At the movies and on TV these days, sci-fi and fantasy stories are easy to come by. Awesome villains, for some reason, are not. The supposedly terrifying computer program that gave Age of Ultron its name was really just the latest in a long line of interchangeable Marvel misanthropes; Game of Thrones, having crossbowed or poisoned its most fun-to-hate characters, has lately relied on the unwatchable creep Ramsay Bolton to cause most of its mayhem; Jurassic World featured a boss-monster whose serial-killer instincts and genetically engineered superpowers were as silly as Bryce Dallas Howard’s heels. Perhaps the closest 2015 has gotten to providing fodder for “Greatest Villains of All Time” lists was in Mad Max: Fury Road, where slaver-warlord Immortan Joe sported a nauseating headpiece and an equally nauseating dadbod.
With his death-mask-as-oxygen-supply, Joe resembles, as many great bad guys now do, the foundational space-opera bogeyman—Darth Vader. As pop culture collectively looks back at the original Star Wars trilogy ahead of J.J. Abrams’s Episode VII, it’s clear that Vader, more than any other character, was the key to the series’ success. From the first moments of A New Hope, when the antiseptic-white hallways of a Rebel Cruiser contrasted with the black-clad S&M mannequin walking through it, the great intrigue of Star Wars—and some of the most shocking twists moviegoers have ever experienced—surrounded questions about Darth Vader’s humanity. For most of the trilogy, George Lucas seemed to be crafting a Manichean universe of good people vs. bad people, but Vader ended up complicating that notion in a big way.
Vader's richness as a character is what led to the disastrous prequels, which gave into the fannish impulse to fantasize about backstories to the point of banality. Perhaps there was a way to movingly portray how a talented young orphan became a tyrannical cyborg wizard, and perhaps it was sheer incompetence that made those movies so bad. But the entire exercise was bound to be tricky for anyone. The comedian Patton Oswalt once imagined himself getting in a time machine to caution George Lucas about his plan to make movies about Darth Vader before he was Darth Vader: “I don’t really care about him as a little kid at all, like, at all. I just care about the helmet and the cape and the sword, that’s what’s kind of cool about him.”
From the looks of it, the creators of Disney’s revamped Star Wars franchise have thought a lot about what made the original films “cool” for fans. The Force Awakens’s marketing has boasted about a return to the tactile, worn-down universe Luke Skywalker lived in and a revival of the sleek, Bauhaus aesthetic of the Empire he fought. So far, it appears Episode VII will boast at least three villains, all of whom bear surface-level resemblances to original-trilogy ones. There’s Domhnall Gleeson playing General Hux, wearing military garb and a sneer that recalls pasty Imperial commanders like Grand Moff Tarkin or Admiral Piett. There’s Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, a glorified Storm Trooper whose helmet might just be cool enough to invite comparisons to Boba Fett. And there’s Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the obvious Darth Vader analogue with a black mask, cape, and red-bladed lightsaber. (It also sounds like Andy Serkis is going to be playing a motion-capture character named Supreme Leader Snoke, who could turn out to be a shadowy bad guy ... or, more frighteningly, another Jar Jar Binks.)
Though this all is, again, cool, there are reasons to fret about just how closely the new movie appears to be aping the originals. As I pointed out when the latest trailer was released, part of the Star Wars magic has always been imagination; Lucas used real-world influences—Samurai, Westerns, pulp novels—for character designs, locations, concepts that still knocked people out with novelty. The Force Awakens previews, by contrast, look like fan art with a big budget. It’s hard to be an iconic character when you’re basically a clone of an old one, and while remixes can be fun they rarely become cultural classics.
But recent news hints that J.J. Abrams, who proved he knows his way around nostalgia-pastiche with Star Trek, might be up to something clever. In a cover story for the latest EW, Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan tell Anthony Breznican a bit about Kylo Ren, the Driver character. The broadsword-hilted lightsaber that ignited controversy when the Force Awakens’s first teaser hit the Internet, it turns out, is homemade—“something that he built himself, and ... as dangerous and as fierce and as ragged as the character.” “Ren” is not a last name but rather a reference to the Knights of Ren, some sort of fraternal order invented by Abrams and Kasdan. And, most interestingly:
… He seems to be a Vader obsessive, with an appearance influenced by that dark lord of the Sith who met his demise long before Ren’s birth. “The movie explains the origins of the mask and where it’s from, but the design was meant to be a nod to the Vader mask,” Abrams tells EW. “[Ren] is well aware of what’s come before, and that’s very much a part of the story of the film.”
A “Vader obsessive”—we all know a few, no? The idea of a villain who’s aping the villain of his universe consciously, rather than out of a movie studio’s desire to play to fans, is an intriguing one. There could even be a hint of satire here. The Force Awakens is set 30 years after Return of the Jedi; this Vanity Fair photo suggests that Kylo Ren wears his helmet as a fashion choice and not as a life-support system like Vader did. Kasdan has said what sets Ren apart is that “he’s full of emotion,” which at first sounds like a platitude but then seems like an important distinction—while Vader worked to conceal his conflicted feelings about fighting his son, I can imagine Driver-as-bad-guy being a bit petulant and petty, not unlike his Girls character in a bad mood, or like Loki, the one successful Marvel movie villain thus far.
Whether this adds up to a compelling bad guy remains to be seen; we still don’t know if Ren is truly the big antagonist or if he’ll just be a cool-looking redshirt like Darth Maul was in Episode I. And while speculating on any J.J. Abrams film’s plot is a sure route to embarrassment, it seems increasingly possible that the new Star Wars narrative will consciously and transparently ponder the appeal of the original three movies. This isn't a radical idea; in sequel-crazed Hollywood, meta is normal (think about Jake Johnson’s Jurassic World character wearing a Jurassic Park shirt). A franchise with a history as rich as this one has the potential to be not just be an exercise in nostalgia, but a comment on it—and its dangers.