(Ok, it’s been a few days since the Force… uh…. awakened… but I’m going to attempt to continue to observe the SPOILER embargo. I’m going to try to go out of my way here NOT to be too spoilery about the new movie here. I make no such promises about anything in the other six movies in the series. But anyway, just in case, fair warning, I’m giving thoughts on the new Star Wars movie here, so some minor stuff is bound to come up).
I saw the first Star Wars in a drive in movie theater with my mom and my uncle when I was three years old in 1977. It is MAYBE the earliest movie-going experience I remember. I loved it. Part of it was probably because I didn’t have a lot of experience with movies. Part of it was because Star Wars was fucking awesome. The point is, like pretty much every kid who grew up in the 70s, and apparently, most kids since then, I loved Star Wars.
Before I say anything else, I want to say, I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I really did. I didn’t love it. But I liked it. And by saying I didn’t love it, that’s by no means a knock. I’ve always countered criticism of the Star Wars prequels by pointing out that Star Wars movies are for kids. They always have been. The reason you liked Episode IV so much but hated Phantom Menace is because when you saw Star Wars the first time, you were either three years old or really fucking stoned! Yes, Jar Jar is an annoying fuck. But so is C3PO. Admit it, if you had to deal with 3PO on a daily basis you’d punch him in the face. Regularly. Two seconds into Star Wars, R2 gets so fed up with him that he starts tries to go off and do the whole damn mission alone… TWICE! In Empire, both Han covers 3PO’s mouth to keep him from talking and Chewie gets so annoyed with him that he actually shuts him off. But 3PO reminds us of a simpler time when we had childlike innocence or some really good bud and a Pink Floyd album. So we let it go. Anyway, the point is, Star Wars was never meant to be the high watermark of culture that people like to treat it as. It’s a fun little flick.
So was this one.
That said, I’ve seen something really weird going on the last few days. After seeing the premiere of the film, Max Landis, a famed internet hipster and the writer of another big sci-fi movie from a couple years ago (Chronicle) “bashed it.” Except he didn’t so much bash it. He basically tweeted that he didn’t like it and why. Specifically he, didn’t care for the lead character, Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, whom he called a “Mary Sue.”
they finally did it
they made a fan fic movie with a Mary Sue as the main character pic.twitter.com/gwO5PatXYc
— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) December 19, 2015
For those unaware, “Mary Sue” is an internet term. The basic premise is that a fan fiction author inserts an avatar of herself into a previously established fictional mythos as a new character who has new adventures with the canon characters. Over time, the definition has mutated a bit. Since the original term is decidedly female, a counterpart term was added (Gary Stu or Marty Stu) for males. And the term has mutated a bit so as to not just include author analogs. Because of the manner in which they are often used (as a central character who the plot suddenly revolves around) the terms are now derisively used to refer to any character (especially female) who has nigh-perfect plot-contrivance powers. It is almost always used negatively. And that’s how Landis meant it.
And so, the Internet lost its shit.
First there was a rush of people calling him a misogynist (Landis often self-identifies as a feminist, but he admittedly has a big mouth and he has fallen into this pit before). Then there was the much more intelligent slew of web columns explaining why Landis is wrong and why Rey is strong female character. A somewhat visibly shaken Landis posted a vlog to his Youtube channel attempting to explain why he is right and she is a Mary Sue.
I won’t go into what he said too much because of spoilers, but the short of it is, he didn’t find Rey engaging because she is too perfect. Without going into details beyond what appears in the trailer, she’s is a completely self-sufficient, drop dead gorgeous, extremely intelligent athlete with impressive fighting skills and frankly a slew of other abilities. The promo materials have all made it clear that she’s replacing Luke Skywalker as the new main character. Even her outfit is extremely reflective of Luke’s original garb.
But she’s not Luke Skywalker. At his heart, Luke isn’t any of those things. He’s a putz. He’s a corn-fed hick, who despite the movie continuously telling us he’s good at things (he’s supposed to be a great pilot, he’s supposed to be good with machines, etc.) for the most part he continuous fucks up throughout the entire original trilogy. He’s brash and reckless. There are about a billion ways that he probably should have died in Episode IV if Han, Chewie, Obi-Wan, R2, Leia or the Force weren’t continuously saving him. One of my biggest problems with the original trilogy is that when you think about it, Luke becomes a Jedi Master with exactly four days worth of training (a day of light saber instruction from Ben and four days of swamp running and X-Wing lifting from Yoda). It doesn’t actually work. Luke gets his ass handed to him by both Darth Vader and the Emperor. Luke never defeats the Emperor. Vader does. He really isn’t good at much of anything. He’s just lucky/magical and has some good friends. Rey is not Luke Skywalker. Katniss Everdeen is Luke Skywalker. Seriously… she is. Think about it.
But Rey is not Luke Skywalker. She is competent. She is self-sufficient. She is kick-ass. She’s Captain Kirk. She’s Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele. She’s Squirrel Girl, Deadpool and John Cena. She is a magical girl who is good at everything. She cannot lose.
And Batman is a Mary Sue. On the first day of the English 101 class I teach, I often make my students debate who is better between Batman and Superman. Then, once they’ve given me their answers, I joke with them that if they said Superman, they fail the class, because I like Batman better, and everyone knows that he is. The thing is, that’s a joke. I don’t actually care that much for Batman. I’m actually a huge fan of Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing, Oracle and the pantheon of flawed characters that surround Batman. To me, Batman himself is the least interesting part of the equation. That said, one of my favorite Batman stories ever, the story that I think defines the character, is Justice League: Tower of Babel (also adapted as the cartoon Justice League: Doom). In this story, we learn that Batman has detailed plans ready to defeat all of his friends and allies… just in case. Why? Because he’s the goddamn Batman.
And that’s ok.
The thing is, this isn’t really about sexism. Or at least, it’s not just about sexism. Landis’s cardinal sin wasn’t thinking that that Rey was a weak character. His cardinal sin was daring to disagree with the assembled geekdom of the Internet.
Recently, at the request of one of my professors, I read the novel Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner in preparation for my PhD exams. It is a complicated epic about deeply flawed characters interacting over several generations. It touches on a host of social issues of race, sexism, incest and family relations as they plagued the 20th century. It is commonly regarded as one of the most influential and important novels of our time, and my professor specifically mentions it as one of his all time favorite books. I hated it. I hated every single page. I couldn’t wait for the stupid thing to be over. I suppose that makes me a bad literary critic.
Except it doesn’t. Faulkner is a genius. I recognized that. I got it. I understood what he was doing with the book like 15 pages in. Unfortunately for me, that meant that I had like 370 more to read. The problem is, I just wasn’t interested in the story. I don’t have to be.
The Internet in general (and geeks in specific) makes this general assumption that taste is homogenous. It’s not. The Internet thinks that if you don’t like the same thing it does (whether that be politics, sports or science fiction movies) then something is wrong with you. It’s not. Landis didn’t like the movie because he was hoping to see a Joseph Campbell style heroic journey of a flawed character who grows to meet the insurmountable odds that are stacked in front of him. He wants this because he is a trained fiction writer and frankly, it’s the kind of thing that writing training teaches you to do. This isn’t that movie. He called her a Mary Sue, because she is. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I don’t know that I think Rey is an avatar for the writer. JJ Abrams has proven that he is completely capable of writing complex characters in flawed situations and imagining worlds that have nothing to do with us. Rey isn’t JJ the writer. Rey is JJ the Star Wars fan. Rey is every Star Wars fan. Landis compared the storyline progression of Force Awakens to a video game. I would have compared it to a Dungeons and Dragon RPG. Maybe we split the difference and call it Final Fantasy. Rey, an already formidable character, moves through the narrative becoming better and better as it goes along. You can almost see her level up from scene to scene. She is a chance for the audience to say “oh my god, if I got to live in the Star Wars universe, I would be just like her!”
And that is what the audience wanted. The original trilogy, for what is good and bad about it, IS a classic literary tale. That’s why it maps so well to Campbell’s hero’s journey. And there’s a lot going on there that makes it unique and interesting. Landis was looking for compelling and flawed characters that he wanted to watch grow. But that’s not what sequels and reboots are really about. Critics other than Landis who have complained about the movie are mostly arguing that it has too many thematic allusions to the original film(s). They’re right; in a lot of ways, it really is a very similar beat-for-beat retelling. And that is what the fans wanted. Fans haven’t been clamoring since 1983 for more Star Wars because they wanted to explore the universe more and see different stories that flesh out the mythology. They may say that, but it isn’t what they really want. They got that before with the prequels and they hated it. They got it with the expanded universe novels, but only the most hardcore fans ever read them. For most fans, they wanted to see a fun blockbuster where space planes fly around and blow shit up and people have awesome battles with some laser swords. This movie had that.
When my wife, Stephanie, and I walked out of Star Wars this weekend, she asked me what I thought of it. My answer was “well, that was a movie.” That’s not really as disappointing as it sounds. I don’t think I can really give the same praise to the last three times I went to a theater and saw Star Wars. It was a completely serviceable film. There was some good and there was some bad. There were some things I liked and there were a couple things that I absolutely hated (no details, since like I said, I don’t want spoilers, but if people care I can say). But, for two hours and fifteen minutes I was thoroughly amused. But I’m not going to pretend that it was “good.” It was enjoyable and I had fun. There were fights with laser swords. Some shit blew up. Wanting to punch characters in the face was kept to an absolute minimum. But it wasn’t actually “good.” If it was a movie unconnected to the Star Wars franchise called “Rey the Space Ranger” I would have thought “hey, that was a fun time” and moved on without much thought after that (this isn’t true of all franchises films if Man of Steel were unconnected to the Superman Franchise I still would be like “that was kind of a crappy alien invasion movie”). But, it is connected and given what needed to happen to please the Star Wars community, I think this movie did everything it needed to.
But she is a Mary Sue… and that’s OK.
★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)