I attended a convention once when I was in college, where someone explained to me why they felt so strongly about anime/manga and completely opposed American comic books.
“Their stories will never end. Comic book characters forever live in a cycle of dying/quitting, getting replaced and then eventually returning with everything in their status quo suddenly coming back as a surprise.”
It’s 2016 and I’m feeling what that man had to say.
Within the past decade, we’ve gone from being lucky to see a superhero movie (or crossing our fingers they would be slightly portrayed correctly) to having that entire genre become the leader of most summer movie blockbusters. Saturation is high and it’s actually hard to watch a current film today that doesn’t have an actor or actress that’s portrayed a comic book character at some point in their career. But from reboots to sequels, we’ve watched an endless cycle of the same story being fed to us.
How many times must Uncle Ben die?
How many times have we seen Martha Wayne’s pearls drop to the ground in that infamous alley on a rainy night?
How many times must our hero follow an origin arc of average to reluctant to driven by a romantic interest to hero?
Those origins will continue to be churned out to us (particularly in Doctor Strange, which comes out this fall), as long as they continue to sell. But, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has recently been backed into a corner and are forced to focus on something that the comics never had the opportunity to delve into: Conclusions.
With the release of the excellent Captain America: Civil War from earlier this year, Marvel Studios was forced to solve an inevitable problem that comics do not have to face: what happens when we are forced to conclude one of our main character’s storylines without ruining the IP or the overall franchise? And to be honest, those restrictive demands are incredibly difficult to follow-through on, but it was done remarkably well. The Russo Brothers have both admitted that we’ve seen the last of Steve Rogers as Captain America and they gave him an ending where the character proved he had agency outside of that title: for better or worse. What also works so incredibly well, is that the character can still exist simply through the word-of-mouth of other characters in the MCU and fans will be immediately updated as to where he is and what his current actions are.
And Cap’s fate in CA: Civil War can actually count as the third conclusion to a character’s main arc within the MCU. Tony Stark‘s arc within Iron Man 3 provided the first conclusion for a main character, which also helped the Iron Man films round out as a trilogy. With the character realizing that his mistakes and ideals from the first film have driven him further away from who he wants to be, he simply decides to do nothing. This is highlighted again in CA: Civil War as Tony continues to believe that helping is not only causing destruction but preventing his happiness. Likewise, Nick Fury‘s loss of S.H.I.E.L.D buried him even further into the crevices of the MCU as he is now the secret agent he was always born to be. These are endings satisfying, true to who these characters are and they even provide a satisfying service to the universe around them for progress to be made.
So: would this new style of writing be effective within the world of mainstream Marvel Comics?
The thought of a classic comic character concluding their story either happily or tragically within canon is so foreign, that I honestly don’t think any reader would acknowledge or accept that it’s real until the publisher explained it to the reader. What would happen if Bruce Wayne looked at his former ward, Nightwing, and saw that as his greatest success and gift to Gotham City? Would Batman realize that he has corrected his mistakes through another orphan who is now a stable crime fighter and that he needs to move on or would he let it consume him?
What if Superman did successfully create a new world for the surviving Kryptonians of Kandor? This is possible, since Superman has an engineering mind and deep skill, plus powerful friends who could help him create a secure system to help govern and protect his new home, as well as Earth. The comics have tried to explain in the past that this wouldn’t work. After a Braniac battle for the kingdom, the fallout was due to him releasing the city on Earth. But by simply having the character plan as well as he normally would in the past, it would be an appropriate ending for him and his entire race.
These characters exist within universes that are flourished with characters who are as inspired by these heroes who we are. And quite often, to add variety and new flavor to the franchise, we see these characters take the mantle. But, the unfortunate nature of this is that we also see how temporary these incidents will be. BOTH Captain America & Batman were once “killed” and later revealed to be traveling through time long enough for their former sidekicks to take their mantle for new storylines, until the original characters fought back to their “glorious returns.” Because no threat was ever placed on not seeing either of these characters again, the weight of the status change was heavily muted.
Even today, we are currently seeing another death of Superman, which has spurred multiple replacements to see what resonates to an audience (with the same tone deaf nature of Doomsday event in the 90s). We also currently have two Captain Americas. Jean Grey and Cyclops have (for all intents and purposes) been rebooted. There are more than SIX active Spider-Men (and women) in the Marvel Universe. Meanwhile, Batman is enjoying his immediate recovery from amnesia and is regaining his title back from Commissioner Gordon.
None of this even logically makes sense, if you were to look at the statistics of the scenarios. Nightwing has actually been proven as a better martial artist than Batman. Miles Morales‘ abilities are all of Peter Parker‘s and then some. What these characters lack are the levels of knowledge of experience, but they do have plenty of room to grow and for us to be along for the ride. Their arcs are still flourishing and the potential for them to become the world’s greatest heroes are there, but the shadows of their predecessors prevents them from ever growing into who they could be in their respective universes.
With that said, I totally understand why so many would want their favorite characters to last forever. On a professional side, people gravitate towards familiar names, faces and storylines. Everyone isn’t looking for someone new, so that causes the franchises to constantly be rebooted back to normal. And from a corporate standpoint, familiar is always the safe bet and yields the greatest chance of returns.
But, all business and cynicism aside, think about this: by having an old friend who never ages but reacts with the change of times, it can often represent us learning and evolving with the world and constant changes. It can reflect who we are through familiar voices and moral judgements. It can help us see from another perspective and accept views that may have been harder without an avatar to dip a toe in the water.
But, does this prevent us from growing? Will we be living in an endless cycle with these characters out of luck or detriment? Will we only see differences in group structure due to temporary variance or actual long-term evolution?
Would you prefer your heroes to move on and maintain being a legend or last for generations as a franchise? Hit us up in the comment section or at @FanBrosShow!