The Age of Aging Heroes

Superhero films are the new hotness, breaking box office records and redefining the genre. The comic book age of my youth was something of a boom era where the popularity reached a peak of sorts with sales repeatedly hitting new highs and major crossover events occurring on a regular basis.

The kids that grew up in that era have entered that prime entertainment demographic where they are old enough to have disposable income and are still young enough to use it. We are in the golden age of comic book cinema because money drives the market.

Marvel has planted the flag and taken the superhero genre to another level, creating a unified cinematic universe. This is significant in a number of respects, not the least of which is changing how audiences think about comic book movies. Every film is a continuation of a larger narrative but still accessible to the uninitiated.

There is one area where comics and films must distinguish themselves however. If done correctly this can be the greatest weapon in Marvel’s arsenal. I refer specifically to Marvel because they are the dominant force in this arena and also the most poised to take advantage of what I’m about to say.

In comic books, heroes rarely age and if they do its at a glacial pace. I remember reading once that there was an actual conversion rate used in Marvel comics between real years and comic book years, but I digress. Live action films require actors and real actors age.

This poses a particular dilemma for comic film makers. When the time comes do you recast or reboot a franchise? I would argue neither as retirement is the real answer. As popular as these characters are, these actors are iconic in their portrayals. To create a living, breathing, and evolving cinematic universe these characters need to age with it. Characters entering and exiting the stage services the greater story.

This is not to say that there are not ways to restart certain characters such as an Iron Man or a Captain America, but once Tony Stark and Steve Rogers complete their personal stories what is there really left to say? Many iconic comic book heroes have multiple identities over the decades of stories already told; Green Lantern is an obvious example.

Super heroes tend to represent an ideal, but the best stories come about from how the people behind them learn to deal with their power. Iron Man works because the audience is invested in Tony Stark, the suit he wears is just a plot device that lets us explore who he is and how he deals with it.

Comic book films are ultimately character studies, and Marvel can draw on an extensive universe of characters to refill their universe. A successful franchise that lasts is one that adapts. Marvel is uniquely positioned for that revolving door of iconic characters.

A few cinematic deaths may be in order, which is something that Marvel has yet to truly pull the trigger on. At some point the hero dies or becomes the villain. Without the possibility of loss can the victory be heroic, and a heroic death is one of the most powerful moments a cinematic universe can have.

There will always be the financial impulse to push a franchise till the wheels come off (ie. Crystal Skull), but studios need to embrace this aging factor. Audiences can accept a hero and a world that will age and change with them. To build a world you build its history, and keep building on top of that.

Demographics will continue to evolve and the comic book boom of today may not survive into tomorrow, but a unified cinematic universe will define the next generation’s interests and expectations in the same way the comics of my youth are defining the films of today. The next generation of movie goers will be steeped in the lore of Marvel movies and not the comics they are based on.

Star Wars Redux

The Star Wars universe has grown significantly over the last 36+ years and with Disney’s acquisition it’s poised to expand even farther. I grew up enthralled by the original Star Wars trilogy which far surpassed anything that had come before it.

The films a child watches can often shape their world views. A person’s movie history begins around the year they’re born. If you’re over a certain age you know Han shot first, if you’re under a certain age you know Darth Maul lived. Star Wars means something very different to different ages.

It’s really amazing to see what a successful film maker can achieve, and the positive impact they can have on so many generations. Sometimes I wonder what the next era of Star Wars will bring, but ultimately I can thank one man for having the vision and talent to bring Star Wars to life.

Irvin Kershner.

New Hope was a happy coincidence that came at the right time from a young director willing to buck film making orthodoxy so George Lucas deserves credit for planting the seed of an idea. Empire Strikes Back directed by Kershner however built the franchise we know today. (Incidentally the film Lucas had the least involvement with.)

Empire expanded both breadth and depth of Star Wars, building a real foundation for everything that would come afterwards. Vader was already the most intimidating villain of his time, but the shocking reveal of Empire would turn that on its head and make us rethink his every move again. Heroes are defined by the strength of their villains.

Whereas Obi Wan could only give vague allusions as to what a Jedi was, Yoda would give us a window into how extensive Jedi culture once was. Boba Fett, the bounty hunter archetype, and Lando Calrissian demonstrated the gray morality of a troubled universe. Empire would also mark our first look at the mysterious Emperor, a figure so powerful even Vader knelt before his visage.

Each of these additions was significant on its own, but they also contextualized and expanded the characters we already knew. Obi Wan was a Jedi Knight but Yoda was a Jedi Master. Han and Lando were scoundrels cut from the same cloth, and through Lando we see the changes in Han.

The Star Wars Universe was firmly planted with the roots of Empire. Great movies falter in their second outing so often due to the ‘sophomore slump,’ but great sequels are like afterburners that surpass the original and create cultural movements. Time will tell if the modern style of prepackaged trilogies can have that same lasting impact.

The design challenge of making a sequel is different from making a compelling segment to a larger unseen story. When a film maker has three films to tell their story, none of those films have to be self-contained anymore. As much as I enjoyed Lord of the Rings, those endings were not satisfying. The first Matrix was a great stand-alone film, but the less said about its sequels the better.

I’m not as fanatical about Star Wars as I once was. Those abhorrent prequels forced me to step back and divest myself from my own fandom. Their sins are already extensively documented and I would direct you to the RedLetterMedia prequel reviews if you have a few hours to kill. (NSFW)

With its acquisition by Disney, Star Wars is poised to move into another era at the expense of an already extensive Expanded Universe. Given Disney’s track record I’m cautiously optimistic, although still a little sad we won’t get a chance to see the best Expanded Universe stories brought to the big screen. It was unavoidable that they had to clear the slate since the fate of practically every screen character, their children, and their children’s children has already been written about in detail.

I’ll always remain a partial fan due in part to the work of so many talented artists and storytellers who helped create the Expanded Universe which will be undone soon. I could be offended, but I’m more curious about how EU 2.0 will play out. I want to know which characters and stories will be revisited, but then again I also love cover songs. Either way it turns out Disney ownership insures we will have Star Wars for many generations to come.