Star Wars comes to a surely epic conclusion this December with Episode IX: “The Rise of Skywalker,” capping off four decades of Hollywood dominance for George Lucas’ long-shot space opera. After three trilogies tracing the story of the Skywalker family, there is no shortage of loose ends director J.J. Abrams will have to tie up to assuage a raucous fanbase and a Star Wars-fatigued media.
The task is daunting and unenviable. At the top of the to-do list for Disney, now running the show after buying the franchise and Lucasfilm studio for a meager $4 billion, is what to do with the trilogies’ top emo baddie, Kylo Ren.
The matter of Kylo’s fate is a particularly important plot point, one that dwarfs the significance of, say, Rey’s parentage. In popular culture, Star Wars’ influence on the subject of redemption cannot be overstated. Since Luke Skywalker began pursuing his father, Darth Vader, with the hopes of bringing him back to the light in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” Star Wars’ moral arc has bent away from justice in favor of something more nebulous that can only be described as hope.
Kylo Ren, also known as Ben Solo, is as far as we know the single successor of the Skywalker family line. He’s a young man obsessed with his familial connection to Darth Vader who has betrayed everyone, including himself, on his descent into darkness. His list of sins is quite long, and unfortunately, the act of patricide stands out as a minor offense next to the genocide he helped the First Order carry out in “The Force Awakens.”
His light-side counterpart, Rey, seems to think Kylo can be brought back to the light, despite the skepticism of a disillusioned Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi.” Needless to say, Kylo walked away from yet another outstretched hand that sought to offer him a way out. “Bendemption,” a popular fan moniker for the possibility of Ben Solo’s redemption, seems like a long shot.
How many chances should Kylo get? How high must the victim count of this Darth Vader-wannabe climb before he’s marked for elimination instead of a salvation arc? What Abrams and Disney choose to do on Bendemption will serve as a cultural marker for how the spirit of America has evolved since 1983 on the concept of redemption. Make no mistake, this will be a contentious issue in the critical reception of Star Wars’ final chapter.
Everything Is Canceled
Look no further than the lead-up to the recent Joaquin Phoenix film, “Joker,” for how a movie becomes a proxy battle for larger disputes that pre-date it. The mere fact that the Joker character was a single, white, gun-wielding male in the brooding Todd Phillips noir was a red flag to activist film critics. Despite the character having always been this way, this time it was problematic.
Kylo Ren entered the Star Wars universe during a period of deep concern over privilege, racial tension, and economic (also racially tinged) resentment. As the well-to-do son of Princess Leia and Han Solo, there’s been little patience in certain corners of Star Wars fandom for the angsty archetype Kylo embodies. From a certain point of view, he’s the perfect alt-right caricature placed into the Star Wars universe — and that’s not entirely wrong. In this politically charged moment, can Abrams and Disney redeem Kylo? Or is the lost son of Han Solo and Princess Leia doomed to be canceled?
The term “cancel culture” is likely familiar to anyone reading this. The expression emerged from internet shorthand to proclaim someone or something as effectively written off. The use of the tagline can be dead serious or whimsical in nature. Male comedian makes a crude, misogynistic joke? Canceled! Mom reveals over dinner she voted for Donald Trump? Canceled! Movie star faces a claim of sexual harassment? Canceled! Starbucks spells your name wrong on the cup? Canceled!
When you’re canceled, you’re marked undesirable, stripped of status however large or small, and in the Merriam-Webster framing, “brought to nothingness.” To be clear, we’ve always had this struggle with societal and personal forgiveness. It’s nothing new. Except that “cancel culture,” as a phenomenon, has given shape to the practice of excommunication and de facto banishment. With that has come a certain level of devotion to the practice from its adherents. Stories about cancel culture in action are plentiful.
At a time of profound political divide and (positive) social upheaval such as the Me Too movement, defining redemption for modern times has never been more important. Is redemption a process of apologetics and public vows to “do better”? Should it involve monetary giving toward certain causes? Are you ever allowed to continue on with your life after a mistake, large or small?
The Meaning of Redemption
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, redemption is essentially Christ “paying your tab.” Your debt is recognized as being too high for you to cover the expense, and so it’s paid in righteous blood. Redemption takes place internally, and forgiveness from others isn’t really required in this equation.
You can be redeemed, or saved, and still not have received the forgiveness of those you’ve wronged — but of course, you are instructed to attempt to make amends. The hope in this religious tradition is that you’re surrounded by a body of people who see themselves as equally flawed and equally redeemed, and can forgive in turn. It’s a virtuous cycle that requires great humility and a tamed ego.
Enter: America 2019, where forgiveness and redemption are rarely found in public discourse. It’s hard to imagine Darth Vader’s eventual return to the light meeting unanimous applause. After all, he was a genocidal monster with a vague sexual harassment and spousal abuse record, to boot. His final hour, however, was a classic Hollywood redemptive moment, where a vilified father gave his life in defense of his son. Vader had a moment of clarity when he realized there was hope for him beyond the mask and metallic black suit. It was personal.
Would things have gone the same way if Vader had considered whether he’d be brought up on war crimes and human rights violations upon turning against the Empire and leaving with Luke, as his son had suggested? A contemporary understanding of Vader’s ability to be redeemed would no doubt be tied to his specific crimes against the galaxy and his ability to offer reparations for each.
It’s this very mood in our country that has brought the discussion about reparations for slavery back to life in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Marianne Williamson’s view of reparations for slavery as required to heal a spiritual wound in the country is perhaps the most relevant lens through which to view this emerging consensus.
The left’s candidates almost all agree reparations are needed, but it’s not clear there’s agreement on what all it would involve. That being said, this apparent eagerness to litigate reparations in 2020 isn’t a driver of the left’s feelings on redemption as a concept, but a reflection of a new politics that you can bet Hollywood elites are attuned to.
Is Kylo Ren Redeemable?
We have no way of knowing what will happen with Kylo Ren in “The Rise of Skywalker,” and the possibility of a full “Bendemption” remains plausible. But while Star Wars has stayed remarkably true to its narrative roots throughout the franchise’s expansion under Disney, things could go the other way. After all, someone has to pay for the murder of Han Solo and the restarting of a destructive intergalactic war.
Kylo Ren having his own moment of clarity and resolving to do the right thing wouldn’t be universally embraced as a worthwhile moral tale. For those Star Wars fans in the cross-section of social justice activism, it’s perhaps more of a tired construct that allows for white, male characters to victimize others and be anointed with figurative white robes for eventually seeing the error in their ways.
As moviegoers, citizens, parents, siblings, or neighbors, though, we should all have a vested interest in a society that believes it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf. Star Wars, as the most popular modern myth of our time, has offered multiple generations a hopeful vision of redemption and its universal accessibility to those brave enough to seek it. It’s taught us that the only barrier to quitting the dark side is the belief that there’s another way. A Star Wars that opts to cancel Kylo Ren is scary, but unfortunately, it’s a more likely outcome now than any other time in recent memory.
You may not be a space murderer, but if Kylo Ren isn’t redeemable in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the implied message would be that you aren’t either.