren’t going to miss that guy. To keep Kylo Ren’s hands clean, RoS left him out of large conflicts with Team Good and introduced a new Imperial officer to do evil instead. Generally, stories with a redeemable villain also need a more threatening villain to maintain enough tension.
Even with that, Abrams clearly realized that making everyone happy would be impossible. The ending of RoS looks like an attempt at compromise. Kylo Ren turns good and Rey gives him a kiss, but he still dies in saving her. This sacrifice is very similar to Vader’s end in the original trilogy, and it’s typical of villains who are redeemed after crossing the moral event horizon.
Providing a Sympathetic Motivation
To be sympathetic, a villain must have a backstory and motivation that helps the audience understand why they’re a bad guy. Knowing what the villain hopes to achieve by their evil deeds allows the audience see the good inside them. But TFA doesn’t tell viewers anything about why Kylo Ren is so evil. It does specify that Kylo Ren wants to complete his journey into becoming a Sith and thinks he needs to kill Han Solo to do that, but who cares? We’re given no reason why Kylo Ren needs to become a powerful Sith.
For contrast, imagine that the movie had given us a flashback to demonstrate that a young Kylo Ren failed as a Jedi apprentice. He wasn’t powerful enough to prevent a large tragedy, and he couldn’t get over his failure. Then he discovers that if he taps into his dark feelings, his powers increase immensely. He convinces himself that he can use the dark side of the Force for good. If viewers knew Kylo wanted to use his powers to prevent further tragedies, the murder of Han Solo would have landed a little softer.
TLJ papers this over by providing flashbacks of the first conflict between Luke and Kylo. Sensing the dark side of the Force building in Kylo, Luke activates his lightsaber to kill his sleeping apprentice, and then he comes to his senses. Kylo sees Luke’s active lightsaber and attacks him. But this flashback neither helps viewers understand why Kylo was already going dark, nor why he would sacrifice so much to become a Sith afterward.
Instead, TLJ focuses on how Kylo Ren wants to defeat the Resistance and take Snoke’s place. While no one will cry over Snoke, committing evil in order to take over the galaxy isn’t exactly sympathetic.
Happily, The Rise of Skywalker gives Kylo Ren a new direction. While he technically still wants to rule the galaxy, most of his actions are actually driven by his desire to save Rey from Palpatine. The reappearing emperor even offers Kylo Ren a huge fleet if he will simply kill Rey. Instead of accepting this extremely attractive offer, Kylo takes a risk by going behind the emperor’s back. He redoubles his efforts to get Rey to team up with him so they can defeat Palpatine together. Even though Kylo’s hoping to gain more power, this looks pretty selfless.
Giving Him Admirable Mannerisms
Likability is a little different for villains. Whereas a hero that’s too perfect will become hated by many people, audiences love villains that are badass. While spinach can get the audience rooting for a villainous protagonist, as an antagonist, the last thing you want is for a villain to humiliate themself.
Yet in the first two movies, Kylo Ren has temper tantrums that drive him to damage whatever equipment or people happen to be nearby. Outside these tantrums, he yells at people like a spoiled child. This fits a common mistake that storytellers make with villains: trying to increase their threat level by making them angry or vicious. But a villain’s threat level is actually determined by how bad things will be if they succeed and the likelihood of that success – personal viciousness has nothing to do with it.
In fact, vicious behavior often makes villains less threatening. When a villain lashes out at their minions or belongings without good reason, they’re only damaging their own assets. They look incompetent, and that lowers the perceived chances of them winning. If the villain can’t even control themself, how are they supposed to beat the hero? In comparison, villains with good manners come off as very capable.
In place of his mannerisms in TFA and TLJ, where Kylo Ren yells and lashes out, the Kylo Ren of RoS is calm and collected. He murders one officer who objects to his plans, but he does so without so much as a word – making it look like a calculated political move. He doesn’t yell at his subordinates. With his newfound confidence, Kylo Ren doesn’t even need his helmet to look intimidating anymore. RoS showed us that Adam Driver is a great actor; he just needed to be given the right direction.
Letting Him Earn Victories
To be cool and intimidating, villains must not only be in control emotionally, but they must also have wins during the story. This establishes them as a force to be reckoned with and makes the chance of them beating the hero feel much more likely. Victories are a big reason why Boba Fett was such a breakout hit in the original trilogy. People admire villains that get things done.
That’s why it was an incredibly bad sign when Kylo Ren lost to Rey at the end of the first movie. He’d been training as a Jedi or Sith for years; Rey had experience with a different weapon and was only recently introduced to the Force. While Kylo is injured before the fight, the injury doesn’t appear to impair Kylo significantly. If it had, the fight would hardly be satisfying.
As the hero, Rey was supposed to be the underdog of the series, not Kylo Ren. Accordingly, the best way to resolve the fight would be for Rey to use her wits to escape from Kylo because she can’t beat him in combat. Instead, she only has to remember the Force exists, and then she kicks his ass in no time. After that kind of defeat, it’s unlikely Kylo Ren would ever be threatening enough to be the big bad of the trilogy.
While Kylo Ren technically has successes in TLJ, the ways those victories unfold don’t give him much candy. Kylo kills Snoke, but he does so using surprise rather than besting him in an open confrontation. Then the New Order seems to win against the Resistance in spite of Kylo Ren rather than because of him. First, he expends an enormous amount of resources defeating the smaller Resistance. Then the last Resistance fighters get away because he is distracted by a temper-induced fight with what turns out to be a Force ghost.
Storytellers can have trouble letting villains win without stopping the plot. So to give Kylo more victories, RoS shrinks the scope of Kylo Ren’s achievements. For instance, the movie opens with Kylo locating a wayfinder and making his way to the secret planet where Palpatine is hiding. This may seem small, but about half the movie is spent watching Team Good trying to accomplish what Kylo Ren does in the first five minutes.
Kylo doesn’t try to destroy the entire Resistance anymore; he’s focused on tracking down Rey and convincing her to join him. Kylo demonstrates his growing Force powers by physically taking a necklace from Rey remotely, a first in Star Wars. Then he hands it to his minions to analyze, so he knows the planet she got it from. After that, Kylo and Rey have a couple encounters where instead of besting him, she merely escapes. At one point, Kylo provokes Rey into using the dark side of the Force. After she finally manages to get her hands on a wayfinder, he destroys it.
When the time comes for Kylo and Rey to duel, Kylo gets the better of Rey. Instead of killing her, he drops his saber, and that’s what allows her to turn the fight around. While Kylo’s conversion back to the light side of the Force is rushed, RoS gives viewers every reason to welcome it.
Messy and inconsistent, Star Wars VII – IX don’t fulfill their potential. That’s a pity, because there are some wonderful character moments scattered throughout. It’s too late to fix it now, but we can at least learn from it and do better with our own works.
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