Many people have been name-checking Empire Strikes Back in their comments on Avengers: Infinity War. But as I left the theater this weekend, I found myself thinking about The Last Jedi, and… Frodo? I will talk about Infinity War a lot but I have to work through a couple of points about pop culture heroism in general first, so come along with me on a journey through multiple franchises, won’t you?
(SPOILERS for Avengers: Infinity War and The Last Jedi.)
The heart of the anti-Last Jedi backlash was the treatment of Luke Skywalker. Sure people complained about the (great, imo) decision to make Rey a Nobody from Nowhere, and yes, people were annoyed by the sidequest to free the Chocobos of Canto Bight. But the beating heart of people’s frustration with Last Jedi is the fact that everybody’s hero, good-hearted Luke Skywalker, orphaned son of a cursed family, turned out to be a grief-stricken, pathetic, terrified old man. He mocks Rey (and, implicitly, the audience itself) for wanting him to make it all better by facing down the First Order with his “laser sword.” Then he pretends to do exactly that in a mocking parody of a western stand off with his nephew, and kills himself in the effort. Unlike Obi-Wan sacrificing himself in battle to Vader while Luke watched, Luke isn’t fake-fighting Kylo to teach Rey anything. He’s simply acting as a distraction the resistance can escape to fight more intelligently another day.
I’ll say it again: he’s a distraction.
Luke Skywalker, hero to millions, dies alone meditating on a rock. And I loved it. I loved it because this was the Luke of Return of the Jedi, throwing his sword away. I love it because it acknowledged the realities of grief and time, and what tragedy on that scale would actually do to a fresh-faced farm boy who used to long for adventure. In the same way that The Force Awakens subverted Han Solo the Lovable Scoundrel, Last Jedi rejected the pop cultural narrative of Luke the Action Hero, and turned him into something more.
I understand that it felt like someone really did murder your childhood, not in the “the Prequels suck!” sense, but in the real, slow, collapse of your body under time type sense. That’s what it did to me, anyway. I went home and lay in bed for hours after that movie staring at the ceiling and feeling fucking old. And it was good for me, I think. What would it say about me if I felt the same as I did as a kid watching Empire, eyes widening in shock as Vader told Luke the truth? If I’d learned nothing and gained no wisdom from the decades in between? I am old enough to know that while my pop cultural heroes are important, my relationship to them is allowed to change as I get older. I am old enough to appreciate a good death, and that’s what Rian Johnson gave Luke Skywalker, and I love him for it.
Can I just tell you how happy I am that Infinity War went down the same path, in a slightly more meta way?
I’m not talking about the deaths themselves, though there are bouquets of them, and a couple of them genuinely hurt (whoever decided that Peter Parker should be the one character with a deathbed monologue should either be thrown off a cliff or given a raise, but more on that scene in a second) but still—we knew people were going to die. We also can safely assume that at least some of those deaths will be undone by the fourth Avengers movie, because we can all google “Marvel movie release schedule.” But what I’m trying to get at here is how Marvel used its latest big budget blockbuster popcorn toy-inspiring movie to critique the uses of pop culture heroism.
I loved the first Guardians of the Galaxy, because I loved all the pop culture gags and Spielberg references and Kevin Bacon appreciation. I liked that it was nostalgia created by people who were old enough to remember it, and that the film, intelligently I thought, used pop culture itself as a lifeline for Quill as he’s adrift and orphaned in space. While I had a lot of problems with Guardians 2 I still thought a lot of the pop culture moments worked there, too. The way Quill clings to his Walkman, and to his mother’s songs, filled in some emotional gaps and gave him more depth than he’d have otherwise. That all worked for me, because I am very much a person who uses pop culture and gags to fill in my own emotional gaps.
I was also excited that they used a pop culture riff to weave Spider-Man into Captain America: Civil War—his excited reference to Empire Strikes Back highlighted his youth, his enthusiasm, and was an astonishing act of corporate Disney corporate synergy.
(Plus it’s just a solid plan.)
In Infinity War, the first shot of the Guardians is as joyful as the first film’s “Come and Get Your Love” dance: the Guardians are (mostly) grooving along to “The Rubberband Man”; the adults are annoyed at Teen Groot for playing his retro arcade handheld game and cursing at them in Grootish; Gamora has discovered that she loves to sing. It’s a cute little intergalactic family road trip. And then they pick up Thor, and the whole vibe is instantly spiked through with the reality of Thanos, and the seriousness of Infinity War. From the moment he tells them his story, Gamora switches back into her old, serious self, the one who knows what’s at stake, and each of Star-Lord’s attempts to be silly fall increasingly flat. Drax’s humor seems increasingly out of place. Mantis more and more becomes the wide-eyed empath rather than the wide-eyed comic relief.
When we check in with Earth, Stark initially treats the latest crisis with his usual sarcasm, calling Maw “Squidward” and getting into a pissing match with Strange. But once he realizes how high the stakes are he sobers up, and even explicitly forbids Spider-Man’s reliance on pop culture riffs. This clues the audience in to the idea that it’s Time To Get Serious, and reinforces Tony as Peter Parker’s stern pseudo-dad. But then, when they need a plan to save Doctor Strange, Peter immediately mentions “that really old movie Aliens” because all Peter has is movie plots. He doesn’t have any life experience, he’s not military, he’s not a tactician—so Aliens it is. And again, just like in Civil War, his seemingly ridiculous pop culture idea actually works.
So the Star Wars and Aliens franchises both exist in the MCU, as does Spongebob Squarepants (and Lord of the Rings, given Stark’s “Clench up, Legolas” quip from the first Avengers film), and there are awesome superhero-themed Ben & Jerry’s flavors like ‘Hulka-Hulka-Burning Fudge.’ And so far, all of their jokiness has worked—the Marvel writers have used pop culture riffs to add to their worldbuilding and make the movies fun, while, in-universe, the characters can use the jokes to show their personalities and bond with their teammates. In Peter Parker’s case his riffs were both fun, and the plans were successful. Despite the giant overarching plot, the silliness and gags can have their moments, and even feed into the action.
Once they meet up with the Guardians, eternal man-baby Star-Lord and actual teen Spider-Man discover that they can blab references at each other, and we quickly get a Flash Gordon reference, a call-back to Quill’s dance-off with Ronan, and an argument about Footloose. It’s fun, exactly what we’d want from these two, yelling nonsense at each other while Strange and Stark roll their eyes in the background. It’s the scene the trailers promised us. And it encapsulates every single criticism of the usual Marvel tic of undercutting dramatic moments with humor. Which is why it’s so perfectly brutal when the rug is pulled out from under them, all of us, and they lose. Because this is the team, specifically, that loses. Peter has almost pulled the Gauntlet from Thanos’ hand when Quill freaks out and ruins the plan. Pop culture-spouting, jokey, ridiculous Quill is the reason they are forced into what Strange calls the “endgame,” whatever that’s going to be. It’s the reason half of them have to die.
Quill says nothing as he crumbles into dust, not Gamora’s name, or his mother’s, no quips or jokes or famous last words. He’s just gone. Strange tells Stark they’re in the endgame, then dust. Back on Earth Bucky manages to say Steve’s name, but T’Challa, Sam Wilson, and Wanda say nothing.
It’s left to Peter Parker to have real dialogue during his death. I’ve been wondering about that. Why is he the only one with a protracted death? The best theory I’ve seen is that his Spidey-sense gives him just enough pre-cognition that he realizes he’s dying faster than the others, which, fuck. But tonally, it makes sense that it’s Peter Parker who gets the monologue—because the youngest hero, the one who has called upon pop culture for his two biggest Avengers moments, has to face the fact that in the end, this doesn’t save him.
A lot of people have said that the deaths don’t matter, they’re going to be undone, rewound, etc., and on one level that’s true, but the writers made goddamn sure to make Peter’s death matter. They gave us a couple of fun, fluffy moments, and then made sure we felt it. There are no quips, no references, no jokes. No fun dance-off. Just the inevitable, implacable wall of death. In Thanos’ rewiring of the universe, death is random, unfair, does not care what movies you’ve seen or what plans you have or what witty quip is waiting in the back of your mouth. You don’t get to talk your way out of it.
Now we know that Captain Marvel is coming out next March, with Avengers 4 following next May, Spiderman 2 in July, and Guardians of the Galaxy 3 sometime the year after that. We can all probably piece an arc together that will set everything back to “normal” in time for Phase 4. In all the general cultural chatter around this movie, people keep saying that these deaths don’t mean anything. That they’re just going to rewind and use the Time Stone or time travel of some kind to undo everything they’ve done in the film. But I really hope that they don’t just rewind to back before everyone died, erasing the trauma in the process, because I want at least Peter Parker to go into Spider-Man 2 with the memory of his death. This seems cruel, probably, but in all this talk about the uses of death in our big pop mythologies, I keep coming back to three things: (1) Lord of the Rings is the definitive fantasy epic, it’s about war, has an enormous cast, and yet almost none of the main characters die. Boromir meets a complicated end in the first third of the story, and Gandalf dies knowing he’ll be resurrected as a more powerful wizard. Other than that, the main cast is joyfully reunited after the fall of Mordor. Where the story gains meaning is in how those characters have changed, not whether their lives have ended. (2) In The Last Jedi, the film gains its power (YMMV) in the acknowledgement that Luke can’t go back to being the optimistic farm-boy hero. (3) And to come back to the MCU, and the most important example: the reason Peter Parker’s mentor has grown into a mature father figure is precisely because of his own death. The Iron Man Trilogy tangled itself around the Battle For New York and dug into his ongoing PTSD. It allowed him to grow from film to film. Everything, all the mistakes he makes in Age of Ultron, Civil War, and Spider-Man: Homecoming are born in that fall from the wormhole, and his inability to let go of that day.
Which is why I really hope that they keep this in mind for the next round of films. Think of how well Spider-Man 2 could play with this, if they send Peter Parker back to high school knowing that he died in an event his classmates don’t remember. As much as I don’t want to see Gamora fridged (I really, really do not want that, Marvel) imagine how much more interesting the third Guardians film might be if Star-Lord doesn’t get to be the Rubber Band Man—if he finally has to grow the hell up. If Marvel wants all of this dust to add up to something, but also to bring their heroes back, they have to allow those heroes to change from their deaths, shed their old pop culture skins, and become mightier.