Lost in the hubbub of The Force Awakens shattering box office records every day was the unique storytelling device JJ Abrams and his writing team devised to set up the final battle of the film. Abrams and cohorts borrowed one of the oldest storytelling techniques in professional wrestling in order to set up Kylo Ren versus the upstart Rey. The Force Awakens takes the squared circle concept of “selling” to a whole new heights, and delivered a duel that falls just short of the standard bearing fight between Darth Maul, Obi Wan and Qui Gon. Along with the idea of selling, Abrams borrows from both ring psychology and the idea of long term booking to set up the end of the film. Yes Virginia, there will be spoilers.
First a brief explanation on the arc of selling as it relates to professional wrestling. Selling refers to one of the performers entering a match with an injured body part or, during the course of that body part suffering an injury that can then be exploited by his opponent. When pro wrestling operates at peak storytelling, the art of selling is one of the key components of ring psychology-the idea that what you’re watching in the ring is an athletic competition between two or more persons looking to best one another in grappling. Wrestlers have sold injuries since the beginning of time. A year ago, Daniel Bryan headed into Wrestlemania with storyline busted shoulder, and head to overcome not only this injury, but a trio of opponents looking to exploit this disadvantage in order to take the world title home for themselves. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat had to overcome a busted trachea he suffered when The Macho Man Randy Savage drove the timekeeper’s bell into Steamboat’s windpipe. His “recovery” lasted months and the redemption narrative ended at Wrestlemania III when Steamboat rolled Savage up for the 1-2-3 and claimed the Intercontinental title in what many hail as the greatest professional wrestling match of all time.
One of the most enduring and best examples of selling and the art of long term storytelling is the build up between Dusty Rhodes and then NWA World Champion Ric Flair at Starrcade ‘85. Months before the matchup, Flair and his cohorts Ole & Arn Anderson cornered Rhodes in a steel cage and delivered the kind of beatdown that results in arrest for assault and battery in polite society. During the fracas, Flair busted Rhodes ankle my stomping on it from the top turnbuckle, putting the main event of ‘Cade in jeopardy. As Rhodes attempted to recover, a “doctor” created a gimmicked boot that offered his healing ankle the stability he’d need to compete in a match. Rhodes returned to television a few weeks before the Thanksgiving night event and delivered one of the most famous promos in wrestling history, “Hard Times”:
On the night of Starrcade, the dastardly heel Ric Flair did everything he could to reinjure Rhodes’ busted wheel. He did his best to soften Dusty up for the dreaded figure four leglock, while Rhodes acted as if he was being tortured like a witch during the Spanish Inquisition. Despite receiving the kind of pulverizing that would kill another man, and despite being able to barely stand on one good leg, Rhodes managed to tap into almost supernatural reserves and finally got the better of Flair, pinning him clean in the middle of the ring, and taking home the strap in front of a jubilant, panced Omni crowd.*
So how does a thirty year old wrestling match between the master of stylin’ and profilin’ and the self appointed American Dream relate to Star Wars? I’m glad you asked, or I’m glad you at least have read this far to find out. JJ Abrams sets up the battle between Rey and Kylo Ren beautifully, and he does so in a way that not only does it make sense for the young Force upstart to defeat a near Jedi Knight, but makes it the sole conceivable outcome.
It starts with Chewbacca and his bowcaster weapon. On two occasions, noted smuggler and raconteur Han Solo uses his Wookie life mate’s weapon. BOTH times Solo remarks how much he loves the weapon, and he seems almost awestruck by just how powerful it is. That seems a little odd, since the two have been paired together for over thirty years. Quibble aside, it clues the audience in on the importance of the bowcaster.
Abrams allows the audience to see just how powerful a weapon it is. On one occasion, Han Solo manages to blast a trio of stormtroopers off their feet and through an exploding wall, all off one shot. That’s a hefty amount of firepower for any weapon, but it’s got to be at least ten times more powerful than your standard issue Star Wars blaster pistol.
Later on, all that power is used against Kylo Ren. After Ren shoves a lightsaber through Han, dispatching his father for years of not sharing his personal collection of Smith’s vinyl with his son (I’m imagining that is the source of Ren’s angst), Ren receives a bolt right in his him from a pissed off and grieving Chewie. The shot manages to knock Ren down to one knee. This action in itself should remind the audience how powerful a badass Ren is. Remember, this same weapon blew up a damn wall and everyone near it, yet it barely manages to knock the Dark Sider off his feet. A lesser man would have had his leg shorn off at the hip, and the Star Wars saga would finally have the pirate villain it has so desperately needed.
Moments before Ren faces off with Finn, then Rey, we see something rare for the Star Wars series: blood. For a franchise that’s unafraid to have a travelling Death Star blow up untold billions of faceless people, there’s not a whole lot of “color”** in the films. Yet there’s Kylo Ren, pounding himself on his injured hip and allowing the blood to flow onto the white snow. In order to sell how badly he’s been injured, Ren is partaking in the age old wrestling tradition of “running the razor”, “drawing the blade,” or “gigging-getting that blood to flow in order to offer visual proof of sustained injuries.
After disposing of his father, Ren faces off with Finn. This choice marks another deliberate one by Abrams and company when it comes to selling the depth of Ren’s injuries. Finn’s a fantastic character, and John Boyega plays him with humor and emotional depth that makes the ex-stormtrooper as the heart of The Force Awakens. He’s also the least “special” of the new core four characters introduced to audiences. He’s lacks the flashy piloting skills of Poe Dameron. He shows no signs of being Force adept like Rey and he certainly hasn’t mastered Force abilities like Kylo Ren. Finn, is a grunt, a foot soldier trying his best to do the right thing while staying alive. He’s the character that needs to be rescued more often than not. More than once, he’s bested in combat, first by a walking stick to the face by Rey when he attempts to evade her, and later on by a fellow trooper when Finn attempts to wield a lightsaber.
Despite his limitations, Finn manages to hold his own against Kylo Ren for a short time, even managing to land a few offensive strikes of his own. Can you imagine Han Solo landing a left cross on Vader in battle? I didn’t think so. Yet Ren is hurt in a bad way and it has left him vulnerable, and it’s all out on the screen for audiences to see. Adam Driver is selling the extent of his character’s injuries in a masterful way, to the point where you can totally believe that Finn, a character whose defining characteristic to this point is getting his ass handed to him in combat, can hold his own for a brief time.
This sets up the clash between Rey and Ren and why it becomes believable for her to take Ren down. The Force Awakens does a fantastic job of establishing Rey’s badass potential. We know she’s had to survive on her own on a hostile planet, scavenging parts and relying on her wits and skill in order to get by. She’s shown as a skilled pilot who can scan a situation and make quick, smart decisions while keeping her crew safe. On at least two separate occasions-the escape from Jakku and closing the blast doors on the Ranthar’s tentacles-she’s saved Finn’s hide. Although she has just started to learn she is Force adept, she demonstrates a remarkable adeptness with them from the get go, to the extent that she can use the Jedi mind trick on a stormtrooper in order to escape captivity, while also being strong enough to block Ren’s attempts to mind control her.
By the time Rey faces off with Ren, her badass bonafides have been well established. Despite a lack of formal training, Rey crackles with untapped Force potential. On equal footing, she should be able to go toe to toe with Kylo Ren and hold her own for a short bit. However, this isn’t a fight between two equals anymore. Ren is already wounded and is a psychological mess still coming to grips with killing his father and shedding the last vestiges of the Light that lived within him. He’s lashing out like a tantruming child. Once Rey to recognizes how emotions weaken Ren, she gives herself over to the power of the Force. From that point on she takes down her adversary with a surgeon’s precision.
It’s classic professional wrestling: one opponent has exposed his injury to his rival, and the other takes him apart for it. Everything leading up to the moment Rey scars Kylo Ren’s face with her saber has been laid out with old school, sqaured circle storytelling precision. All that was left to do was print the money baby, which The Force Awakens has done, to the tune of a billion dollars in a mere ten days.
* Well, kind of. We can talk about “The Dusty Finish” another time.
**wrestlespeak for blood