Strong doesn’t mean overpowered: female characters

I don’t know if it’s really a trend or just isolated examples, but Star Wars Episode VII and the 2017 Wonder Woman movie have really powered-up their female protagonists. This is not a good idea.

Star Wars

First, let’s compare Star Wars protagonists: Rey from Episode VII (The Force Awakens), Luke from the original trilogy (IV to VI) and Anakin from the prequels (I to III).

  • Rey is able to use some Force powers with no training at all, not even brief advice from a Jedi. She does not meet Luke until the end of the movie. Before that meeting, she can use mind-tricks, telekinesis and successfully fight off a Sith apprentice both physically and mentally.
  • Luke is briefly trained by Kenobi on the way to the Death Star. Kenobi’s spirit also reminds Luke to “use the Force” at critical moments like firing the missile that destroys the Death Star. He does not show any Force ability prior to the training.
  • Anakin is the “chosen one” and stated to be especially strong in the Force. His abilities prior to training are very subtle: faster reflexes and some precognition or intuition (destroying the Trade Federation ship). Even with his Force abilities, he has never won any races before Episode I.

Clearly, Rey’s Force potential is much higher than Anakin or Luke. She is able to use “active” Force abilities with great success without training, while Anakin’s minor “passive” abilities are not enough to win races.

The comparison for combat performance is even more drastic, when comparing their first fight against a Sith opponent.

  • Rey defeats a Sith apprentice during her first use of a lightsaber, without any previous training and without sustaining major injuries.
  • Luke is defeated by Darth Vader (apprentice of Darth Sidious), after extensive training by Yoda. During the fight, he is seriously injured, losing a hand.
  • Anakin is defeated by Count Dooku (former Jedi Master turned apprentice of Darth Sidious), after years of training by Kenobi. He also gets his hand cut off.

Given that Sith emphasise power and aggression, their apprentices fight at the level of “average” Jedi Masters and Sith masters fight at the level of “elite” Jedi blademasters. Darth Maul killed a Jedi Master, Count Dooku fights 2 Jedi simultaneously and fends off Yoda, and finally Darth Sidious kills 3 Jedi in one strike.

The only conclusion is that Rey must be the strongest Force user in the Star Wars universe. Not even Anakin can compare. What she does, without any knowledge or training, is only done by Jedi after months or years of practice.

If this is not the case, then Kylo Ren must be the worst and weakest Sith in the Star Wars universe. Other Sith Lords kill Jedi Masters, but Kylo Ren cannot even defeat an untrained Force-sensitive. If the main villain is so weak, it makes the hero and story quite unimpressive.

In addition, giving Rey all her Force powers straight away removes an important route for character development. Quite a bit of time is spent on shots of Luke’s training with Yoda, where he goes from “barely more than average human” to “competent Jedi”.

Wonder Woman

I am not a comic book expert or serious fan, having only read a few comics and watched some episodes of “Justice League Unlimited”. My background knowledge is quite limited, but I still feel that Wonder Woman (Diana) is overpowered in her 2017 movie compared to earlier appearances.

According to the Wikipedia page, Wonder Woman’s backstory of “magical woman made from clay” has been around since her character’s creation, and was only changed to “demi-god” within the past few years. I have no idea why they changed it, since a magically-created artificial human blessed by the gods can have whatever superpowers the writers want.

Turning her into a demi-god instead of a magical artificial human did not really improve the movie. Instead of an awesome sword fight, her final battle against Ares consisted mostly of telekinesis, where both of them strike poses while various special effects do the fighting. Plenty of Michael Bay explosions and very little action.

Additionally, making Wonder Woman a demi-god risks turning her into a boring invincible hero, since Ares claims that only a god can kill another god. Many people who prefer Batman over Superman actually cite Batman’s lack of superpowers as the reason for their preference. Superman’s invulnerability to almost anything except Kryptonite is often brought up as the reason he is perceived as “boring”, since he can win almost any fight without risk of injury.

Now, Wonder Woman is even more powerful than Superman. No weaknesses, since only a god can harm or kill her, levitation/flight and telekinesis. Hardly any villain can threaten her, but this invincibility cuts off a lot of story ideas.

For example, in the “Justice” comic series, Wonder Woman is magically poisoned and gradually reverts to her clay form, in other words, slowly dying. This weakness would not exist if she were a divine being. No weakness, no danger. But without this weakness, there would not be an opportunity to show her strength and heroism. Wonder Woman continues fighting alongside the other heroes as long as she can, rather than despairing over her imminent death.

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To summarise, excessively powering-up characters right from the beginning removes a lot of story ideas and opportunities:

  • Character growth and development, where they start off weak and gradually become more powerful (e.g. normal human becoming a Jedi Master over 3 movies instead of 1)
  • Dealing with defeats and setbacks
  • Using intelligence and strategy to defeat villains instead of just beating them up
  • Narrative tension, which comes from heroes being less powerful and struggling to defeat the villain
  • Empathy for the hero, often by showing their weaker human side or the hero going through tragedy, pain and suffering. Since an overpowered hero is unlikely to be personally injured, their loved ones are likely to be wounded in place of the hero, so that the writers can show the hero suffering emotional pain.

Furthermore, characters who are greatly overpowered compared to their peers, or who do not have good, narratively consistent reasons for their excessive powers are frequently accused of being Mary Sues. As the name suggests, this derogatory term was originally applied to female characters. Toning down their powers would take away quite a lot of this perception.

“Strong female characters” doesn’t mean “overpowered female characters”. Strength can refer to personality and determination, where a weak character struggles to fight on despite disadvantages. Crushing your opponents with sheer irresistible force is usually reserved for villains. The hero is often the underdog for a reason. Seeing them win at the end against all odds is much more satisfying and thrilling.

3 thoughts on “Strong doesn’t mean overpowered: female characters

  1. Spot on. The other thing that I don’t like about overpowered female characters is that if it was an attempt to say “women can be good protagonists, too,” it’s…not a successful one, since there’s subtext that the only way she can be is if she’s more powerful than everyone else around her, objectively. Which. We aren’t going to be. I’d rather be told I can be clever and solve my own problems with wit than have a fantasy where I just have more magic than everyone else. I mean, when you consider the Magical Girl story, what wins me over isn’t the girl’s transformation and kicking butt more than her charming kindness. I get that OP Hero Kicking Butt is something some people enjoy (it seems to be the appeal to Superman – whom I despise for the exact reasons you mentioned) but…even super campy Friendship Conquers All is more appealing to me than raw power.

    • True, true. Even though some shounen heroes are overpowered too (Uzumaki Naruto, Ichigo from Bleach), that tends to happen more towards the end of the manga or end of an arc, rather than powering-up within the first episode. Most of the story will be about the hero getting strong enough to confront their nemesis. If Star Wars is going to have a new trilogy, Rey doesn’t have bother with training at all. Why not go and confront Kylo Ren and Snoke immediately, since she’s so powerful already?

  2. Pingback: Alita: strong but not too overpowered | Mad Science Laboratory

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