Rey of Light

Max Landis is an arrogant, spoiled loudmouth who has never made a good movie. He is also not wrong about The Force Awakens.

Fashion? We don’t know…

Actually, ‘never’ might be unfair; his short ‘The Death and Return of Superman’ was pretty good but it only serves to highlight why he’s right (at least in principle) about Episode VII. ‘Death and Return’ is a tipsy tirade by Landis (son of Animal House and Blues Brothers director John Landis) about the DC Comics storyline of the same name. Elijah Wood, Ron Howard and other famous guests appear in comedic vignettes that run underneath Landis’s monologue. And it’s spot on. The Chronicle screenwriter skewers DC for stupid plot contrivances and naked commercial avarice and the film makes one thing clear: whatever you think of his films (or the man himself), he understands strong story structure and what makes a script ‘good’.

CLOTHES, though…

Which is why he’s right, at least in principle, about The Force Awakens’ Rey being problematic. Actually, here’s what he said

they finally did it they made a fan fic movie with a Mary Sue as the main character

— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) December 19, 2015

A ‘mary sue’, for those who don’t know, is:

A Mary Sue or, in case of a male, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities. Often but not necessarily this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment. (Wikipedia)

The term has its roots in internet fan fiction, where an author creates a character that is presumably an avatar of themselves. That character then is inserted into a popular setting where they dazzle the native denizens of that reality with their startling capability, their superlative powers and their general cool-dude mien. An example:

“Wow!” said Han Solo. “You defeated the Knights of Ren by yourself!”

“Yes,” replied SparkleBelieber95, her long locks blowing in the solar wind. “But it had to wait until I finished winning an arm wrestling match against Chewie.”

*painful howl*

Another example

This is generally considered to be bad writing and undesirable, a literary power trip for the author with minimal character development for the protagonist. Though the term was originated by a woman, some feel it has sexist overtones, owing to the fact that it was originally directed at presumably pubescent female authors (the masculine ‘Gary Stu’ moniker is often applied to a male character but ‘Mary Sue’ can generally apply to either gender).

To put it more delicately than Landis might, his comments were not received well by much of the online community, prompting calls of sexism and everything else up to and including ‘white man’. Landis isn’t any stranger to controversy and his Twitter account is a daily source of industry criticism and existential frustration for some, but at least he’s being critical of his industry, if not always courteous. The issue with criticism, at least for this author, is that it implies a level of authority which I’m uncomfortable assuming. Max Landis doesn’t share that trepidation. At all. But, digital firebrand or no, I kind of have to go with him (at least partially) on this one.

I really have a lot of these

The Force Awakens is unquestionably a fun movie, possibly one of JJ Abrams’s best. But like many of Abrams’s films, it’s filled with pale character sketching and plot contrivances that keep it from being a solid *film*. Star Wars movies aren’t Dr. Zhivago or Citizen Kane, nor are they meant to be, but they have historically (and infamously) cleaved to the classic path of the hero’s journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell: a hero is called to adventure (often refusing the call), obtains a mentor, crosses a threshold, meets a goddess, ends up in the belly of the beast, endures trials and eventually returns with a panacea, changed in some profound way. What makes these familiar beats effective is that they require ordeals and the hero must fail repeatedly, often dying (either symbolically or literally) before her goal is reached. In Force Awakens, Rey, a young girl who has spent her entire life in isolation on a distant planet, possesses a laundry list of skills that aid her as an adventurer. The A-list characters of this universe are all impressed by her bravery and acumen. She utilizes Force abilities it took Luke Skywalker half the trilogy to haltingly apply. You don’t have to search your feelings too much to see that Landis might have a valid point. Forget Landis; google any Rey-related story and you’ll eventually hit a paragraph addressing her precociousness, with or without the term ‘Mary Sue’ being introduced. Even well-written, pro-Rey articles like Tasha Robinson’s or Charlie Jane Anders’s have to concede it. We might not all be agreeing on Rey being a Mary Sue, but we’re agreeing on something.

“But, the way of a Jedi *is* precociousness”, you might say. “Jedi are good at everything…look at Luke!”

Wait…just wait for it…

Let’s look at Luke. Speaking of everyone agreeing on something, everyone agrees that before Luke leaves Tatooine, he is whiny, immature (he plays with toys for Sith’s sake), ineffectual, incautious and short-sighted. Oh yeah, he’s a good pilot, which in the Star Wars universe means you can drive anything from a speeder bike to a Star Destroyer, apparently, so that’s a plus but not exactly unique as a skill. He receives the barest minimum of Force training, has a successful adventure on the Death Star and finally, through the sacrifice of an entire wing of Rebel starfighters (save two), he manages to destroy the Death Star with help from Biggs, Wedge, Han and Chewie and the ghost of his dead mentor yelling in his ear. He’s pretty effective while on the Death Star, though it’s in a haphazard way (“Find the controls to extend the bridge!” “…I think I just blasted them…”) and the entire sequence seems to be designed as a comedic/action showcase where our heroes, who are wildly out of their depth, can show courage and pluck in the face of overwhelming odds and unfamiliar locales. And it’s not a victory won without sacrifice, either (thanks for the save, Ben!).

Cutting to the (less pedantic) chase, here’s what Luke does in Empire: gets mauled by a yeti, gets pity-kissed by his sister (twice), crashes a snowspeeder, takes out a single AT-AT with a weapon someone else gave him, crashes an X-Wing, fails to recognize the Buddha, proves he lacks the key qualities of a Jedi, fails at the cave, drops Yoda and R2 on their asses, fails to recover his X-Wing, ignores the advice of BOTH his mentors, fails to rescue his friends, falls into Vader’s trap, challenges Vader before he’s ready, loses his hand, loses his lightsaber and nearly loses his freedom, mind and soul to the Dark Side. Just like Rey!

Cutting even quicker, Luke of ROTJ (especially in the film’s first half) resembles much more conspicuously a “Mary Sue”-type hero, though it should be noted, this is a Luke who’s had time to train, is nearing the end of the trilogy and the height of his powers and, most importantly, has *learned* from his failures that the qualities often attributed to “heroes” (strength of arms, brashness, belligerence) are antithetical to the strength of a Jedi. Well, sort of; he kills quite a few people on Jabba’s sail barge but let’s not forget that this is a film where the titular hero saves the entire galaxy by THROWING A LIGHTSABER FIGHT. I know the circumstances differ, but it’s hard right now to see Rey doing that.

She is gonna look AWESOME (and very Bastila) when she gets her double-bladed lightsaber, tho

And that’s the problem. We don’t know where the story is going yet. The Force Awakens is possibly the most thrilling movie to come out this year (with or without its sentimental trappings [Leia! Han! Chewie!]) and a big part of that is the climactic saber fight on Starkiller Base. When Rey takes up Luke’s lightsaber and starts beating holy hell out of Kylo Ren’s lanky ass, I was on the edge of my seat. Because, like in a good movie, the stakes were set and the tension had been built to its high point. But, unlike a good movie, we just have to accept that she can stand up to Ren (someone who’s not nearly as powerful as he thinks he is but has at least held a lightsaber before this very moment) because she suddenly remembers the Force exists and something something calm something. Yea, Kylo’s been shot, yeah, he’s maybe trying to recruit her to the Dark Side instead of kill her outright, yeah, he’s probably still a little shaken up from what he just did because compassion is his fatal flaw (heroes are supposed to have one of those), yeah, Rey gets pretty angry and may be using a little Dark Side herself…but it all reads like “yeah, the hero kicks ass!”

Like this

If, that’s *if*, this will lead to later character-building complications for Rey because mastery of the Force is more than potential and beginner’s luck (which doesn’t exist, right, Obi-Wan?), then it’s worth it and (as much as my or any doubtful fan’s opinion counts) is acceptable. A scenario that is the reverse of Luke’s story might even be something of a genius stroke. If, instead of a character trying again and again until he succeeds, we have a character who has amazing initial proficiency but is eventually discouraged and tempted to quit as soon as she discovers it’s tougher than she thought…and then she STILL perseveres and triumphs in spite of those trials because, duh, hero…well, then that’s ok then.

This is all tied up in the additional sea change of the modern movie blockbuster; every epic action film worth its salt these days spends at least half of its runtime setting up the inevitable sequels. In the classic trilogy, where (for at least the first film) sequels weren’t guaranteed, we’d have clear character arcs with a few elements thrown in for possible sequels. But we all live in Marvel’s movie universe now and seen from the outside in 2020, this may all look like frippery when we see how well Rey’s arc from scavenger to Jedi mistress (or wherever she ends up) has been drawn throughout the next set of films.

Eh? Eh?

So, I guess I agree, at least provisionally, with Landis’s statement, if not its sentiment. Specifically, he’s calling out lazy writing which the movie is unarguably rife with. I can’t speak to whether he’s being ‘sexist’ or not, though many internet shitbags have definitely tried to jump on that particular bandwagon; I expect a Social Jedi Warrior hashtag to arise shortly. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing over a character or film *or* just flat out criticizing them, but it’s reprehensible (not to mention just bad criticism) when people tie their objections up in their own bigoted agendas, whether consciously or unconsciously. Those folks can take a long walk off a short plank right into the mighty Sarlacc.

Or their local dentata metaphor

But as for the construction of this and future Star Wars films, I think people are right to want an evolution beyond the simplistic characters and dialogue seen partially in the originals and completely in the prequels. Star Wars movies may be for ‘kids’ and may be about ‘fun’ but surely they can be ‘good’ films, too. Rey is a great new character, she’s a great hero for girls who are sick of having to choose between playing Leia and…Mon Mothma(?) on the playground and she’s a great showcase for a vibrant young actress working for the hottest writer/director in Hollywood today and as Meatloaf (and President Dale) said, “That ain’t bad”. As far as being a Mary Sue, she’s clearly not one because if JJ was really writing a self-insertion fic, Rey would have the power to make people actually like the new Star Trek films and maybe do a sequel for Gone Fishin’ as well.

Use the spinner, Luke!

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