Hollywood has been giving viewers a lot of reasons to use the term “Mary Sue” over the past few years. In case you’re unaware, it refers to a certain type of character in fiction–one which can be female or male (although the male is sometimes called a ‘Gary Stu’.) The Mary Sue is a hyper-idealized figure meant to be a kind of totem by which the author and/or viewer can insert themselves into a story and live vicariously. She has no real personality that might interfere with that of the viewer/reader, so she remains a blank slate. She has an abundance of superficial virtue, but it’s entirely unearned as she has no meaningful flaws to overcome. She is at the heart of every narrative conflict, but so perfect she need not struggle through any of them. Every good guy loves her while every bad guy respects, envies, or wants her.
The Mary Sue isn’t always a terrible thing in some kinds of stories, but it’s never really a good thing either. The best example I can think of is John Matrix from 80’s Schwarzenegger cheesefest, Commando. When his daughter gets kidnapped, it’s his job to curb stomp those bad guys one by one until his daughter is safe and his well of one-liners is bone dry. That’s the whole movie. He has no character arc, only a series of challenges to let the viewer revel in what an invincible badass he is. Commando is fine, but it’s a popcorn film that’s in no danger of being considered great cinema. It works on exactly one level: childish wish fulfilment that provides 90 minutes of escapism. It’s the fast food of movies: occasionally it hits the spot, but it’s not exactly nourishing.
So if they’re not uncommon in Hollywood, why is the myriad of contemporary Mary Sues even a topic of controversy? The short answer is feminism.
The most obvious difference between the John Matrices of yesteryear and the Mary Sues of today is that Commando is escapist fantasy for men, but today’s films are engineered to provide escapist fantasy for women. Now, that’s not actually a problem in itself. Different films have always had different target audiences, and nobody’s ever really cared. Men don’t expect women to like Commando, and women don’t expect men to like The Notebook. Each sex may roll its collective eyes at the details of the other’s fantasies, but for the most part, neither takes any offense.
Feminists, however, are experts at taking offense. It would be insufficiently vindictive for Hollywood to simply provide more content for women. Instead, it had to ‘fix’ the content for men, and that’s why it’s suddenly controversial. Many contemporary Mary Sues are a result of Hollywood taking established properties and reimagining them as female empowerment fantasies.
Rey from the Disney Star Wars trilogy has been the quintessential example of this. She hits literally every note from the first paragraph. But the problem isn’t that Disney made a series of female empowerment fantasies. The problem is that they consumed Star Wars, which had been our most popular modern mythology, in order to do it. It’s controversial because Mary Sues don’t belong in some properties.
A similar issue can be seen in what they did with Masters of the Universe: Revelation. Unlike Star Wars, which for better or for worse had managed to elevate itself above mere escapist empowerment fantasy, He-Man had no such lofty aspirations. It was a kid’s show that was what it was. The “problem” is that it was what it was for boys. Instead of creating something new for girls, Kevin Smith had to turn He-Man into a show about Teela discovering how much better she is than everyone else. It’s controversial in this case because its stolen.
The other issue is that, as I already mentioned, Mary Sues appeal to a fairly narrow audience. What’s more, that audience is pretty sex-specific because men and women tend to have different fantasies. Captain Marvel, for example, is yet another female empowerment icon whose only character arc was rediscovering her own latent super-special-awesomeness. So most men did what was natural and disliked that particular Marvel property just like they did Disney Star Wars, Master of the Universe: Revelation, and the various other vehicles for female empowerment.
But because feminists are driven by vindictiveness towards men rather than a desire to provide something positive to women, they cannot tolerate such narrow appeal. They pulled out all the stops to pretend that these franchises were beloved by every normal person and that there was something morally wrong with anyone who deviated from that party-line. But that’s as ridiculous as condemning women for not liking Schwarzenegger movies enough. So contemporary Mary Sues are also controversial because feminists demand they be universally adored.
So those are some of the big issues with the Mary Sue. Some of them are fundamental. Some of them are rooted in contemporary politics. All of them make the trope something to be avoided by anyone interested in quality.
Or do they? The reason I’ve been giving this thought is because I recently finished playing through Ys IX: Monstrum Nox. This one’s a deep cut, but it’s the latest entry in a very long-running series of games from developer Nihon Falcon.
For almost 4 decades, the Ys games have centered on protagonist Adol Christin. Adol is a Mary Sue. He may even be the Mary Sueiest Mary Sue who ever Mary Sued. He’s a self-proclaimed “adventurer” who roams the world getting involved in various epic struggles of good vs evil. He shows up in the midst of a crisis, conquers the dungeons, slays the dragons, defeats the wizards, rescues the girls, and makes them swoon. He never enters into any kind of relationship with them, though, because he’s already married–to adventure.
He’s a classic silent protagonist with no real personality to speak of. He exists as a proxy for the player who wants to play through epic fantasy quests as a great hero. Narratively speaking, he’s essentially a perfect human being who always does the right thing and always wins.
Now, that’s all pretty typical for games from the era in which Ys originated. The technical limitations of the time severely restricted storytelling. But even as technology has advanced and the Ys games have become more sophisticated with respect to plot & character, Falcom has only doubled-down on Adol being Adol. In-game characters have now added “master cartographer” to his list of accolades because the new games have auto-mapping. There are also in-game logs/journals now, so he’s described as a highly skilled writer who records his own adventures with both modesty and precise analysis. Normal people love or respect him while quasi-divine beings routinely recognize him as the best humanity has to offer.
Although Adol remains silent, he has developed some small amount of personality through frequent character interaction–whether by the player choosing dialog or other characters reacting to what he “said.” But that personality is essentially that of someone who’s really having fun playing an Ys game. Adol is eager for every side quest even as the other characters more realistically see them as tedious or distracting from their mission. He’s excited at the prospect of delving into a deadly labyrinth while the rest of cast experiences the normal trepidation. From a narrative perspective, he’s patient, forgiving, and optimistic almost to the point of insanity because he has faith everything is going to work out for the best just like a player who expects to win.
So basically, everything I said negatively about Rey or John Matrix, I could say even more about Adol. But for Ys, it totally works. The games in the series are, for the most part, simple but excellent.
The difference is the medium–the shift from movies or literature to video games. The two biggest problems with the Mary Sue are the blatant self-insertion and the absence of meaningful struggle. Movies aren’t about the viewer, but the player always inserts themselves into a video game to some extent. Guiding the action in some way is what makes it a game, so it doesn’t feel hokey in the same way.
As for struggle, that’s something the player himself brings to the table. Sure, from a narrative perspective, Adol simply fights the huge monster, sheathes his sword and moves on–maybe panting a little if it was a particularly important boss, but otherwise without struggle or sacrifice. Nevertheless, the player knows he died 12 times before finally killing the thing after using his last health potion. The player spent 20 minutes grinding extra levels to be able to do it. The player did the extra work of tracking down the best equipment to improve his chances.
The end result is that unlike a literary Mary Sue, Adol’s legendary status, virtue, and success actually feel earned. Accordingly, rather than providing mere escapism, the Ys games actually manage to crystalize ideals like hope and (secular) faith developed through hard work and perseverance. In short, Adol routinely hits the same notes that an icon like Superman does on his best days: optimism and inspiration.
At the end of the day, Ys games are unquestionably simple and straightforward, but that doesn’t stop them from being great games. Likewise, their protagonist is undoubtedly a Mary Sue, but it doesn’t stop him from being a good protagonist after his own fashion. It seems that even the Mary Sue can be elevated if you get the medium and the details right.