Our first meeting with the villain in The Force Awakens tells us only part of who he is -- or wants to be.
Audiences can learn a lot about a character by the way a director chooses to introduce them. Rey’s introduction in The Force Awakens revealed many characteristics about her that became more evident and pronounced throughout the film. Rey remained who we thought she was from the beginning to the end of The Force Awakens: independent, brave, and caring. Kylo Ren’s first scene in the same film, on the other hand, shows only one aspect of his conflicted character -- ruthless brutality.
The creators of The Force Awakens chose to not shy away from comparisons that this new Star Wars villain would draw to one of the most iconic bad guys of all time, Darth Vader. They decided to instead embrace comparisons between the two characters and use their similarities as a narrative device. J.J. Abrams noted in his commentary for The Force Awakens, “The character of Kylo Ren was one of the most challenging characters because he sort of embodied what this movie was. It was a new story, a new personality created from the DNA of what had come before, but because he was the villain it meant he was in the shadow of Darth Vader one of the great villains in cinema history.”
As the film opens, Lor San Tekka hands Resistance pilot Poe Dameron secret information in a small Jakku village. Before Poe can escape, First Order troopers arrive and violently start rounding up its inhabitants. When Poe looks up in the sky, he sees the descent of Kylo Ren’s shuttle, a sleek bat-like ship much more refined than the bulky Atmospheric Assault Landers the First Order troopers arrived in minutes before. Things are already looking bad for Poe and the villagers, and now their situation is about to get a lot worse.
Star Wars has a long history of villains in black striding through doorways or down ship ramps during their dramatic entrances, and The Force Awakens takes a similar approach to introducing Kylo Ren. In fact, Kylo walking down the landing ramp of his command shuttle with First Order troopers at attention is very reminiscent of Darth Vader walking down the ramp of his Imperial shuttle at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, complete with exhaust blowing out of nearby pipes.
All of these visual clues let the audience know without a doubt that this isn’t just any bad guy, this is the bad guy in charge. The music during this scene is Kylo Ren’s theme, which is suitably bold and dramatic. John Williams described what he was trying to convey with this piece of music: “I approached the task of Kylo Ren as really just an extension of Darth Vader in a way...if it [Kylo Ren’s theme] could convey in a few notes, as the "Imperial March" does, this evil power, strength, threat... It needs to be something that will hit you and is accessible right away.”
Kylo Ren’s wardrobe is a callback to the garb of past dark-side servants, with a somewhat Vader-esque face-covering mask that alters his natural voice. Audiences at this point don’t know that Kylo is Darth Vader’s grandson and that the resemblance is an attempt to honor the deceased Sith Lord. The mystery of who is behind this menacing mask encourages the audience to wonder what kind of person (human? cyborg? Sith Lord?) is underneath it.
After Lor San Tekka speaks to him about a time before he was known as Kylo Ren, Kylo heartlessly kills Lor San Tekka and then orders the death of the village’s inhabitants in his obsessive quest to find the map to Luke Skywalker. Because Kylo has on a mask in this scene, we can’t see any kind of facial expression to give us a hint if he is at all conflicted or hesitant at this moment. He certainly doesn’t seem to give these actions a second thought, which makes the scene that much more scary and disturbing.
The red crossguard lightsaber Kylo uses to kill Lor San Tekka is a huge clue to audiences that he has Force powers, and Kylo’s next move leaves viewers no doubt that he is a similar threat to the Resistance as Vader was to the Rebellion. When Poe fires a blaster his way, Kylo freezes both Poe and the blaster fire in mid-air. Kylo is not only showing that he can use the Force in this shot, he’s also showing us that he has an impressive amount of control of his powers -- perhaps a larger amount of control than those who came before him.
After Kylo Ren orders Poe to be taken aboard his ship, audiences have seen nothing from his character that suggests he is anything but a powerful, ruthless, Force-strong killer. As The Force Awakens continues, however, Kylo Ren’s character and path aren’t nearly as clear as it first appears. Kylo’s actions throughout the film are unquestionably evil, but his journey to the dark side does not appear complete, and his role as a leader of the First Order does not remain unquestioned.
Throughout the film, Kylo wavers between controlled evil and emotional instability. Kylo has the discipline to invade the thoughts of Poe Dameron, but he is also prone to fits of violent rage when things don’t go his way or he is challenged. This volatility lets audiences see both a monstrous and more human side of his character -- something we did not see from Vader until the end of the original three films.
Kylo’s mask, and the removal of it are representative of the identity crisis he experiences in different sections of the film. Kylo doesn’t need to wear his mask to survive as Darth Vader did; he instead uses it as a means of intimidation and as a way to perhaps mentally separate himself from his previous life as Ben Solo. Anakin’s change to Darth Vader was physically permanent. He was, as Obi-Wan said, "more machine now than man," but Kylo Ren’s mask is more of a symbolic prop. There’s more to being a Jedi than just wielding a lightsaber, and there’s more to the dark side than donning a black mask.
Adam Driver spoke about Kylo Ren’s mask in an interview with British GQ. "I remember the initial conversations about having things 'skinned'," Driver recalls, "peeling away layers to evolve into other people, and the person Kylo's pretending to be on the outside is not who he is. He's a vulnerable kid who doesn't know where to put his energy, but when he puts his mask on, suddenly, he's playing a role.”
The removal of Kylo Ren’s mask in different scenes of The Force Awakens lets the audience see the conflict he feels before he murders his own father, Han Solo -- a conflict we did not get a hint of in his first scene where he kills Lor San Tekka. Earlier, an unmasked Kylo Ren allows Rey to look into his eyes, and then see his fears when he is attempting to pry information from her mind. Kylo Ren shows a sign of wanting to be seen as a man and not a monster when he rips off his mask after Rey calls him a “creature in a mask” in this same scene. Rey saw Kylo Ren’s mask as a weakness and exploited his insecurities about it, which is a far cry from the scenes in the original trilogy where Vader’s subordinates were visibly horrified by his mask and the man wearing it.
Early on in The Last Jedi, Supreme Leader Snoke also mocks Kylo Ren’s mask and the lack of this mask throughout the majority of the movie continues to let other characters (and the audience) see more of the conflict Kylo feels during the film. Kylo's destruction of his mask can also be read as a clear turning point for the character -- one that would influence everything that would follow in The Last Jedi.
Amy Richau is a writer, lifelong Star Wars geek, and diehard Denver Broncos fan. You can find her on twitter @amyrichau and more of her writing on FANgirl Blog.