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Of Gods and Men: Exceptional Individuals in Star Wars

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Among the myriad responses to The Force Awakens, two in particular have caught my eye recently. One is the criticism that Rey is “overpowered,” and that her Force abilities come too easily to her. The other is a theory: that Finn will ultimately be revealed to be Force-sensitive himself. Two very different responses, but I think both are missing a fundamental truth that lies at the heart of Star Wars: simply put, this is a galaxy where some are born with exceptional powers, and others are not, and the films are interested in telling the stories of both.

A brief note before we begin. As this article on StarWars.com suggests, potentially anyone may be able to learn to use the Force to some degree. Midi-chlorians reside, as Qui-Gon Jinn says, within all living things. Yet it is also true that Force powers come more easily to some than others. While there is an interesting story to be told about a character with a low midi-chlorian count who learns to use the Force through hard work and meditation, it is not a story that has yet been told, and I do not see that changing in the near future. As Han Solo bluntly puts it to Finn in TFA, “That’s not how the Force works.”

I should also note that the criticism of Rey being “overpowered” often comes hand-in-hand with the allegation that she is a “Mary Sue.” That reductive and erroneous assertion has been dealt with eloquently by excellent writers elsewhere, so I will not be addressing it here.

Rey

Rey begins TFA as a lowly scavenger. She gains an awareness of her powers and her destiny, runs from them out of fear and in the dwindling hope that her family may return for her, but finally accepts the Force, puts her past behind her and begins her Jedi journey. Similarly, in A New Hope and The Phantom Menace, Luke and Anakin Skywalker become aware of their powers, and both ultimately choose to take the Jedi path.

The criticism is that Rey’s powers come too easily to her, and she achieves too much without Jedi training, so let us examine that. Her moment of awakening is when Kylo Ren attempts to read her mind: as she tries to resist, Rey discovers that she can push back against his powers and in fact turn them on him. When left alone with a stormtrooper, she uses the same technique and – after two failed attempts – convinces him to release her bonds. Dueling Kylo Ren – an enemy in emotional disarray and physically wounded – Rey is still initially cornered, despite her experience in hand-to-hand combat on Jakku. It is only when she makes the conscious choice to follow Maz Kanata’s advice, close her eyes and allow the Force in, that she is victorious; and even then, she only wins when she fights from a place of rage.

In ANH, though, Luke receives very little in the way of training himself. A short session with a lightsaber on the Millennium Falcon is enough to see him pull off the impressive feat of blocking three bolts with his eyes closed, while at the end of the film, he achieves the impossible – destroying the Death Star without the use of his targeting computer. No one taught him how to do that – it was simply a result of him letting go and becoming at one with the Force. Anakin is given no training at all in TPM. He is already remarkable when we first meet him, at nine years old the only human with the skill to podrace. He reads Mace Windu’s mind during his tests in the Jedi Temple, and “accidentally” destroys the Trade Federation Droid Control Ship. Anakin doesn’t even have a trigger of the kind Rey receives from Kylo Ren. He’s already just awesome.

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The truth is, these three heroes – like Kylo Ren, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Palpatine – are exceptional individuals, born with great power, and in their first episodes none of them have to work hard to do spectacular things. Even in The Empire Strikes Back, the training we see Luke undergo on Dagobah is more about learning to have faith in, and achieve harmony with, the Force and resist the dark side than it is learning how to fight with a lightsaber or perform a mind trick. Those talents are almost a given. Anakin’s training in the prequel trilogy is skipped over entirely – when we next see him, in Attack of the Clones, his skills are effectively complete, and he is on the cusp of knighthood. The stories of Luke and Anakin are not about how hard they work or how they learn to use their powers; they are, instead, about their choices.

The philosophy of Star Wars is built on the importance of passivity, harmony and compassion. The great flaws that the Jedi must resist are fear, anger, hatred, and the desire to control. Luke ultimately overcomes these flaws, while Anakin falls to them. Rey, as the final duel in TFA proves, is just as susceptible. Like Luke and Anakin, she has a big heart, and when she defeats Kylo, she is fighting to avenge Han Solo and Finn. It is clear both in Daisy Ridley’s performance, as she snarls and circles Kylo like a predator, and in John Williams’s music, as Rey’s theme plays in an ominous tone that is not so different from Kylo’s own theme. In most films of this type, Rey’s victory here would be a moment of pure triumph; but if you understand the language of Star Wars, if you have seen Anakin execute Count Dooku and Luke fly into a rage against Vader, you know that the truth is more unsettling. Rey is flawed, and her flaw is the fundamental Star Wars flaw: her attachment to her loved ones (as opposed to her compassion for them, which is her strength). Rey will surely be further tempted by the dark side in Episodes VIII and IX, and the story of the trilogy will likely hinge on the choices she makes.

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The story of those with Force powers is a story about choices. What is important is not how powerful they are, or how they unlock those powers; what matters is what they choose to do with them. They are humans with the powers of gods, and must rise above their human flaws if they are to do good and not evil. It is a theme we can find in mythology, as Hercules – the son of a god – errs due to his anger. We also see it in modern culture: Spider-Man is given his powers by accident and his unlocking of them is never more than a humorous montage. Instead, the story is about what he chooses to do with his powers. Star Wars takes this story a stage further by giving the dark side its own agency, and the ability to seduce those with the Force. Luke, Anakin and Rey are no less relatable for their power, because their emotional struggles are fundamentally human.

Finn

Finn has no lightsaber that calls to him; no great destiny in the Force. His story, however, is still about choice, though a more “earthly” choice – does he run away, or stand up to the evil of the First Order? It is ultimately Finn’s choices that give the plot of TFA its shape – his compassion for Rey leads him back into the fight as he risks his life to save her. He has no great power or unique talent, but his simple heroism, and the courage he finds to save his friend and confront the thing he fears most, has huge ramifications. Without Finn, Rey would never have encountered her destiny in the first place.

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We see here echoes of the hobbits in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – humble folk without great gifts, surrounded by powerful warriors and wizards, but whose big hearts shape the destiny of Middle-earth. It is also something we have seen in Star Wars before, in the two most prominent non-Force-sensitive characters in the original and prequel trilogies – Han Solo and Padmé Amidala.

In ANH, Han must decide whether to continue to pursue the self-interested life of a smuggler, or join the greater cause of the Rebellion. As with Finn, it is his compassion for Luke which brings him back into the fight, and at a crucial point – had Han not been there with the Millennium Falcon to interrupt the aerial battle with Darth Vader, Luke would not have been free to fire the final shot that destroyed the Death Star. Similarly, Anakin was only in the position to deactivate the droid army in TPM because of Padmé’s decision to unite with the Gungans and confront the Trade Federation – it is Padmé’s choices, like Finn’s in TFA, which give the story of TPM its shape.

In its broadest movements, the story of Star Wars is about exceptional individuals, but those without great powers have their part to play too, and their choices are influential in shaping events. We will see this in its purest form in the forthcoming film Rogue One, which will focus exclusively on the heroism of ordinary people when, as Gareth Edwards put it, “God is not there to save them.” The role of the everyday person caught up in the battle of good against evil appears to be the role Finn will occupy in the sequel trilogy. Finn’s role can be inspiring – perhaps even more so – without him having Force powers, and he occupies a space which is crucial in every Star Wars story.

However, there is a darker side to this role, and we should perhaps be concerned for Finn’s safety, because if you are a “mortal,” finding yourself too close to the “gods” and the battle between the light and dark sides of the Force can lead to tragedy.

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This is true on the largest scale, from the clone army to the Bothan spies – many beings in the galaxy find their lives directed or torn apart by the ongoing battle between Jedi and Sith. On a more personal level, though, it is Padmé and Han who pay the most tragic and heartbreaking price. Padmé dies when she attempts to bring her husband back from the dark side, and Han is killed when he tries to do the same with his son. Those without the Force in Star Wars can still do great things, but getting too close to true power has its consequences.

The Forest Duel

The duel in the forest on Starkiller Base is the point at which TFA draws the clearest line between the journeys of Rey and Finn.

With Rey unconscious, Finn bravely stands his ground to protect his friend. He has no chance of defeating Kylo Ren, and he knows this, but he fights anyway. It is the culmination of Finn’s journey in TFA – he will confront the thing he fears most, even though he knows he will likely die, out of love for his friend. It is a remarkable act of heroism.

But there is a cold, cruel reality to life in the Star Wars galaxy: ultimately, Finn does not have the Force-given powers needed to defeat Kylo. Heroism alone is not enough, and Finn is gravely wounded. Rey, though, does have that power, when she chooses to wield it. Yet as we know from the story of Anakin, too much power, too easily achieved, is dangerous, and Rey will have to learn to control her emotions if she is to triumph at the end of the trilogy.

Rey follows her destiny and goes to find Luke Skywalker, while a comatose Finn remains at the Resistance base. This is more than a mere plot device to separate our heroes: it also represents the fundamental difference between Rey and Finn. Rey’s destiny is in the Force, and Finn’s is with the Resistance, because the harsh truth is that Finn does not have the power to take on Kylo Ren or Supreme Leader Snoke. When Finn awakens, he will have to come to terms with the fact that Rey – the person who drew him back into the fight – is gone, and find his own role in the Resistance. As a former stormtrooper, he will carry valuable information about the First Order, and is sure to play a crucial role in the final battle between the two forces. Finn’s journey will be different from Rey’s, but will prove to be important and inspiring in its own right. That’s how the Force works.

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Before Rey leaves, she tells the unconscious Finn “We’ll see each other again. I believe that.” It is a line heavy with foreboding, and we can speculate that it may be some time before Rey and Finn see each other again, and that when they do, they might be very different people. Rey will be central to the battle between the light and dark sides of the Force, and it may be that when they meet, she will need Finn’s simple courage and good heart to keep her grounded. Han and Padmé both died trying to bring loved ones back from the dark side. It could be that Finn will play a crucial role in pulling Rey back from taking a similar path.

11 thoughts to “Of Gods and Men: Exceptional Individuals in Star Wars”

  1. Nice article! I think you do a good job of placing the question of whether a character is “overpowered” in its narrative context.

    I will add that I hope that Episode VIII provides more meaningful challenges for Rey and provides an opportunity to really explore the weaknesses of her character, in the way that Episodes II and V did for Anakin and Luke, respectively. I think the people who claim that Rey is “overpowered” or “Mary Sue” are forgetting an important piece of Star Wars narrative structure: not just that the main character is always “overpowered” in the first movie (as this article makes clear), but also that it is in the middle section of the trilogy where the main character is really tested, and found wanting.

    In Episode V, Luke is eaten by a wampa (fails to spot the Imperial probe droid), lost in a blizzard (saved by Han), shot down at Hoth (gets his gunner killed), crashes on Dagobah, whiny to Yoda, can’t get his X-wing out of the swamp, fails the test in the cave, runs off without completing his training, fails to save Han and Leia, gets his hand chopped off, loses his lightsaber, tries and fails to escape, and only survives because Leia, Lando, and R2-D2 come and save him; the movie might as well be titled Star Wars Episode V: Luke Fails Repeatedly. More than anything, I think it is the memory of Episode V that causes us to say that Luke *earned* his power. The power may have been within him the whole time, but his failures are especially important for the very reason that they show that he is not a god. His flaws and failings are what make his ultimate triumphs all the sweeter.

    Rey hasn’t had her Episode V yet. To say (as many have) that she is not as well-developed a character as Luke Skywalker, or that she hasn’t earned her power yet, is probably true, but also somewhat trivial since we haven’t seen the whole story yet. My hope is that Episode VIII will provide the opportunity to see her really challenged as a character and pushed to her absolute limits.

    1. Thanks for reading! Those are all excellent points. Rey will surely be tested in Episode VIII – not just in terms of her power, but also her emotions and her choices. As you say, the hero is always “overpowered” in the first episode because they are awakening to their powers, and those films usually end with a victory.
      I think the pacing of TFA, and Abrams’s style, means it has less exposition and character “interiority” than the first six films, so while Rey’s character arc makes complete sense, it isn’t always spelled out for us in the dialogue. I think that explains why some think she (along with other characters) was underdeveloped. I didn’t feel that way because Ridley’s performance is so strong and rich, and the more I watch it, the more nuance I see in her and all the characters.

      1. I agree about the quality of Ridley’s performance, which I thought was exceptional. I think from a writing standpoint I could have used a bit more exposition of the character’s flaws, or at least other characters’ awareness of those flaws. Obi-wan and Han Solo do a pretty good job of drawing attention to the shortcomings of Anakin and Luke in their respective movies; I don’t think that Rey has a similar foil in Episode VII (Maz, perhaps? but only in one scene). Perhaps a role that Luke can fill in the next movie – teachers tend to get a pretty good look at their students’ flaws.

      2. Nice essay. I agree that the film is far less explicit about the internal conflict of the characters, so it sometime suffers by being misread, particularly by people with very strong expectations about how they think a Star Wars film should work.

        TFA is also interesting for being a film with very strong and consistent themes that are well supported throughout all three of the main heroes’ stories as well as in the antagonist’s arc that pays out with close examination.

        I’d recommend listening to this commentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_BAGg_VikM for an examination of the themes in play.

        You might also be interested in this examination of Finn’s character: https://www.reddit.com/r/StarWars/comments/4aotrx/some_thoughts_on_why_finn_is_my_favorite_character/

        Like you analysis, it considers Finn’s role as a non-magical protagonist, but then also draws some interesting parallels to other similar characters in literature, as well as considering the idea of Finn as proxy for the audience.

  2. This is an excellent discussion – the comparison of Finn to Pademe and Han Solo are insightful.

    I do hope you are wrong and that Rey doesn’t need drawing back to the light side of the Force. It would seem that’s Kylo Ren’s destiny but that would seem too obvious a plot point.

    1. I’m sure Rey will be further tempted by the dark side in Episode VIII, as it’s a challenge every Jedi must pass, but I would expect (and hope) her story to be a little different from Luke’s, just as I hope Kylo’s is different from Vader’s.

      My current feeling (and this isn’t based on any spoilers, it’s just the sense I get) is that we might see Rey and Kylo teaming up to take on Snoke, against Luke’s wishes. Han has already foreshadowed the possibility of Snoke discarding Kylo when he no longer needs him, so if Kylo goes for revenge, Rey might feel her best option is to join him to ensure he wins, and then make sure Kylo doesn’t seize power for himself. An uneasy, “grey” alliance would be an interesting new approach for these films, as we wouldn’t be entirely sure if Rey is slipping to the dark or Kylo to the light, and it would have the tension of them possibly having to fight each other once Snoke is gone. Finn’s role could be ensuring that Rey doesn’t slip into the dark side during this.

      1. The only scenario where I can see Snoke not needing Kylo is if he turns Rey—so I kinda wonder if the two of them will switch places by the end of VIII.

      2. Unless Snoke really does manage to take the whole galaxy (or most of it) at the end of VIII. If Kylo fails to kill/capture Luke and Rey again, Snoke may decide he’s better off just wiping all of them out.

        Alternatively I could see VIII ending with Rey captured by Snoke and Kylo captured by the Resistance. That would be interesting. But I can’t see them taking Rey full-on dark side, killing people and all that.

      3. The only thing I would contest would be the idea that Finn is somehow responsible for Rey “coming back to the light”, because that really isn’t the true point of her being tempted by the dark. That isn’t what her, the heroine’s, journey is about.

        The dark is supposed to be accepted as part of the whole.

        Rey needs to accept her shadow, not reject it. It is just as much a part of her as is the light- something she had rejected at one point (against Maz’s urging) but could only save her friends when she accepted it by calling the saber to her. However, the dark will be much harder to let in, I think. Not just because Rey is a good person, but because instead of some mythic light figure (Luke) she has been seeing all those dark traits in the very flesh and blood and flawed Kylo Ren in TFA.

        Episode VIII should not only shake her of her previous idealization of the light side with the weary, cautious Luke we see at the very end of TFA (and indeed, if the spoilers are headed in the right direction it will be a very different Luke than the one Rey or the audience expected) but also highlight a more human and accessible Kylo Ren. That will be a truer temptation- the darksider who feels a call to the light.

  3. That’s a good point. He’s a blank canvas at the moment, which is exciting.

    Perhaps they’ll go down the route Luceno started to explore with Palpatine – that the goal is to reshape the reality of entire galaxy using the dark side, and military power is just the first step towards that.

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