No blockbuster franchise on Earth uses violence to express character better than the Star Wars movies. In Attack of the Clones it’s the nature vs technology battle between Obi-Wan and General Grievous. In Revenge of the Sith it’s the increasingly feral Anakin versus his grief-stricken friend and former teacher. In The Phantom Menace, it’s this:
Everything you need to know about the characters is there in how they fight and how they move. It’s calligraphy with extra somersaults.
The original trilogy is the same. The Kenobi/Vader fight is designed to show you how ready Ben is to move on and how little Vader’s actually learned. The Vader/Luke fight in Cloud City shows how unprepared Luke is and how abusive and manipulative his father has become. Their rematch, on the second Death Star, is even subtler. It’s a battle for both men’s souls that sees allegiances change more than once, the emotional stakes higher than in the vast other battle going on outside.
In each case these fights are the distillation of the movie they sit within and the opponents doing battle. They’re as pure as action cinema can get and that’s one of the many traditions carried through to The Force Awakens. The new movie throws in some new tricks too, as we’ll see. To keep this brief, we’ll look at each combatant in turn, starting with everyone’s favorite angry Dark side twentysomething.
VAST SPOILERS AWAIT YOU BELOW THIS IMAGE OF DARK HELMET
Badly wounded before the duels even start, Kylo Ren’s style is broadsword brutality and grandstanding. He spends most of the first duel toying with Finn, alternately defending his attacks and wounding him just enough to make it interesting. He acts like he’s never in any immediate danger.
Finn injures Ren at least once and in doing so hurts not just his body but his pride. This is a young man who idolizes Darth Vader, a character who was the embodiment of efficient, implacable brutality. The moment Finn lands a blow he shows Ren up for what he really is; a broken, emotionally stunted teenager wearing a helmet that’s too big for him.
That’s why Ren demolishes him with such flashy savagery. It’s also why he doesn’t kill Finn outright. He wants the other man to hurt. He wants him scarred. He wants him as a living reminder that Kylo Ren is deadly despite the inherent contradiction.
But let’s go back to Ren’s wound. Throughout both fights he’s continually punching himself in the side where Chewie shoots him. This can be read one of two ways, both of which were pointed out to me by Marguerite after the movie. The first is that he’s using the pain and adrenalin to keep himself going. That says a lot about just how much trouble he’s in, and what the Dark Side is based on. Wounds as weapons, scars as armour.
Or it could be a desperate attempt to keep himself on track. At this point Ren’s just done something unspeakable in a desperate attempt to make things easier for himself. Instead he’s made things even worse. So maybe he’s punching himself to stay angry because anger drowns out grief. Plus, as Yoda said, it’s the first step towards the Dark Side. And, again, the fact Ren is only on the first step shows us the gap between who he wants to be and who he truly is.
Next time, Finn, why he does so well against Ren and the price he pays for that.