Oh, Kylo Ren. He's the problem child of the Star Wars franchise, trying desperately (both in the story and in real life) to live up to the iconic villainy of Darth Vader. And people are still divided on whether he has achieved this. That's probably because Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens was conceived not only to be Kylo Ren's introduction, but also his villain origin story (or so J.J. Abrams tells us).
And yet there's still a lot of mystery surrounding Kylo Ren's journey to the dark side. Since The Force Awakens was released, we've been slowly unravelling his descent into evil, from being isolated as a child to Supreme Leader Snoke's slow manipulation.
It's Kylo Ren's childhood that people have been buzzing about this week, what with Adam Driver giving fresh insight into the Jedi formerly known as Ben Solo's formative years. Driver's opinion of the character, along with the fact that Kylo Ren was clearly manipulated by Snoke, can be seen as making excuses, or even apologizing, for the character. So is this undermining Kylo Ren's villainous appeal, or just giving him some character depth?
Sob Stories Don't Excuse Villainy
There's a disturbing trend in fandom to explain away a (usually male) villain's actions. The fans claim that the antagonist is just misunderstood, that the deck was stacked against them, or that their final redemptive actions justify everything else they've done.
I could throw a bunch of examples out there: Loki, Severus Snape and even Anakin Skywalker have all undergone this treatment. And Kylo Ren is just the latest on the list.
Without getting into thorny debates on this, suffice to say that if a villain has a tragic backstory, there are fans who will use this as an excuse for everything that character has done. But the fact is, supposedly neglectful parenting really isn't enough to explain away Ben Solo's fall to the dark side, no matter what Adam Driver says:
"If you really imagine the stakes of him, in his youth, having all these special powers — and having your parents kind of being absent during that process with their own agendas, equally as selfish — he's lost in the world that he was raised in, and feels that he was kind of abandoned by the people that he's closest with. ... He has a huge grudge on his shoulders."
Of course, this does shed some light on Ben Solo's origins and it lines up with what we'd already suspected: Ben felt isolated as a child and when he was sent to train with Luke Skywalker, this further isolation made him vulnerable to Snoke's manipulation.
How he was manipulated still remains to be seen, but there's one thing that doesn't: No matter what his story, Kylo Ren is still a villain.
Choosing The Dark Side
Corrupting Ben Solo wouldn't simply have been a matter of tempting him with the power of the dark side. Snoke's manipulation would have been a lot more subtle, dangerous and disturbing than that. It was probably very psychological, intended to isolate Ben Solo even further, increase his paranoia and making him hate the people he had once loved.
Snoke's teachings were most likely crafted to encourage Kylo Ren to harness his anger. The more emotionally unstable Ren is, the more he's going to feel pain and hurt and sadness which, as Yoda says, leads straight to the dark side.
Was Ben Solo's agency stripped from him by Snoke's slow manipulation? Possibly. But as an adult, Kylo Ren does understand the difference between the dark and the light, and has chosen to side with Snoke.
Tragic backstories give us an insight into villains' mentalities, but using them as an excuse is somewhat apologetic. It also implies that if you have a difficult childhood, you'll turn out bad, which isn't true. And the nice thing is, we see this dynamic reflected in The Force Awakens with Rey and Finn.
Rey especially acts as a mirror to Kylo Ren. She also suffered a traumatic childhood; isolated on Jakku, she had to fight to survive. And as the novel reveals, Rey also feels the pull of the dark side, urging her to kill Ren in the final battle.
Yet for all that she's tempted, Rey doesn't succumb. There's a lot of sadness and grief in her story, but ultimately she's hopeful. She's her own person, not controlled by anyone as Kylo Ren is controlled by Snoke. And conclusively, she falls on the side of light.
Finn, of course, managed to resist an entire lifetime of conditioning from the First Order. If anyone has a tragic backstory as an excuse for morally questionable actions, it's Finn (and for that matter, all Stormtroopers brainwashed from birth to serve the Order). But he managed to resist and chose to join the Resistance instead.
Both Rey and Finn act as mirrors to Kylo Ren. All these characters are isolated, tempted by darkness, but ultimately their actions determine whether they're good or bad. When all is said and done, Kylo Ren chose to be a bad guy, one so twisted that he even keeps the ashes of his victims as a shrine to his dark side idol (seriously.) He might not be a full-blown villain yet, but he's well on his way.