What makes a Mary Sue?
A super-competent character is not a Mary Sue. James Bond is good at everything he does. So is Batman. So is John Carter of Mars.
A tragic backstory does not remove the Mary Sue label. James Bond is not a Mary Sue, yet we don’t even know his backstory; the very best we can do is infer that it is tragic.
Hard work to reach the point of competence does not remove the Mary Sue label. Nausicaa of “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind” is not shown doing any work to reach her state; she was born a Princess and is a brilliant fighter, kind, an excellent pilot, brave, and loved and respected by all she meets. Yet Nausicaa has never gotten the Mary Sue accusation labeled at her.
But Rey of the Star Wars sequels has the Mary Sue label leveled at her all the time, from writers and critics far superior to me. What gives?
I submit that the answer lies in something E;R got to in his epic (and VERY blue, so be warned) Legend of Korra review: the Mary Sue is dishonest.
But what does this mean?
Let’s examine Rey in some detail. Rey is great at everything she does. The reasoning behind that may be justified…but that is not the issue.
The issue is that Abrams clearly expects us to think of her as a sort of female Luke Skywalker. Except *Luke was nothing like that!* We are asked to accept that she is a natural born pilot, better mechanic than Han Solo, better natural Jedi than Luke was at the same point of his training, and a natural swordsman…but we’re ALSO supposed to think of her as a plucky orphan farmgirl.
It is not honest. And THAT is why she is a Mary Sue.
If we are told from the start Rey is a prodigy, almost a goddess, with mysterious incredible abilities – like, say, Vash the Stampede of “Trigun”, who has a nearly supernatural ability to shoot and avoid gunfire – then the plot would change completely, and properly done her conflict would have nothing at all to do with finding training but something entirely different. Think Wonder Woman, a literal goddess in the human world, whose conflict is that she is forced to sacrifice her life in a literal paradise in order to serve the human world.
But Rey is treated like a Luke Skywalker type, the chosen one with a destiny, when in fact she is far closer to the goddess type. THAT is the dishonesty. We are asked to look at the character differently than the way she is portrayed.
The dishonesty continues in “The Last Jedi”, but in a different way.
In “The Last Jedi” conversely, we are supposed to act like Rey earned her newfound power and has a major, interesting internal conflict when she quite clearly hasn’t and doesn’t.
If everybody acted like Rey was a mysterious goddess with ridiculous power and this was acknowledged this could actually lead to interesting conflicts. But instead the movie lies to us, and expects us to treat Rey in a way that is utterly different than how she is portrayed in order to force the wrong type of story.
And THAT is why Rey is a Mary Sue.
And hopefully now the stupid Mary Sue test can go die in a freaking fire.