Rings and Death Stars

Death StarWhy is Star Wars so fond of Death Stars?  What’s the mysterious attraction of this plot device?  (And no, it isn’t a tractor beam.)

Vast Plots and Concentrated Resolutions

The trouble with galaxy-spanning conflicts is that their resolution tends to be spread across years of time and vast regions of space, with armies of characters involved.  No single battle won World War II, though one can while away enjoyable hours debating the importance of this or that engagement.  No single hero won the American Revolution.

But in a story, we focus on certain characters, and a limited series of events.  We can’t cover every fight and everyone’s contributions (though some authors seem determined to  try).  This is so even in a series of doorstopper novels; it’s even more true of a two-hour movie.  How, then, can we give readers or viewers the satisfaction of seeing the overall conflict resolved?

One answer is to give up telling the whole story of the war or conflict, and just trace the tale of a few characters through the tapestry of events.  This is the technique of Gone With the Wind or Titanic, and it works very well.  We gain an appreciation of the whole through the experiences of a few people.  But we don’t get the additional satisfaction of seeing the entire campaign come to a climax.

To show the audience that climax, we need to focus the storyline so that the campaign can get resolved in a single concentrated set of actions, ideally carried out by a few individuals.  If we can rig things so that everything turns on a single crucial event, we can enjoy the overall resolution and enhance the achievements of Our Heroes.

Turning Points

Black hole wireframe, converging linesI don’t know what the best term is for this kind of crux or turning point.  I keep thinking of it as a “bottleneck,” or a gate that all the plot lines have to pass through—but “bottleneck” suggests a blockage, which isn’t the idea at all.  The military notion of a “choke point”—a narrow passage through which an armed force must pass—is closer.  Science fiction sometimes uses the term “Jonbar hinge” (named after an old SF story) for a crucial point at which the past can be changed—but that’s in a time travel context, rather than in the story’s present.

Whatever we call it, this is the action, almost always constituting the story’s climax, that solves the key conflict and lets everything wrap up neatly.  Concentrating the whole burden of the plot into one critical event has an effect similar to that of Aristotle’s dramatic unities of time, place, and action.

Let’s look at some examples.

Star Wars

In three of the Star Wars movies (IV, VI, and VII), blowing up one Big Object forms the climax.  We’re given to believe that if the original Death Star is operational, the Rebellion is doomed; destroying the Death Star doesn’t give the Rebellion a permanent victory, but at least the good guys can continue fighting.  The second Death Star’s destruction (Return of the Jedi) has more far-reaching effects, because the Emperor is on board and dies as part of the same action.  Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens is a similarly crucial danger.

There’s another “single point of failure” in the first prequel, The Phantom Menace.  The irresistible invading army of droids is run from a single control ship in orbit.  Once Our Heroes destroy the control ship, the droids all go dead.  In one stroke, the invasion is ended.  And we can still get home from the theatre before bedtime.

Geography and Control

Guns of Navarone, cannon & seascapeThis kind of blow-it-up plot isn’t restricted to F&SF.  Terrestrial geography makes it even easier to position a crucial fortress or facility in a key spot.  The World War II classic The Guns of Navarone turns on just such an installation.  The whole story is about destroying that one fortress.  (Well, and about the characters involved—but that’s true of most good fiction.)

In fact, it’s much harder to create a spatial choke point in featureless three-dimensional space—which is why the original Battlestar Galactica’s rip-off of Navarone (the double episode “Gun on Ice Planet Zero”) is so implausible.  The Wikipedia summary begins:  “Herded into a confined area of space by the Cylons” —but confined by what?  This is why space adventures typically turn on something other than geography.

Independence Day, crashed city destroyerA more mobile fortress can be a plot bottleneck if it serves a critical function—say, power or control.  We saw that in The Phantom Menace.  The same device is used in Independence Day, where everything depends on the immense mother ship.  You can use its computer system to lower the force shields on the city-destroyers thousands of miles away; and when Our Heroes deliver a single A-bomb to blow it up, all the other invader craft fail as well.  Convenient.

Hive Minds

If we’re dealing with an imaginary science fiction or fantasy opponent, we can also fall back on the classic trope of the hive mind—a culture centered around a single queen or other crucial individual, as in an ant colony.  Kill the queen, and the other ants are no longer a problem.  As TV Tropes observes:  “This plot device is handy as it allows a handful of heroes to win the war without having to depict them fighting off the entire enemy force.”

Star Trek’s Borg fall into this category—at least, as depicted in the film First Contact.  The Borg Collective has a Queen; destroying the Queen apparently disposes of the Borg menace as a whole.

One can see the intrusion of the hive-queen idea in the 1994 movie version of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters.  In the novel, Earth is invaded by “slugs” from space, which attach themselves to humans and take over their minds.  To defeat the slugs, the defenders use a disease that kills the slugs without immediately killing their human hosts.  But since this is a specific infection, not the generalized bacteria of The War of the Worlds, a massive operation involving thousands of people is required to distribute the disease to the whole slug-ridden population.  Heinlein specifically notes that even after the victory, “there is no way to be sure that the slugs are all gone” (ch. 35)—adding a sobering note of realism.

The movie, along with numerous other changes, introduces the entirely un-Heinleinian notion of a hive and a “mother slug.”  The whole slug invasion is kept so confined and centralized that a single quick operation can get them all.  The resolution seems too facile, too easy, especially if you’re familiar with the book.  (A fascinating article by screenwriter Terry Rossio details how the original story for the film, which stuck close to the novel, was hijacked by the Hollywood movie-making process and turned into something quite different.)

One Ring to Rule It All

Fall of Sauron (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien illustration by Ted Nasmith

The classic example of the crucial plot hinge is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien handles it well:  he builds up the Ring throughout the story to make it the one thing on which victory or defeat turns.  We learn that Sauron has placed much of his power in the Ring, which means that if it’s destroyed, much of his power will vanish.  The Tower of Barad-Dûr and other structures were made with the One Ring’s power, and fall with its destruction.  The Ringwraiths were given their power by Sauron’s control of the nine human rings through the One (“One Ring to rule them all”).  Sauron’s armies of orcs and humans are evidently held to a single purpose by Sauron’s will.  Sauron himself, and all his works, are destroyed with the Ring.  The groundwork for this crux has been laid so thoroughly that we accept the completeness of the destruction, and the victory, as the proper consummation of the epic narrative.

Tolkien, like Heinlein, adds a note of realism.  There will be orcs hiding in remote places long after the end of the War of the Ring, though they will never be the threat they were under Sauron.  And the end of Sauron is by no means the end of all evil, as depicted especially in the chapter titled “The Scouring of the Shire.”  The heroes’ victory is satisfying, but it’s not absolute.

The LotR climax is only one example of the trope in which killing the final enemy causes his works to fail as well.  This is the assumption TV Tropes calls “No Ontological Inertia”:  the villain’s creations depend on the villain for their existence.  Kill the Big Bad, and his lair collapses, his minions flee, and his deeds may be undone.

Conclusion

We see the Death Star-like plot bottleneck especially in fantasy and science fiction, where the author can design species and mechanisms to create the dependencies that make the plot solvable in a single event.  But it can also appear in mainstream works, as The Guns of Navarone demonstrates.

The choke point is a great plot convenience.  Real life tends to be messier.  For that reason, the author has to take care to make the bottleneck believable, so the result is a concentrated climax and not an artificial, deus ex machina solution.

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Of Amazons and New Gods

Spoiler Alert!

Wonder Woman is now out on DVD.  Still a great movie.  It’s pleasing to see that the DC Extended Universe (“DCEU”), or “Justice League Universe,” can produce a film on a par with the best of the Marvel movies.  I’m cautiously looking forward to Justice League, which opens just over a month from now (Nov. 17).  Among other things, I’m eager to see whether the group movie will be dominated by its immediate Wonder Woman predecessor, or by its less promising BatmanSuperman heritage.

On re-watching, I found myself thinking more about the theology of Wonder Woman, which enmeshes us in some complicated assumptions about the shared world of the DCEU and may give us some clues about JL.

Here Be Spoilers!Fallen Pantheon

Wonder Woman holds lightningAccording to the Amazons of Themyscira, the Greek war god Ares took umbrage when Zeus created human beings.  When Ares turned humans against each other, the other Olympian gods tried to stop him.  Ares killed the other gods, last of all Zeus, whose dying blow put Ares out of action for ages.  Diana kills Ares in the conclusion of WW.  That appears to eliminate all the Olympian gods.

As moviegoers, we readily accept this Greek-myth theology for purposes of the story.  It’s familiar territory, as mythology goes.  While we’re watching the movie, we don’t worry about reconciling Zeus’s creation of humanity with, say, Christian or Hindu or Muslim accounts, or even with the scientific account of human evolutionary origins.

One thing that makes the Greek gods (I keep typing “Geek gods,” which is peculiarly appropriate) easier to swallow is the fact that in WW the pantheon seems to have liquidated itself, unless you count the demigoddess Diana.  By the end of the movie, they’re gone.  We don’t need to worry about whether Athena or Poseidon will turn up in some other superhero story as a deus ex machina, or why DC universe inhabitants can’t call on Zeus to aid the victims of floods or hurricanes.

On the other hand, Justice League takes place in the same universe, which means the premises of WW are built in.  How literally are we to take them?  Do we have to assume that the Greek gods are (or were) the divinities of the DCEU?

Divinity and Technology

Sue Storm and the Watcher, comic panelComics have drawn from all sorts of Western mythologies, but they generally skirt the issue of whether any of these gods are God.  None of the deities of Greek/Roman or Norse myths have the classic characteristics attributed to God in the Western tradition:  omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence.  The issue is directly addressed so rarely that the occasional occurrence is rather startling.  In Fantastic Four #72 (March 1967, p. 13), for example, Sue Storm refers to “the all-powerful Silver Surfer,” and the Watcher responds:  “All-powerful?  There is only one who deserves that name!  And his only weapon . . . is love!”

Marvel dodged the theological question neatly when it brought Thor into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  He brings with him the Norse gods of Asgard, just as in the comics.  But Thor expressly tells us in his first movie that the magic or “divine” powers of the Norse gods are indistinguishable from advanced science (Clarke’s Third Law rides again).  This allows us to regard the Asgardians as just highly advanced creatures, using knowledge so far beyond us that it seems like magic, and bypass theological conundrums.

It’s certainly open to DC to take the same approach, if we don’t take the “Zeus created humanity” claim seriously.  Since the Olympians are (as far as we know) now absent, we can probably skate around that issue without trouble.

In fact, the absence of the Olympians may actually lead into the Justice League scenario, in an unexpected way.  The clue is that the full cast list for JL on IMDB shows “Steppenwolf” as the villain.  Surely the heroes are not clashing with the 1960s heavy-metal band by that name.  Who’s this mystery supervillain?

The Fourth World

Jack Kirby, famous for inventing many classic Marvel characters during his long partnership with Stan Lee, left Marvel for rival DC in 1970.  There he created, wrote and drew a new epic series, sweeping across at least five different lines of comic magazines, known as the “Fourth World.”  In this saga, loosely connected to the rest of DC’s continuity, Earth becomes a battleground for two groups of supernal beings:  the benevolent “New Gods” of “New Genesis,” and the corrupt denizens of its dark sister world “Apokolips.”  New Genesis and Apokolips exist in a parallel universe or “other dimension” reached via temporary portals called “Boom Tubes,” not unlike the Rainbow Bridge in the Thor movies.

Like Marvel’s Asgardians or DC’s version of Greek mythology, these beings are “gods” only in a limited sense.  They have powers beyond those of mere humans, but are far short of all-powerful.

What’s interesting for our purposes here is that Kirby conceived of the dualistic Apokolips-New Genesis regimes as arising after a kind of Ragnarok—the cataclysmic end of the world in Norse myth.  In fact, as Wikipedia’s discussion points out, Kirby’s New Gods grew out of an idea that he originated for Thor comics.  For purposes of this new DC-sponsored saga, it was disconnected from the mythology of Thor.  But the same basic trope remained:  a final battle in which both good and evil forces are destroyed, succeeded by some kind of post-apocalypse revival.  Here’s how Kirby presented it in Orion and the New Gods #2 (April-May 1971, p. 1):  “the holocaust which destroyed the old gods split their ancient world asunder — and created in its place two separate and distinct homes for the new forces . . .”

New Genesis and Apokolips

Apokolips and New Genesis

Steppenwolf and dog cavalry

Steppenwolf

The master-villain of the Fourth World saga is Darkseid, one of the best bad guys of all time.  Marvel’s character Thanos, who happens to be the master-villain of the MCU (appearing briefly in Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers movies), was based on Darkseid.  Darkseid’s uncle, and lieutenant, is one Steppenwolf, who in the Fourth World comics rekindles the conflict between Apokolips and the New Gods by killing the New Genesis leader’s wife (Orion and the New Gods #7, March 1972).  The opponents seen in this Justice League trailer are Apokolips parademons.

DC still owns the New Gods characters and plotlines.  It seems likely that Steppenwolf will be the main antagonist in JL with the still greater menace of Darkseid looming behind him, available to up the ante for sequels (as with Darth Vader and the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, or Ronan and Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy).

The New Twilight of the Gods

At this point, the fall of the Olympian gods in Wonder Woman begins to line up rather neatly with the Kirbyesque background that Justice League will draw upon.  Kirby thought of the Fourth World as following on a Norse-style Ragnarok.  But, as noted above, the Wonder Woman cosmogony provides the DCEU with a Ragnarok of its own.  Perhaps in the movie version of the mythology, the New Gods (and their opponents) arise from the twilight of the Olympian gods, not the Norse.

Darkseid, holding Earth

Darkseid

It’ll be intriguing to see how this background influences  the JL movie—if at all.  DC may decide to duck the whole matter and introduce Steppenwolf as a menace with an entirely different origin.  But my money is on a significant Fourth World influence on the upcoming film.  If the DCEU makes good use of Darkseid and the Kirby mythos, that ups the chance that we may see some seriously epic developments, after a rocky start, in the DC shared universe.

We’ll see shortly!