Kylo Ren has a bad reputation. Depending on who you talk to, the new villain of Star Wars is either embraced as terrifying, derided as a whiny, wannabe Sith who got his look from Hot Topic, or simply the brat who murdered Han Solo. All of these are true. The question is whether or not Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, makes for a strong Star Wars villain. As I’ve previously noted, Star Wars used to thrive in very clear light versus dark dynamics, and fans were drawn to that clarity in defining good and evil. Kylo Ren is different.
In a recent interview with GQ, actor Adam Driver, who plays Ren, shared his view on the political context in which Kylo Ren’s character was born. He is “juvenile,” says Driver, and behaves like our own world’s politicians whose actions all “come down to them feeling wronged or unloved or wanting validation.” That may sound like an anti-Trump statement to some, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a political scientist who doesn’t recognize these traits in the personality types drawn to politics. Driver goes on to say that in his conversations with directors JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson, terrorism came up in regard to how Kylo Ren’s nature. “You have young and deeply committed people with one-sided education who think in absolutes. That is more dangerous than being evil. Kylo thinks what he is doing is entirely right, and that, in my mind, is the scariest part.” This comment should sound familiar in how we collectively talk about radicalization and how angry young men serve as a driving force of terrorism at home and abroad.
Driver leaves a lot to unpack with this revelation about the inspirations behind the character of Kylo Ren. The First Order and Kylo Ren stand distinct from the Empire and Darth Vader, despite aesthetic similarities. The events of The Force Awakens show the First Order to be a military rogue faction with no clear government or citizenry. They are ISIS-like in their lack of legitimacy as a state. The First Order conquers, kills, and declares territory in the name of the Empire’s ideals. They also wielded a super weapon, Starkiller Base, to destroy Republic worlds in a fashion that can best be described as galactic terrorism. There was no military strategy attached to the act, just ideology and a desire to inflict pain.
What is both fascinating and frustrating about Kylo Ren is why he feels so “torn apart” and conflicted. He is the child of Han Solo and Princess Leia, making him galactic royalty. His uncle is fabled Jedi Luke Skywalker. You could say Kylo Ren is the epitome of being privileged, yet he still isn’t satisfied. After all, his grandfather Darth Vader ruled a galaxy with an iron fist, so perhaps his place in life felt remarkably small compared to what could have been. Supreme Leader Snoke told him stories of the Empire’s glory, of Vader’s unquestioned power, and Kylo soaked it all in. He was radicalized by the First Order’s neo-Imperial version of galactic events and embraced it instead of trying to live in his famous parents’ impossibly large shadow.
In our own world, there are two prominent concerns when it comes to terrorism: Islamic extremism and white nationalism. While the First Order possesses elements of ISIS, North Korea, and Iran, the best way to understand them is to look at right-wing nationalist movements in the west. Their slogan might as well be Make the Galaxy Great Again, which is only to say that after the Empire fell to a rebellion there would obviously be large swaths of people who lost status, privilege, and power in the new order. General Hux, the First Order commander in The Force Awakens, for example, was just a child when the Empire fell. His father was powerful and he was going to inherit that one day. Then, the Empire was toppled and his family suddenly had only exile and disgrace. Just like the alt-right is a confluence of troubled individuals with grievances ranging from economic anxiety to blatant racial bigotry, the First Order is held together by Imperial descendants and young people indoctrinated into a reimagined history where the Empire wasn’t monstrous, but something to be envied.
Kylo Ren may well have earned the Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren with his unfortunate choice of haircut and temper tantrums, but there is something eerily familiar to what his character reflects in politics today. Why would a young man like Ben Solo, who had everything, kill his own father and take on the task of reviving the memory of Darth Vader? Why are young white men in America feeling so lost they’d march alongside Nazis in Charlottesville, gun down churchgoers in Charleston, and embrace the not-so-subtle dog whistle of Make America Great Again?
Because when people don’t have everything they want in life, they tend to gravitate towards whatever tells them they are entitled to more. This December, with the release of The Last Jedi, we will get one step closer to discovering where Kylo’s path leads – and in the Nov. 2018 midterms we will see just how strong the grip of resentment and nationalism is on politics.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the spokesperson for Young Voices and host of Beltway Banthas, a Star Wars & politics podcast in D.C.
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