With new heroes should also come new villains to match them, and for this, The Force Awakens presents Kylo Ren. Ren's origins are hinted at and then exposed relatively early in the film, so I don't consider it a spoiler to share that he is actually the estranged son of Han and Leia, and that his choice to follow the dark side was hugely significant to Luke's disappearance. Ren is a different kind of villain, especially for Star Wars. Although the prequels show the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, the original trilogy did not labor to explain Vader, and the audience simply knew him as the bad guy who remained unsympathetic until The Return of the Jedi. However, Ren seems to struggle to stay on the dark side of the force. He periodically speaks to Vader's charred helmet and confesses wrestling against "the call to the light," while vowing to finish what his grandfather started. It is not entirely clear what Ren believes it is that his grandfather started, unless it's the annihilation of the Jedi.
From a story-telling perspective, revealing Ren's hesitations and showing the face under the mask is bold, but risky, as it creates various connections to the person that we're meant to perceive as the villain. Knowing that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo is the first emotional connection that the audience will make to the character. There's a sort of obligation to hope that Han and Leia's son could surely be swayed to goodness, even before Leia gives a classic Skywalker line about knowing there is still good in him. Once Ren removes his mask, the audience can no longer deny that there is a flesh and blood young man under it all, which is the second connection. When the audience can look into his eyes and study his face, he becomes less of a force of evil, and more of a person, which gives the character the potential to be sympathetic. The third and final connection is that the audience already knows that Ren occasionally wrestles with his path, so there is still a glimmer of hope, even after his most heinous act, that he may come back around. Perhaps it is only a vain hope that wants this to be true because he is a Solo, and the son a hero should be redeemable. One of Star Wars' most prominent themes is the power of love and family, and Kylo Ren is not only a Solo, but also a Skywalker, and that is a compelling argument to root for his redemption.
The casting of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren works excellently here, even if he doesn't look like the son of Han and Leia, or much like a scary villain. Particularly effective is the design of Ren's costume. Unlike Darth Vader's armored suit and more akin to Darth Maul's samurai-inspired attire, Ren's costume excellently compliments his fluid motions, giving him a sort of medieval assassin look. This imagery is probably enhanced by the classic sword design of Ren's lightsaber. Even Ren's fighting style is different than we've seen before, from a Sith or Jedi, which further emphasizes his dominant presence.
Ren does not need his mask for any of the medical reasons that Anakin had, but he wears it to mimic his grandfather Vader. While this imitation may be to make himself as symbolic as Vader, later moments make one wonder if the purpose of Ren's mask is merely intimidation to compensate for his being young and having incomplete training. Several Ren scenes reveal underlying juvenile instability that are highly reminiscent of Anakin circa episode III. Though Ren's tantrums are played for comedy more than an attempt at unsettling the audience, he has much of his grandfather in him. Considering that Kylo Ren's training is incomplete, his abilities in wielding the force are certainly impressive, having already mastered skills that we've never seen onscreen before. Yet despite having considerable power and the favor of Supreme Commander Snoke, there is no doubt of General Hux's derision towards Ren. Unlike Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, who seemed to share a mutual respect, General Hux and Kylo Ren have a mutual dislike, and seem engaged in a power-play against one another and only tolerate one another because Supreme Commander Snoke has use for each of them.
Neither Kylo Ren nor his master Supreme Commander Snoke carry a Darth title. While it is possible that Snoke will indeed be a Sith lord with a Darth title, it is clear that Snoke is experienced in the dark side, with or without the formal title. There is also the possibility that Kylo Ren's incomplete training accounts for his lack of recognized Sith rank, and that this will be bestowed in future installments. But then again, maybe not. Rey and Ren both have a fairly functional use of the force without complete training, so it is possible that this new generation will take a more unconventional approach to the force. Also interesting, Ren leads a company of followers known as the Knights of Ren, though at this point it is uncertain who these followers are in terms of origins or motives, or what their powers are. However, if they all were once pupils of Luke's who turned evil, the fact that Ren is leading them in a group breaks the ancient Sith "rule of two" which states that there is always no more or less than a master and an apprentice. This is significant to the moderate to hard-core fans because it may have serious implications on the future direction of the Sith and Jedi orders, and therefore the story. Judging by Ren's attempt to tempt Rey to become his apprentice, it seems a safe bet that the cycle of the apprentice overthrowing the master is still active, but if Sith conventions are being broken, there could be other reasons entirely for Ren's attempt to convert Rey.
Kylo Ren's path to fully embracing the Dark Side is still ahead, but it is clear that Ren may yet follow in his grandfather's footsteps, though perhaps not in the way that he may intend to. Ren's struggle against the "call to the light" lays a hope that however dark Ren may become, he may indeed, like Vader before him, come back to the light. The road to this hopeful end is certain to be a long one, but with the story only just beginning, it is sure to be an interesting and heartbreaking journey.