By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Genre fiction seems to have rediscovered a powerful piece of storytelling: The ending.
The most obvious example of that is Avengers: Endgame, which has been described all over the media by Marvel Cinematic Universe mastermind Kevin Feige as a finale of what began with Iron Man in 2008. That is to say, the overarching story that Marvel has told though three “phases,” constituting 22 movies, comes to an end with Endgame.
“Endgame is the finale,” he told the Toronto Sun on April 22. “Someday, you’ll be able to watch all these movies together and see a complete story.”
Let’s leave aside that Feige has corrected himself to say that Spider-Man: Far From Home, coming July 5, is the actual end to Phase Three. The only non-Spidey characters listed in the credits for that film are Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Maria Hill (Kobie Smulders) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). It seems disconnected from Avengersworld almost entirely, and that’s what we’re talking about with Endgame.
And, while many fans will grieve for those whose story is over, it’s not a bad thing at all. If these stories went on forever, as they do in the comics, one by one the actors would have to be subbed out anyway as they aged out of the roles. Feige and the other masterminds aren’t immortal either, so one way or another, just about every major aspect of the MCU will be modified over time.
As Mr. Spock once said, “the only constant in the universe is change.”
So why not control that change? Why not make it count? Why not tell a powerful story – one with a beginning, a middle and an end? The MCU was two/thirds of the way there before Infinity Gauntlet, and it looks they’re embracing the last part.
(From left) Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), War Machine/James Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are all alive at the beginning of “Avengers: Endgame,” but some of them may not make it to the end.
Comics, of course, have always taken the opposite course. There’s no permanent change there; Clark Kent is still a mild-mannered reporter after 81 years, and Peter Parker is still in his 20s after debuting as a high school student in 1962. Even mortality is meaningless in comics, as what fans laughingly call “the revolving door of death” routinely brings the dead back to life with boring predictability.
For example, a few years ago four of the most important and recognizable of the X-Men – Cyclops, Jean Grey, Professor X and Wolverine – had all shuffled off this mortal coil in pretty convincing fashion. Now all four are as spry as ever.
In fact, almost all of the X-Men have died and come back from the grave at least once. It’s hard to name one that hasn’t. Go on, make a game of it: Find the X-Man who has never enjoyed a temporary dirt nap!
Now, that’s not to say that comics are static. Stan Lee proved that with an event back in 1965 that shocked a fandom accustomed to super-teams that grudgingly changed their lineups, if at all. But Lee, tired of keeping track of all the Avengers in their solo books, basically dumped all the big names from “Avengers.” In a story titled “The Old Order Changeth,” Lee dropped Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man and Wasp – the four remaining founders, and 4/5 of the team – from the Avengers roster. Only Captain America was left, leading a team of newly accepted ex-supervillains named Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
While the parallel isn’t exact, the MCU is mirroring that story with Endgame – or wherever the Avengers re-assemble next. Because it’s very likely that a few big names won’t be back, and a few newbies will. (Paging Captain Marvel! Paging Captain Marvel! How well can you say the words “Avengers Assemble”?)
But even “The Old Order Changeth,” plotted and written by the legendary Stan the Man, didn’t stick. The characters who left “Avengers” so long ago have come back many times. And left. And come back. And left again. As have lots of other characters. Avengers membership is another revolving door.
That’s because comics writers can’t really institute lasting change with corporate trademarks. If you own the characters, like Robert Kirkman does in “The Walking Dead,” you can kill whoever you want, or cripple them, or marry them off, or whatever. But Disney, which owns Marvel, and Time-Warner, which owns DC, aren’t going to let anyone alter their the characters that bring in millions selling Underoos, lunchboxes and backpacks. Bruce Wayne is always going to be Batman, no matter how many times writers (briefly) replace him under the cowl, and Bruce Banner will never permanently solve his “Hulk” problem.
Comics writers can only provide, as Lee himself said, “the illusion of change.” Sure, shake things up. But the Reset Button is never very far away.
But what if it isn’t? Well, it’s very possible that might make the story you’re enjoying that much better.
Sure, it hurts when a character you love dies – and is really dead for good. But it also makes you treasure the time you spent with them, and love the story all the more.
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Among the fan favorites whose fate is uncertain on Game of Thrones are Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen (Kit Harington), Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams).
Nobody understands this better than George R. R. Martin, who is notorious for killing off anybody in “Game of Thrones” that is the least bit lovable. And, while we have all complained about it, isn’t that more like life? Haven’t we thrilled all the more to the characters we have left?
True to Martin’s vision, Game of Thrones is ending on HBO in May, and that ending promises to be a bloodbath. But that sense of finality is a powerful story tool, as evidenced by the second episode in season 8, which aired April 21.
In “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” most of the major characters gather in Winterfell to face off against the Night King and his undead hordes. As the night before battle wears on, the characters all ponder their mortality in ways that fit their characterization – or maybe what the audience, just a little bit, wants to see. Some have sex. Some drink, and know things. Lady Brienne achieves her life’s ambition, right out of the blue, bringing unexpected cheers and tears.
It was heartfelt. It was moving. It was damn good drama. And that’s because it felt oh-so-real. “Knight” is easily among the best episodes of Game of Thrones, and yet, all the things for which “GoT” is famous – remarkable special effects, action scenes, violent death – were entirely absent. There wasn’t even a voice raised in anger, much less a dragon. “Knight” was good because it was very human, and part of being human is dying. We know that this is the last time we will see most of these characters whole and hale, and that makes the emotional impact that much more powerful.
To paraphrase Joel on The Santa Clarita Diet, what if what gives meaning to life and love is the knowledge that it will end? “Diet” may be a comedy, but it made a serious point.
Gotham ends this month with the arrival of Batman, the unchanging hero whose adventures have been told since 1939.
Which brings us to Gotham, another genre show coming to a bittersweet end. The final episode airs on April 25, bringing down the curtain on a wild pre-Batman story that took most viewers by surprise. All the weird journeys and bizarre digressions away from what was expected were charming, hilarious and/or terrifying, and underscored one more time that Gotham City is so wretched that it requires a Batman.
But once Full Batman is achieved, as it will be, we’ll find ourselves once again in The Land That Change Forgot. Once the Bat-status quo arrives, it will be permanent and as unchanging as the stars. Like the Ragnarok saga of Norse myth, today’s comics execute endless crises with endless apocalypses followed by endless rebirths. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Which robs the stories of their power. That takes endings.
Take, for example, the major comics characters who have died and had the courtesy to stay in the ground. The list starts with Batman’s parents, Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, Spider-girlfriend Gwen Stacy, the planet Krypton and Flash’s murdered mom. Sub-Mariner’s Lady Dorma. Some of Daredevil’s girlfriends, maybe. (Bucky Barnes used to be on this list, but he came back in 2005 as the Winter Soldier after being presumed dead since … 1945.)
We know this list pretty well, mainly because it is so short. And also because these characters can’t come back in their original iteration, although we do see versions from alternate earths and the like. But the resurrection of the originals would un-do something fundamental, some great sorrow at the heart of a hero. That makes their stories more powerful – and therefore more memorable.
I think all of us are going to remember Endgame, and the last episodes of Gotham and Game of Thrones, vividly. Partly because they will hurt. But also because their finality will make them memorable.
And pain, like death, is part of life. We should embrace that in our fiction, because it just makes the story better.
Find Captain Comics by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).
Remember, Cap's polar ice cube return in '64 was itself a retcon, as was Bucky's declared death in that Newfoundland* mission.- those 50s Atlas CAPTAIN AMERICA stories showed both Cap and Bucky alive during the.Korean War/McCarthy era - and Marvel was reprinting those stories without any explanation of them years after AVENGERS #4 - with more years passing before Steve Englehart retconned/EYKIWed those stories' assumptions - and more years still past before Marvel attempted to explain the 1945 49 Cap and Bucky stories, from long post-that. Newfoundland* mission.
Namor stands out in how often he loses significant people for good.
Besides Lady Dorma, he also lost his love interest of the 1940s, Betty Dean, as well as his sons by Marrina. If I am not mistaken, Marrina herself is at least presumed dead still as well.
...A couple of years ago. the Spider Man newspaper strip had a Sub-Mariner guest-starring story that introduced a grandaughter of Betty Dean! (different surname)