Rule #0 of villain design:
If the audience in the theater snickers when the villain takes off his mask, ya done goofed!
Showing this face doesn’t exactly instill the terror in my heart.
But aside from awful casting and costume, let’s look at what each story does to convince us that the bad guys are evil.
In A New Hope:
1 | Darth Vader Force chokes a subordinate to death for messing up.
2 | Stormtroopers slaughter a bunch of jawas for no reason and then try to cover it up making it look like Sand People did it.
3 | Stormtroopers kill Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.
4 | Tarkin threatens to blow up Alderaan if Leia doesn’t reveal the location of the rebel base, then blows it up anyway once she tells him.
5 | “How did my father die?”
“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire to hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father.”
It’s easy to forget that last one due to what we learn in Episode V, but this is in fact the first piece of information Luke learns about Darth Vader. Luke admires his father more than anyone. His father represents the life he desires for himself, one that takes him beyond the monotony of moisture farming. This is the man Vader not only killed, but betrayed as well. This isn’t a distant threat, it’s personal.
THEN Luke finds that stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle.
By the time we get to Vader killing Obi Wan, we’ve already built up a powerful enmity towards both him and the Empire he represents.
In The Force Awakens, what do we see that convinces us of Kylo Ren and the First Order’s evil?
1 | Stormtroopers slaughter a bunch of people we don’t know at all. There’s nothing especially devious about this, unlike the stormtroopers killing the jawas, and nothing personal at all about it, unlike the demise of Luke’s aunt and uncle.
2 | We see the new Death Star blow up a bunch of planets we don’t care about. Again, nothing dishonest or devious unlike Tarkin’s baldfaced lie. Nothing personal since we don’t see, for example, a strong character like Leia struggle and finally break under pressure, seemingly betraying the Rebellion to save this planet.
3 | Kylo Ren throws a lightsaber tantrum that doesn’t hurt anyone.
4 | Nazi imagery.
The only real thing anyone does to make us angry is when Kylo Ren kills Han–and if you’ve only just established your villain by the time the movie is ending, ya done goofed!
What makes it even worse, however, are the hasty attempts to make Kylo Ren a complex character by having him struggle with killing his father. This is a struggle we cannot relate to in the slightest and means nothing to us. Neither of the protagonists know Kylo Ren or care about him at all, we’ve seen no part of what this decision means to him, no part of his struggle up until now, nothing that makes us identify, nothing that makes us understand what’s tearing him apart inside. ALL they give us to build this decision up and inject ANY meaning whatsoever is a few tears.
Compare this to the same scene with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. There, we had two an a half movies to see how set he was in his ways, which on it’s own is enough to make any decision to change impressive in its own right. On top of that, this was someone Luke has looked up to from the beginning of the first movie. Luke became a pilot because of his father, he became a Jedi because of his father–ALL of his character development is driven by his desire to become what his father was. That’s why, when we learn about Vader’s identity, it’s a PERSONAL tragedy to us. If Anakin Skywalker turned, then Luke’s whole world falls apart. We see how far he’s willing to go to confront this tragedy: turning himself in, throwing away his lightsaber in the middle of a duel, letting the Emperor torture him. Only THEN, do we see Vader have the same moment of struggle they were going for with Kylo Ren.
Do you see the shocking difference in groundwork?
This kind of embarrassing hastiness is seen all over the movie, but nowhere more so than in the treatment of its villains. The other most prominent example of this awful misstep is the introduction of the Big Bad now, and assuming he’d mean as much to us as Palpatine’s character did. In the originals, we had an entire movie impressing upon us the terror and power of Vader before we even KNEW there was someone even higher up. Without establishing that first stratum of adversity, moving up a layer means nothing to the audience. Fortunately, the writer’s anticipated this problem and tried to compensate… by making the character’s hologram really big.
Without a strong villain, the whole story falls apart. The Force Awakens tried to give us a new Darth Vader, but only ended up delivering a whiny kid with a lightsaber. Hayden Christiansen 2.0.
(P.S. What a hastily thrown together justification for the mask, sheesh…)