Lucasfilm’s indecision on how to tackle Rey’s story in the Star Wars sequels unexpectedly makes Kylo Ren the trilogy’s real main lead. Both introduced in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as the next generation of main players in the famed franchise, the pair was supposed to represent the light and dark side of the Force. While that was the primary idea going in the new films, the lack of overall plan made things complicated for them, not to mention the threequel’s overarching narrative in general.
The Force Awakens has been criticized for its many parallels with A New Hope. Both Rey and Luke Skywalker who are strong in the Force was hidden in desert planets only to emerge and lead the fight against the First Order and the Galactic Empire respectively. Given this, there was an assumption that Rey was going to be the primary protagonist of the sequel trilogy, just as her predecessor was in the original films. Moving forward to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rey was also the one sent to an isolated planet for her training to become a proper Jedi setting up her role in the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as the galaxy’s best bet against the forces of evil. In the end, she succeeded in defeating Emperor Palpatine with help from some of her allies.
While Rey did accomplish almost everything that Luke did in the original trilogy, there’s an argument to be made about how she’s not exactly the lead of the Star Wars sequels, unlike the legendary Jedi Master. Looking at the latest films from the Skywalker Saga as a whole, it’s Kylo Ren who ultimately drove its story, thus making him its true protagonist.
It’s no secret that Lucasfilm didn’t have an overarching plan for the Star Wars sequels. Instead, it was more of a creative relay race, with succeeding filmmakers having individual control as to how they moved forward with the story. In theory, this was great, considering it gave directors and writers the agency to oversee their respective projects; in practice, it made it difficult to come up with a cohesive arc for a trilogy. Rey and her story were the most impacted by this approach. After The Rise of Skywalker ended with her being an adopted Skywalker daughter, Daisy Ridley came out and revealed that initially, her character was meant to be a descendant of Obi-Wan Kenobi; this was one of the most popular theories on the heels of The Force Awakens as the film insinuated that like Luke, she’s from a prominent Star Wars family. Director Rian Johnson flipped the idea and revealed that she was, in fact, a nobody in The Last Jedi. To make things even more complicated, J.J. Abrams upended the lineage Johnson had previously established in the final movie, The Rise of Skywalker, but instead of making her Obi-Wan’s descendant, he introduced a third option, making her the granddaughter of Palpatine instead.
Ridley revealed that toward the end, it was still uncertain who Rey was going to be and that’s indicative of how badly Lucasfilm handled her character in the Star Wars trilogy. This resulted in the character not having a clear arc across the films. Every time her story progressed, it was eradicated by the next movie, and worse, redirected entirely. Having a muddled hero’s journey made Rey’s ending in The Rise of Skywalker feel empty and unearned; it’s also part of the reason why many people weren’t as invested in her character the way they were with Luke or any of the Star Wars legacy heroes.
Compared to Rey, Kylo Ren was consistently at the center of the Star Wars sequels; he was heavily involved in each film and thus, his character was really fleshed out at the end of the film. Instead of prolonging the mystery about his identity, The Force Awakens quickly established who he was in the narrative — the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa and was previously known as Ben Solo. Given this, Lucasfilm spent the rest of the latest trilogy developing his character, focusing on Kylo Ren’s inner struggle to either fully embrace the dark side or redeem himself and return to the light. He spent most of his story attempting to silence his conscience and justifying his motivations; at the end of The Last Jedi, he had every intention of ruling the First Order and re-establishing order in the galaxy and he was motivated to stay in that path for the most of The Rise of Skywalker. But the combination of events, capped by his mother calling out to him and sending her love in the moment of her death ultimately convinced him to do turn his back on the dark side and work for redemption. Granted, his redemption was a bit rushed in The Rise of Skywalker, but it was still so much clearer than what Rey got. Of the two, at least he had a clear personal story across the Star Wars sequel trilogy.
Aside from having an actual arc, the surprise involvement of Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars sequels also helped make Kylo Ren more empathetic than a straight-up villain. In conjunction with Darth Sidious’ reveal in The Rise of Skywalker, The Star Wars Book and other tie-in materials gave additional information about Ben Solo’s turn to the dark side and becoming Kylo Ren. Long before Luke’s split-second mistake that spooked his nephew and pushed him further away from his family, Ben was already susceptible to being lured by the Sith Lord. The young Solo was extremely lonely with both of his parents occupied by their respective endeavors; Leia was trying to make a name for herself in politics, while Han was busy with his galactic adventures. Without any form of support from his family, Ben felt isolated. Sending him away to train with Luke made things worse as it reinforced the doubts in his mind that his parents didn’t want him. Unfortunately, even with his strong connection to the Force, Luke failed to give Ben the attention and love he craved.
This additional context to what led to Ben’s transformation as Kylo Ren frames him more as a victim of circumstances more than anything else, making it so much easier to feel for him. While his sudden change of heart in The Rise of Skywalker was poorly set up, this reinforces the idea that despite his cold demeanor, Kylo Ren was just a kid who was starved for attention. Admittedly, Lucasfilm could’ve better paced Kylo’s story so there was more weight to his redemption. Still, it’s still so much better than Rey’s muddled personal story in the Star Wars sequels.