Two days ago, I wrote a post about “strong male characters” that took to task some comments made in a review by Todd McCarthy. At the time, I had not seen Rogue One, so my argument essentially rested on the idea that we don’t need “strong male characters” in every movie. Now that I have seen the movie, I feel it necessary to come back to McCarthy’s review to address the substance of the claims. Expect some spoilers ahead!
As a reminder, here is the relevant quote from McCarthy’s review:
What the film really lacks is a strong and vigorous male lead (such as Han Solo or John Boyega’s Finn in The Force Awakens) to balance more equally with Jyn and supply a sparring partner. None of the men here has real physical or vocal stature, nor any scenes in which they can decisively emerge from the pack in a way that engages audience enthusiasm. Both Luna and Ahmed have proved themselves repeatedly in big-screen and television performances, but their characters never pop here, to the film’s detriment. And given that Jyn is rather less gung-ho and imposing than was Ridley’s Rey, there’s an overall feel of less physical capacity on the part of the main characters.
None of this is remotely accurate. Actually, I’d hazard to call it complete and utter bullshit.
First, Cassian is as much the “strong” character as Jyn. Both characters have pasts (i.e., having lost everything) that negatively impact the way they view the world around them; indeed, they have more or less the same past and choose completely different paths: Jyn chooses to hide her identity and live a criminal life; Cassian chooses to fight for the Rebellion (honestly, their paths are basically the same). For Cassian, the dominant struggle is that of a man doing evil in the service of good and the toll those actions take on a person. It’s a conflict that the film addresses quite deliberately, and one that paints Cassian as a complex, troubled, and action-oriented figure. For Jyn, the struggle is learning to place trust in others to do the right thing even though running away is a seemingly easier path, which ultimately results in an equally complex, troubled, and action-oriented figure. These personal conflicts come head to head in the film, resulting in a rather aggressive debate between Jyn and Cassian about the morality of following orders and how otherwise good people on the “right side of a debate” will justify evil.1 Both characters work through these problems to a degree, and both characters learn to place faith in one another for the greater good, and, indeed, learn mutual respect. In other words, Cassian is absolutely a “sparring partner” for Jyn, because he is her exact opposite. She can see in Cassian a mirror of the self she might have been. Rogue One doesn’t shy away from making this point.2
Second, Cassian could hardly be called a character who has no “real physical or vocal stature.” For one, the man literally assassinates a Rebel informant to protect the cause, and combined, Jyn and Cassian incapacitate and kill at least 50 Stormtroopers. And their fights are hardly the sort of dull affair we expect from a Michael Bay CG festival — 15 minutes of giant CG robots humping each other in some kind of mechanical love play that more accurately resembles the collapse of Western Civilization. They are aggressive, brutal, calculated, and exciting. That McCarthy can look at their action sequences and accuse Cassian of having little that could engage audience enthusiasm is utter nonsense. Cassian’s opening murder sets the tone for Rogue One: this is a war and espionage movie, not another space adventure. Cassian isn’t meant to be Harrison Ford; he’s a spy and assassin, not a swashbuckling smuggler, and a well-written spy/assassin is just as capable of being a “strong male character” as Ford’s Han Solo. If one of the hallmarks of the “strong male character” is decisiveness in action, Cassian matches this perfectly. He only hesitates once, and that one hesitation is perhaps the most important character-defining moment for him.3
Likewise, you could hardly accuse Jyn or Cassian of having “less physical capacity” by comparison to Rey. I don’t actually know what McCarthy means when he makes this claim, since both Jyn and Rey have the same reluctance to act — albeit for different reasons. Does he not recall that Rey spent about half the movie trying to get back to Jakku? Perhaps Rey gets through the mental block quicker than Jyn, but I think the added dimension of Jyn’s parentage offers a sound reason: her namesake makes her a literal target. When Jyn does act, she has a far more developed physical presence than Rey — frankly, that has to do with the type of film we’re watching than a criticism of the characters themselves.
In other words: if we’re going to call Jyn a “strong [gender] character,” the same must be said of Cassian. Any claim to the contrary ignores the complexity of Cassian’s character and the complexity his narrative arc. McCarthy’s position only makes sense if you ignore the actual movie.
There’s also another problem here: definitions. Surely there are more ways for a character to be “strong” than what I have described above. Surely Bodhi is as much a strong character as Cassian or Jyn. He’s just *different,* and if there’s one thing this newest Star Wars movie wants to cram into our heads, it’s that difference is the emotional glue that motivates the oppressed against the oppressors. The Rebellion constantly highlights this fact as part of the visual rhetoric of the universe.4
The point is this: Rogue One had a “strong male character.” What it didn’t have was surface level hypermasculine inhumans — which, fun though they may be, are hardly representative of the breadth of human experience, let alone the breadth of the “strong [gender] character.” And that’s just fine.
- It’s a great debate, too. The argument the two have about committing evil acts for just causes is one of the defining moments for Cassian’s character and one of the defining moments in the film.
- If there’s one criticism I could make about this particular subplot, it’s that the conflict doesn’t get resolved in a way that has Cassian meeting Jyn somewhere in the middle. However, that’s sort of the expectation when you place two extremes against one another. Perhaps it’s a brave choice to treat Cassian as perhaps irredeemable without the measuring stick of a just cause.
- Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook also gets singled out by McCarthy for some reason. I don’t think he realizes that Rook was never intended to be a hypermasculine superhero. Instead, what we get in Rook is a terrified non-combat character who braves certain death on multiple occasions to fight the Empire. Maybe it’s just me, but those are certainly the acts you’d expect of someone with “real physical or vocal stature.”
- I’m going to come back to this soon.