'The Force Awakens' Has a Perfection Problem
Like pretty much all of the rest of you, my family saw "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" over Christmas week. I emerged from the screening into a lively Internet debate over whether Rey, the main hero, was or was not a “Mary Sue”: an author's wish-fulfillment character, perfect in every way, beloved by children, dogs and everyone around her. Plotwise, this character is improbably central to everything -- the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral.
I will pause here to provide the requisite SPOILER ALERT. We cannot shield your eyes from it forever; at some point, we are going to have to be able to have an adult conversation about this movie. If you have not yet watched the movie and wish to with an unsullied mind, then best to depart this column right now.
The answer is that of course Rey is a Mary Sue, though not in this case for the author; she is a stand-in for every 10-year-old who imagined themselves into the Star Wars universe, and particularly the women who wanted to be Luke, not Princess Leia. J.J. Abrams has taken all the skills of the main characters of the first "Star Wars" cast and rolled them into one: She is a pilot as good as Han Solo, also a mechanic; she is apparently fluent in multiple languages; she is a terrific hand-to-hand fighter, a good shot and, oh, she knows how to use a lightsaber the first time she picks one up. Also, mid-movie, she discovers that she can do Jedi mind tricks without having any reason to know that they even exist -- apparently not content to make her Luke, Abrams also had to make her her own Obi-Wan Kenobi.
What Abrams left out is twofold: first, the sense that these are skills that have to be trained and developed, not simply inborn traits one has, like blue eyes. Second, and more important, he’s omitted the weaknesses that made the original characters so appealing: the genuine streak of nasty self-interest in Han Solo, Leia’s bullheaded arrogance, Kenobi’s wistful sense of being past his prime, Luke’s needy, whining sense of entitlement to greater things than he has gotten from the universe so true to actual teenage boys.
Rey, by contrast, is kind, self-sacrificing and, along with everything else she has going for her, the ineffable moral center of this little universe. Her “weakness,” which feels bizarrely tacked on and utterly out of character, is that she’s afraid of the revelation she gets when she first touches Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Why is she like this? What regrettable human tendency or personal life history has made her recoil from it? Ummm, who knows? Rey has no personality traits that are not there to move the plot forward, or attach her halo to her head more firmly.
I’m not arguing that the original "Star Wars" is going to go down in history as one of the great in-depth character sketches of all time. But the people in it felt like people -- stock characters, to be sure, but ones painted in 3-D and vivid Technicolor. You could imagine what these people would be like if you ran into them down at your local bar -- Luke complaining that the bartender wouldn’t serve him, Leia arguing passionately about politics, Han Solo berating the bartender about the quality of the hooch, while Kenobi and the Wookiee look on in gentle bemusement. What are Rey, Poe Dameron and Finn like in a real-life situation -- say, dealing with an obstructive clerk at the DMV?
Impossible to say for the first two, because they don’t have actual personalities, only plot necessities. Finn is a little better fleshed out, because he does do something actually, endearingly human -- pretends that he’s a member of the Resistance to impress a pretty girl. But this stands out only in comparison, because otherwise he’s as flat as the others. Not wanting to have had any of the new characters do anything actually wrong, Abrams made him a stormtrooper who refuses to fire in his first engagement. Why? Because it’s bad! They’re stormtroopers! How does Finn, raised from birth to do exactly what he’s refusing to do, come to realize that it’s bad? How does he decide to give up on the only home he’s ever had, the closest thing to a family he’s ever known? We have no idea; it’s over in five seconds so we can get on with watching Rey be awesome. Rey’s backstory, meanwhile, consists of some longing glances at the desert.
None of these characters makes a single decision that is a) wrong or b) actually costly -- such as, say, Leia’s decision that they should all dive down the trash chute in the original "Star Wars." None of these characters is ever credibly irritated by the others, or significantly at odds.
The question is whether any of this is a problem.
Not every movie has to be a deep character study. There are plenty of male Mary Sues walking around in action films, guys who are inhumanly and inexplicably awesome. Why does it suddenly bother folks when it’s a woman?
One answer is that some of us are bothered by it in men -- I find the "Mission: Impossible" movies, for example, basically unwatchable. Another answer is that there’s a pronounced tendency toward flattering characters in movies these days, as a result of the internationalization of the market, which rewards visual spectacle over anything involving dialogue, and this tendency is lamentable. And a third answer is that Rey’s Mary Sue tendencies are going to create a significant problem for the movies going forward.
The original "Star Wars" film was not a “lone hero against the world” story; it’s an ensemble piece. They need Solo’s ship and his familiarity with the underworld, Leia’s connection to the rebellion, Luke’s droids and his skill with the force. Abrams has replicated the structure of that story, but he has forgotten to give the other two main characters any actual reason to be there. Ten minutes of rewrite could have removed them entirely without significantly damaging the plot. Han Solo was more vital to the story -- not to mention vastly more interesting -- than either of his putative replacements.
It’s even harder to say what Rey needs them for now. She’s got the lightsaber, she’s presumably also going to have the Millennium Falcon in the next movie, and she’s found Luke Skywalker. Will she be building a sewage treatment plant that will require Finn’s extensive experience in the field of stormtrooper sanitation? Will she ditch Chewbacca and make Poe Dameron her copilot? If Abrams doesn’t find something for them to do besides show up at critical plot points, they’re going to be a drag on the future movies.
And while perhaps this is wishful thinking, I also tend to believe that this undercuts the longevity of the films. Kids will like it, because kids love action-packed CGI stuff. But how many people who watched this movie as a kid will keep coming back to it as an adult, the way my generation has with the original? The movie is fine for what it is, but what it is is, as my friend Terry Teachout noted, “an homage to an homage,” missing much of the charm that made the original so enduring. If the three prequels had not been so downright terrible, people would be being much harder on "The Force Awakens." The fawning critical reaction is mostly just a vast outpouring of relief that George Lucas hasn’t been allowed to inflict more damage on his own creation.
But then, I’m probably asking too much of the seventh sequel in a series, since sequels have a natural tendency to become weaker and weaker copies of the things that made the original great. Building a truly iconic story like Star Wars is a bit of alchemy, requiring unpredictable lightning strikes of creativity. You can’t do it over and over on an assembly line. The question, then, as movies move more and more toward “pre-sold” properties such as comic books and sequels, is where we are going to get new icons to adore.
Yes, I know not literally every one of my readers. It’s a literary device, not an empirical claim.
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