Everyone who’s seen “The Force Awakens” must surely recognize the patent silliness of Kylo Ren’s mask. It serves no obvious intrinsic purpose. It serves marketing and filmic purposes, sure. It's a reference to Darth Vader, and maybe that's all we need to know. But if we watch the movie on its own terms, what’s that mask about?
The important thing to remember here is that despite his position of power, Kylo Ren is not a world class anything. He was born into privilege, and through genetics has inherited some facility with the force. He rebelled against his elders, as many teens do, although he was more violent about it than most, due to his emotional immaturity. He was an immature teen, and he's an immature adult.
As the movie opens, two things are happening. First, the First Order is trying to squeeze him into their leadership picture, in much the same way a company might try to find an executive position for a major shareholder’s kid. You know, that kid who suddenly at the age of 28 decides they might like to take up executiving, and starts attending board meetings and giving out orders, etc.
Second, he’s in the process of discovering that he’s bad at everything, at least by the standards of his position and training. He can make it pretty far on the strength of his legacy and extensive training, and by using his natural facility with the force, which is by most standards considerable. But The Force Awakens gives us a fair taste of the futility of being Kylo Ren. He was able to defeat a sanitation worker in a light saber duel, but just barely. He got his butt kicked in both light-sabering and using the force by Rey, who had probably never seen a light saber before, and who had only started using the force that same day. His injury is no excuse. Asked to run an important operation, he got it 99% done, but somehow skipped the final and most important step, because he was lazy.
You can tell he’s on this painful road to self discovery because of the tantrums. Darth Vader never threw temper tantrums.
So what about that mask? In all likelihood he built it during a teenage phase of obsession with Darth Vader. He thought Vader’s mask looked cool, as we all did at that age. It was a conscious act of emulation, though he may not have thought all that much about what Darth Vader stood for, beyond the fact that his parents weren't fans. He loved his mask. He wore it whenever he could. And then it became his thing.
It was never meant to be useful. He put in some cheap electronics for the voice, maybe because he liked the effect, or maybe for budget reasons. He put more effort into the closure mechanism. Maybe it has some kind of useful heads-up display inside, or gives him a nice stimulating flow of O2. Maybe it has a built-in Pez dispenser. Who knows. But he seems happy enough to take it off whenever anyone asks, or whenever the action gets intense, so at best it’s not critical hardware.
His parents only rolled their eyes and hoped the phase would pass. And perhaps it would have, with better upbringing. But they were busy, complicated people, and he got sent off to a boarding school run by his uncle, and… well, we all know how that story usually goes. So now he’s the 28-year-old with a Metallica poster tacked to his wall, except that because he has a bit of money, instead of a poster it’s an altar with Darth Vader’s original mask.
He tells himself that the mask is an homage, and it is. Though a lapel pin would have done nicely. He tells himself that it gives him a more imposing presence than his bare face, which has somehow failed to transition from awkward teen to anything remotely resembling confident adulthood. And he’s mostly right. But mostly it’s an emblem of his insecurity. He needs it because he thinks he needs it. Not so far below the surface, he knows that the raw, unmasked Kylo Ren can never by the Kylo Ren that he thinks he needs to be, and he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to really deal with that reality.
Don’t get me wrong – he’s clearly very, very good with the force. And he could probably kick the butt of any sanitation worker that didn’t also go through stormtrooper basic training. Through extensive training, he’s become the absolute best bad guy he can be. But he doesn’t have anywhere near the skills to hold the position he’s in, and the best he can hope for is to get better and better at faking it.
He can wear the mask, but he’ll never earn it.