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.

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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!