If Darth Vader Could Be Redeemed, Why Not Kylo Ren?
Are they really that different?
As the frenzy and discourse around The Rise of Skywalker grows, I’ve come to wonder what things would have been like had we had social media and this kind of visible fandom back in 1983 ahead of the release of Return of the Jedi? Would there have been ship wars? Speculation about Luke and or Leia’s true parentage? What would be have been saying about Darth Vader ahead of the film where he’s redeemed?
There are a lot of ways to get Star Wars fans arguing, but in many of the feminist, progressive fandom circles I watch (but don’t personally participate in) I feel like one of the surest ways to start a debate is to suggest the Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, is worthy of some sort of redemption (or Bendemption as many fans call it).
I’ve seen people call those that like Kylo as a character or ship him with anyone racists and nazi-sympathizers and abuse apologists. Saying you think he might or, worse, should be redeemed is just as controversial. In a political climate where actual Nazis and white supremacists are making a comeback, it’s extremely easy to project that onto Kylo. He represents a resurgence of fascism in his universe and he killed Han Solo – his dad! – so, of course, he represents everything we hate. Why should he get any sort of redemption?
But was Darth Vader any different back in the day? He does you know, torture Leia in A New Hope and also blow up a planet (audiences in 1983 were decades away from finding out that he slaughtered a bunch of toddlers too!). I guess you could argue that the Empire isn’t as clearly Nazis in the first few movies? Maybe? One of the biggest story failings of Star Wars has always been that the Empire is bad just because it’s an empire. That’s valid but we never actually see how the fall and rise and fall of galactic democracy actually affect normal lives until The Last Jedi.
Still, Darth Vader represented a shorthand for all that was evil and bad in the Empire going into Return of the Jedi. He was a brutal, scary murderer, even if he was Luke’s dad. He was the most iconic villain on film and a fascist at a time where our elected leaders and country were in a much more comforting and cohesive agreement that fascists were bad. And yet he was “redeemed.” He died doing good.
Imagine if this was now and fans of Vader were suggesting Mister Force-choke-his-co-workers should get a moral happy ending. I think people would have pounced on that even harder than the idea that Kylo might deserve a chance to change (or kiss Rey or both). Kylo Ren is a fan more emotionally complex and ambiguous character than Darth Vader – we see his inner life and we get a lot more of his conflict. He’s more set up for redemption than Vader was…so why do we get so mad about that idea?
As we discussed earlier this week, it looks like The Rise of Skywalker will be lining up Kylo along with Vader as just another victim of Palpatine’s manipulations, which is…meh. But the narrative has definitely set Ben Solo up for some sort of turn and redemption along the same lines as Palpatine’s last puppet. And that’s not shocking, Star Wars is obsessed with narrative symmetry, often to its detriment. But people still don’t like it.
At first, it would seem that the very idea of redemption, or of someone like Anakin or Kylo occupying a moral grey area, is against the very ethos of Star Wars which is so much about the clear duality of “light” and “dark.” But…only a Sith deals in absolutes. Star Wars, in my opinion, is about how rigid, uncompromising moral codes make things worse, and how the thing that makes the world better is hope. And that hope – that there is good even in the most evil character – is what saves the day.
The world and the way fandoms critique and analyze media has changed a lot since 1983. We don’t just see a story as a story anymore, we look at what it might say about society and our world. Many fans think that media needs to represent some sort of moral perfection of how they think things should be, rather than the ambiguities and complexities of how things really are. That evolution is both good and bad.
We are in a cultural moment where the loudest voices on both sides of the political divide don’t want us to see any grey areas or feel any compassion for those deemed morally lacking, but that’s the very danger these stories warn against. It’s easy to be fearful, then angry, then hateful when it comes to those we disagree with or don’t understand, but if we do that…we risk becoming just as bad. If we argue that Kylo doesn’t deserve redemption, or at the least, a chance to do good in some way…we might be missing the entire point of this nine-film saga.
I can’t say what we’ll see when The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters next week. But I think if it’s in line with everything that came before, we’ll see a turn in Kylo of some kind. And if that happens…it’s okay. It’s not the movie saying that Nazis are okay, but giving us hope that maybe even the worst person could get better. And I’m okay with that.
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