Lately, I’ve watched a number of videos on YouTube (like this one if you’re curious) where the same complaint was made about protagonists in television shows and films who are portrayed as powerful but without growth or struggle. Two of these protagonists are the title character in the live action Mulan and Rey from the last three Star Wars films. I didn’t see the live action Mulan, though I love the 1998 animated version. I saw all of the Star Wars movies, however.
This isn’t a post for or against the Star Wars movies or the live action Mulan. Many better qualified people have videos on YouTube discussing these movies. But rather, this is a post asking the question posed in the title. YouTube videos aren’t the only catalyst for that question. A friend showed me a book she’s in the middle of. I won’t share the title or the author’s name. But I will say that on the first page of the book, the main character announces her lack of fear in a situation. (Sorry to be vague.) She is calm in and in control, like a strong hero/heroine should be, right?
Okay, I’ll answer that, since you’re clearly waiting for me to do so. In Mulan and the Star Wars movies (episodes 7-9 to be exact), Rey and Mulan do great feats because of their special gifts. As I mentioned, I didn’t see the live action Mulan, which is very different (I’m told) from the animated version where the title character trains hard, instead of being born with power, and uses ingenuity in extremely difficult situations. As for Rey, though she is an orphan left to fend for herself, I never had tension in regard to her situation because the movies kept telling me how special and amazing she is without showing me the efforts she went through to gain mastery over her gifts.
I have an easier time rooting for and identifying with a character who starts at a low point (I’m afraid; not sure what’s happening), rather than in a position of strength (I am fearless; I am in control; I am powerful), mainly because I have felt fear and a lack of control. (Hello, COVID.) When a character admits to some kind of weakness (fear; lack of proficiency) and then goes off on an adventure, I have tension because the character will have to learn and grow in order to survive.
I can’t help thinking of a chosen one character like Harry Potter, who has innate magical ability, but at the beginning of the series lacks control over that power and has to grow in proficiency. Even in the seventh book of the series by J. K. Rowling, he still makes mistakes. Another chosen one character who comes to mind is Paul Atreides in the Dune series by Frank Herbert who keeps having to say this litany, “Fear is the mind-killer. I will face my fear. . . . I will permit it to pass over me and through me” though we know he is terrified.
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter; Alec Newman in the 2000/2003 Dune miniseries
Above all, I think of Wonder Woman, a character undeniably powerful, but vulnerable also, who trains hard (at least in the first movie; I didn’t see the second one).
I also think of a well-known speech given by Theodore Roosevelt on April 23, 1910 (found here).
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
What about you? Do you like your heroes/heroines totally proficient and fearless from the get-go or do you like see an interval of growth? While you ponder that, FictionFan, get ready to receive your Amazon reward! Just in time to make your TBR pile grow even higher!
Wonder Woman movie poster from dvdreleasedates.com. Deathly Hallows Part 1 poster from collider.com. Alec Newman as Paul Atreides found in the Dune Wiki.