Over the weekend, a new Star Wars film was released. You may have heard. It features some of the old characters you like, but also some new ones, like Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn. They’re all pretty good, I (and the millions of people who saw it this weekend) think. But some people disagree. Spoiler alert: for stupid reasons! (Real spoiler alert: If it’s not already obvious, I will be talking about details from The Force Awakens from here on out.)
The backlash against Rey, The Force Awaken’s main character, stems from the argument that she’s a “Mary Sue” — a character in fan fiction clearly intended as an authorial stand-in. Mary Sues are a fan-fic trope that dates back to when the internet was only ARPANET, and the concept is consequently a bit broad and fuzzy, but in general, the character is abnormally competent. As TV Tropes puts it, the term “is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.” The male version would be a Gary Stu.
For some people, like screenwriter Max Landis — the film industry’s most profesionally accomplished 4chan user whose career is largely a result of his parentage — being a Mary Sue is bad.
Of course, Rey being excessively skilled (which she is) does not necessarily make her a Mary Sue. The specifics of pop-culture tropes are messy.
There’s a compelling argument to be made that Rey is instead a Chosen One, much in the same way Luke was in the original trilogy.
And being a Mary Sue isn’t even an inherently bad thing, as famed nerd-culture director Guillermo del Toro explained.
The point is that a lot of Hero’s Journey stories — and really, fictional narratives in general — contain characters who become incredibly skilled very quickly. The claim some have leveled here is that people like Landis are annoyed at Rey’s development because Rey is a woman. When a male character undergoes the same arc, he receives far less scrutiny.
Landis also cited extended-universe character Mara Jade as more evidence that he is open-minded; a one-two punch that serves to establish that he supports women and is more knowledgable than everyone else about Star Wars. (Never mind the fact that Mara Jade is no longer part of the official Star Wars canon. And never mind that “Mara Jade” should never, ever, be a mic-drop moment in any argument.)
The weird Rey-centric frustration also ignores the fact The Force Awakens includes a ton of other audience wish-fulfillment detail: Finn’s atonal giddiness at some of the film’s most dramatic moments echoes audience excitement to a very unsubtle degree (Finn: “We’ll figure it out, we’ll use the Force!” Solo: “That’s not how the Force works!”). There’s also the fact that all three new characters are stand-ins for Han Solo, an audience favorite: Rey has Han’s flying skills, Poe has his leather-jacket bravado, and Finn has his … horniness, I guess? To single out Rey is to ignore that, well, the entire movie is fan service. The question is then “Why is Rey being a Mary Sue notably worse than any other detail?” and not “Is Rey a Mary Sue?”
Some of Landis’s gripes might stem from a point he’s brought up in the past — that audiences and Hollywood value lucrative franchises like Star Wars, and ignore “original ideas” like Landis’s recent bomb, American Ultra. By the way, American Ultra was about a lazy stoner who suddenly becomes a highly skilled CIA operative after being activated by a magic phrase. Interesting concept!