In 2019, three popular fantasy epics “ended” (or so they claim). We had the final season of Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. All three of them disappointed me for largely the same reason. Previous installments had promised something new, but when it came time to deliver, they couldn’t. So they went back to old tropes common in fantasy and played it safe.
I love epic fantasies, but I haven’t been reading them lately, because it seems like all of them--even the ones I like--end in the same way. Kill the main bad guy and poof! all your troubles will be over. Enemy armies will die or be too demoralized to fight. You will never need to contend with a second-in-command or a sizable amount of supporters within the populace. Instead, you can throw a big party and celebrate that good has triumphed over evil.
If killing the Big Bad isn’t enough of a climax, there’s always the heroic sacrifice. The hero dies--or seems to die--to save the world. No surer way to evoke pathos than a tragic death. But the heroic sacrifice need not actually be done by the min character--that would be depressing. The heroic sacrifice can be committed by a character in need of redemption. A former villain, a traitor, a character who gave in to a moment of weakness, a person haunted by bloody deeds of the past. It doesn’t matter if they realized the error of their ways five minutes ago or spent ten years painfully trying to change the course of their life. The only true path to redemption is death.
I hate these tropes. I mean, I understand why they’re used, and I will be the first to admit that when done them well, they can be damned effective. When lazily and poorly handled, however, they can carry a dangerous subtext, one repeated over and over, until it starts to inform our psyches.
Warning: Spoilers and Strong Opinions follow the break. This isn't a review, just me getting some things off my chest.
The first one, killing the Big Bad, carries this idea that the problems of evil can be traced to a single person, and if you eliminate that person, everything will be fixed. Newsflash! Life doesn’t work that way. Yeah, maybe in the bad old days, if you killed the leader of the tribe, the followers would scatter in fear. But modern days has us contending with toxic ideas, information-sharing, leaderless tribes, and complex systems. How do you deal with that?
Yet we still go into wars and politics with the mindset that if you get rid of the person in charge, the problem will be solved. More often than not, a bad leader is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Yeah, Hitler was bad, but the reason he came to power was because we left Germany in state of financial depression and humiliation after World War I. But no one wants to talk about that.
As for why I hate the concept of a heroic sacrifice, I feel it glorifies death. It suggests the measure of a hero is not how he lived but how he died. It creates this impossible standard of goodness, wherein you must be so selfless that it is expected you will lay down your life for the greater good. When done right, a heroic sacrifice can be beautiful. When done wrong, it is one step away from a suicide bomber.
And it hits me doubly hard when this sacrifice is forced on people who don’t wear the label of perfect righteous goodness. “You failed,” the story seems to say. “Your life no longer has value, and no matter how you try to fix your mistakes, it will never be enough. The only thing left is for you to die, so that more worthy people can live.”
Evil is a complex problem, but the solution to evil, both tropes suggest, is simply to kill it. No evil person. No problem.
Much as I hate this solution, it is presented so often, I’ve grown numb to it. I don’t expect any better. It’s too much to hope for different tropes; the best I can hope is that the tropes are executed well, to emphasize strength, courage, friendship, and love, rather than blood-soaked justice and the impossibility of forgiveness.
My problem with Game of Thrones, Avengers, and Star Wars is that, for a brief shiny moment, they seemed to promise something different. They were set up in such a way, I thought, that they could not go back to the same old, same old. Hope sprang up tenderly and was brutally crushed.
Let’s start with Game of Thrones. I read the first three books in college and the fourth one shortly after. The reason Game of Thrones was so exciting was because it deliberately subverted the tropes of fantasy novels. Good didn’t always triumph over evil, being pragmatic was better than being noble, and political problems could not be solved by putting a “good” person in charge. The plot, in so far as the books had one, was that various noble families are so busy squabbling for power, they fail to see, let alone react to, a threat so powerful and dangerous, it is capable of wiping out all of life. How can anyone hope to withstand this threat if the leaders are already weakening the land with their power plays?
I lost faith in George R. R. Martin’s ability to answer this question, and so I stopped reading, but I was interested in the world enough to at least keep track of what was going on in the show, especially since an ending was promised. I happened to see the end of the episode, “The Longest Night,” and just like that, all my interest died, because when Arya teleported out of nowhere to stab the Night King and hordes of zombies crumbled in a flash of light, I realized that the epic series built on subverting tropes had succumbed to the oldest, most clichée plot devices of all time.
Not only that, but it wasn’t even done well. Arya’s heroic moment didn’t come out of strategy and sacrifice, it was a spur-of-the-moment move prompted by cryptic, pseudo-prophetic words. Fate, in other words. Oh, and in that same episode, Theon died, because he had reached the end of his redemption arc and needed a pointless, heroic death.
What is the bigger threat? An apocalyptic winter that lasts for years with legions of zombies bringing the dead back to life? Or squabbling politicians who can’t decide who should rule the land? According to the final season, the real threat was the latter, so they made it the climax of the show. And how did they solve the complex political problem that began when a well-meaning man murdered a mad king and put a “good” man (his brother-in-law) on the throne? A well-meaning man murdered a mad queen and put a “good” man (his brother) on the throne.
I’m not upset that Daenerys turned evil, I’m upset she turned evil just so they could kill her off, evoking the clichée that killing the Big Bad solves everything for the second time and slapping on a solution that negates the whole premise of the series! In twenty years, we’ll be at this all over again. Nothing changed. All the pain and suffering and sacrificing was pointless.
Meanwhile, the hugely popular Avengers: Endgame was showing in theatres.
I loved Avengers: Infinity War. It cruelly killed off my favorite MCU characters, and I still loved it. On the whole, I enjoy MCU superhero movies, but Infinity War was different. It felt an epic fantasy in the purest sense of the word: ragtag heroes coming together to fight an impossible threat with overwhelming stakes. There were actual battles, with formations and strategies and everything. I was so excited. But the kicker was that ending.
Thanos won. And it wasn’t just that he won. See Thanos is all about doing what is needed to preserve life as a whole—even if it meant ruthlessly sacrificing individual lives. It’s a philosophy our heroes are vehemently opposed to. “We don’t trade lives,” Captain America says. The individual comes first. But what happens if you come across a moral dilemma like the trolley problem? That is, if, to save five people, you must kill one? Well, the heroes will find a way to save all six. Because that’s what heroes do.
Except this time, they didn’t. This time, the heroes failed, and that failure cost them--and the world--everything.
I think it’s significant that the first person we see disappear is Bucky. He turns to dust right in front of Captain America’s eyes. Now, if all you saw was Infinity War, you might feel sad that our hero’s bff died. But if you go back and watch the Captain America trilogy, you’ll realize that every single movie was about Steve saving Bucky. In Civil War, the Avengers team was pulled apart because Steve would not put the life of his friend--an individual--over some vague idea of moral good. Then Thanos snaps his finger, and the man, the friendship, and the philosophy gets destroyed in the blink of an eye.
I also think it’s significant that the last one to go is Peter Parker, and he dies in Tony’s arms. All of the Iron Man movies have been about Tony growing from a bad boy to a good man, and Peter represents the accumulation of his journey. Tony is a mentor and a father figure to Peter. In him, Tony sees the possibility of making the world a better place. Peter represents the future--the greater good--that Tony is so desperately trying to preserve. That future vanishes in a puff of ash.
Everything the heroes have fought and sacrificed for is gone. What do you do when you can’t save everyone? How do you deal with failure on such a massive scale, failure that is both personal, global, and symbolic? I was desperate for answers.
The answer, it turned out, was magic.
To be fair, it did seem, for a twinkling moment, Endgame was going to subvert the idea that killing the Big Bad solves all problems. They did kill Thanos to start with, and nothing got fixed. However, after this, it seemed like the writers had painted themselves into a corner. They had to resurrect the dead characters somehow. So they used time travel. They collected magical stones in order to bring back their dead friends.
But since this was all too easy (way too easy), the writers also had to resurrect Thanos. They needed a Big Bad to kill off at the end. They subverted the trope initially, just to bring it back. And the frustrating thing was that this had nothing to do with solving the main problem. They brought back Thanos purely to give our heroes someone to fight at the film’s climax, a big rah-rah! moment of action and fanservice. Then they killed him. To be fair, killing Thanos did not kill his army--they just did both at the same time. Hey, it’s not genocide if it’s magic!
Since a magical snap isn’t necessarily exciting, the writers decided to evoke a heroic sacrifice. Who did they sacrifice? Was it Captain America, a man born with a perfect sense of moral righteousness, the hero with no blemish, the man who has always been willing, if not eager, to sacrifice himself for his fellow man? Or was it Iron Man, a man whose career has launched a thousand villains, a selfish industrialist who through an arduous process of change made himself into a hero? Yeah, imperfect Iron Man got killed off while perfect Captain America got a fairy tale ending.
Oh, and how does one deal with failure? Everyone gets sad. Then they get a pep talk from a deceased parent--time travel!--and realize that they are still good people. Therefore they don’t have anything to learn, because why grow and mature when you have a magic machine that will fix your mistakes?
To say nothing with how they dealt with the global consequences of the Snap! Half the universe was wiped out, people! Sadness is the least of your problems. Every single government is going to topple at the same time. Infrastructure will be gone. Children will be left without parents. The world is going to hell. Your best hopes for humanity, these super-powered beings, have to shake themselves off and set to work saving a world that well and truly needs to be saved.
Or, you know, they could lead therapy meetings. Hide in cabins. Drink beer and play Fortnite--because apparently that still exists.
By the time, I got to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I had given up hope. I wasn’t going to get he ending I wanted. The reviews confirmed it.
I loved The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi dealt with the themes of failures and mistakes. You may have noticed, but I love themes of failures and mistakes. Everyone fails. Rey tries to redeem Kylo--and fails. Finn tries to be a spy for the rebels--and fails. Poe tries to lead the rebellion--and fails. As for Luke and Leia, their failures run much deeper. At a crucial moment, Luke thought about killing his own nephew and as a result, his nephew turned to the dark side. Leia spent her whole career fighting a rebellion, but when she called for allies, no one came. And yet, despite this failure, hope remained.
Luke was the source of hope, because Luke confronted his failure, and what he did at the end of The Last Jedi was awesome and inspiring. Here was his dilemma: his sister and rebellion were about to be annihilated by an evil force led by his nephew--the one he had failed. Do you kill your nephew to save your sister? At first, it seemed like Luke was determined to try. Luke called Kylo Ren out, challenged him. But that fight was a bluff. Luke was an illusion. In the ultimate show of power and peace, Luke single-handedly stopped a battle, saved the rebellion, and didn’t so much as harm a hair on his nephew’s head.
To me, this fulfills the promise of the Jedi. Oh, sure they’re supposed to be the guardians of peace, but to enforce this peace, they’ll kill foot soldiers and hack off limbs. But Luke has actually did use peaceful methods to achieve his goals--twice. He stood up to Darth Vader. He stood up to Kylo Ren. He refused to kill them. Instead, he trusted--in his friends, in his family, in the force. And he won. Yes, The Last Jedi’s end wasn’t a glorious victory, but they survived and where there’s life, there’s hope.
As for Kylo Ren, he ends The Last Jedi as the Supreme Leader, the most powerful person in the galaxy. But his hold is tenuous. He’s just made a fool of himself, and his allies are scheming behind his back. He’s lost his family and the girl he wants, and even though he is trying to create something new, he clearly has no idea what that is or how to do it. I wanted Kylo Ren to be redeemed so, so badly, but how do you do it when he’s the Big Bad?
Apparently, you resurrect Palpatine and make him the Big Bad. No explanation of how it happens, it just does. Once Palpatine is the Big Bad, you can kill him off. This somehow leads to the end of the First Order. Everyone celebrates. But not Kylo Ren, because he’s been redeemed. Which means he’s dead. Oh, I’m sorry, did you actually think he’d survive his redemption? Ha! And do what? Turn himself into the rebellion, be put on trial, and let them execute him for war crimes? Justice is hard. Forgiveness is hard. Change is hard. Death is easy. No matter that Han, Luke, and Leia all died for him. Redemption equals death.
Kylo Ren knew it, too, which is why he spent the first two movies violently resisting it. The issue was never wanting to be good. The issue was that he felt he was so far gone down the path of evil, there was no point in trying. He couldn’t be good and still have a future. Sadly, The Rise of Skywalker proved him right.
As far as dealing with failure, building goodness in the shadow of evil, and taking down an empire--use the force, i.e. magic. The solution is always magic. Your failure has brought the apocalypse to your door? Magic, magic, magic. Fix everything with magic!
That is not what magic is for! The force is not a band-aid, people!
Ultimately, I don’t think the problem was that these franchises wanted to play it safe. I think the problem was that they couldn’t think of a way of building a satisfying conclusion. I mean, I had no idea how to do it. That’s what made seeing these finales so exciting. I wanted to learn. I wanted to see how you deal with evil without simply killing off an evil person, how to deal with failure without using magic to fix it. But these endings didn’t teach me. Instead, they offered sugar-coated solutions that left me empty.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.