Critics and fans have praised the heroes of The Last Jedi, but is the Chosen One at the center of a billion-dollar franchise seriously flawed?
Rey, the central protagonist in the new Star Wars trilogy, is, in some respects, the perfect hero for the current moment. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing strapping young men named Chris take this role, while also finding delight in the combative exploits of men on the other side of 50 (Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise) or getting surprisingly close (Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon). To see the biggest movie of 2017 headlined by a young woman is not just refreshing, but important. In America’s present moment, the old ways of pale males are revealing their toxicity on a daily basis, and so the counter-narrative provided in 2017 by Rey, Wonder Woman, and even Lady Bird is important.
Rey is tireless in her efforts to do good and help others, and she is more than capable of doing so with her abilities as a pilot, a sword-fighter, a user of the Force, and just about everything else she has tried over the course of two films. She appears to have saved both the Resistance (the Rebellion incarnate) and the Jedi Order. Without ever asking for any of it, she is now poised to be the one to clash with the de facto supervillain, Kylo Ren (Darth Vader-lite), and crumple the tyrannical First Order (the Empire incarnate). She’s a Chosen One with incredible abilities and an indomitable spirit. She’s the nobody-turned-messiah at the heart of an epic extension of one of cinema’s most vaunted mythologies.
The problem is that she is merely that.
We don’t know anything about Rey, other than she comes from nothing, given away by her nobody parents for some booze. Two films in, and we have no idea what makes this person tick, other than an innate sense of goodness, an attribute which has hardly been tested, and thus hardly proven. We don’t know what kind of love or attachment she feels for any other character – on or off screen – and we don’t know what she wants to get out of life. She comes from nothing, and that’s the problem; we have no expectations for her identity or the rules which govern her life.
She’s not even a Jedi. Not really, unless all you need to do to be a Jedi is use the Force and wield a lightsaber, but – clearly – being a Jedi is much more than that, and Rey has not gone through any of it. If she’s a Jedi, it’s only because that’s just how Star Wars outside of Rogue One works; a Jedi with a blue or green sword fights a bad guy with a red sword. Voila! A billion dollars at the box office.
The purity and sheer power of her status as Chosen One does not develop through an actual character – instead, Rey is reduced to a convenient plot device. She’s the infallibly good, exceedingly talented heroine who saves the day and fights the bad guy while toppling the fascist empire, unveiling new skills just when the hyperdrive fails. At best she’s a generic Young Adult fiction protagonist and at worst she is a gimmick to sell action figures to parents who want a positive role model for their daughters.Of course, if this is all as plain as I think it is, the film would not have garnered such acclaim from critics and viewers alike. Out of context, perhaps Rey does stand up to critical assessment and I am being too harsh on account of my serious dislike of The Last Jedi. But Rey is not without context. She is hardly the only young Chosen One to be a part of wildly popular modern mythologies, and she should be judged in relation to those other characters. These juxtapositions make it that much more clear how unconvincing and uninspiring this character really is.
Within the Star Wars filmography, Rey has two predecessors: her “mentor,” Luke Skywalker, and his father, Anakin Skywalker. Anakin, like Rey, was chosen by the Force to have unmatched powers. It was prophesied that this boy born into slavery on an insignificant planet outside of the Republic would bring balance to the Force. But Anakin’s tumultuous road to the Dark Side is not based on a series of convenient plot points. Rather, they are fundamentally connected to who he is. He is a young man pained by his inability to save his mother and aflame with passion for the woman he loves and wants desperately to keep safe. He is a wunderkind Jedi who struggles with the Order’s rules against attachment and the Council’s hesitancy to promote him. He sees father figures in the evil Palpatine, who heaps praise on him, and in his mentor, Obi-Wan, who is loathe to grant a simple “atta boy.” It even turns out Annie exhibits enough traits to be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.
We know enough about Anakin and his station in life to make his struggle with Chosen One status meaningful. And it makes his fourth quarter conversion make sense, too.
Some may argue that Rey is a successful echo of Luke, but being found by a droid mechanic wandering a desert planet and joining a force of rebels is fairly flimsy criteria. The original film does not pretend Luke is a Jedi just because he is given a lightsaber and can use the Force. Instead, he’s a bored teenager who wants to go fight the Empire. And, when given the chance, he takes it. In Empire Strikes Back, he only starts to become a Jedi when he trains with Yoda on Dagobah, and he only leaves his role as rebel hero to clash with the Dark Side when he finds out his friends are in danger. By Return of the Jedi, he’s pretty much over the rebel hero thing in favor of facing Vader, but this time it’s personal – the cosmic clash in the saga’s conclusion is, as many have noted, a family drama.
While it seemed like Rey was going to have a family connection to the story, this turns out to not be so. Instead, she’s intruding on the family drama which formed the basis for the first six films.
Some writers, like Chris Ryan at the Ringer, have articulated how Star Wars is now based in its own mythology, referential unto itself. But a new character cannot be fully realized through mere reminiscence and nostalgia; Rey has to stand on her own.
Rey falls short of our other famous science-fiction and fantasy Chosen Ones, too. Consider Harry Potter, as clear-cut a Chosen One as we have, with fairly overt parallels to Jesus Christ. Like Rey, Harry grows up without parents, but, unlike Rey, this continues to be the dominating fact of his life which plays out in some painfully human ways. While Harry, Hermione, and Ron don’t quite have a conventional career at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry’s journey as the ultimate hero is still fundamentally related to his station as a student at the school. It’s true that, like Rey, Harry has a tendency to figure out new powers just in time to save the day, but much of this is due to what I find to be the most compelling part of the story – his evil nemesis, Voldemort, is literally a part of him. Harry is good and is a living testament to the power of love, but he still must make the decisions to not be like Voldemort.
Luke asks Rey “Why are you here,” and we still don’t know. Harry’s inevitable clash with the dark lord is not an arbitrary plot point; it grows out of the defining traits of his identity.
Such is the case with Frodo Baggins as well – his quest to save the day as the ringbearer is significant because he has no desire to be a Chosen One. There is nothing special about him that makes him able to bear the burden of the ring other than his disinterest in its power, a disinterest born of his identity as a Hobbit, but a role he is willing to play as a Tookish Hobbit who grew up listening to his Uncle Bilbo’s stories of adventure. He regrets the ring coming to him, and laments “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” to which Gandalf replies, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” His actions are further shaped by his friendship with Samwise and his willingness to have pity on Sméagol.
Frodo’s humble beginnings continue to matter throughout his quest and help us to understand the magnitude of what he goes through.
To include Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen might be unfair, given that few characters could stand up to the central figures of A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’ll include them for the sake of making perfectly clear how little we know about Rey. Jon and Dany are, despite George R.R. Martin’s tendency to subvert recognizable tropes, seemingly destined to save the day. But Martin, a fan of misinterpreted prophecies, leaves us to question how exactly these two heroes might fulfill the role of the Prince/Princess Who Was Promised. Even so, their identities outside of epic hero status fundamentally inform how they carry themselves and how we understand them. Jon, a bastard, uncertain of who he is or where he belongs, a talented, courageous, empathetic hero who has no desire to hold power. A resurrected savior with no regard for his own safety. Self-exiled to the end of the world but brought back into the Great Game. And Dany, an exiled young girl, one of the last of her legendary house, sold to a foreign warlord, determined to outwit and outwill all opponents and climb her way to power but keen to care for the commoner. Every moment of triumph earned only after a hard lesson.
We know these people, and we see the ways in which their identities inform the way they grapple with the remarkable positions life has put them in as King in the North and Mother of Dragons.
The complex identities and circumstances of these heroes shape their journeys. It helps us understand how they relate to important places (Hogwarts, the Shire, Winterfell, Dragonstone), people (their friends, their mentors, their rulers), and even items (Godric’s sword, the ring, dragon eggs). The remarkable things they do are made more meaningful because they become real, believable people doing them.
This is not so with Rey. To repeat: we don’t know anything about her.
Some people, including my heroes Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion, have noted Rey’s merit as another example of one of the best-loved tropes of fantasy: anyone can be the hero. But Rey’s status as a nobody from nowhere does not necessarily place her in this category. Because she is truly a nobody from nowhere who happens to have great powers and nothing more, Rey actually becomes quite the opposite; Rey forwards the notion that only people with mysteriously-granted and prodigious talents can be the Chosen One.
Because Rey is nobody, nobody has been Rey.
Other heroes work because we’ve been those people.
Some of us have been like Anakin, the talented youngster facing a weight of expectation. We’ve faced the fear of loss and the pains of attachment.
We can relate to Luke, the bored teen wanting something more. We’ve had our future plans derailed by family conflicts. We’ve been asked to make seemingly impossible choices.
Surely we’ve all felt like Frodo, facing a situation we wish we could have avoided, or taking on a task that seems beyond us, but still making the choices to do what we think is right. We’ve been that little person in a big world.
So many can relate to Jon, the gloomy outcast desperate to find their place in the world, or Dany, the empathetic and ambitious person determined to find success but wary of the pitfalls that can come with it.
Even some of us have been Harry, born with exceedingly rare gifts and the destiny that surely comes with it while also trying to navigate growing up and finding love and friendship. And more of us can understand the complex battle within ourselves between good and bad and the choices this presents us with.
I, personally, see myself in these characters, especially Jon and Frodo. This means that I can see myself doing great things.
But no one can see themselves in Rey. No one can make the connection between her ascent to Chosen One and their own potential to achieve greatness.
I hope by this point I have at least convinced you that Rey is not a believable, interesting, or compelling hero, especially within her Chosen One context. But it is also important to consider what this means beyond the aesthetics of good writing. This, of course, matters, but I assume people of my ilk are more likely to care about writing in film more than most moviegoers (and I don’t mean that to necessarily esteem my viewership). What are the consequences of Rey beyond “bad” writing?
Perhaps first and foremost is a distorted sense of what it means to be a hero at all. The antiseptic, perfect hero which Rey represents suggests that heroism is something that happens to people who discover latent gifts and would only ever use those gifts to do the right thing. This describes zero real human beings. Conversely, we have gotten much better at constructing villains who feel real, prizing the complex baddie over the irredeemably or cartoonishly evil figures.
If our choices for protagonists bifurcate into pure heroes like Rey and anti-heroes like Walter White, we will be left without characters who exhibit goodness and virtue while also being real people. Should characters like Rey continue to be the heroes of blockbusters, the only real people we will be left rooting for will be morally ambiguous anti-heroes. I love – love – a good antihero, but thousands of years of literature suggest that we have a fundamental need for more virtuous heroes as well.
As it stands, our contemporary blockbuster heroes are more complex and realistic than Rey, and perhaps her time in the spotlight will be a blip. But, given the success of The Last Jedi and the praise of the character, it appears that more bland archetypes may be on the way unless we examine these characters more critically and demand more from the writers of our new mythologies. We need our heroes. We want to feel like heroes.
It’s just important that they feel like us.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
1 Subversive as Daisy Ridley might be, there’s still a decided whiteness among these blockbuster stars. All the more reason that Black Panther is such an important upcoming work.
2 A separate discussion, but it’s worth noting that Daisy Ridley is a “real” woman, as opposed to the sort of unrealistically sexy characters which sometimes take this role.
3 I would also say that Neo from The Matrix is a pretty fair comparison for Rey.
4 Rey’s training with Luke is not nearly as developed or thoughtful. The scene in which she goes into the dark place is a total hack, relying on its relation to Luke’s confrontation with his Vader-self rather than actually doing anything to explore her character.
5 Why, yes – Jesus is also a more developed character. Easy answer is that his status as a Galilean Jew is super important. Complex answer is that the entire Bible is about him. So, yeah.
6 We learn more about Jon in one conversation with Tyrion than we do about Rey in two films: “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
7 It’s convenient that this shows up when Harry needs it, but that’s at least explained by Harry’s membership in Gryffindor House. Why does Anakin’s lightsaber call out to Rey? Because it was convenient for the plot ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
8 Fun fact: I am an INFJ, and so is Jon.
I guess we just have to wait for episode 9…
They’ve left themselves a lot of work to do.