Thursday, April 30, 2015

Serial Fiction and the Lies We Tell Ourselves

(This is something I’d started working on in 2013 and then abandoned, for whatever reason. It’s still incomplete and disjointed but in discussing the relative merits of Iron Man 3 today I remembered this piece. I’m posting it now because I think some of the points raised are valid enough to maybe spark conversation. This is parenthood, ladies and gentlemen: posting think pieces on movies that are two years old.)  
One of the major complaints I’ve read about Star Trek Into Darkness has to do with the way in which Kirk sacrifices himself, dies, and is then revived with a compound created from Khan's genetically enhanced/magical blood. That complaint, along with a subsequent viewing of Iron Man 3, got me thinking about serialized fiction and the lies that we willingly tell ourselves in order to experience that fiction. So with that in mind, let’s talk a little about the eerie similarities between Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness – specifically the ways in which both films use what is essentially the same trope/shortcut/narrative trick yet managed to generate wildly different audience reactions.  

…Because the thing of it is, the ending of Iron Man 3 does EXACTLY what the ending of Into Darkness does: it "kills" a main character (though not the main character) only to revive her minutes later courtesy of "magic" juice, with the film telegraphing the fact that it’s going to do this in advance. There’s absolutely no other reason to kidnap Potts and give her the Extremis formula other than to place her character in seeming jeopardy while also giving the film a way out of the jeopardy it’s created (twice over, actually – see below).

The similarities don’t stop there. At the end of Into Darkness Starfleet arguably has the means to eradicate death (under certain, limited circumstances), but the film doesn’t address the massive ramifications of that fact at all. This ticked some folks off, but what’s again interesting is this: At the end of Iron Man 3 technology exists which will also enable near-immortality/invulnerability, but the film doesn't address this development in the slightest. Many of the same people irritated by Into Darkness’ conclusion seem not to have even noticed this, let alone found it contrived/unsatisfying/a pus-stuffed boil on the face of cinema. Nor did they seem to be bothered by the fact that capable, lovable Pepper Potts is transformed into a potentially unstable super soldier/veritable killing machine using experimental and dangerous bio-technology and is then “fixed” by Stark. …somehow. We don’t actually know how, because we’re not shown or even told how she’s fixed. We’re just told, via voiceover, that she was. End of story. Yay?
Where was the outcry over this maneuver from the folks who thought Star Trek’s use of the same thing was, like, totally heinous?[1] Where are the demands that Marvel should have held off on reviving Potts until the next movie, so that at least the death has some shred of actual impact before being reversed? There wasn’t one, as far as I can tell. And to my addled brain, that says something interesting about the lies that we tell ourselves when we watch serial fiction and the ways in which our own past fandom can defeat present experience.
When you or I sit down to enjoy any serialized fiction we implicitly agree to certain unspoken rules. Chief among them is this: We agree to pretend that the characters are in real, mortal danger. We agree to this despite knowing logically that at no point in time are those characters in true mortal peril – they can’t be. So long as the Star Trek and Iron Man franchises remain profitable, neither Kirk nor Spock nor Tony nor Pepper is ever likely to die in the final, no-backsies sense of the word. You know it and I know it. We may not want to admit it, but it's largely true. There have been some exceptions to this rule over the years[2], but they are exceptions that prove the rule. In popular serialized fiction the lie that we consistently, constantly tell ourselves is that these characters will ultimately fail and die. They don’t. And even when they do, their deaths are inevitably triumphs and their resurrections almost always preordained.
Sure, some of these films may feint toward irrevocable death, or prolong the uncertainty longer than expected (as when the makers of the original Trek films waited until Star Trek 3: the Search for Spock, to resurrect everyone’s favorite Vulcan) and sometimes the lie is reverse-engineered (as when Abrams and Co. revived Kirk as a younger, alternate-universe version of himself, effectively bringing the character back from the dead). But unless and until someone fictional comes along who far outstrips the profitability and likability of an existing serialized fictional character, that character will essentially be immortal – and every instance of danger that such a character has ever experienced and will ever experience is a lie that we are knowingly and willingly complicit in.
We do this all the time as consumers of serialized fiction, and we’ve been doing it for an awfully long time. Heck, even Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes plunge from the top of the Reichenbach Falls, only to have him cheat death and live to sleuth another day. Superman “died” fighting Doomsday, and was then turned into four different lesser versions of himself before resurrecting shortly thereafter via I don’t even pretend to know what.
Immortality is the default state for characters in popular serial fiction and at some point every fan comes to realize this on some level or another. We can talk about how this is a problem, but that doesn't change the popularity of the characters or the demand to see more of them. Complaining about serial fiction’s issues will not make serial fiction go away. So it seems to me that we have two choices, once we've realized that fact: (1) we can get annoyed with this to the point where the form of serialized fiction itself becomes unbearable (a fine choice if that’s your bag – it’s why some folks are so regularly irritated by the “Big Shocking Deaths” promoted by major comic book companies), or (2) we can accept the contrivance the way we accept, say, the similarly convenient lie that the hero in a given action movie isn't going to save the day/get the girl/whathaveyou in favor of what matters more when it comes to storytelling (see below). Tony Stark spends most of Iron Man 3 seriously outnumbered and dangerously outgunned, but all of that melts away by the film’s climax, which sees Tony leaping and cavorting about in mid-air from flying suit of armor to flying suit of armor in open defiance of any sort of mortal danger or previously crippling psychic trauma because it’s time for him to win the day, basically.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, either consciously or sub-. It’s an obvious fact, but the obviousness of that fact doesn’t make it any less compelling to think about. Have you ever really thought about this, and about what it means?
I’d like to suggest that, in part, it means when someone complains about Kirk’s “death” being meaningless they likely aren’t actually complaining about that at all. That complaint is more likely symptomatic of a deeper dissatisfaction with a film, expressed by selecting an example that, were it part of another film that the viewer liked more on the whole, would apparently not bother them one lil’ iota. 
Part of what’s interesting about both Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 and Abrams’ Into Darkness is that both filmmakers seem quite aware of the narrative “magic” they’re deploying. And while Shane Black might be more overt in nodding to that awareness, Abrams’ own awareness is there as well, coded into the ways in which the movie plays with pre-existing expectations. It’s as if, knowing that they’re riffing on events from Wrath of Khan, and knowing that a portion of the audience knows they’re playing those riffs, Abrams and Co. want the audience to momentarily believe that their Star Trek 3 will focus around the quest to revive Kirk. For a few enjoyable minutes as I watched the film my mind wandered into exactly that space. But instead of ending Into Darkness with an open question, Abrams and Co. shake their figurative heads and playfully say “Nahhhh. We were only fooling you.” The same goes for Black’s approach which, if anything, is even more dismissive of any potential emotional impact. And here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that they both made the right decision. 

Do we really want the next Star Trek flick to spend its time on searching for a way to bring Kirk back to life, or for Iron Man 4 to be subtitled "The Search For Potts"? Not I. I don't need Stark to travel the world on behalf of Pepper Potts, and I don't need Abrams and co. to spend half of a movie inventing a way to bring Kirk back to life. I'd much rather they just got on with doing cool stuff in with superheroes/in space. That's reductive, obviously, but true.

What matters when these sorts of characters are "killed," or so I’d argue, is that the character is in some way changed in an interesting way for having flown this mortal coil and/or that other characters are changed in interesting ways as a result - that there's meaning to the death other than the actual death itself, which is why (I think) so many "deaths" come across as lazy or hackneyed. Not because the character revives, but because their "death" didn't mean anything else to the larger story being told. Take, for instance, Kirk and Pepper.

Kirk dies in a moment of self-sacrifice, and by dying and then being revived both he and his crew learn something. Kirk learns the value of humility, and the truth of that whole "the needs of the many" rigamarole. The crew learns the lengths to which their captain will go for them. Kirk's death arguably serves a narrative function larger than momentary shock. What do Pepper and the Iron Man 3 audience learn? What purpose does her momentary death serve in terms of the larger story being told? I’d argue that the answer is “nothing, actually.” Neither Pepper nor Tony nor the rest of the cast are changed by that death, and our understanding of those characters as an audience isn't really changed either. You could argue that Tony comes to truly appreciate her as a result of seeing her die, but I’d argue that he’s come to appreciate her before that moment – when he goes to rescue her. You could argue that we learn just how kick-ass Pepper is, and while I’d agree that she is indeed kick-ass, I’d also argue that we knew that already. We’ve seen her deal with Tony, with Obadiah, with Killian, and we’ve seen that she’s a capable, strong woman. Does making her a Power Ranger for a few minutes, and then immediately stripping her of those abilities, add to our knowledge of who she is? Does it enhance or deepen the story in any real way?

It’s possible (though unlikely - maybe I'll find out tomorrow when I finally get to watch Age of Ultron) that the answer to those questions is “yes.” After all, we have no idea how Stark “fixed” her. For all we know, he merely regulated Extremis so that she’s not in danger of exploding, but still retains her new T-1000 superpowers. That’s a big change to the status quo if so, and would indicate that Pepper can now join in on all the derring-do if Iron Man 4 ever rolls around. But the implication, as it stands, is that Stark “fixed” her by removing Extremis/rendering it inert/otherwise de-powering Pepper. Off-screen. Without explanation. 
...All of which is said to spark, perhaps, some thought and dialogue on serialized fiction and the lies that we tell ourselves. I want to know what you think about this, and why. Have you seen both films? Did either or both of the “deaths” I’ve talked about here bother you? If so, why? If not, why? How do you deal with the inevitable near-immortality of serialized fictional heroes? I’m genuinely curious to hear your answers, and so leave the floor to you.  

[1] Don’t even get me started on the “Abrams included a gratuitous shot of a woman in a bra and is therefore regressive” thing that circulated for awhile. Did you notice that Iron Man 3’s entire plot depends on Maya Hansen feeling so jilted over a one-night stand that she becomes complicit in both a terrorist campaign and knowing experimentation on human subjects to often deadly and disastrous effect? Or that Pepper Potts spends the last portion of the film in a bra because, like, her shirt got burned off, man? 

[2] A few years ago it could have been labeled “The Bucky Exception,” after the one comic book character who was considered un-revivable for decades and decades, except that he’s not dead anymore either. So.

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