Needless to say, minor SPOILER ahead.
In the new, Star Wars-centric issue of Empire due out Thursday, The Force Awakens director/co-writer J.J. Abrams makes an interesting revelation:
“Kylo Ren is not a Sith,” confirms JJ Abrams in the new issue of Empire. “He works under Supreme Leader Snoke, who is a powerful figure on the Dark Side of the Force.”
In addition, he draws parallels between the First Order and escaped Nazis in South America:
“That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again?’” Abrams reveals. “What could be born of that? Could the First Order exist as a group that actually admired the Empire? Could the work of the Empire be seen as unfulfilled? And could Vader be a martyr? Could there be a need to see through what didn’t get done?”
It’s already been established that Kylo Ren belongs to an organization called the Knights of Ren, an enigmatic order whose relationship to the Force and the First Order remains shrouded in mystery. (“Ren” is apparently a title rather than a name, a la “Darth.”) But the decision to make Kylo and Snoke separate from the Sith is an interesting one. A lot of fans were expecting them to be part of a renascent Sith Order, with Snoke as the master and Kylo as the apprentice — perhaps one of Luke’s padawans gone bad. Some even speculated that Snoke could be a resurrected Palpatine or Darth Plagueis, the legendary Sith Lord who discovered the secret of immortality, but was slain — allegedly — by his apprentice.
But as the trailers suggest, The Force Awakens is trying very hard to evoke memories of the original trilogy without making any direct callbacks to the prequels in terms of aesthetics or storytelling — no “Episode __” in the advertising, no references to midichlorians or Jar Jar, no shiny spaceships, and no trips to to Coruscant or Naboo. Avoiding any references to the Sith would fit this pattern; after all, the word is never spoken at any point in the original trilogy (it only appeared in ancillary materials, like comics and novelizations). Kylo Ren may evoke memories of Sith warriors with his red lightsaber and black robes, but he’s not part of the established tradition — and in some ways he might be seen as a stand-in for Abrams, favoring the cool parts of the saga, rather than the complete canon.
Of course, on some level this makes sense: The Force Awakens takes place some sixty-odd years after Phantom Menace, at which point the Old Republic, the Jedi, the Trade Federation, and the Clone Wars are as distant from the average citizen of the galaxy as World War II is from today’s twentysomethings. By the time of A New Hope the Jedi were already legends, and the Sith were almost completely unknown. So it makes sense that Kylo Ren and the First Order would venerate Darth Vader, seeing him as a misunderstood but principled leader betrayed by forces (no pun intended) within and without the Empire. (And as the architect of Vader’s — and the Empire’s — downfall, Luke Skywalker would be one of the most evil figures in history, a Judas whose actions led to decades of turmoil and instability.)
At the same time though, it’s pretty clear that Disney is trying to police Star Wars’ image after the pop-culture meltdown triggered by the prequels (which, it should be observed, still went on to earn something like three billion dollars worldwide). Lucas, like his creation and namesake, is also something of a scapegoat in this situation. The series isn’t being rebooted, but there are clearly selective deletions going on with regards to the universe and its history. It’s all very meta-, and I’m curious to see how it plays out — especially with fans who grew up with the prequels, or were born after they came out.