If fans are unhappy with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, maybe it's because Star Wars isn't what it used to be. The humor is self-deprecating, the main cast is no longer almost exclusively white and male, and the light/dark binary struggle that underpinned the original movies has given way to more complex notions. Rogue One presented us with ostensible "good guys" who merc'd friendlies and "bad guys" who were more or less just bureaucrats who happened to be working for the Nazis; The Force Awakens gave us our first Stormtrooper with a conscience, a soldier of the Empire who defected to the other side. The Last Jedi goes further: Luke Skywalker, our original Star Wars hero, is now a gloomy hermit who wishes the Jedi to end, while the saga's latest villain Kylo Ren is a sympathetic antagonist whose actions seem almost rational.
Up until this point, the primary villains of Star Wars—Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku, the asthmatic android General Grievous—were old-school, the sort of bad guys who took pleasure in others' pain for no more reason than they were unrepentant bastards. Palpatine actor Ian McDiarmid—the only person who seemingly had any fun in George Lucas's prequels—played his Big Bad Guy with a near-Shakespearean relish. But nothing could hide the fact that the emperor's sole motivation was still one-note inherent wickedness. Meanwhile, those same prequels attempted to rationalize Darth Vader by showing how innocent young Anakin Skywalker became a homicidal cyborg, but Lucas—far from the visionary he'd been when he first created Star Wars in 1977—bungled the transformation.
Kylo Ren, who started life in The Force Awakens as an emo Vader clone but has been made infinitely more complex by Rian Johnson's latest installment, isn't simply evil—he's someone who's driven to do evil by a disturbed mental state. An unhinged, emotionally traumatized Adam Driver plays the character with the conviction of someone who, if he weren't starring in a popcorn sci-fi movie, might be a contender for this Oscar season's Best Supporting Actor category. But the key to Kylo is in the writing: Born Ben Solo to one of cinema's most famous heroes, Kylo Ren is a great Star Wars villain—perhaps the greatest—because of how believably complicated he's been drawn.
We only have a sketch of Ben Solo's childhood, but it's enough: two absentee parents, including a cynical father who thought little of his son's powers ("Han was… Han about it," says Luke in The Last Jedi of Han Solo's dismissive attitude toward Kylo's force-sensitivity), and a trusted uncle who almost killed his nephew as he slept. Throw in the simultaneous entitlement and inferiority complex that came with hailing from a much-celebrated family, and you get one mixed-up kid for whom legacy has been a burden—who seeks father figures beyond his own biological parentage, whose painful past has left him suspended in adolescence and often unable to control his own emotions. (You also, poignantly, get a person of millennial age who feels betrayed by the previous generation and has the gut instinct to just blow everything up and start over.)
Kylo is volatile—a character of extremes, both fearsome and pathetic, seductive and repulsive, superior and small. Toward the end of The Last Jedi, having spent much of the movie in a sexually charged telepathic conversation with fellow force user Rey, Kylo impulsively murders his master before giving Rey a furious speech on killing the past in a bid to win her over. "You come from nothing, you're nothing—but not to me," Kylo tells Rey, in one of the most beautifully twisted declarations of love ever uttered in a family blockbuster, before quietly pleading with her to join him like he's the most desperately lonely person in the universe.
Kylo Ren, unlike those previous Star Wars villains who were tempted to a mysterious "dark side" by an intangible power we as viewers find difficult to comprehend, is understandably—even relatably—bad. Darth Vader will always be more iconic: He’s a black knight with the unearthly baritone of James Earl Jones, the intimidating stature of David Prowse, and the sartorial style of a post-punk samurai. But that great Star Wars villain, so effective in the context of another time, wouldn't ring as true were he introduced today. It just no longer makes sense to us that cinematic evil can be that…inexplicable. Our current reality is a complicated one, colored in shades of gray, and we're well past the fairy-tale idea that in this world there is good and there is evil just because.
Movie villains that are simply cackling wrongdoers in this day and age register as false. Marvel, for one, is frequently criticized for having a "villain problem" because its bad guys often lack clear motivation beyond the story's need for a character to pose a threat to the heroes. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is the perfect antagonist for our complex world—a world in which one person's villain is another's warped hero, in which we view morality on a spectrum, and in which we're all too familiar with the concept of cause and effect, and how the "good guys" sometimes inadvertently help to create their own enemies. When it comes to the villains, no: Star Wars really isn't what it used to be. It's better.