So much wasted potential. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)
Warning: Spoilers for Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker Ahead
Kylo Ren could have been the best thing ever to happen to Star Wars.
When it was initially announced that Disney was bringing us back to a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars fans were bright-eyed and optimistic; nobody knew which direction the new trilogy was going to go, but they were already excited.
Most were certain that the missteps of the prequel trilogy were a thing of the past, the vast resources available to the House of Mouse practically guaranteed to make Star Wars great again. But the franchise was in a tricky position – the Star Wars sequel trilogy had to appeal to a new, younger generation, while pleasing the older fanbase who grew up with the original trilogy, many of whom view those films as sacred stories.
The ambitious-but-terribly-executed prequels provided an example of how change could result in disappointment, yet the franchise had to launch into a new era if it was going to thrive; after all, most of the merchandise is made for children.
Disney leaned into nostalgia with The Force Awakens, essentially retelling the tale of A New Hope, but introduced a likable new trio to inherit the lightsaber. Most of the new characters were designed to be familiar, especially Rey, who strongly mirrored Luke. Kylo, of course, was modelled after Darth Vader. But at the same time, he was absolutely nothing like him.
Kylo was different from every single character in that movie; while Rey and Poe’s personalities were almost identical to Luke and Han, Kylo was all-too-aware of his similarity to Vader, and was intentionally trying (and failing) to emulate him. In fact, it was even kind of pathetic.
A Darth Vader fanboy was a really interesting idea, and a wonderful way to show how the events of the original trilogy were viewed by the inhabitants of that universe. To Kylo, his grandfather was an almost mythical figure, one that he could never live up to.
While Snoke proved to be just another Emperor Palpatine (literally), Kylo was a wildly unorthodox Star Wars antagonist. For a series that always clearly separated good and evil, down to the color of their lightsaber, here was a character who was trying his hardest to be bad, yet struggled to fully commit himself to the Dark Side.
Kylo lacked the cool composure of his Nazi-like predecessors; indeed, he acted like a petulant child, temper tantrums and all. And The Last Jedi saw Kylo humiliated, Snoke telling him to grow the hell up and stop cosplaying as Vader.
The shattering of Kylo’s helmet was symbolic, a clear indication that this movie would break the bonds of nostalgia and soar into the future, into the unknown. Kylo, the morally ambiguous antagonist, and Rey, the protagonist hinted to have a secret predisposition to the Dark Side, would lead the series away from red vs. blue, and perhaps embrace a shade of purple.
Alas, The Last Jedi made a series of bad decisions regarding Poe and Finn. Finn’s potential, especially, was utterly squandered – the presumably complex feelings of an ex-Stormtrooper were barely explored. And of course, the subversive portrayal of Luke made traditional fans furious.
The outrage machine churned into action, and the backlash grew insanely disproportionate; who’d have thought a mediocre blockbuster could turn so many to the Dark Side so effectively?
Disney listened, and grew fearful. J.J. Abrams was brought back to repeat the magic of The Force Awakens, which everybody seemed to like at the time.
Hence, the pendulum swung back to nostalgia, and Kylo’s character development had to stop. He could no longer seek to build his own Empire; he had to glue his mask back together again, and occupy himself with finding Emperor Palpatine, the physical embodiment of nostalgia for the original trilogy.
And so, “balance” was restored; Star Wars had an undisputedly evil villain again, and Kylo could simply swing to the Light Side, instead of being Force-curious. It was an uplifting redemption arc, sure, but the opportunity for a bold new direction for the franchise, a morally ambiguous character to reflect a more complicated age, was gone.
We’ve returned to a galaxy where people are either good, or they’re evil. Kylo had to die, despite being redeemed, because of the evil actions of his past; sacrifice was seen as the only acceptable outcome. There was no longer a place for Kylo’s awkward, angry, tortured personality.
Just like the prequels, an ambitious experiment was mishandled, and Disney chose to retreat to the safety of the familiar.
Well, the Skywalker saga is over, and Star Wars is wide open, once again; ironically, the next film will likely find itself in the same position, required to balance the new and the nostalgic. Perhaps there will be another character who walks a line between the Dark Side and the Light; Adam Driver, unfortunately, is most likely done (especially after reading the script to The Rise of Skywalker).
But when it comes to sci-fi, never say never to the reincarnation of popular dead characters, no matter how outlandish. As Palpatine likes to say:
“The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be … unnatural.”