DARTH VADER vs. KYLO REN – which of them is a true supervillain of STAR WARS?
In the case of Star Wars, perhaps unexpectedly even for George Lucas himself, it happened that Darth Vader became a more popular, even iconic, character of the saga than Luke Skywalker. Vader shares this position with Han Solo, who is also a kind of antihero. Disney wanted to change this and introduce a new character of a “cult” villain – in whose veins would flow the blood of both Vader and Han Solo. Therefore, Kylo Ren was supposed to be a supervillain and a super-iconic hero. And maybe this would have worked out for him if not for the numerous flaws of the recent Disney-produced Star Wars installments. Probably that’s why I have a tea mug with glittery Darth Vader on it, and not a battered, emotionally lost Kylo Ren with scars. It’s worth considering which of them is more wicked and why viewers are not bothered by it, but rather impressed. Perhaps they themselves dream of wielding a lightsaber around their own Galaxy, that is, a closed, camera-monitored housing estate, and scaring the neighbors – or rather the neighbors – with heavy breathing, like some deviant from the old days usually encountered somewhere on telephone lines?
Iconic Star Wars villain
To understand why Darth Vader became such a profound symbol of iconic Star Wars villainy, adorning even my tea mug with a glittery rendition, one must comprehend the components of his character and what sets him apart from Kylo Ren. When watching film characters, especially those of a fantastical nature, we often identify with them, and this identification is stronger with more unreal characters. This characteristic corresponds to our internal need to adopt new identities, much like we did when we were children.
We hardly remember Vader’s face, even the one from episodes I, II, and III of Star Wars when he was still Anakin (Hayden Christensen). Instead, we forever associate him with his mask – mysterious, etched in memory, serving as a template to which we can superimpose any face, any emotions, and even words. Darth Vader became such a potent symbol because he never removed his mask, except for his death scene in Return of the Jedi. However, this moment was not associated with the symbolism of his character at all, as if the man hidden beneath the life-sustaining suit didn’t exist, and only our imaginings of him were present.
Kylo Ren – a human
Kylo Ren, on the other hand, was inherently more human from the outset. He wasn’t a robot, android, or hybrid being; he was a person who could wield the Force. His mask also had a completely different connotation – it didn’t sustain his life. He didn’t need to wear it, as it would have hindered his connection to the Force. He wore it out of tradition, in memory of his “great” grandfather, and to intimidate his enemies. Rarely is another motive for its existence mentioned – Kylo Ren hid beneath it. He always believed he was too human, and thus, ordinary. The Force didn’t provide him with a sense of strength or refuge. He was an uncertain being, precariously grounded in the Force, even if we consider it as a singular entity, undivided into light and dark. It’s difficult, therefore, to expect symbolism from such a mask. It’s challenging to identify with it. It’s hard to project any emotions onto it, as the specific face of Adam Driver, along with his insecurity, constantly comes to mind. If he had kept the mask on, he might have had a chance to vie for iconic status. However, he remained in Vader’s shadow, which he feared within the plot itself, and the creators wanted to exploit this fear by engaging the audience in the game of the character’s emotions and the dose of violence he displayed. And this is how we come to the villainy of both antagonists.
Star Wars violence
The depiction of violence in cinema changes with time, even within the same age classification of films. The earliest Star Wars installments contained violence, but it was subtly portrayed. Darth Vader was, of course, involved, as one of its main perpetrators. However, looking at his nefarious deeds from today’s viewer’s perspective, his violence or villainy is rooted more in the narrative’s assertion that they are wrong rather than in the visual experience of their horror. Moreover, Vader’s mask always obstructed the direct visualization of violence because we never saw Vader’s emotions. This changed in episodes I, II, and III of Star Wars, where Anakin still had a human face, and Hayden Christensen did his best to portray how the dark side of the Force seduced the young Padawan. There, during the execution of Order 66, he encountered young children who were just beginning to learn the ways of the Force, and he killed them all. Of course, this wasn’t explicitly shown, but the scene was still poignant. The question is whether this influenced fans’ perception of evil in Darth Vader later on. Probably not.
However, it did affect the portrayal of violence in Kylo Ren’s behavior. Episodes VII, VIII, and IX were created in completely different times, when we are more accustomed to violence than ever before, especially during the late ’70s and ’80s, when A New Hope premiered. Therefore, Darth Vader’s grandson had to be scarier, more powerful, more desperate, and capable of greater evil because he was pitted against the legend of his grandfather, both in the plot and in the minds of the audience. The pinnacle of this violence was the murder of Han Solo – his own father. All these efforts, however, proved superficial. Only Vader endured as a pop culture icon because he wore a mask, never took it off, breathed heavily, which deeply ingrained itself in the subconscious, and everyone believed he was evil. Anakin’s attitude doesn’t matter here at all. What matters is the attitude of the machine that Vader partly was, and the audience could project their hidden fantasies and fears onto it. It’s safe to hide behind a mask.
DARTH VADER vs. KYLO REN
Which of them, Kylo Ren or Darth Vader, is more wicked? The answer is both simple and complex in the sense that we cannot definitively conclude that Vader’s greater popularity implies greater evil. If we were to replace Darth Vader with Anakin Skywalker from episodes I, II, and III, one could argue that Anakin was more immoral due to his act of killing children. Kylo Ren made significant efforts to reach that level, but he was too consumed by uncertainty and desperation. Therefore, when comparing the wickedness of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, undoubtedly Ren comes across as more vile, although this is completely contrary when it comes to their iconic status. So, in the Star Wars saga, villainy does not necessarily correlate with cult status. It’s not the case that we love villains more in Star Wars. We love villains when their evil leaves room for moral judgment, and the character itself has a chance, and in fact does, deviate from the negative path and does not act in a manner contrary to our species in its most primal sense – which is raising a hand against human offspring. Vader fulfilled all these conditions, while Anakin and Kylo Ren did not.
Returning to my tea mug with the glittery Vader, I have it because, by some pop culture miracle, I have exempted Darth Vader from the collection of villains that corrupt morality in others. I consider him a character not so much worthy of emulation as one that provides an opportunity for reflection on human actions. You can see yourself in his non-mimic mask like in a mirror. Vader is like us – inclined to wrongdoing depending on upbringing and circumstances, but within boundaries that are not a murderous deviance deserving only condemnation. So, I will enjoy many more cups of tea in the company of the golden glitter-adorned mask of Darth Vader.