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 through 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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(c)2019 Andrew A. Smith
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