Is Rey a Superhero?

Originally posted on Legendarium Media

For the most part, audiences fell in love with Rey in The Force Awakens. Daisy Ridley brought an irrepressible charm and energy to the role. Over the holidays, people were frustrated by the lack of Rey merchandising available in stores. But there have been questions about her development as a character. For example, screenwriter Max Landis calls Rey too perfect and unrealistic. I admit I initially agreed with this critique – after all, Rey does master many new skills with relative ease. However, I started to realize that this might be the point. Rey’s story isn’t about learning new skills, but rather the complications that arise in being so powerful.

It’s helpful to compare Luke and Rey’s character arc over the course of their first films in order to better understand Landis’ critique. When we first meet Luke on Tatooine, several characters refer to him as a good pilot. He even sent an application to the Imperial Academy. The film later makes clear that Luke can hit a target the size of the Death Star exhaust because he used to “bull’s-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home.” In short, Luke had put in his “10,000 hours” of training before the opening crawl. By the time Luke is in the Death Star trench, the audience knows that Luke possesses the skills necessary to succeed.

What isn’t clear is if he has the confidence to. Luke had been frustrated with his life on Tatooine and the lack of opportunities. Even after meeting Obi-Wan Kenobi and learning about the Force, Luke’s powers are pretty limited. He doesn’t fight with a lightsaber, levitate objects, or perform gravity-defying acrobatics. Rather, at the critical moment in the Death Star trench, Obi-Wan’s spirit calls to Luke and tells him to trust himself. The culmination of Luke’s character arc is about gaining confidence in the skills he already possesses.

By contrast, in The Force Awakens, Rey can pilot the Milennium Falcon, repair any mechanical problem, shoot a blaster accurately, perform a mind trick, and defeat a trained Dark Side user with a lightsaber. We don’t get much context as to how she developed those skills. In some cases, the film drops hints. For example, Rey mentions that she’s piloted a freighter before, but that doesn’t prepare viewers for the death-defying stunts she pulls with the Falcon.* Furthermore, on Jakku, we see Rey’s fighting prowess with a staff, but this doesn’t necessarily imply that she’d be any good with a lightsaber.** Moreover, the film makes clear Rey has no prior knowledge of how to shoot a blaster or perform a mind trick, yet manages to do both.

The most likely explanation for Rey’s exceptional gifts is that she’s so strong in the Force she absorbs new skills and knowledge like a sponge. Fans have even argued that Kylo Ren’s attempt to read her mind backfired, allowing her to read his mind (and learn the mind trick). It’s also possible that Episode VIII will reveal that she had in fact been trained in the Force at a younger age at Luke’s Jedi Academy. But as it stands there is no canonical explanation for Rey’s powers in the film itself.

Why does this matter? In the book Star Wars on Trial, science fiction author David Brin claims that the Prequel Trilogy exhibits signs of elitism. According to his argument, the Prequels creates a division between two classes of people: elites who can use the Force and those who can’t. Unlike the original Star Wars, which emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the Force, The Phantom Menace provides a biological explanation in midichlorians. In the Original Trilogy, we see Luke working hard to become a Jedi, whereas in the Prequels Anakin is proclaimed the “chosen one” by virtue of his blood. Brin argues that this is the wrong message for stories to tell because it is inherently anti-democratic. Instead, stories should praise the capacity of ordinary people and virtues of hard work.

This was my concern with Rey’s character the first time I saw The Force Awakens. Does Rey tell kids today that to succeed you don’t have to work hard, just be naturally talented? Fortunately, a few days later, I happened to rewatch the Harry Potter movies and was immediately struck by the similarities between Rey and Harry. In the earlier movies, Harry Potter is declared a chosen one and succeeds at nearly everything he does on his first try. He can fly a broom so well on his first attempt that he becomes the youngest seeker on Gryffindor’s Quidditch in over a century. He defeats a troll, finds the sorcerer’s stone, and even confronts Voldemort (granted, with assists from Hermione and Ron). My initial reaction to Harry mirrored Landis’ critique of Rey – he was too perfect and unrealistic.

Then something interesting happened on the way to Azkaban… Harry became an interesting character. Harry Potter isn’t a story about a boy learning to use his superpowers, but rather about a boy who happens to have superpowers coming to grips with his humanity. The most important struggles Harry faces aren’t against evil wizards and monsters – he defeats them quite easily – but rather against his own feelings of grief and anger. In The Order of the Phoenix, after Death Eaters kill Sirius Black, Harry even considers searching for ways to cheat death (sound familiar?). Ultimately, he must learn to live with the world as it is and accept both the tragedies and the triumphs. As part of this process, he begins to take pity on the less fortunate. By the end of the series, far from being a symbol of elitism, Harry exemplifies the virtues of humility and wisdom.

Harry’s character arc gives me hope for Rey. While I might have preferred if The Force Awakens had given Rey’s powers more context, I can also realize that even a character who possesses superpowers isn’t necessarily perfect. Despite Daisy Ridley’s cheerful performance, this is a character wit a lot of emotional baggage (especially abandonment issues). Alan Dean Foster’s novelization suggests that, in her battle against Kylo Ren, Rey was treading dangerously close to the Dark Side. She even hears Supreme Leader Snoke’s voice urging her to kill Kylo. Actor John Boyega claims Episode VIII will be darker, which could portend darker times for Rey as well. In short, despite Rey’s exceptional powers, there’s a lot of potential for the character. Even if she learned to use the Force at an accelerated rate, her emotional journey has only just begun.

Greg Rucka’s Before the Awakening covers this incident in more detail. The book also reveals that Rey practiced on flight simulators, which shows where Rey put in her “10,000 hours.”

** I’ve fought with a bo and a sword in real life, so believe me, there’s a difference.



2 thoughts on “Is Rey a Superhero?

  1. Interesting thoughts as always, Dom. I tend to roll my eyes, however, at the facile tossing about of words like “elitist.” That’s not a criticism of you, but of Brin. It’s just too easy a criticism to make, and one that brands its target in such a way that anyone defending the target becomes “anti-democratic.” To me, that’s half-clever rubbish, a rhetorical trick.

    It seemed clear to me at any rate from my first viewing of the film that the force was just very strong with Rey. As we all know, “the force is strong with x” was a phrase used repeatedly in the original trilogy. As such it suggests that natural talent (or whatever you want to call it — just not midichlorians, please) is very important. But so is training. What is the first thing Obi-Wan does when he has the opportunity? Begins to train Luke. It isn’t either/or. It is also true that in everything, some people are just more naturally talented than others. That does not, and should not, however, guarantee success.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I look forward to reading more.


    1. Thanks for the comment. I don’t fully endorse Brin’s view, but as somebody with a background in political science I do feel more comfortable with the word “elite” as a description of a class of people who, for whatever reason, have greater access to resource, power, and influence. Brin’s using it in a slightly different sense, i.e. people who have that access not through merit but through birth, nepotism, etc (i.e., not meritocracy). It’s a real problem, especially in the parts of the world, but it also doesn’t mean that (as Brin argues) the hero’s journey concept is just a sham excuse for elitism.

      As for Rey, I feel like the jury’s still out. It still does bother me a bit that she exhibits such control over the Force without any training. One can be naturally gifted at math but not necessarily be able to solve complex statistical models without a class in basic stats. I think the most prominent issue of this sort in the film is when Rey uses a mind trick. How would she know that’s even within the realm of possibility?

      The film itself seems a bit confused about Rey’s knowledge and experience of the Force. On the one hand, is on a remote desert world and doesn’t seem to know much about the Force (if I recall correctly, she asks Maz about the Force). On the other hand, she seems to have heard stories about Luke Skywalker. On the other, she doesn’t seem to know much about the Force. My favorite theory is that Rey gleaned some insights from probing into Kylo Ren’s mind during the interrogation scene, but that’s very speculative and even the novel doesn’t really hint at that possibility.


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