The Force Awakens came out nearly a month ago and we still can’t stop talking about it. This week, the Overthinking It team spent some time talking about the symbolism of Ownership, Acquisition, and Inheritance in Star Wars and beyond.
Richard Rosenbaum: Can we talk about the symbolism of using things that belong to other people in The Force Awakens? Luke’s lightsabre, Chewie’s bowcaster, Han’s (arguably) Millennium Falcon. Are there other examples? Lots of stuff about inheritence and transferring of ownership in this movie that could work on a meta level probably. Y/N/M?
Ryan Sheely: This is really interesting. Another one that jumps out at me is Finn wearing Poe Dameron’s jacket, which is explicitly called out a few times. The first that I remember is BB-8 using it as reason to be suspicious of Finn. The second is Poe calling it out, and saying that it looks good on Finn and that he should keep it.
If there is a meta-level to this symbolism, those two instances capture it well. At first, we’re distrustful of JJ Abrams wearing the Star Wars “Jacket”, but by the end of the movie, we’ve come around to the position that he should hang on to it.
Peter Fenzel: Of course Kylo has Darth Vader’s mask, and BB-8 uses R2-D2’s map, and Rey is wearing something very close to Obi Wan Kebobi’s outfit from the prequels, though it isn’t acknowledged as such:
Though Kylo and Rey, yeah, it’s different, because the thing they are each wearing is an imitation, not the original article. Although you could also argue the rey thing is a stretch and it’s just a stylistic borrowing, like they both shopped at the local Alderaan EagleTM outlet.
Sheely: I’m pretty sure they shop at Banana Old Republic. And Old Republic Navy.
Fenzel: And by the way, I don’t know if we mentioned it, and I’m sure other people have as well, but it isn’t just Luke’s lightsaber. After just rewatching all the prequels with my girlfriend, it’s notable that Anakin starts with a green lightsaber in episode 2, and then is given a blue one by Obi Wan Kenobi so he can go dual-wield in the fight with Count Dooku. Then his hand is chopped off, and from there he only uses the blue lightsaber. And later Luke’s hand is chopped off, and from there he only uses a green lightsaber. Then Palpatine takes Luke’s green lightsaber and gives it back to him, and by that point Anakin is using a red lightsaber, and then Luke chops his hand off. So the blue lightsaber Rey gets is involved in two out of four hand-chopping-off incidents.
So the lightsaber goes Obi Wan –> Anakin –> Obi Wan –> Luke –> clouds of cloud city –> Maz Kanata –> Rey
I think. Just trying to be comprehensive. For the movies, of course, and not canon materials and other such things.
Actually, Finn also uses it against Kylo Ren, so it goes: Obi Wan –> Anakin –> Obi Wan –> Luke –> clouds of cloud city –> Maz Kanata –> Rey –> Finn –> Rey
And there’s a few things in the Millennium Falcon that have other sort of ownership that’s reused – Finn re-uses Luke’s old turret gun and targeting monitor. Chewbacca’s gaming table is featured.
To suggest a few things this is doing:
- It connects current characters with old characters, which informs our expectations for what is going to happen and how they are going to behave. This helps the story functionally by making things into decisions, twists or other moments of recognition that would otherwise be relatively meaningless. It is not, remarkable, for example, for Rey to find a discarded relic and use it outside the context of the previous characters and previous movies. That is basically her job (1099 independent contractor, ‘natch). But when you give the machine a history, it adds some development and additional significance to her decisions.
- It connects this movie with the previous movie and produces opportunities to recognize when patterns are staying the same and when they are changing. Kylo Ren feeling the pull of the light side is a good example of this; you can also compare Darth Vader’s head to the head Luke sees in the cave in Empire Strikes Back, which is a warning about the pull to the dark side. The characters are somewhat flipped in that regard.
- The repetition is pleasing to the audience because we like to see repetition somewhat for its own sake; it has formal, non-semantic elements having to do with pattern, phrasing, lyrical quality, etc.
- It is useful from a visual standpoint in the way the film exists in image and composition.
There are a lot more, but my sense here is you’re asking specifically about “ownership.” And that’s really interesting. Did you have other thoughts in ownership in particular?
And it’s two out of three hand-choppings. Not four. As of yet.
Jordan Stokes: Finn gets Poe’s jacket, Rey gets BB-8. (Droids sort of are and aren’t property – they are explicitly treated as property, but C-3PO feels like a person. The beepley boopley ones like BB-8 and R2, though, feel more like pets. So this is like Rey taking care of Poe’s dog. I can’t remember, does BB-8 go off with Rey at the end, or does Poe get it back?)
Fenzel: BB-8 stays with the rebels.
Stokes: That makes more sense. (It would have been more interesting if it had decided to stay with Rey.)
Fenzel: “I’d love to take you with me, BB-8, but there are going to be stairs. Serious stairs. More stairs than you’ve ever seen, with no railings or anything. The Jedi building the First Temple did not believe in accessibility.”
Stokes: Considering that there was probably at least one Hutt Jedi, this was arguably a real dick move on their part.
Sheely: Rey taking care of BB-8 echoes Luke taking care of R2D2. For the first quarter of Episode IV R2D2 is bleeping and blooping about getting to his owner, Obi-Wan.
Stokes: But I think part of what’s going on with this is that we’re meant to think that these objects have agency. Not, like, actual agency in a supernatural way (like the Ring of Power does in LOTR), but slightly more agency than we ascribe to them here in the real world when we say “my computer is being a dick, it won’t load the webpage.” When Kylo addresses Darth Vader’s mask _as Vader!_ That’s really interesting. Because Vader wasn’t the mask, right? Well hang on, maybe he was. Like, if Kylo had gotten an intact skull out of the funeral pyre on Endor, that would be Annakin’s skull. But it’s Vader’s mask – and therefore Vader inheres in the mask. The mask wants to be evil – again, not quite like the ring of power wants to be evil, but at least as much as a hammer wants to smash into nails.
Same thing with Luke’s lightsaber. Nitpickers have been moping about the fact that Finn and Rey can both pick it up and use it effectively. Well, they’re heroes, and this is a weapon of heroes. Fighting evil is what the saber wants to do. (It would feel like a violation to turn around and do something evil with it.) Again, I don’t think that it’s actually physically easier for them to use it – it’s not the hammer of Thor – but it feels ethically right for them to be using it, and that (for me) makes it easy to suspend my disbelief in their ability to use it.
Sheely: This is really interesting, because Luke’s lightsaber calls out to Rey, drawing her to it and then sets off her vision when she touches it
Fenzel: It’s kind of like intellectual property and film rights. When you own an intellectual property, it wants to be made into movies. Even bad ones. And into merchandise. If it doesn’t, sometimes it leaves you, or else it sits there calling to you from your asset portfolio.
Stokes: Ah, but Fenzel, with intellectual property we can pretty easily see that what’s actually motivating that decision is a patchwork of laws and industrial practices. It’s not the property itself that calls out to be used, it’s the limited monopoly power.
Fenzel: Limited monopoly power is all around us. All court decisions create it. It surrounds us and binds us. It holds the universe together.
Stokes: Hopping back into The Force Awakens, the equivalent to limited monopoly power is probably the dark side of the force, which perhaps is using Darth’s mask as a focal point. (We already know the force can inhere in objects and locations.)
Fenzel: And to bring up another instance, Finn himself is commandeered property. He was abducted as a child and made into a stormtrooper, and he’s supposed to want to fulfill his purpose, like any possessed object with a _telos_ in a highly teleological universe. The people calling him a freed slave aren’t wrong.
Stokes: Now here’s a question: do the objects that are Force-touched (the lightsaber, the mask) feel noticeably different to you than the objects that are not (the bowcaster, the Millenium Falcon)? I don’t feel that using the bowcaster imbued Han with Chewie-nature.
Fenzel, to your point: Finn’s status as a freed slave is really interesting, and also really troubling, because they didn’t follow it through to the logical implication that all of the other Stormtroopers are slaves.
It’s especially jarring that he defects because he’s unwilling to kill, and then he turns around and gleefully kills a whole bunch of his former comrades. That he’d be willing to take up arms for a cause he believes in, fine. But the glee was jarring and unnecessary. (One of my few real complaints about the movie.)
Fenzel: Yeah, the relationship between Finn and the other stormtroopers is effed up, pretty much everywhere in the movie. That’s a legit gripe.
From the standpoint of performance and art, it seems as if Finn’s body is not the same character throughout the movie, but goes through transformations as the story changes around it. This is part perhaps of Finn not really owning himself, or of the physical objects sometimes having more continuity and purpose than people.
When we see Finn’s bloodstain on his face, a narrative around him instantly coalesces: he’s a good soldier who has been shocked by atrocity and is going to desert or rebel. But then when he takes his helmet off, and we see that he’s black, I think cultural context connects him to a slave narrative, even before we hear that he was taken from his family and pressed into service, or that even his name has been taken away.
“My Lai” becomes “Kunta Kinte” before our eyes. And those two stories don’t really mesh together seamlessly. So something transforms in the telling, in time. Which is interesting in a story where so many objects and people are granted a supernatural sort of continuity of identity and purpose, even as their ownership changes, across decades and multiple movies and comics and all that, where canon is such an overbearing concern.
There’s a cool ambiguity and irony here, which sort of mirrors the Luke / Han Solo dichotomy, but is much more extreme. “It Is Your Destiny” versus “Never Tell Me the Odds” writ large. Finn can use the lightsaber because Finn changes, even to the core of his identity. His existence precedes his essence. And so there’s no metaphysical condition his character abides by that says what he can or can’t do. He’s a soldier, he’s a slave, he’s a rebel. He puts on other guys’ jackets. He brings along other people’s droids. He rides along on other people’s adventures. Meanwhile Rey comes across very much as a product of a lineage, of an historical echo, even when it’s never said. She even talks like an aristocrat. Rey is a hero by nature, Finn is a hero by choice. It’s cool these coexist, but they foil a positivistic notion that we can determine the rules of the Star Wars universe vis a vis destiny and free will through observation.
Stokes: The nature/choice thing, yes, is very Han/Luke, in that Han has to choose to be a hero, whereas Luke is called. And that makes me start thinking of Kylo Ren again. Genetically, he’s a mixture of Skywalkerian aristocratic predestination and Solovian free-agency. Where does his darkness come from? Perhaps it’s the Vader in him that presented him with the option of going bad. Maybe it’s the Solo in him that allowed him to choose that option.
Fenzel: Kylo Ren seems very uncomfortable with the idea of choice. He seems to crave externalizeable certainty. It’s not enough for him merely decide to be more bad, he has to commit the ritual murder of his father, because he thinks that act alone will dictate the universe’s disposition toward him. And yet that seems unsatisfying. When he offers to train Rey, it’s also strange, as if he merely sees circumstances that suggest, in line with the patterns of the past, that this ought to happen, that it ought to be destiny, but he’s extremely out of touch with the notion that Rey would have to want to do it for it to happen, or even that he would want to do it and ought to make some sort of sell rather than just pop off with the cold ask.
Kylo Ren wants to be like one of these teleological objects, like the lightsaber, which sit in the universe and want to be used. And which come into the ownership of various people who put them to their intended purpose.
If we go by our commentaries in the Overview which stressed that Han Solo’s defining characteristic is the desire, from the standpoint of an outsider, to be loved and accepted, then that’s a cool synthesis: Kylo Ren brags like Han, he shows off like Han, and he wants people to include him like Han, but the axis he sees for this is Darth-ness, rather than friendship, and he wants to be used rather than invited. He wants to do a Kessel Run in 12 parsecs and for everyone to know, but he wants to be hired by Destiny, or History, not by a person.
Rosenbaum: While I think this was the first time we’ve ever seen non-Force users (Force non-users?) wield a lightsabre, this shouldn’t bother anyone: they are just objects (will come back to that) that can be used by anyone – now, Finn as a Storm Trooper would have had combat training, and he clearly isn’t using the light sabre the way Luke or Anakin used it. Similarly Rey, who has no Jedi training but is herself “awakening” to the Force, doesn’t use the light sabre as as Jedi would. And both of them are only able to hold their own against Kylo Ren (though not prevail) because of his already-existing injuries limiting him.
AFAIK, object cannot themselves have sensitivity to the Force – I don’t believe that light sabre crystals are any different in that regard. And yet, these objects can have a kind of agency and “choose” whom they “work” for, to a certain extent. Droids are never really treated by anybody as independent agents the way that biological creatures are – even by themselves! I don’t think we’ve ever seen a disloyal droid, though we have seen them complain a fair bit. Ownership, maybe, is being presented here as a material analogue for the force: it’s something that binds us together, socially. The Dark Side may be theft or it may be unfairly high prices. The Light Side is either inheriting something or earning it.
Stokes: Well, actually, Han briefly uses Luke’s lightsaber to cut his Tauntaun open in Empire.
Who ever earns anything though? All of the stuff we’re talking about was inherited, given, or (maybe) acquired by right of salvage.
Rosenbaum: Maybe “earn” isn’t the right word. Maybe “deserve” is more like it.
Fenzel: Is there a term for the demonstrable difference between, on one hand, the patterns, themes, motifs, and related ways in which people or things in fiction appear to be governed in a story, and on the other, the diagetic physics and metaphysics by which people or things in fiction are thought to be governed in the world of the story?
As in, the gap between the pattern that lightsabers are special weapons that are only used by special people and the fact that lightsabers are mundane technology that anybody can use if they find them?
Even putting aside that the Obi Wan / Anakin / Luke blue lightsaber (hereafter “blue lightsaber”) does appear to be calling to Rey in some way and to be waiting specifically for her for decades after being almost certainly lost in a gas mine, and just attributing all that to Rey, the Force and other Force users without the necessary participation of the object?
Rosenbaum: Does the cave on Dagobah have agency? What was it that caused Luke’s experience in there?
Stokes: Tree. Which is a living thing. But it feels similar to what’s going on with Vader’s mask and the blue saber, right?
Pete, there’s not really a word for it AFAIK, but when that distinction is not observed, we talk about breaking the fourth wall or lampshade hanging. (If Maz Kanata were to say something like “Take this lightsaber – it is destined to be wielded by a major character!”)
Stokes: Back to the distinction between earn and deserve – I think deserve is much closer to what actually is happening here, yeah. But isn’t that sort of an interesting distinction? Like, Ayn Rand would hate the Star Wars universe. Property rights are not respected at all! When people do buy and sell things – think Uncle Owen buying the droids at the start of A New Hope, or Watto clinging to his ownership of Annakin near the start of Phantom Menace, we don’t think of that sort of ownership as meaningful. Which is of a piece with what’s probably the series’s most forceful indictment of capitalism: the fact that in A New Hope, if Han just fulfills his contract, takes his money, and leaves, that would make him an asshole.
Suppose that the way Rey got the lightsaber was by buying it from the Simon Pegg alien. Like, he’s got it back there with all the bread rations, and she just salvages the shit out stuff on Jakku until she can buy it off of him. She walks away proud, knowing that she earned this elegant weapon by the sweat of her brow. She deserves it, not like SOME Jedi she could mention who merely inherited their sabers.
This is inconceivable. Star Wars could never work that way. It feels like bad Star Wars fanfic written by a libertarian with an axe to grind.
Stokes: Max Weber has this concept of “disenchantment,” which for him characterized the difference between modern society and traditional society. (Sheely, stop me if I’m butchering any of this.) A disenchanted society is a rational society: it runs on knowledge, efficiency, and bloodless cost-benefit analysis. An enchanted society runs not on knowledge but on belief.
The world of Star Wars is profoundly enchanted in this sense, quite apart from the existence of supernatural Force powers. Take that stuff away, it’s still enchanted. The manichaean good-vs.-evil of the plot structure is enchanted.
By the same token, you could write a disenchanted version of Star Wars that still included force powers – just have people stop treating it as something mystical, and submit the force to rational cost-benefit analysis. Nobody wants to watch that movie, but you could make it. George Lucas kind of did make it! Midichlorians!
Rey buying the lightsaber feels wrong in just the same way that midichlorians feel wrong. And that’s why it’s important that all of these transfers of ownership that we’re talking about here work through a logic of gift and inheritance. It preserves the sense of a fairytale world (in which, of course, objects are never merely objects – they always have a quasi-fetishistic deeper meaning, and often seem to carry, if not quite a will of their own, some extension of the storyteller’s will, which occasionally causes them to behave in ways that are not, strictly speaking, realistic).
Rosenbaum: The final step of a Jedi’s training is building his or her own lightsabre – this is what Vader is referring to in Jedi when he notes that Luke has got a new one rather than the old one that Obi-Wan gave to both of them (and which Rey discovers). So inheritence is one thing – a person can deserve a lightsabre – but earning it is something else. Something we do also see in Star Wars, albeit not onscreen. Between Empire and Jedi, Luke constructs his own lightsabre, which is what completes his training as a Jedi. Han won the Millennium Falcon in a card game – that’s what causes him to “deserve” it – but what made him *earn* it was all the modifications that he and Chewie made to it over the years. He says as much to Obi-Wan and Luke in Mos Eisley. Similarly, Rey deserves that ship in a way that none of its other “owners” between Han and her did – but she still hasn’t quite earned it. Han and Chewie just take it back from her and we all recognize that that’s perfectly correct.
Actually this might also answer a question I had about why the motif of dismemberment is so absent in TFA. In the Original and Prequel Trilogies, dismemberment symbolizes a loss of identity – it’s a reminder of the physicality of a person that the Philosophy of the Light Side is supposed to teach its followers to transcend. When Vader kills Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan ought to have been grusomely bisected, Darth Maul-style, but in fact his body vanishes completely because he is so attuned to the will of the Force.
Nobody that I can recall loses any limbs in TFA. Because the previous movies were about the risk of people treating other people like objects, which is the path to the Dark Side. This one is the reverse: people who have been objectified by external systems are learning how to enforce their own agency by rejecting those systems’ expectations of them.
Stokes: And they accomplish this through the acquisition of objects. But not through the purchase of objects. It both is and is not like the scene in Pretty Woman where she gets dolled up and goes to the opera.
Ben Adams: Is this generalizable? Among fictional objects, can we set up a hierarchy of least->most powerful, based on how the object was obtained. With items bought for cash (or Galactic Credit) being the least powerful?
Fenzel: And the most powerful being things you ask Santa Claus for, but he refuses to give you, until, following your despair, and following even most of Christmas itself, your cruel but sympathetic parents reveal hidden behind a niche in the wall.
“This lightsaber is your destiny. It has been calling for you all these years.”
“Really?” *touches it*
“YOU’LL SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT.”
Fenzel: Here’s an attempt:
- Adult gets from boss at work
- Adult buys at store and everybody knows about it
- Child gets from teacher
- Child has in room but doesn’t mention origin
- Given by sibling or friend to child or adult
- Adult buys at store and it’s secret
- Child buys at store and everybody knows about it
- Child steals from sibling or adult
- Child buys at store and it’s secret
- Adult buys at store and it’s secret
- Teenager buys at store and it’s secret
- Teenager acquires from sibling or friend
- Teenager steals from parent
- Child gets from Santa Claus
- Buried treasure or similar
- Stolen from dying person
- Inherited or found from dead stranger
- Owned by someone else and despised
- Found in a temple to a false god
- Inherited or found from dead parent
- Sent by a dead parent or friend to be delivered later (excludes time travel)
- Brought by a pet
- Sent by a dead parent or friend to be delivered later (includes time travel)
- Given by dying parent or sibling
- Left behind by significant person many years ago
- Found in a temple to a real god
- Owned by you and preserved through the apocalypse
- Left to you by a dead person whom to you is a stranger but in the context of the story is a secret parent, and the giving is a revelation
- Things you ask Santa Claus for, but he refuses to give you, until, following your despair, and following even most of Christmas itself, your cruel but sympathetic parents reveal hidden behind a niche in the wall.
Oh, “things you possess because you accidentally murdered the person who previously owned them” should be in there, and a slot or two more powerful than “things you possess because you murdered the person who previously owned them on purpose.”
That could probably be reordered and refined quite a bit
“Left by you, in the past, for yourself in the future.” should be on the list, well below “Left by you, in the future, for yourself in the past.” As should “Given to you by a vaguely creepy stranger as a moral lesson.”
Stokes: That’s a great list. But I think you reversed yourself on the past-future business at the end there.
Left by you, in the past, for yourself in the future: a 25 year savings bond.
Left by you, in the future, for yourself in the past: BILL: “After we get out of this, we’ll use the time machine to come back and hide the key in the cell!” TED: “Excellent!”
I know which I would rather have.
And I would add right at the end of the list, “Built in a cave out of a pile of scraps/Forged in the fires of mount doom.”
Matt Belinkie: You think? Like, the first Iron Man armor is the MOST significant way that a character can get a thing?
Stokes: It’s the most significant way that a person can get Iron Man armor. That suit will never work as well for anyone else as it will for Tony Stark. Same with the One Ring: you could list that up there a dozen times (won in a game of skill, chopped off a dude’s hand, given as a birthday present, etc.), but it is a more powerful ring when Sauron has it because he made it himself.
Rosenbaum: Iron Man beats Stane in the first movie precisely because Stane used a copy of Tony’s invention. He didn’t build it or earn it, so he couldn’t use it as well as Tony could use his own.
Belinkie: This list in itself is a whole article. But I’m gonna need to see examples for some to understand your reasoning. How is something given by a symbolic parent more powerful than something given by a real parent?
Aside about the Christmas Story thing. There is a Christmas Story stage musical that’s actually very cute. Took Oliver one year. It’s in general a little more heartfelt than the movie, which soft pedals the sappiness. In the musical, the adult narrator is an onstage character, watching the action and occasionally stepping forward to explain things. The moment where the kid gets the BB gun, he stops the action and steps forward and says something like, “That was the best present I ever received. How could it not be? My old man gave it to me.” And I swear, people were sobbing. (Adult narrator was played by the dad from the Wonder Years when I saw it, and he killed it.)
Fenzel: I don’t think in our culture children are generally depicted as respecting and revering their parents unless those parents are dead, secret, symbolic, distant, or otherwise alienated. It’s partly a holdover from Dickens, is my guess. And part of anti-broccoli Nickelodeon culture. An object from a Dickensian pseudo-parent is powerful because it addresses the need created by the parent’s absence. And that need has power.
I don’t think Iron Man’s suit is that powerful. Not as powerful as, say, Superman’s cape and unitard, which is a gift from both dead and symbolic parents combining forces. Also the BB Gun is too high on the list, but that’s the joke I guess. In a Christmas story, the leg lamp is arguably a more powerful object than the BB gun.
Stokes: I can think of a bunch of examples of kids depicted as respecting/revering their parents, but in those cases there isn’t a significant object that’s associated with the parent. There’s just the parent. (It’s like: ok, Scout, you get to have your father’s love. And you, Mary, get to have the key to the secret garden.)
Belinkie: I feel like Aragorn’s sword is crazy high on that list. It’s a sword with a legendary history. It has to be remade in a legendary way. It is given by a parent-like figure. And there’s a prophecy that only he can wield it. It combines everything.
Fenzel: That’s the point of it, right? It’s supposed to be this incredibly loaded symbol. Although it does feel a little forced and awkward. Relative to the One Ring or things that matter more in the context of what happens to characters we care about. Probably because the whole backstory of Aragon’s family is kind of peripheral and confusing.
You could probably add “Something with a significant origin that is on this list, but with an explanation and context that are needlessly confusing” somewhere in the middle of the pack.
But yeah, I don’t stand by this ordering. I was just brainstorming. It could be fixed a lot.
Stokes: That’s not the point I was trying to make about the Iron Man suit. Think of the actual power of the thing as a constant, and the manner of the thing’s acquisition as a multiplier. (And wait, are Superman’s cape and unitard actually powerful? Only as symbols. Well, I guess they’re super durable. But it’s not like Superman stops being able to fly when he takes them off. The Iron Man suit is definitely more powerful, as an object, than Superman’s cape.)
Belinkie: Stokes is onto something – the image of Tony Stark literally forging this thing is powerful. It matters that he made it himself in a moment of inner struggle and transformation.
Fenzel: Yeah, by powerful here I mean more the enchanted power than the disenchanted power – the power kept on our side of the fourth wall. As in seeing Superman put on his costume has an effect in the story that is informed by where it comes from and what it means, but not really what it does. The reverence for the Red Rider BB Gun has little to do with its powers of ocular annihilation. Although the danger is an element.
Like when Bill and Ted leave the keys to the jail cell for themselves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure by time traveling back to the events of the movie from after the movie is over. This imbues them with a power of enchantment beyond just being keys.
I was also thinking about the teenager finding the parent’s pornography as similar to Rey finding the blue lightsaber, but of a different order and scope.
Stokes: Maz Kanata: “It was calling out to you!”
[She offers the box to Rey. Rey opens it, and pulls out a rolled up copy of Swank.]
Stokes: In re: enchanted vs. disenchanted, narrative significance vs. practical significance: one of the things that’s interesting about all this is that we expect it to be both things simultaneously. Yes, the keys in Bill & Ted have a meaning-for-us which has to do with their narrative significance, which is unrelated to their function as keys. And yet, if it came down to an unlocking contest, we’d expect those narratively imbued keys to perform their practical function better. This came up back in one of the FFVI podcasts, actually: there’s a sword that Cyan gets late in the game which is made out of the soul of his dead wife, or something like that. And then, maybe an hour of gameplay later (depending on your sequence), he finds a more powerful sword sitting in a random chest. This feels really dumb! We would intuitively expect the narratively important sword to be the most powerful sword.
Fenzel: Right! The Dragonball Z fan in me has spent a lot of time thinking about power levels. When the story is really good, the power levels on our side of the fourth wall reflect the power levels on their side of the fourth wall in some way, but not exactly. As in, Goku becomes a Super Saiyan, and that’s powerful. It also can’t happen until his best friend dies. Later, Gohan becomes Super Saiyan 2, and that’s more powerful. But he doesn’t truly achieve it until he is visited from the afterlife by the spirit of his very recently deceased father. Vegeta and Trunks also achieve higher power levels than Super Saiyan, but they don’t quite do the job in-story, which lines up with the fact that they weren’t earned in as significant a way, from our perspective, on our side of the wall. They are anti-climax; less powerful in both respects than one might think. Later, Goku achieves Super Saiyan 3, but he declines to use it to solve the problems of the story, so it doesn’t really feel more powerful to us in certain ways. This is partly because of its context (it is meant for the world of the dead). Gotenks does the same thing, and the point of all this is decadence and parody: the mock epic is less powerful than the epic. The child fantasizes about how the parent might act but doesn’t have anything handed down authentically to go from.
Part of why non-canon Dragon ball gets so stupid is that this consonance is not attended to. The power ups and power downs stop being tied to generational stories and narrative significance. Like Super Saiyan 4 is supposed to be the most powerful of all, but Goku gets it when the Elder Supreme Kai pulls a tail out of his butt with pliers. It doesn’t mean anything. And so it feels superficial and phoned in and not really strong.
Stokes: Yes! And this is why kung fu movies are so much more satisfying than watching ultimate fighting: because in the real world, how hard you can hit someone has eff-all to do with narrative concerns.
Fenzel: Bridging this gap is basically what sportswriting is. There’s a player’s in-universe batting average, and their meta-narrative batting average.
Stokes: Or When We Were Kings (which is basically sportswriting).
Fenzel: Or any conversation where anybody talks about Ali fighting Tyson, or any athlete from a previous generation fighting an athlete from a subsequent generation. Or chess player. Even when the standards of competitiveness clearly rise, we can’t or don’t want to let go of the sense that the narrative significance of a competitor’s legacy would inform their performance in-contest.
Like you could hit better if you had Babe Ruth’s bat.