This post comes out of a new series of writing I do on ASOIAF meta and other topics of popular culture over at the Patreon of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. If you like to read stuff like this, chime in just 1$ and you get access to everything I write. If you throw in 2$, you even get access to mini-podcasts I'm doing with Sean T. Collins answering questions by listeners of the podcast. Give the Patreon a look!
I'm going to take the fully objective and uncontroversial stance here. I think Kylo Ren is the best villain of any Star Wars movie. You can't really argue with that, so I will kindly take you through this process so you can arrive at the same conclusion. A service of your Boiled Leather Audio Popculture.
A New Hope. In the first movie ever, we get two villains. On the one hand, there's a very classic Grand Moff Tarkin, a snarling, evil commander totally wedded to the evil organization he serves. He unceremoniously gets blown up in the end. Then there's Darth Vader, a classic henchmen, villain of the second rank, ominous and powerful yet clearly beholden by the powers-that-be of Tarkin's ilk.
The Empire Strikes Back. In the second-best of all Star Wars movies, Darth Vader gets upgraded to major villain status, chewing all scenery he's in and laying the foundation for what would ultimately BE Darth Vader in all subsequent movies, shows, novels and other EU projects. He's the incarnation of evil and, especially, evil temptation, which is what makes him so attractive as a villain. Gosh, I could slobber for hours over this evolution.
The Return of the Jedi. In Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader makes room for the Empereror to be the villain. He himself becomes something of an oddity between both sides before finally deciding for the light side in redemption. He's curiously detached from the whole plot, and Luke's conflict with him exists in parallel to the major story, in which there really is no major villain other than bungling Stormtroopers, which may hint at one of the major weaknesses of the movie.
The Phantom Menace. In the first prequel, there are way too many villains. We have the bungling Trade Federation, the institutional villains of the corrupt Republic and arguably even the Jedi Council, Darth Sidious aka Palpatine, Watto on Tatooine and of course Darth Maul, a glorified lightsabre on two legs. In this department, as in others, the movie is a total mess.
Attack of the Clones. In this one, the real enemy is Senator Palpatine, but this can't be revealed until the next movie, so Lucas had to bring two very secondary villains to the fore that had "I have to be defeated" tattooed on their foreheads: Jango Fett and Count Dooku. Both of them subsequently are, and the real villain is once again the inner, dark forces of the Republic itself, which works just well enough to shove the worst of all Star Wars movies over the finishing line.
Revenge of the Sith. In this, the villain is very clearly the newly minted Emperor, who goes on to chew scenery and bubblegum, yet he's running out of bubblegum early on. The whole thing just works perfectly in that regard and catapults Revenge of the Sith easily in the league of the first two movies.
Rogue One. In Rogue One, we get Tarkin again - who works just like in A New Hope as institutionalized evil - , Darth Vader reprising his role as a secondary, scary henchman, and Director Krennic, who in his quest for gratitude from the evil institution is oddly relatable. Rogue One basically is an office drama, but in Star Wars. Good job there.
Solo. In Solo, we have Dryden Vos, and, honest to god, I needed to google his name, because like everything Solo, I had forgotten what his name was. Paul Bettany is obviously a great actor, but the movie doesn't really work structurally, and Vos is one of the major victims of this, especially since - let me google - Tobias Beckett is vying for the same spot and arguably takes it. And then there are Qi'ra, Enphis Nest and even freaking Maul competing for attention. We're in Phantom Menace territory here.
So, why is Kylo Ren beating them all out? Kylo Ren is the best of all of them, providing a perfect amalgam. In The Force Awakens, he's this emo Darth Vader fanboy, hinting at great depth of character and breaking fully to the front once interacting with Rey.
I mean, it's just brillant the way this works. His shaky, false self-confidence (evidenced by his fitful attacks on consoles) is totally smashed by Rey, and he wants her, without any idea how to get her. His raging insecurity about his turn to the Dark Side alone makes him a worthy rival of Empire's Vader, but the idea that he's tempted by the Light Side and wants to resist that temptation, instead of classically being tempted by the Dark Side and then falling for it, is elevating him to next level.
Even the finale of the movie, which falls totally flat where it comes to the attack on Starkiller Base, is a chance for Kylo to shine. His fight with Finn and Rey is great, the structural decision to have Chewbacca wound him to even out the chances is brillant, and he basically goes through a whole character arc in this lightsaber fight alone. Chapeau.
But of course, this would be just a very good Star Wars villain without the inclusion of the objectively best Star Wars movie of all time, The Last Jedi. In this movie, we get to directly see the fallout from the last movie, as Kylo gets dressed down by Snoke and forced to leave his childish Vader attachment behind. He then goes on to grapple with the other parent figure he has, not being able to repeat the resisting of the temptation of the Light Side again (this has to be taken over by the nameless TIE/fo pilot accompanying him), and that's all before we go to his psychic communication with Rey.
Seriously, his relationship with Rey puts Luke and Vader to shame. It has so many levels and is so complex and helped so much by the fact that one of both actors doesn't have his face hidden behind a mask - oh dear, it's just great. Really, really great. Torn between trying to make her alternatingly into his nemesis, apprentice, lover, friend and sister, he and Rey both exchange relative positions and grow during these conflicts, which make the final resolution in Snoke's chamber all the more heart-warming and heart-wrenching as we first get the impression that he might turn, and then see that he doesn't. And through it all, there is the genuine danger of him turning Rey, a danger that Vader never posed to Luke.
And still, we're not done, as Kylo needs to become the new emperor and, for the moment, fails miserably at it, instead resorting to bullying poor General Hux and then risking everything for a fistfight with Luke (to paraphrase the Joker). He ends the movie with everything he ever wanted and simultaneously nothing at all, and I can't wait to see where his journey will lead.