Sunday, June 16, 2024

Breaking Ranks and the Cycle of Violence

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Separated at Draft: M’gann M’orzz from Supergirl and Finn from The Force Awakens

Characters can give you déjà vu. You see them on screen and something about their arc or their backstory strikes you as familiar. You think to yourself, “Hey, haven’t I met you somewhere before?” When two characters (or stories) from different fandoms might as well be the same, we call that ‘separated at draft.’ Like Gene Belcher from Bob’s Burgers and Steven Universe or Asami Sato and Kate Kane.  They’re like twins (or triplets) separated at the drafting board instead of at birth, get it? (Shut up, we have great metaphors.)

Just last week, one of my friends pointed out that M’gann M’orzz was Supergirl’s Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was an offhand comment, but it stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was right. M’gann and Finn were basically the same character. I grew even more excited to see M’gann’s arc this season. See, I loved Finn in The Force Awakens (I like him even more than Rey, for whom I have a shit ton of love), so seeing him/his arc brought to life in my current favorite TV show gave me such joy that I needed to share it. Though filled with brokenness and pain, their stories are powerful and uplifting, which is exactly what we need these days. So without further ado, I give you the next installment of Separated at Draft: M’gann M’orzz and Finn.

Skilled Fighters from A Militaristic Society

Beyond sharing an affinity for the color white (white Stormtrooper armor, the White Martians), the societies that raised M’gann and Finn are brutal and militaristic. The First Order and the White Martians raised them to be emotionless, ruthless killers. J’onn claims he has never known a White Martian to show mercy. One might even call what was done to them brainwashing, especially in Finn’s case. But even M’gann was brainwashed in a way. So far as we know it, there were literally no other perspectives but the one her culture had regarding the inferiority of the Green Martians. She was brainwashed by default.

The assumption of superiority is another aspect that these societies share. Both the First Order and the White Martians believe themselves to be inherently better to others and sought to either control or destroy those who did not agree. The militaristic hegemony and totalitarianism apparent when we first meet the First Order differs on the surface from the instinct toward racial destruction that we see from the White Martians. At the same time, the First Order built a sun destroying monstrosity that wiped out a planet, so both seem perfectly willing to use planet-wide destruction and genocide to achieve their ends. That both are coded with Nazi-like features is no accident.

This scene from The Force Awakens is shockingly similar to a German propaganda film from WWII.
This scene from The Force Awakens is shockingly similar to a German propaganda film from WWII (see this Slate article for more details).

Within these societies, both M’gann and Finn are trained to kill and are highly skilled. From the novel Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka, we learn that Finn was top of his class. He wasn’t just any Stormtrooper, he was the Stormtrooper, the perfect specimen of Stormtrooper training under Captain Phasma. We don’t know much about M’gann’s training or background from Mars yet, but I imagine she wasn’t any old fighter. I assume her story to J’onn was actually about herself, so she was a guard at one of the concentration internment camps. Moreover, it takes skill not to kill someone in a brutal cage match, especially if the other party is going all out. She holds her own against J’onn, who is no mean fighter himself.

On top of their martial skills, both M’gann and Finn are heirs to powerful abilities that can be used for good or ill. I am a huge proponent of Force Sensitive Finn (you can pry this from my cold, dead hands), meaning that the awakening Kylo Ren felt was probably Finn’s (though perhaps Rey’s as well). Like Rey, Luke, Leia, and Kylo himself (maybe even Han?), Finn must choose which path he will follow: Dark side or Light side. If I’m right about him having the Force, he must now choose how to wield it. M’gann has superhuman powers of flight and strength and can shape-shift as well. As we saw when the White Martian took over Senator Crane, such powers could be used to destroy humanity and other enemies of the White Martians. For both, the powers themselves are neutral, how they use them will determine their fates.

Broke Ranks When Faced with Committing Violence

When faced with the ‘necessity’ of acting within their training and hurting real, living beings, neither could stomach it. Despite their training, they broke ranks. Again from the novel Before the Awakening, we know that Finn hesitated when given the chance to hurt his own fellow trainees. While he did well in simulations, he already evinced a compassion that made Phasma uneasy. Then, when thrown onto a battlefield, Finn is unable to kill the civilians as ordered. Him breaking Poe free and flying away was the last step of a process already in motion for Finn, a disquiet with causing physical harm that could not be ignored.

Likewise, M’gann refused to kill when presented with an order from her superiors.

“One day, a White Martian broke rank and refused a kill order…Uh, she was…different. She smuggled me off, helped me off-world. I never looked back.”—M’gann M’orzz, 2.04 “Survivors”

In retrospect, she’s clearly talking about herself. We also need to remember that, according to both J’onn and M’gann, she was at the worst of the internment camps. A place where guards would shoot people at random to cause panic and laugh as the Green Martians trampled each other. A place where the Green Martians were treated like animals. Rather than dehumanize (demartianize?) them as the rest of her culture did, M’gann refused. Like Finn, she chose to flee rather than commit violence against others.

Subsequently Aligned with the Former Enemies

Upon becoming a hunted refugee on a different planet, both characters align themselves with their former enemies. Make no mistake, neither chose just a different culture from their own, they chose the one that was in fundamental opposition to their own society. M’gann could have picked literally anything else. She’s a shape-shifter. She could have lived as a human on Earth like J’onn did, only she wouldn’t have had to pretend to be a specific individual. She could have blended into human society, disappeared into the masses. Or, if she wanted to live as an alien, she had every other race to choose from. Instead, she chose to become a Green Martian.

Likewise, Finn had an array of options to choose from when he told Rey who he was. Even limiting it to potential careers or backgrounds that would have gotten him trouble with the First Order, he had options. He could have said he was a smuggler or a pilot/crew member on a ship that drifted too far into First Order space and saw things he shouldn’t have. He could have said he was a potential recruit who changed his mind or that his family was being hunted by the First Order for some reason. Instead, he chose the Resistance. He could have just been honoring Poe (and I’ll get to that), but I think there’s more to it.

Think about it. They both were members of a martial society with a clear enemy; both of them broke ranks. It isn’t just that they perceive themselves as standing apart from their home culture, it’s that they see themselves as fundamentally in opposition to it. They both chose to say they were the literal enemies of their society of origin because they see themselves as enemies. Not just defectors but antagonists. It would be like a KGB officer in the Cold War breaking ranks and subsequently identifying as American whenever asked. It isn’t just “I don’t belong there” but “I belong with the other team.” Not just “I am an outcast” but instead “I am an enemy”.

I was tempted to argue that M’gann perceives herself as victimized by her society in some way, which is why she chooses a Green Martian identity. However, upon further reflection, I see it not so much as claiming a persecuted status as an enemy status. She could be hunted down and killed in the same way that the White Martians hunted and killed the Green Martians. Comparing her story to Finn’s makes this distinction clearer, as his choices are much more obvious about claiming enemy status. The First Order isn’t persecuting the Resistance so much as they are at war with them. But to both the First Order and the White Martians, the ‘other side’ is the enemy to be destroyed. A brainwashed former soldier taking up the other team’s mantle is thus defecting to the enemy.

Honoring the Dead

One could even say they are both honoring, memorializing, and grieving some one/thing by their choices. M’gann believed all the Green Martians extinct. What better way for her to show she grieved for them and was ashamed of what her society had done to them than to be one of them on Earth? In this way, M’gann is not so different from J’onn. Both feel responsible for the deaths of others (in M’gann’s case, an entire race) and cope with that by taking on the guise of the people they feel responsible for. J’onn feels responsible for Jeremiah’s death, and quite possibly even for Hank’s. By taking on Hank’s identity and working to transform the DEO, J’onn honors Jeremiah.

Are you sure, M'gann?
Are you sure, M’gann?

M’gann likely has an even more profound sense of guilt and shame because her race completely destroyed another. Alongside perceiving herself as an antagonist to her home culture, then, is the same impulse that drove J’onn to choose Hank’s identity: the mixture of guilt and grief transformed into honoring the dead in whatever way they can. A way of saying, “I will not forget what has been lost.” Although she claims to want to forget, M’gann living and fighting as a Green Martian would be a constant reminder of where she came from and who she is.

Calling herself a Green Martian also seems to be a form of self-flagellation, born of her guilt as well as her desire to honor the dead. This hits home even more so with respect to her choice to join the alien fight club. She’s fighting as survival, but not to make money. She’s punishing herself for surviving by forcing herself to fight over and over again, as J’onn points out. What J’onn fails to recognize, though, is that she doesn’t just have survivors guilt, she has the guilt of being one a White Martian. She, a White Martian, survived when all (but one, as she now knows) of the Green Martian’s didn’t.

Likewise, Finn takes up the mantle of being ‘with the Resistance’ as a way to honor the sacrifice Poe made to save him. He saw what the First Order did to innocent civilians on Jakku and the subsequent brutal torture of Poe Dameron. When he meets Rey, Finn thinks Poe died in the crash. Finn must, at some level, feel responsible for Poe’s death and claims to be with the Resistance in his honor. I don’t know how much guilt plays into Finn’s choice to identify with the Resistance, but I believe there is some measure of it present. Grief and guilt often go together. He broke Poe free only to have him die on impact; that has to haunt him.

They differ in the extent to which they have internalized this experience, however. M’gann’s guilt is more profound than Finn’s. She’s had more time alone (300 years) for her grief, guilt, and ghosts to grow, morphing into the desire to punish herself. Finn meets Rey soon after defecting and since then has not had time to ruminate on his conscience. Perhaps that will come later, who knows. Star Wars is not known as a franchise that permits narratives space for characters to explore their trauma. For now, we can see how the choices these characters made kept the memory of a fallen person and culture alive when they seemed to have been destroyed.

Trying to Survive

Yet there’s a deeper level to their choices. I have seen Finn labeled a coward for running and hiding, for lying about being with the Resistance. I haven’t seen it yet with M’gann, but I’m sure there are those who would interpret her actions in the same way. For me, such an interpretation fundamentally misunderstands the stories being told. For, alongside a perception of being enemies with their former culture and wishing to honor the dead, taking up these identities is also a survival mechanism.

They are fleeing battlegrounds and internment camps, both scenes of blood, death, and violence. Both witnessed atrocities inflicted on innocents: civilian men, women, and children. M’gann fled the dehumanization of an entire race. Finn saw the aftermath of physical and mental torture. They both likely have PTSD.

Even their deceptions were a form of survival. They fear for their own safety. With rigid, militaristic backgrounds, they know that breaking ranks will be severely punished. Aligning themselves with the enemy means that they can find shelter among those with whom they now sympathize. Instead of being handed back to their regimes to face god knows what kind of punishment, they will be taken in and protected. They will not have to worry about being treated with suspicion or labeled a spy. Neither expected to meet another survivor or Resistance fighter so soon, or ever in M’gann’s case. Aligning with the enemy provided both a shield and a form of self-identification that neither character thought would hurt anyone.

In other words, the intent behind the deceit matters. Did they lie? Yes. But it was a lie told to protect themselves, a lie of survival. The intention is not to deceive manipulatively, but to cope with their trauma and survive long enough to get away from the forces that would destroy them, if found.

Choosing Light and Breaking the Cycle of Violence

M’gann M’orzz of Supergirl has a different backstory than her comic book counterpart, the latter of whom was sent away from Mars by her parents during the Civil War to protect her. This change creates a much more powerful narrative. She’s not just any refugee, she’s a defector—like Finn—from a brutal regime in which she refused to partake when given the order to kill. It’s a more complicated and emotionally painful story, but also a more moving one.

Alongside the latent narrative of escaping a militaristic society, their arcs resonate with stories of escaping an abusive home and breaking the cycle of violence, of choosing to flee violence rather than perpetuate it. They made difficult choices that their society would punish them for if they had been discovered. Yet, they chose them anyway. No one dragged or sent them away to protect them, no one berated them into leaving. They saw violence and brutality being carried out and fled. They chose compassion, empathy, light, and healing. They decided that the cycle would end with them, even if no one else chose the same. They chose to become better versions of themselves and not allow their futures to be defined by their violent heritages. They chose to get out.

The roads ahead of them are rocky, no doubt, as breaking the cycle is fraught with complications. It will not be easy, but I have faith in both of them. If I got what I wanted, Finn would become a Jedi and M’gann her own superhero. Finn would become a Jedi master with padawans of his own and M’gann would become a mentor for a Teen Titan generation of alien and metahuman heroes. If neither story gives me this, it will be my preferred headcanon because I love these characters and what they represent. They’re heroes already in my book, just for leaving and choosing to break the cycle. But, it would be wonderful if they got to have that choice fully realized and recognized by their new societies.

In light of recent events, Finn’s and M’gann’s stories are even more powerful. They’re a beacon of hope and light, a reminder that we have the power to break ranks with the traumas and brainwashing of our pasts. We can choose to be better than the violence of our upbringing and society. Like them, we can redeem ourselves with the choices we make to be better than what we were trained to be. We can transcend racial, ideological, religious, and cultural divides and find a home with those we once called ‘enemy.’

Images courtesy of CW and Lucasfilm.

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