I got my first Covid shot yesterday so sorry for breaking out another Filler Video so soon after recovering from my previous medical issues.
The concept of the “Mary Sue” (and lesser known male counterpart “Gary Stu”) is forever a subject of debate among those who love storytelling, whether they’re fans or creators. I’ve discussed this one myself. Appearing in a short gag fanfic in The Menagerie in 1974, Paula Smith’s A Trekkie’s Tale is a short four paragraph story involving Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest LT in Starfleet, serving aboard the Enterprise despite not being old enough to drive a car, become the fascination of everyone until she eventually dies, her passing becoming a holiday aboard the ship. (I bet they even celebrate in on the Enterprise-E, the post TNG movie version of the ship.)
It’s universally agreed on that a Mary Sue, a character with no flaws, everyone loves unless they’re jerks or evil (and even then they may come around), and is the awesomest person ever in forever, is to be avoided. It’s the flaws, or at least the struggles, that invoke drama, even in comedies with dramatic elements. While nobody defends the Mary Sue as a character they will defend a beloved character by insisting they aren’t a Mary Sue because they indeed have flaws. However, it’s the type of flaws that The Literature Devil says still make that character a Mary Sue. And of course, being the Literature Devil, he uses Rey from the Star Wars Sequel trilogy as his example, but he and the Tutorial Demon (I hope God forgives me for promoting devils and demons in this one) do bring up other Mary Sues like Ensign Mariner there (named after the showrunner’s sister…explains a lot) as well as the story that coined the term. Don’t worry, he also discusses characters who actually get it right. I think he just likes picking on Rey as a prime example of a modern Mary Sue that isn’t our teenage lieutenant.
Catch more Literature Devil (and no, it isn’t all just “Rey sucks” videos) on his YouTube channel.
Can you have a flawless character and still have good dramatic tension? Yes, but it requires certain a few additions. Since I haven’t seen the John Wick movies or Liam Neelson’s non-Star Wars movie because I actually enjoy seeing sunlight now and then let’s go to a potentially odd source: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. Outside of the final fight with Bennett (which still sees John Matrix–now THAT’S an 80s action character name–toss a pipe through a guy with normal muscular human strength and into a steam pipe behind Bennett) we don’t see much struggle on John’s part. There is some as he’s trying to not get killed…while at the same time mowing down tons of baddies, throwing dudes off cliffs, snapping a guy’s neck on the plane without being noticed, and tossing a phone booth. There isn’t much though.
Outside of the catharsis of watching John take down bad guys like a shooting gallery however, he’s not really packing the flaws. He finds a way to not kill the target he’s being forced to and rescue his daughter (and points where it’s due, the girl doesn’t sit around waiting to get rescued and at times it looks like she might get away but the movie needs to keep happening…she’s daddy’s girl alright), but unlike Rey we know he’s had training. We don’t see or even hear about Rey doing a lot of training, to the point that twelve-year-old Rowan Freemaker had more training thanks to Naare and his own self-training by watching all the times R0-GR got sliced up during the Clone Wars. (And remember, this is a LEGO parody series.)
We expect John Matrix to be that awesome from the name alone but also because we’re told about his training and see the results. Why he works is that we the audience don’t know how he’s going to get out of the situation and watching how he does it (and the way the movie presents it or it would indeed be boring) then becomes exciting. After all, he’s the hero of the movie. We already know he’s going to win. It’s the how that makes us interested and when you have a soldier with years of experience in kickassery you expect him to be awesome. When you have a girl whose had less training than a twelve-year-old suddenly being as a good or better than a guy who took three movies and whatever adventures happened in between to not even be at the level of the Jedi Masters in later works set before Order 66 something is wrong.
Of course this could have been easily solved by us being told that Rey was given training by the Force itself in the same way that the Power Rangers can suddenly operate giant robotic vehicles. (The first episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers even noted this when Billy and Trini are amazed they can operate the Zords like it’s “second nature”.) Anakin supposedly being born by the Force itself like some Jedi Jesus (if Jesus had given in to the devil’s temptation in the desert) does set that precedence. And yet this does not happen. Rey is, as Literature Devil would put it, just that awesome. That is why she’s considered a Mary Sue, being awesome without really earning it in-universe.