Analysis

How The Rise of Skywalker Finally Made Kylo Ren Worth Redeeming

The latest Star Wars trilogy is what happens when two directors get in a slap fight and the production company does nothing to stop them. Left with nowhere to take the last movie, J.J. Abrams strung together a plot that’s best described as “let’s make up random stuff as we go.” However, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker does contain a surprising success: Kylo Ren is a much more effective character than he was in the first two films.

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

Han Solo putting his hand on Kylo's cheek.

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

Kylo and Rey clashing sabers.

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

Kylo standing in ocean spray.

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

Kylo Ren on a battlefield.

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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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    After looking at the full range of the new trilogy, I have to agree with some other people on the internet that it’s not really a trilogy. A trilogy should have a throughline and the movies or books or other media should work together on telling the full story (while each, of course, has a full story of its own). Instead, the three movies of the new trilogy seem to fight each other at every turn (which does, indeed, come from handing them to different directors without so much as an overarcing plot or a character bible).

    As much as it hurts me to say it, from the standpoint of ‘how well does it work as a trilogy’, the prequels which do not exist do it best.

  2. Martin Christopher

    Kylo never worked as a villain in the first place. Right from the start it was blatantly obvious that he’s a character who doesn’t really want to be evil and who will turn good at the end. He also never had any plan. That he did evil things never felt like it was supposed to make him seem threatening, but to have more drama when he turns to the good side.

    Vader had almost three full movies of being actually menacing before turning good even seemed like a faint possibility. With Kylo it was a given right from the start.

  3. Medusa

    I don’t know, it seemed to me clear, right from TFA, that Kylo was meant to look like a goomed child with anger issues wanting to please his mentor. Leia tells us right away that Snoke was after Kylo from the moment he was born, and TLJ only confirmed this with Luke’s flashback (that was from HIS pov). When Kylo talks to Vader’s mask he mentions the Light, and how he needs a guidance to feel the Dark side – so we know he did not go full Dark yet. In the beggining of TLJ we see how the relationship between Kylo and Snoke looks like, so it feels good to see that golden abuser be killed by his abused victim.
    With all the bad things Kylo have done in TFA, for me the “torture” of Rey is not one. Rey cried (but then, he was looking at her feelings of loneliness), and then she overpowered him and he run from the room, trembling. It was a powerful moment for her. Of all the things she hated him for (killing Han, etc.), she never mentioned this – so in universe, she did not seem to be bothered by it. Well a few days later she was willingly sharing her feelings with him and they had a vision together, so that’s that.
    In TROS Kylo (and his relationship with Rey) was back at square one, and it felt like a regression. He wanted power and more power? Boring. What a movie that could have been, if they showed us his redemption in the first 1/3 of the movie (instead of jumping from planet to planet for McGuffins) and then let him work with the Resistance. All of them against Palpatine and Pryde. Strormtrooper rebellion. You see, I am a dreamer.
    These movies tried so hard to make Kylo/Ben mysterious, not telling us much about his past, and I think they missed a lot of opportunities because of it. Some people were expecting another Vader, but that would be just redundant. He was a son of Han and Leia – legacy characters – and a nephew of Luke, everybody wanted to know more about him.
    This movie made us think Kylo died three times: 1) when Rey destroyed his ship 2) when Rey stabbed him 3) and when Palpatine threw him into a pit. And everytime he came back. Leia, Luke and Han – all three of them died while trying to reach him. The last thing the movie could have done was to not let their sacrifice be in vain. And yet, here we are.
    The movie did not felt hopeful. Rey Palpatine felt stupid (not to mention that this revelation was meant to explain her strenght to some fans, yet it took her agency away) and her ending was the worst. A young women that loves food and rain, that wanted nothing more than family and belonging, is alone on another barren planet after they killed the other half of dyad (is that a soulmate?).
    TROS did try to ignore TLJ, which made this feel like a sequel for TFA, and that did not work. JJ Abrams tried to please everybody, and in the end pleased almost nobody. This movie is like a Cursed Child of Star Wars. Prequels felt more coherent than this mess of a trilogy. A shame.
    (sorry for any mistakes in grammar, english is not my primary language)

    • LazerRobot

      Honestly, they just tried to do too many conflicting things with him. This article does a good job of explaining why I found his character so frustrating from the beginning.

      They made him sympathetic, and yes, as you stated, they made him an abuse victim. But they also made his actions too reprehensible to ever go back to being a “good guy.” Our first introduction to him shows him ordering a whole village slaughtered. I think this was a bad idea, writing wise, because, as you’ve expressed, many people identify with his status as a victim who had been manipulated.

      Unfortunately, in real life, abuse victims sometimes (not always) become victimizers themselves, and Kylo is sadly an example of that outcome. Not that it’s wrong to feel sympathy for him when he’s displaying his emotions, but he can’t be excused for entire planets worth of deaths just because bad things were done to him.

      Personally, I like how they brought him back to the light, and that he made a noble sacrifice in the end. But from a storytelling perspective, he had to die, otherwise it would feel like he was off the hook for all the stuff he was guilty of (or at least complicit in.)

      But I did always find it frustrating that he was both sympathetic and also constantly committing inexcusable actions. It made me feel like, well… “I am being torn apart.”

    • Adam

      I agree that Rey Palpatine felt stupid and took her agency away. I liked the idea of her being a nobody. What a true underdog! Her being the granddaughter of Palpatine felt like a lame cop-out explanation of her power.

  4. GS

    TROS tried its best to make Kylo redeemable, but in my view he’d long crossed the moral event horizon. The idea that he’d been groomed as a child by Snoke should have been more prominent, maybe mentioned in their confrontation in TLJ, and he should have shown remorse for his actions, if they wanted him to flip completely. In TFA he is shown wavering between Light and Dark, but in TLJ he is completely devoted to Sith ways. Explanation of his past doesn’t hit right for me unless its shown to still have effects in the present.

    As for TROS, it felt too much of a film written to undo TLJ. Kylo’s flip was too little too late imo, and he still didn’t make amends for his past actions. As for the kiss, well, that romance felt forced to me, it just didn’t click. Rey Palpatine, and Rey’s internal struggle between Light and Dark, were genuinely interesting, though they could’ve made the Dark side a little more tempting. Many annoying details (why did Rey stab Kylo then immediately heal all his wounds? If she doesn’t want to hurt him, DONT STAB HIM IN THE FIRST PLACE), and overall kinda meh. I was interested in TFA, and looking forward to the potential of the trilogy, but it was handled all wrong.

    Two directors who couldn’t share, both pulling the franchise in different directions until it broke. Urgh.

    • Adam

      “Two directors who couldn’t share, both pulling the franchise in different directions until it broke.” Yep. I think that’s what broke the trilogy.

      • Dinwar

        The sad thing is, it didn’t have to. The novels show that the franchise can work–and work very, VERY well at times–with multiple hands at the helm.

        • Cay Reet

          That’s true … a character bible (aka a list of all characters where everything important gets put down and EVERYONE keeps to it) and a throughline for the three movies would already have been helpful. A simple ‘we do not negate what the others have done’ would also have helped.

  5. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Unpopular opinion: I loved RoS. It literally had me bawling at multiple parts, one of them being that touching scene between Han and Ben. For me, that was what made him worth redeeming.

    As you said (in a brilliant article, I might add), his premeditated killing of Han Solo was what really made 13-year-old-me hate him. I wanted absolutely no redemption for him, and certainly not a redemption fueled by romance. However, making Ben’s redemption more directly linked to his parents than his romance was what sealed the deal for me. I loved seeing him redeemed at that point and even cheered a bit at the Reylo kiss. And then I cried some more.

    The movies are ultimately a mess, but RoS is honestly my favorite. It gave me all the emotions and was a perfect end for 17-year-old me to sob watching Ben’s redemption when 13-year-old me had her heart shattered by Han’s death.

    • SunlessNick

      I wanted absolutely no redemption for him, and certainly not a redemption fueled by romance. However, making Ben’s redemption more directly linked to his parents than his romance was what sealed the deal for me.

      Even the moment of connection with Rey after the stabbing and healing read (to me) as realising they’d both felt Leia die and were both reacting with grief
      Like you, I loved the film. Although I didn’t cheer at the kiss.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Oh wow, that is an excellent observation. Hits me right in the feels.

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