In the weeks since the release of The Force Awakens, I’ve observed two distinct and powerful reactions to the film’s central villainous figure, Kylo Ren. A small portion of the fan base is far too quick to forgive his numerous flaws, blaming his unambiguously evil actions on other characters or circumstances beyond his control (much, I imagine, as Ren himself would). A larger and more vocal group has embraced him as its beloved punching bag, citing numerous reasons it regards the leader of the Knights of Ren as little more than a joke: his recurring, ineffectual temper tantrums; his “rebellious, whiny manchild” relationship with his father, Han Solo; and, most importantly, his blatant, fanboyish obsession with Darth Vader. Fewer in number are those fans who acknowledge that these shortcomings are exactly what make him interesting.
I’ll be completely honest: I personally don’t consider Ren to be a particularly strong villain. When measured against the likes of Darryl Revok (Scanners), The Kurgan (Highlander), Roy Batty (Blade Runner), and especially his predecessor, Darth Vader, he falls far short of greatness. He is, however, a fascinating character. His clearly defined goals, ruthless ambition, and fierce internal conflict make him a borderline co-protagonist, and his arc is integral to the film’s central themes. Like Finn and Rey, Ren is a human being caught up in the process of discovering himself, faced with a decision that will determine the trajectory of the rest of his life: will he answer the call of The Light, or will he continue down the Dark path he’s chosen? In many ways, he is the Episode VII equivalent of Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender: a young man so thoroughly blinded by the desire to live up to his family’s legacy that he forgets how to be true to himself.
Where The Force Awakens falters is in its lack of an imposing “Black Hat” to balance the overall threat posed by the villainous faction. In Airbender, for instance, the slimy, scheming Admiral Zhao serves as Zuko’s more competent foil–calculating, charismatic and confident to counteract the disgraced prince’s impetuousness, aloofness, and insecurity. The audience is able to more easily sympathize with Zuko, a nominal “bad guy,” precisely because Zhao exists to elicit fear and hatred, dramatically raising the story’s stakes–if nothing else, we want to see the heroes take this evil bastard down.
Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is the closest thing The Force Awakens has to a Zhao counterpart, and while he certainly inspires hatred (casually ordering the destruction of an entire star system), he lacks the raw, magnetic presence required to be a truly intimidating Heavy. Sure, he delivers a chilling Big Speech, but whereas Zhao leads from the frontline, clashing directly with the protagonists on multiple occasions, Hux spends much of his screen time barking orders on the command deck of his Star Destroyer; in other words, the narrative disconnects him from the action, thus diminishing the concrete threat he poses to Rey and company. In many ways, Hux more closely resembles Moff Tarkin, the Mastermind to Vader’s Heavy in A New Hope–and even Tarkin personally menaced Leia before vaporizing her home planet right in front of her, lending the climactic battle greater personal weight; Hux never even shares the screen with Finn, his former subordinate. The remaining villains don’t fare much better: Captain Phasma wears cool chrome-plated armor, but ends up at the bottom of a garbage chute before she can show off her presumably impressive combat prowess, reducing her to a punchline; and the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke prefers to sit on his throne and remain in the shadows, thus accomplishing little of immediate consequence.
I love The Force Awakens, but I sincerely hope Episode VIII introduces a more intimidating antagonist while Kylo Ren nurses his wounds and completes his Dark Side training (another Knight of Ren, perhaps, hoping to supplant his commander as Snoke’s favorite pupil; or a returning Phasma, seeking redemption following her utter failure at Starkiller Base). The corrupted son of Han Solo exists in the wonderful and rarely explored gray area of the Star Wars universe, and I look forward to seeing his journey continue. As much as I enjoy morally complex characters, however, sometimes I just need an uncomplicated, unapologetic, and irredeemable villain who, above all else, loves being bad.
[Originally written December 30, 2015.]