[Editors note: this post contains plot spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens]

Screenwriters love superpowers — a category in which I include magical powers — because they can make those powers wax or wane according to the needs of the plot at any given moment. This point is more interesting than it might at first seem.

A classic example: in The Return of the King, when the Witch-King is able to shatter Gandalf’s staff with a mere thought. Leaving aside the question of why he wouldn’t just kill Gandalf on the spot if it were that easy, I’ll just note that this is the same guy who with four other Ringwraiths was no match for Aragorn on Weathertop. Now, his power had been increasing since then, but that’s a pretty darn rapid and pretty darn massive increase in power; and hadn’t Gandalf himself also passed through death and returned with renewed strength of his own? No, the whole thing makes absolutely no sense: it loks like Peter Jackson deciding that it would be really cool at that point if Gandalf were helpless before the Witch-King and just about to be killed but then something else happens and the Witch-King flies away without doing anything to Gandalf and wow, wasn’t that a close shave for the old wizard? Making absolute nonsense of the whole concept of “powers” was just a price he had to pay for that cool moment.

Similarly, in The Force Awakens we have in Kylo Ren a massively capable and ruthless controller of the Force who was trained as a Jedi by Luke Skywalker himself and therefore is clearly one of the world’s great masters of the lightsaber — but here he can just barely hold his own against two people who have never held such a weapon before. Again, the simple exigencies of plot and action are at work here: we wouldn’t have much of a story if such scenes unfolded plausibly.

The same storytelling logic plays out, as Brad Bird brilliantly shows in The Incredibles, when villains start “monologuing.” Lucius (AKA Frozone) explains:

Lucius: So now I’m in deep trouble. I mean, one more jolt of this death ray and I’m an epitaph. Somehow I manage to find cover and what does Baron von Ruthless do?
Bob: He starts monologuing.
Lucius: He starts monologuing! He starts, like, this prepared speech about how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his, yadda yadda yadda. Yammering! I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won’t shut up!

This becomes a theme throughout the movie, which (of course!) indulges in the very narrative tic it so brilliantly makes fun of. Because deploying stuff like this — putting your beloved characters in impossible spots before you rescue them — is just how you sustain tension, how you keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

But maybe there’s something else at work here too. Beyond a need to sustain narrative tension, what do all these moments have in common? It seems to me that they all say, in their varying ways, that power as such, power as we typically define it, isn’t the whole story.

“The race is not [always] to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” saith the Preacher — to which Damon Runyon famously replied, and with some justification, yeah, but that’s the way to bet. It is, if you’re a betting person. Nobody smart would have bet on David against Goliath. But sometimes — not often, but sometimes — longshots come in. And if you hang around long enough, or read enough history, you start to notice that they tend to do so at curiously opportune times. Not often, mind you, not often enough that everyone will see a pattern, but … sometimes the battle is not to the strong; sometimes overwhelming force is defeated. Occasionally it plays a role in its own defeat, by trusting too much in itself — counting on, calculating by, force only — never suspecting that there may be powers at work other than those of strength, skill, numbers.

And that’s what we find buried in so many of our popular stories, stories that arise from the general human sense of things, even if they get taken up by individual authors or managed by vast rapacious corporations: the suspicion that there’s a reason why the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Maybe even a reason that the cynical old Preacher didn’t imagine, since he credited the defeat of the powerful to “time and chance.”

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings — setting aside Peter Jackson’s — Gandalf tells the history of the Rings of Power, and especially of the Great Ring made “to rule them all,” and explains that that Ring was constantly striving to get back to its maker, Sauron. And yet it did not make its way to him. Instead it came to Bilbo. And behind that curious event “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.” This is not putting the matter very plainly at all: Gandalf’s use of the passive voice is telling. It is perhaps, even for him, just a suspicion — little more than the reading of hints, in the long historical record he knows so well, that Sauron’s bet on the inevitable victory of Power just might not pay off; that perhaps there is something more moving in the world, something that does not work through the Great but through the small, the weak, the unknown, the neglected, the utterly marginal.

Merry Christmas, everyone.