Changing the Past – Or Avenging It

Introduction

Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

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.

Higher, Further, Faster: Captain Marvel

Wild Loyalty

Captain Marvel poster with mottoI saw Captain Marvel twice in the first ten days of its March 8, 2019, U.S. release.  So, yeah, I liked the movie.  We had big hopes for this one—the first Marvel movie with a female lead, trailing DC’s Wonder Woman (2017) by a little less than two years.  I’d say those hopes were borne out.

But my reaction was even stronger than that.

Back in 1977, when I first saw the original Star Wars (A New Hope), I remember sitting around the next day and wishing I were back there again.  Not in the universe of the movie, which is dangerous and in many places rather unpleasant; but in the story.  Something about the overall effect of it, the ambiance, the mood or attitude, fired me with a kind of instant nostalgia for something I’d just seen.  A curious feeling.

Maybe that could be explained by the fact that I was young(er) and (more) impressionable at that time.  But the day after I saw Captain Marvel, here I was again with this goofy fanboy reaction.  It’s a kind of wild loyalty to a new discovery.  You want to tell people about it, you put up the wallpaper on your computer desktop, you hunt up the soundtrack.  And this at my supposedly-mature age.

So I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I find this movie so engaging.  Since at this writing CM is still in theaters, I’m going to avoid spoilers; this post should be as safe as any current movie review or the trailers.  If you haven’t seen the flick yet, I will say this:  There are two “stinger” scenes, just as you expect from a Marvel movie these days, one in the middle of the credits and one at the very end.  And be sure to pay attention to the Marvel logo that appears just before the movie starts:  it’s an “aww” moment for longtime fans.

New and Improved

Due to their long-running serial nature, and the reluctance of publishers ever to give up on a profitable property, comic-book characters tend to stick around indefinitely and, as a result, are prone to what TV Tropes calls Continuity Snarl.  Their backstory gets more and more complicated, retconned, and re-adapted, until it becomes hopelessly incoherent.  One of the virtues of the movie versions is that the writers have a chance to start from scratch and use only the elements they choose to build a new iteration of the character.

Captain Marvel’s background is even more complex than usual.  There have been five or six different versions of a “Captain Marvel” character (not even counting the Fawcett/DC “Captain Marvel,” now known for copyright reasons as “Shazam,” who has his own movie coming out shortly).  That’s in addition to several iterations of “Ms. Marvel,” sometimes with the same person switching from one title to the other.  A summary of this history can be found at Comics Alliance; and this Wikipedia page has a quick rundown of the various versions.

Captain Marvel (Marvel Super-Heroes) coverMarvel Comics’ original Captain Marvel was a rather boring and angsty agent of the interstellar empire of the Kree (who look exactly like humans) named Mar-Vell, a young white-haired guy in an unimpressive green-and-white uniform.  (Those who’ve seen the movie will note a distant connection here.)  Mar-Vell is sent to Earth to find out what the heck is going on with these humans, after the Fantastic Four trounced a supposedly invincible Kree Sentry and then Ronan the Accuser.

In the early comics, Marvel couldn’t figure out what to do with Mar-Vell.  He engaged in slugfests with a number of established Marvel characters and suffered through a weepy romantic triangle.  After about ten issues (Captain Marvel #11), the writers had an apparently godlike being named Zo give him new powers, after which he continued to do nothing much of interest.  In issue #16, the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence changed his powers yet again and tossed him into an alternate universe called the Negative Zone, where he floats around until he periodically switches bodies with perennial Marvel kid sidekick Rick Jones, in a manner uncannily similar to that of the DC Shazam character (and also Jack Kirby’s Infinity Man, but that’s another story).

Comics scene, Mar-Vell & distressed CarolCarol Danvers—the Captain Marvel of the movie (played perfectly by Brie Larson)—also appeared in this early era, but not yet as a superhero.  She had a responsible position as security head at Cape Canaveral, but frequently she served as a mere damsel in distress, and as one of Mar-Vell’s two romantic interests. Altogether, not much promising material in this original incarnation of Captain Marvel.

Now, I haven’t followed comics closely for many a year (one can’t read everything), so I wasn’t there for the renaissance of this character in the form we see in the movie.  But as I understand it, the movie’s version dates only from 2012, when the character was rebooted by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick.

In other words, this isn’t a cinematic presentation of an iconic character like Spider-Man, Captain America, or Thor.  Here, the screenwriters elected to throw out a lot of the excess baggage of fifty years’ worth of comics.  It was the right choice.

Higher, Further, Faster

In a 2012 interview with Wired, DeConnick said:  “My pitch was Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager.”  And that begins to explain why I love this character.  She had me at “Chuck Yeager.”

Sam Shepard with Chuck Yeager

Sam Shepard (left), playing Chuck Yeager, with Yeager himself (right)

One of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff (1983), Philip Kaufman’s fact-based history of the NASA Mercury program, spends a lot of time with Yeager.  Tom Wolfe, the author of the book on which the movie was based, considered Yeager the archetype of the test pilots from whose ranks the Mercury astronauts were drawn.  Although Yeager himself never went into space, he exemplified the cool, confident, no-nonsense pilot who could take on any challenge and surmount it through a combination of superb competence and a fearless can-do attitude.  The pilot with the “right stuff” has a certain contempt for the rules, along with all other limitations, and always takes danger lightly, preferably with cool wisecracks.

This version of Carol Danvers starts out as a test pilot, with exactly that intrepid attitude.  The movie isn’t shy about making the comparison.  Carol passes through a Blockbuster Video store (the movie is set in 1995) and pauses to glance at a copy of The Right Stuff.  We get a scene set at Pancho’s, the pilots’ bar that figures largely in that earlier movie.  And we have a cat named Goose—a sly reference to Tom Cruise’s best friend in Top Gun, another movie about hot pilots (fighter pilots rather than test pilots).  Carol embodies this insouciant, reckless competence.  With another pilot, she exchanges a sort of catchphrase or motto—“Higher, further, faster”—from the title of one of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel comic sequences.  It captures the test pilot ideal neatly.

Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame trailerThese references put Carol immediately into the category of daredevil pilots—a maverick, like Tom Cruise’s lead character in Top Gun.  It’s a very engaging attitude (and I mean Attitude, with a capital A).  You don’t have to see the movie to get a sense of this.  Check out this Avengers:  Endgame trailer at about 2:10.  That little crooked smile . . . As Thor says:  “I like this one.”

Marvel and Wonder

Comparison with Wonder Woman is inevitable—and, I think, instructive.  These are both great movies with excellent main characters.  But those characters play out differently.

Wonder Woman, vambraces crossedDiana is invincible; she always has been.  She may have taken some knocks being trained by the Amazons, but she’s pretty much untouchable by anything humans have got.  She takes on the Greek god Ares as an equal.  There, to be sure, the contrast I’m trying to make falters a bit, because she’s outmatched by Ares until intense emotional strain—the loss of a loved one—causes her to claim her full power.  And at that point she really is invincible.  It’s glorious to see a woman who needs to fear nothing, splendid in her power, with a heart guiding that power to fight for the right.

When she enters the world of normal humans, Diana brings a kind of intelligent innocence.  She learns difficult lessons about the complications of the human world, but that never really deflects her from her sense of justice (along with love or compassion).  That’s what’s so great about her.

Carol, on the other hand, has to earn her power.  She doesn’t start out as an Amazon.  First she must acquire her supernormal abilities; and then she has to learn how to use them under challenging circumstances (as celebrated in this Tor article).  Carol also comes face to face with the complexities of the world—but not initially from a position of power.  She has more of a character development arc than Diana does.

Both heroes are a joy to see, coming into their power.  But Captain Marvel is more vulnerable, emotionally if not physically.  Despite the cool test-pilot attitude, the emotion that runs beneath is both her challenge and her strength.  It’s easier to sympathize with her.

Distinctive Valor

There’s more in CM to admire.  The star-spanning plot awakens that sense of wonder, of vast scope and open possibilities, that is science fiction’s strong point.  But the real key, I think, remains in the character of the heroine.

Captain Marvel, defiant with glowThe motif of desperate heroism isn’t unique; on the contrary.  Naturally our heroes are always fighting against great odds.  But some stories are better that others at evoking that undaunted resistance to overwhelming opposition.  This is one of them.  In Larson’s brilliant portrayal, we see Carol’s stubborn courage, her indomitable resolve—and always with that particular mischievous touch that comes with the test-pilot package.

To me, specifically feminine valor is especially poignant.  And when you add that devil-may-care “right stuff” attitude, it’s irresistible.  When Eowyn faces down the undead Lord of the Nazgûl at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I empathize with her defiant stand even more than with Aragorn’s or Frodo’s.  Then add to this the reckless abandon with which Carol takes on her foes.  She fights with flair.  She takes the fight almost lightly in a sense, as if danger and peril hardly matter.  Yet at the same time she never pulls per punches, much less gives up.  It’s this, I think, that excites my wholehearted admiration.

That’s my take on it so far.  There are a lot of other fascinating angles to CM, but they’d involve spoilers.  Maybe another time . . .