The Rise of Reylo: The Toxic Heart of Disney’s Star Wars

INTRODUCTION

Disney’s Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Episodes 7, 8, and 9. The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker will go down as one of the most lucrative filmic trios ever made.  After buying the brand (along with the rest of Lucasfilm) in 2012 for a mere $4 billion US dollars, Disney immediately lurched into action, determined to churn out profit through the creation of a full three-film addition to the Star Wars “saga” by the end of the decade. 

But where The Force Awakens and its gross returns of more than $2 billion dollars only three years after the purchase suggested clear skies and smooth sailing for the franchise, Lucasfilm under Disney would soon find itself desperately searching for any port in the storm: The Last Jedi would be released to $700 million less than Force Awakens – Solo, another billion less than that. 

Correction was needed, and correction (of a sort) would be found in 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker, the end of what Disney would eventually call “The Skywalker Saga”.

But where the path to the dark side is quick, easy, and sometimes even successful, it is also corrupting, and with The Rise of Skywalker, Disney would eventually sell the soul of Star Wars…for a kiss. 

SON OF SOLO

But before we can tell that story, we have to tell the story of someone else: Kylo Ren. 

The fallen son of original trilogy heroes Han Solo and Leia Organa (Ben Solo in his original life), Kylo was introduced in some of the very first scenes of Disney’s Sequel Trilogy – striking down the occasional unnamed old man, ordering the execution of an entire village of innocent people, and torturing for information. 

Worse than merely dangerous, the son of Solo is petulant, rash, and prone to fits of rage on a hair trigger.  And as is so often the case with such a volatile mixture of character traits, he eventually becomes obsessed with what he can’t have. 

As another Disney blockbuster might say…”he’s a bit of a fixer upper”, but other than that, what’s not to…love.

A “MODEL” FIXER

And just who is the object of this, the galaxy’s most eligible sith lord?  Why it’s Rey, the family-less scavenger whose introduction all but marks her as a Disney princess – caring for others innately, talking to the unintelligible local “wildlife”, and fighting for what she believes in and knows is right. 

In short, she’s the perfect role model. With nary a flaw or personal failing.  Why? Because she was built that way.  Built for little girls everywhere to look up to.  To dress up as.  And to want to become. 

She’s Disney’s modern feminine Luke Skywalker. 

Or as the President of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy put it:

“As a mom of a 5 year old girl, I was excited to hear that having a female lead wasn’t something that was thought about later in the development of the film. Rey, and Daisy Ridley, are going to be great role models for female Star Wars fans, and even our male counterparts.”[1]

With our co-leads established, now our story can begin.

THE “ROMANCE” AWAKENS

Rey, the “great role model”, is our hero, thrust into action, bouncing frantically from scene to scene in  JJ Abrams’ well-received “The Force Awakens” on a quest to find the map to the legendary and mythical Luke Skywalker.  But the story of The Force Awakens is not our story. 

For as Rey goes, so too does the dark shadow she does not yet know: Kylo Ren, hunting after this…“girl from Jakku” with reckless abandon: a masked menace, relentless and terrifying, unaffected by her cries, her fear, her obvious discomfort.  And one more than willing to pin such a girl in place against her will, assert his dominance, invade her mind, and ultimately end her consciousness with a wave of his black gloved hand.

Now it’s hard to top a meet-cute like that, admittedly, but darned if Kylo doesn’t try.

Whether it’s through the more thorough, shackle-assisted mental invasion (it’s how they met after all), the occasional side of patricide (oops, was that your father figure, too?), or finishing their date with a short walk in the woods (and the paralysis of her best friend), Kylo’s dating technique could, of course, use a little work. 

But naturally, we *all* understand he doesn’t really want to hurt Rey.  What could possibly give that impression.  The lightsaber?  The grappling?  No, of course, he doesn’t want to hurt her.  He wants to teach her.

He beats her, and hunts her, invades her personal thoughts, kills and maims and rages, because he wants to teach her.  To know her.  To…love her.

Even in 2015 the writing was on the wall.  Kylo was pulling on Rey’s pigtails.  With the help of a lightsaber…and the dark side.  What’s a “role model” for girls (and their male counterparts) to do?

But the best was yet to come.

THE LOST JEDI

One of my favorite shots of the movie, is those two fingers touching. That’s the closest thing we’ll get to a sex scene in a Star Wars movie.” – Rian Johnson, writer/director – “The Last Jedi”[2]

With the battle won and the resistance saved, it would fall to Rian Johnson’s Episode 8, The Last Jedi, to continue Disney’s healthiest romantic story since Beauty and the Beast. 

Notably different in tone and direction than the more crowd-pleasing The Force Awakens, Last Jedi would find our heroine and role model Rey, separated from both the plot and her star-crossed and erstwhile lover for long stretches of the film’s running time.  But Johnson couldn’t have that, and so Force Face Time was born.

For the first time in the series, force users like Rey and Kylo could connect across the stars, and connect they did, in scene after scene after scene.  Kylo, rejuvenated by his second bite at the apple, of course had no choice but to immediately attempt to assert his dominance once again.  “Bring Skywalker to me”, you say?  Oh such vexatious flirtations.

But Kylo is not one to give up.  Perhaps if he lets her call him a monster.  Or ensures her discomfort by parading around in nothing but his best pressed sith slacks.  The ladies love unsolicited skin.  Anything to help her forget that he hunted, beat, and mentally violated her the day before.  And that whole murder of his father thing.  It would be best if that were forgotten to.

And forgotten it was, for the next time they spoke, Rey would find in Kylo a confidant, a partner, and, if Mr. Rian Johnson had anything to say about it, so much more.  This would be a love story for the ages…if only Dad didn’t roll in and find them Skyping.

Alas, poor Kylo’s efforts were broken in one fell swoop of the Jedi hand, but fortunately for him, something deep had taken root in young Rey’s mind.  A seed, germinating like some insidious plant.  “I can change him”.  “I can make him good.”  And with that thought, no one became a bigger shipper than role model Rey.  In fact, she shipped herself to Kylo’s side.  She would be the one to bring this bad boy back from the brink.  She would make him good.  And then he would be hers.  [PART 1 —-PART 2 SPLIT] She probably didn’t even feel the shackles that his guards placed on her when she was once again imprisoned by her man.

From Kylo’s perspective, he knew not what he had done to earn Rey’s affection of trust.  Just that he must keep it to cement their love.  And what better way to do that than to introduce her to another father figure.  Sure this one’s hands were a little large.  And sure he immediately threatened her, and all of her friends, suspended her in mid-air, and then tortured her.  But that a part of his charm.  She would understand.

And when, ultimately she was made to kneel before him and await her execution, fearing for her life, and regretting the choices that had led her to forget that this man’s beatings and manipulations had brought her here, why he would kill again for her.  How could that not prove his love?  He would kill another father figure and another and another after that.  Why, he would force her to see how much he loved her.  And they would fight together.

Indeed, after that fight, now, now was the time.

To make a proposal.  To ask for her hand.  Now would be different. 

But then it wasn’t.

Oh, how he raged.  She was “nothing”.  He was everything.  Oh, how he was debasing himself to even make this offer.  How could she not see?  He would remind her of her nothingness, of how unimportant and insignificant she was.  Surely that would start the spark that would light the fire that would bring this romance to where it belonged.

But again it wasn’t.  And as one door closed on The Last Jedi.  It was fair to think that maybe, just maybe, Rey was a real role model after all. 

But then, there was a rise.

THE RISE OF REYLO

“It does not bother me, people writing theories. It’s really fun hearing them. Plus, because I know what’s sort of going to happen, I think it’ll be really interesting to see people’s reaction to The Rise of Skywalker. Obviously, there’s this whole Reylo thing and some people are very passionate about it, some aren’t. J.J. does deal with it. It’s a very complex issue. People talk about toxic relationships and whatever it is. It’s no joke and I think it’s dealt with really well because it’s not skimmed over.” – Daisy Ridley[3]

The Rise of Skywalker, the final movie in Disney’s planned sequel trilogy, would once again be written and directed by JJ Abrams.  Such a reversion is unusual in modern blockbuster filmmaking and rife with its own pitfalls of continuity and character management.  Indeed, it was possible that Mr. Abrams would not even have been aware of the grand romance that had been unfolding over the previous few years.  Afterall, where he had left Kylo he had only toyed with mind control, psychological manipulation, beatings, murder, and kidnappings.  Force face time wasn’t even a thing!

But never fear, for Rise would remember, and in fact make Kylo and Rey the centerpiece of the film.  First up, rehabilitation.  Those things that Kylo did?  They weren’t his fault.  The voices in his head made them do them.  Voices controlled by the most manipulative darkness the galaxy had ever known.  What choice did he have?  None really.  He was innocent of his crimes, even if no one else would know, surely she would.

And for Rey’s part, even with Kylo periodically ringing her on the force line, getting into now physical confrontations across time and space, and his continuing insistence on using her family history to shame, belittle, and manipulate her, why, she could see a crack forming in his icy exterior.  Once again she was sure she could change him.  He was just drinking a bit too much sith juice, or having a hard day at work.  Maybe it was her fault after all, he had so much on his plate.

And so, when push came to shove, when lightsaber hilt found body cavity, Rey did the only thing that a role model for young girls could do.  She healed him.  Her love would set him free.  She wanted to join him.  Ben, not Kylo.  As if there was a difference between the two identities.  That she could be with the man who had not murdered thousands under that name at least.  If he would only decide he didn’t want to be “bad” anymore.

Fortunately for her, Kylo was able to find forgiveness in the arms of the father he killed.  Sure, it was granted to him by…himself through a psychological hallunication that may or may not have something to do with the fatal wound she had just inflicted and restored.  But forgiveness came all the same.

And when he then put all of his life force inside her, well what choice does a role model have then to take his head in her hands and deeply kiss the love of her life.

She did it.  He only beat her because he loved her.  Only tortured her so they could be together.  His job polluted his mind.  He never meant to hurt those other people or to murder his father.  This was love.  Eternal and pure.  One woman’s love to change the heart of an evil, evil man. 

The message of Disney Star Wars

THE ANTI-“ROLE MODEL”

“There are many signs of an abusive relationship, and a fear of your partner is the most telling.”

“The aim of emotional abuse is to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence—leaving you feeling that there’s no way out of the relationship, or that without your abusive partner, you have nothing.”-Help Guide Dot Org.[4]

The Story of Star Wars has long been one of redemption.  Of the kind-hearted and resolute willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to win back a loved one’s soul.  In so far as Rey attempts to do that for Kylo, it is a good fit for the Star Wars pantheon.  Mercy, love, and compassion *are* tremendous attributes worthy of exemplification.

But where it turns from mercy to romantic love, real danger enters the equation.  For the most part, Star Wars is blessedly free from worrying concerns about real life messages or instruction.  How should you deal with a necromantic space wizard?  What’s the best way to dispatch a planet-killing superweapon?  How can we both fit in that tauntaun?  These questions don’t really come up in the day to day.

But toxic, abusive relationships are a real, constant problem, not at all limited to a galaxy far far away.  And there is no question that Rey and Kylo, Reylo, have had for four pop culture filled years a toxic relationship.  Especially when framed, as The Rise of Skywalker chooses to do, as the preamble (or early stages of) a romantic relationship.  There is nothing acceptable about confining your beloved to a chair and violating their mind.  Or telling them that you know what’s best for them.  Or saying that they are “nothing” and that they are better off with you than with their friends.  When you add a component of violence to that, it becomes all the worse.

This was not a problem shared equally by the original trilogy and Luke’s redemption of his father Darth Vader.  For without the romantic element, it was simply a son trying to save his father’s soul.

And Rise of Skywalker could have told that story.  It could have changed virtually nothing about itself, and simply ended with Ben down a crevice, saved and secure in the light, but without Rey’s romantic entanglement.  For emotional effect he even could have spoken to her from the stars, establishing that she had saved him but otherwise moving on to the force unknown. 

Or if he was to have one final act, it could have been followed with a kiss of thanks, platonic and well meaning, to establish that Disney was aware that above all their guardian of peace and justice in the galaxy, their real world role model, should not be espousing the view that a woman can change a bad man if she just believes in him enough.

Unfortunately, that was not the path that The Rise of Skywalker took.  And to guess why, is to hazard at the randomness of corporate decision making, the vagaries of market surveys, and who knows what else. 

But the end result is that Disney, Lucasfilm, and Star Wars sold out for a kiss, and Rey was left as the anti-role model for daughters and sons around the world.

No, he doesn’t beat you because he loves you. 

No, she doesn’t make you feel small and alone because you deserve it. 

No, you don’t have to put up with it. 

No, there’s no excuse.

And no, you don’t have to save them with your love.

Here, or in a galaxy far far away.


[1] https://4hatsandfrugal.com/2015/12/exclusive-interview-with-kathleen-kennedy-star-wars-the-force-awakens-starwarsevent.html

[2] https://dorksideoftheforce.com/2018/03/13/rian-johnson-talks-rey-kylo-ren-sex/

[3] https://ew.com/movies/2019/10/17/daisy-ridley-reylo-star-wars/

[4] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/abuse/domestic-violence-and-abuse.htm

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