Ends of Eras

Part of the journey is the end.
—Tony Stark

“The Saga Comes To An End”

We have a lot of extended stories coming to a close this year.  At this writing, eleven years of Marvel Cineverse movies have concluded with Avengers:  Endgame.  It won’t by any means be the last Marvel movie—we’ll see many of these characters again—but the overall story that began with Iron Man in 2008 has reached its end.  The TV series Game of Thrones released its finale on May 19, 2019.  In December, we anticipate the conclusion of the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies (The Rise of Skywalker).

On the book side, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (she first appeared in 1992) arrived at a conclusion of sorts with Uncompromising Honor (2018).  There are plotlines still unfinished, and Honor herself may reappear in later stories, but it seems clear her personal narrative arc has closed.

Even a blog post by the FCC’s General Counsel, of all things, has given a nod to this convergence of endings.

I’m going to assume it’s coincidence that these sagas of different lengths are finishing up together.  It does seem like a good moment, however, to reflect on what the resolution of these stories says to us.

(Miraculously, this post seems to have managed to avoid any actual spoilers for Endgame.  But please note that the links, if you follow them, are full of spoilers.)

 “A really long story”

The fact that we have all these long-running series, by itself, brings up some topics that are familiar in this blog.  For instance, it confirms that readers and viewers of our own era are not as lacking in attention span as pundits might claim.  An article by Douglas Wolk, the weekend of Endgame’s release, was titled:  “Americans crave complex ideas.  Just look at the Marvel universe.”

Wolk credits Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, back in the 1960s, with bringing extended stories spanning multiple magazines to comic books.  He notes also that such vast tapestries draw us together by giving us shared topics to talk about:  “to be drawn into conversation to understand them better”—to share reactions, insights, theories about stories that “mean more to us together than alone.”  I can testify to this, as a veteran of many an animated office conversation on what was so good about Captain Marvel or whether people were satisfied with the ending of GoT.

A wide-ranging story also satisfies our appetite for visiting a fully-realized world.  This is the value of what Tolkien called “Escape” in his pivotal essay On Fairy-Stories—the refreshing sense of leaving our ordinary world temporarily behind to immerse oneself in a new and different world.  It was Tolkien who (in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings) gave his primary motive as “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story”—but who is also one of the great worldbuilders.

The Craving for Epics

But these aspects mostly reflect the sheer size of the saga.  More to the point, perhaps, is that many of us also share an appetite for what we might call the epic:  a mighty struggle in which one side is clearly fighting for something worthwhile, and gains some success, as distinct from a tragedy.

Not everyone has this taste:  some of us prefer more limited stories about individual people’s fates (for example, in the romance genre), or stories that disdain the whole good-versus-evil business as insufficiently gray.  And some massive sagas fit the epic pattern better than others.  Game of Thrones is notorious for its ambivalent characters and refusal to grant unambiguous victories.  Still, from what I hear, the finale did at least bring the Westeros civil war to an end, and (mirabile dictu) many of the more decent characters survived.

Mark Ruffalo (who plays the Hulk), discussing the Avengers movies, said:

You also see the power of storytelling.  One thing I think about these movies that’s really exciting is they’re forward-leaning in the narrative of good versus evil.  We’re able to transcend some of the divisive narratives that are happening now.  (Quoted in Anthony Brezican, “All for One,” Entertainment, April 19/26, 2019, p. 20.)

It’s fascinating to hear a good-versus-evil narrative described as “forward-leaning,” after so many years in which such stories have been derided as passé.  But the remark has further implications.  It matters how things come out in the end—good, bad, or mixed.  And this means there has to be an ending in which some kind of resolution occurs.

Letting a Story End

I can’t really evaluate a story until I’ve seen how it comes out.  I’ve seen stories that were pretty off-putting in the early stages, but managed to redeem themselves at the end.  And I’ve seen some that seemed promising, but ended in a way that ruined everything that had come before.  One is reminded of the ancient adage about a human life:  “Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known” (Sirach 11:28; Aristotle discusses a similar statement by Solon in Nicomachean Ethics I.10).  Since a person’s life is a story, the connection makes sense.

That a story needs an ending might seem a truism if it weren’t that we have lots of stories that don’t end.  For example, comic books and soap operas (“daytime drama”) go on indefinitely, as long as people are willing to read or watch.  The occasional subversion of this pattern is noteworthy for its rarity—for example, the story in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comic where a costumed hero called Jack-in-the-Box, himself a son who has taken on his father’s hero identity, deliberately trains a successor to take over the role (“Father’s Day,” in Astro City:  Family Album (1999)).

In more conventional literature and movies, we find other timeless, perpetual characters.  The irascible detective Nero Wolfe figured in tales spanning the period from 1934 to 1975, without major changes in his age or situation, despite the major changes in world events and American culture over that time.  The character’s fixity is actually kind of appealing; it seemed odd when a later Wolfe book written by Robert Goldsborough shows Wolfe’s sidekick Archie Goodwin using a computer in place of his trusty typewriter.  Similarly, P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster survived innumerable scrapes and confusions from 1923 through 1974, with similarly unsettling chronological consequences (Bertie encounters a protest march in one of the later books).  In the movies, James Bond has eternal life, though actors may come and go.

Dragonflight coverBut barring these iconic perennial characters, a series that goes on indefinitely without an ending—or past its ending—is in danger of becoming humdrum.  When Anne McCaffrey started her Dragonriders of Pern series in 1967, the charcters were fighting the periodically recurring scourge of “Thread,” but aspired to find a way to end it once and for all.  In All the Weyrs of Pern (1991), they actually accomplished that goal.  That wasn’t the end of the stories; almost twenty other Dragonrider books have been published since by McCaffrey and her children.  But I found that I lost a good deal of my interest once the driving force of the original plot ended.  It was always pleasant to visit Pern, but the motivation of an ongoing plot was absent.

This may be a personal predilection; it may account for why I have difficulty staying interested in a TV series for very long.  The exceptions occur where the ongoing character or story arcs are sufficiently compelling to keep me engaged.  The Good Place, for example, achieves this by turning into a quite different kind of story in each of the three seasons so far, but with continuing characters who still seem to be reaching toward an end.  Chuck succeeded in a somewhat similar way, but the original premise was clearly played out by the last half-season; it was a good thing the series ended when it did.  When even a major movie comes across as “just another episode,” that’s a buzz-killer for me.

Closure and Continuation

Theatre critic Ann Hornaday focused on the virtues of conclusion in an excellent article upon the release of Endgame.  One such virtue arises from the very existence of an overall arc, and the associated worldbuilding:  “When contemporary experience seems to be composed of narratively nonsensical shocks to the system, the attraction of coherent, well-constructed alternative realities cannot be underestimated.”  Moreover, a good long story can engender a powerful sense of fulfillment, of achievement, from the closure of an appropriate ending.  It’s worth keeping mind that the word “end” means not just where something stops, but also a goal toward which we strive.  A fitting close is a good thing even if the ending also involves dealing with death—“absence and interior loss,” as Hornaday puts it.

As noted above, the conclusion of an iconic hero’s story is unusual enough that to see such a character retire and reach an end is both somber and refreshing.  We hate to see them go, but if they’ve lived a full life, we feel a kind of elegiac nostalgia.

This works best when the world goes on, but new characters take over—just as in real life.  It won’t surprise anyone that some of the heroes in Endgame do reach their ends; others continue.  Honor Harrington retires, but her successors will carry on while she finally enjoys the fruits of a well-earned victory.  As readers and viewers, we ought to be willing to let a beloved character go.  This reluctant release may be echoed in the story itself.  When one of the characters in Endgame tells another that it’s okay for them to go, it reminded me of what I said to my own mother, at the hospice staff’s suggestion, when she was ready to die.

While we love our heroes, the hero’s journey does have an end (which need not be death; the cited Wikipedia page labels it “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”).  We need that fitting closure to make a good story.

Is it unrealistic to expect neat endings that wind up lives, or at least careers?  Not really.  The wise Sam Gamgee was right to suggest that the great stories never really end (The Two Towers, Book IV, ch. 8); and as Bilbo said, “the Road goes ever on” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, ch. 1).  But the episodes, the substories that make up those grand tales, do have their moments of closure.

We do achieve or complete things, sometimes.  We go through high school or college, and then graduate (mostly).  After a courtship, we marry—which starts a new story.  Elsewhere I’ve quoted Alasdair MacIntyre to the effect that in Jane Austen’s novels, marriage occupies the place of death in real life—an ending we don’t move beyond.  Yet we do move on; and the milestone event is no less an achievement because another phase of the story continues afterward.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”  We need both closure and continuation.

This duality is most prominent when one person’s arc winds down and others begin.  It’s not just one story with its phases and milestones, but a vast array of overlapping stories.  Everyone has a story, and they are all woven together.  “In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed” (Perelandra, ch.17).

So we celebrate the closing of these mighty sagas, and we look forward to the new stories that will follow them.

Advertisements

Temporary Death

Back from the Dead

Bringing back the dead is a tricky business, story-wise.  For a major character to die adds gravitas.  It gains our sympathy; it makes us take the story more seriously.

But in adventure stories, characters who die have a pretty good chance of turning up again later.  This has become such a convention that we are often adjured not to assume someone’s dead unless you actually see the body.

There’s a strong temptation for a writer to save a beloved (and sometimes lucrative) character; yet the return undermines the impact of the death.  Are there ways to manage that dilemma?

The White Rider

Gandalf faces Balrog with sword and staffThe theme of one who was dead who turns up alive has a very long history—as we may note particularly in this Easter season.  For the literary trope, however, I think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings as the the ur-example.  Gandalf’s loss is appalling for the reader, and his reappearance is a classic example of the sudden turn beyond hope that Tolkien called “eucatastrophe.”

LotR comes early enough in the history of modern high fantasy that it may have been unexpected, at that time, for a character to really die and then come back.  Merely apparent death is much more common—even in LotR.  An article I read once observed how frequently someone is thought to be dead in the course of the story.  For example, Aragorn thinks Frodo has been killed by an orc-spear in the Mines of Moria (Book II, Ch. 5).  Sam assumes Shelob has killed Frodo, when in fact the spider has merely put him into a coma (Book IV, Ch. 10).  Éomer believes Éowyn is dead, but when she’s borne back to the city she is found to be alive (Book V, Ch. 6).  Et cetera.

Gandalf the WhiteGandalf, on the other hand, really does die at the end of his extensive combat with the Balrog.  But this isn’t as fatal as it seems.  Gandalf is a semi-divine spirit, one of the Maiar, and his mission in Middle-Earth is not yet complete.  He says:  “Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done” (Book III, ch. 5).  The “naked” is not simply a bodily description.  In passing “through fire and deep water,” he has given up his old self, Gandalf the Grey, and become an elevated version, Gandalf 2.0, the White Rider.

This is perhaps one clue as to what makes a return from death succeed, in a narrative sense.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t trivial.  Gandalf’s being “sent back” is extraordinary, and it changes him in deep ways.  To my mind, this death-and-reversal add to the depth and power of the story.

The Descent into Routine

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  If the return is taken for granted, then we aren’t moved or edified by the dying.  We don’t believe it in the first place.  In fact, reading or watching a death we know is reversible tends to make us cynical.  The writers are playing on our emotions, and we feel manipulated rather than moved.

Batman and Wonder Woman mourn SupermanIn the 2016 movie Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Superman dies at the end.  Did anyone believe for a minute this death would last?  No one is going to kill off such an iconic character.  If nothing else (here’s the cynical part), the future income stream from Superman stories is an irresistible lure.  Just as with the comic-book “Death of Superman” sequence from which the idea was taken, I suspect my reaction was shared by many:  here’s a cheap trick to get our attention.

To be sure, there are some affecting moments in the transition from BvS to Justice League (2017), in which Superman is revived—partly because reviving him is arduous and difficult, as further discussed below.  But those moments are not easily attained.  The artifice is too transparent.

Westley recovers from death with Inigo and FezzikI have somewhat the same reaction, for a different reason, to The Princess Bride—one of the flaws in that admirable tale.  Goldman’s narrator makes a great deal out of telling his son (in the movie, grandson) that Westley dies (ch. 6).  Really.  He’s not faking.  And naturally, the boy is outraged.  The hero isn’t supposed to die!  Yet he did.  —But no, the author has tricked us.  Westley isn’t really dead.  Miracle Max tells us, “there’s different kinds of dead:  there’s sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead.  This fella here, he’s only sort of dead . . .” (ch. 7).

That’s cheating.  We may be willing to accept the trick in The Princess Bride because it’s already such a roaring stream of clichés, so enthusiastically devised and appreciated that we never do take the story quite seriously.  But we aren’t really moved.  Our appreciation is of a different order:  we’re laughing fondly at the author’s willingness to indulge with such unreserved gusto in the most absurd fairy-tale stereotypes and gimmicks.

If we’re commenting on Batman v. Superman, we really ought to say something about Avengers:  Infinity War/Endgame.  But it’s too soon—too many spoilers.  Maybe another time.

Variations

Incidentally, the routine return can apply to villains as well as heroes.  A hero’s recurring nemesis may also be an iconic character, and the fact that the nemesis keeps coming back is a convention we rather enjoy.  TV Tropes refers to it as “Joker Immunity.”  Superman’s Lex Luthor, Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom:  if any of them appear to be dead in the comic books, we can be pretty sure they’ll be back.  On the other hand, movie series don’t run on forever in the same way that comics series do.  The screen adapters of Spider-Man can thus afford to “expend” the Goblin, or Dr. Octopus, because they’re only going to make three or four films in a given series.  There isn’t time for repeated recurrences of an arch-enemy.

Doctor Doom is rescued by the Ovoids

On the other hand, it’s notorious that we hear Emperor Palpatine’s sinister laughter at the end of the most recent Star Wars IX trailer (4/12/2019). immediately following Luke’s voiceover line, “No one’s ever really gone.”  Some movie series do go on that long . . .

Once revival has become routine, it’s a noteworthy exception when an author is willing to let a main character go permanently (Killed Off For Real; see a list of film examples, and also the trope Deader Than Dead).  J.K. Rowling, for example, killed off Albus Dumbledore for good, well before the end of the Harry Potter saga.  Veronica Roth’s Divergent series allows the heroine herself to die at the end, though this seems to have been omitted from the corresponding movie.

In Star Wars, the regular appearance of “Force ghosts” provides a sort of compromise.  The fallen heroes don’t come back to life, but they do hang around to provide advice, commentary, and snarky explanations.

The Search for Spock

Let’s return to an instance where a temporary death does work to see if we can determine what makes that possible.

Spock's death in Star Trek 2Along with LotR, my other go-to example is Star Trek II:  The Wrath of KhanWrath is generally considered to be among the best of the Trek movies (for example, here, here, and here), and a sizable part of its draw is the death of the beloved Spock.  Like Gandalf, Spock perishes heroically, subjecting himself to a fatal overdose of radiation to make a crucial repair that saves everyone else on the Enterprise.  And his loss is fully realized by his long-time friends, along with the new characters we’ve just gotten to know.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but Kirk’s eulogy at Spock’s funeral has always struck me as a genuinely moving moment.

At the same time, there was no doubt in my mind when I first saw the film that Spock would be back.  The whole atmosphere of the final scenes in Wrath—hopefulness so intense you can almost taste it—lent itself to anticipating eucatastrophe rather than a final end.  The shiny “casket,” nestled in the burgeoning growth of the Genesis planet, seemed to promise some kind of resurrection.  What made us feel Spock’s death so effectively, even though we were morally certain we’d see him again?

Part of it is that these characters had had such a long history together.  We’d seen their relationship grow over three TV seasons, and we’d been recently reminded of that history in the first Star Trek movie, flop though it was.  To the numerous loyal Trek fans, at least, these were truly iconic characters, and we were emotionally invested in them.  The history had built up a kind of emotional potential that the death sequence could draw upon.

Spock's funeralEven more important, the other characters were visibly affected.  They didn’t know Spock would be back.  We grieved for Spock through his friends.  The screenwriter and director wisely gave us enough time, in the final sequences, to absorb and appreciate that grief with the other characters.  I suspect this, more than anything, is what makes a provisional death effective:  a powerful portrayal of other people’s response to the loss.

Finally, the heroism of Spock’s final acts, and the overwhelming sense of something wonderful that’s been achieved on the Genesis planet at the end, lend depth and further feeling to the event.  We respect his sacrifice, and it means something.  The hope for new life doesn’t necessarily erode the gravity of the death.

Moreover, the sequels navigated the difficulty pretty well.  Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock did unavoidably undercut the resolution of Wrath a bit.  The Genesis planet is unstable; it isn’t quite as wonderful as we thought.  The adversaries in Search are much more mundane than Khan (who had his own history with the Enterprise crew).  And the death isn’t permanent.

Yet the complex, gradual, effortful reconstitution of Spock manages to become something wonderful in itself, rather than just a reversal of the loss.  The notion that Spock’s katra or spirit survives adds an element of the mystical or sublime to the science-fiction texture of the series.  The notion that it survived in McCoy’s head gave the situation humor and irony.  The unconventional expedients the Enterprise crew must use to get McCoy back to Genesis provide both adventure and a maverick sense of, well, enterprise.  Meanwhile, the scenes of Spock’s body re-growing from childhood to adulthood as accelerated by the Genesis effect have their own sense of wonder.

Spock is rebornWhen the Vulcan ceremony of reintegration rejoins Spock’s spirit with his body, the impact of the result is heightened by the fact that Spock is clearly changed by his passage through death.  (The final film of the trilogy, Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, continues this theme by showing Spock visibly struggling to get used to life again.)  The return, which takes two whole movies to complete—a quest in itself—is far more than a handwave.  It’s an achievement.

Conclusions

From these examples I think we can pick out some factors that help a story to make good use of a temporary death, as opposed to a routine we-know-they’ll-be-back.

  • The death is heroic; it means something.
  • We care about the lost person—and so do the other people in the story.
  • The other characters experience the death fully, even if the reader or viewer knows that it won’t be permanent.
  • The deceased character is absent long enough to let the loss sink in.
  • The deceased character earns the return. It doesn’t come easy.
  • The returned character is transformed in some way by the experience.

When an author can incorporate these elements, we the audience can extend our “willing suspension of disbelief” to sympathize with the rest of the cast in their loss, even when we are aware in propria persona that the beloved dead aren’t gone for good.