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Star Wars death sparking trend among movie franchises

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Everett Collection; Lucasfilm

“Wasn’t all bad, right? Some of it was… pretty good?” — Han Solo, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“Time takes everybody out. Time’s undefeated.” — Rocky Balboa, Creed

“I feel young.” — Middle-aged Captain Kirk, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

“Dude, I’m 35 years old. If it hasn’t happened already, it ain’t gonna happen.” — Big Dick Richie, Magic Mike XXL

The biggest movie of 2015 is about a 73-year-old father with a broken marriage and a son who hates him. One of the biggest critical-commercial successes of 2015 is about a 69-year-old widower who never sees his son. Both movies are seventh in franchises older than Tom Hardy.

Everyone was young once. When we met Han Solo, he was youthful and wild. When we met Rocky Balboa, he had a brilliant career ahead of him. Now they’re old, dying, dead. Time takes everybody out. Time’s undefeated.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed aren’t just about their aging stars. Both films go out of their way to reboot with an ensemble cast younger, cuter, fuller of life. Han and Rocky both meet surrogate children, played by attractive actors with the brightest possible futures. (Rocky and Han need surrogate children; their actual spawn won’t speak to them.) The central drama of both movies gets bifurcated along generational lines. You could argue the real protagonists are Rey and Adonis on their journey towards self-realization.

But Han and Rocky’s journeys aim in stranger, more unsettling, less rah-rah direction. Lots of people have pointed out how Creed turns Rocky into Mickey, how Force Awakens makes Han the new Obi-Wan. (Time is a wheel: Student becomes teacher, boxer becomes trainer, scoundrel-skeptic becomes self-sacrificing true believer.) But we didn’t have six movies demonstrating the ravages of time on Mickey’s face. And we didn’t meet Young Obi-Wan Kenobi until long, long, long after we met Dead Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo and Rocky Balboa were never tragic figures, but that’s how they feel in Force Awakens and Creed. Their lives have not gone as planned. Even if they did, surely this wasn’t the plan. Rocky is a Heavyweight Champion many times over. Now, he spends his lonely mornings reading the newspaper to dead loved ones. Han Solo saved the universe. Now, he’s running weird smuggling con games on the outer fringe of the galaxy. They both stare Death in the face. Does it matter if they survive? Nobody does, in the end.

There have always been movie franchises. Now, there are more movie franchises. This is because of money, and the fear of original ideas, and a vaguely new-ish thirst for never-ending stories. Lots of people point to the James Bond series as the model and the goal. What studio wouldn’t want a franchise that gets bigger when it turns 50?

But weirdly, if you want to understand the state of movie franchises right now, you need to look at Star Trek. Have you seen the first six Star Trek movies? Are they still remotely essential viewing for everyone? Everyone points to Wrath of Khan as a franchise high point; I’ll stump for The Voyage Home; Christophers, Lloyd and Plummer, make great Klingons in Search for Spock and The Undiscovered Country; if you’re recovering from a serious injury, The Motion Picture is one of the all-time great Morphine Movies.

As actual standalone Movie movies, they’re a mixed bag. Forced to choose, I’d rank First Contact and the first Abrams Star Trek ahead of almost all of them. “Almost,” because Wrath of Khan is the game-changer. Most franchise sequels now struggle mightily toward justifying themselves with higher stakes, more nefarious villains, bigger Death Stars. Wrath of Khan does something simpler: It makes Captain Kirk old.

Maybe “old” is the wrong word. William Shatner was in his early 50s, and the original script supposedly declares that Kirk is 49. But Kirk feels old. Kirk thinks Kirk is old. The movie starts with his birthday; Dr. McCoy gives him reading glasses. At one point, Kirk muses as only Shatner can: “My son… my life that could have been… and wasn’t. How do I feel? Old. Worn out.”

The Star Trek franchise was, weirdly, only 16 years old when Khan came out. (It turns 50 this year.) But from Khan onwards, the subtext of every story about Kirk changes radically. When you watch the original series, he’s a cool guy with a spaceship. In Wrath of Khan, he’s a middle-aged man with a son who barely knows him. (In Wrath of Khan as in The Force Awakens, it’s unclear if anything like marriage was ever involved, and the mom is the more successful and stable parent: a progressive, vaguely Scandinavian portrait of a post-nuclear family.)

Kirk post-Khan is a tragic figure for no obvious reason besides The Fact That He’s Getting Older, but the mere fact of age becomes a melancholy subtext. It’s there in The Final Frontier, an embarrassing science-fiction story that doubles as a William Shatner Mountain Climbing instructional video. That movie is terrible, but it has one of the all-time-great Star Trek moments. Here’s Kirk, at a campfire, with his two co-workers who might also be his only friends: “I’ve always known I’ll die alone.”

In Star Trek: Generations, Kirk jumps forward in time long enough to shake hands with Jean-Luc Picard, and then sacrifices himself so the (relatively) younger Next Generation cast can fight on. Kirk in Generations = Han Solo in Force Awakens = Rocky in Creed. There’s even a scene in Generations when Kirk gets a vision of the life he never lived: a farm, a horse, the one who got away.

Time takes everything, everyone dies alone, youth fades into old age: heavy stuff, wedged almost accidentally into the middle of escapist and maybe mediocre entertainment. And when it works, it’s often for reasons that go beyond or around our usual definition of “good filmmaking.” We’ve always seen actors grow old onscreen. Something new is happening, I think, in this weird and frustrating franchise moment. You can watch John Wayne’s later movies as commentaries on John Wayne’s persona — certainly his swan song The Shootist, but also a lesser film like The Cowboys and even the much earlier The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But John Wayne in The Shootist isn’t literally the same character he played in Stagecoach. Like, you could kill Harrison Ford in a movie, the way Bruce Dern kills John Wayne in The Cowboys — but when you’re killing Harrison Ford and Han Solo, that means something more.

This isn’t true of every franchise character. The Mission: Impossible movies have gotten better as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has become a less real-human character. (In the third movie, he has a wife. By the fifth movie, someone calls him “the Living Manifestation of Destiny.”) James Bond films occasionally bring up mortality: Both Skyfall and the off-brand Never Say Never Again fleck at the notion of an out-of-shape Bond. But no Bond movie has ever taken aging seriously, unless you count the frequent use of stunt doubles in the later Roger Moore movies as stealth context. (Among the million other bizarre things about Spectre, the latest movie transforms a central Bond myth into a childhood rivalry. It’s an infantile story arc for Daniel Craig, at 47 already hitting late-middle-age for Bond actors.)

The Bond movies only ever bring up Bond’s age as a kind of meta-commentary on the franchise itself. The first time we met Pierce Brosnan, M called him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” That “dinosaur” immediately saved the world. He’s old, not obsolete. “Old, not obsolete” is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s uncatchy catchphrase in Terminator: Genisys, a movie which is only really interesting as a comparative point for what not to do with legacy action franchise stars. In Creed, Sylvester Stallone mostly willingly submits himself and his most beloved character to the ravages of time.

Compare that to Terminator: Genisys, which introduces the idea of Arnold-As-Old-Terminator and then winds up resurrecting him as the most powerful Arnold Terminator ever. I get that this isn’t apples and oranges — Rocky Balboa is a human being, even if he did solve the Cold War with his fists; the Terminator is a robot, and Schwarzenegger has played a different one in ever movie — but consider this: Genisys is the first Terminator movie where Arnold doesn’t die. It wants to believe that the Arnold archetype can live forever, can only get better. Compare that to Force Awakens, which loves Han Solo so much that it has to kill him.

Actors age in strange ways. Better than normal people: make-up, skincare, good lighting. Or worse: unforgiving close-ups, ravages of a life lived hard, faces overlifted. Actors do age, though. Usually, they pretend otherwise. But you can’t really pretend, when you’re making a sixth sequel, that your character hasn’t aged.

Age was, apparently, already part of the story of Furious Seven when the movie started filming. The first time we see Paul Walker, he’s dropping his kid off at pre-school — a scene shot like a purposeful callback to his first appearance in The Fast and the Furious. Tragic circumstance refocused Furious Seven further in that direction. By which I mean: Furious Seven is a movie starring a dead man. His death is never mentioned in the movie — and his character doesn’t die.

But the final sequence of the movie makes no sense in the context of the film. Dominic Toretto races Brian O’Conner one last time, while Vin Diesel reads a final message to Paul Walker. It’s moving, I think. I cried the first three times I saw it. Even the weird and obvious CGI feels appropriate: It takes you out of the movie with a purpose. It almost feels wrong to analyze that moment as craft, or art, or entertainment. Yet it is all those things — and a high-grossing entertainment, at that. Releasing Furious Seven could have felt like a betrayal, or a larcenous cash-in. I don’t know anyone who felt like that. It strikes me as more of a celebration: a post-religious kind of collective global wake. (Or maybe you think movie franchises are religions that ask for donations every few years instead of every Sunday.)

The Furious Seven cry, the Creed cry, the Force Awakens cry: They’re different from, like, what happens when you see Inside Out, an emotionally harrowing experience that works entirely on its own merits. And I’m not sure any of these movies work just because we’ve seen the characters age. (Hell, I’m not sure anything works about Han Solo in Force Awakens.) But it is a uniquely new experience. You can point to Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie, aging from The Hustler to The Color of Money. You could pluck out poor Ellen Brody from the Jaws franchise, her family tormented into near-oblivion by what logic dictates must be a deathless immortal Shark God Of Vengeance. You could argue that the central special effect of the Harry Potter franchise was Time. Like, what’s more interesting: Digital snakes, digital spiders, and Ralph Fiennes’ digital void-nose, or watching this age into this?

I’m talking a lot about dudes, but this isn’t just a guy thing. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween H20 feels like a shockingly accurate all-grown-up variation of a teenaged Final Girl. Maybe it helps that Curtis herself became such an adventurous performer: It’s not a contest, but she gives more in the last two minutes of H20 — terror, pity, wry humor, exultant vengeance, exhausted catharsis — than Ford gives in the entirety of Force Awakens. And Sigourney Weaver had a much weirder Creed with Alien 3, a movie that spends its entire running time killing Ripley slowly.

There will soon be another Bridget Jones movie. A kind of miracle, that franchise, to exist for so long without aliens or starships or any notable explosions. Meanwhile, beyond the edge of reason, I find myself pining for another Sex and the City. The sequel had legendary problems, with “What If They Went To Abu Dhabi?” being the most obvious and least offensive. But the core origin myth of Sex and the City is positively postlapsarian. (What happens when you’re old enough to stop believing in romantic fairy tales?) I wonder what it would look like, if some new creative force could reboot the series back to its sharper earlier phase. Can’t Sex and the City have its own Ryan Coogler? Does Amy Schumer dream of directing?

Jennifer Lawrence prefers to age herself upwards, which makes The Hunger Games franchise a wildly successful outlier in her filmography. I have high hopes that the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse will find some way to send off her ageless Mystique, but superhero movies don’t really age either. They’re more like the James Bond movies: Batman and Spider-Man don’t grow old, they get replaced. Ben Affleck is playing an “older” Batman, the same way Christian Bale was “older” in Dark Knight Rises. Who knows about this new movie? In Dark Knight Rises, Batman was only old so he could prove he wasn’t obsolete. What makes Creed work is that Rocky is obsolete. More optimistically: He’s too old to fight anyone, but he still needs to figure out how to fight his own body.

The only real exception to that superhero rule is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine — and is it any coincidence that the most recent Wolverine movie was about age, and time, and death? Ninjas, too, but there’s an unmistakable darkening mood along the margins. Again, I’m willing to accept the argument that these movies find that mood by accident. Besides maybe Creed — which has the fortune to hail from a franchise that was always semi-masochistically focused on its hero-character’s little-man-that-could shortcomings — these movies don’t have a clarity of purpose around the aging process. Actually, I’m not sure any American filmmaker does — besides Richard Linklater, who used the passage of time as the centerpiece of his Before movies and the whole aesthetic of Boyhood. Before Midnight is the darkest by far, and it casts a pall backwards across the whimsy of Before Sunrise.

That note of melancholy pervades our franchises now, even the most lighthearted, even the most escapist. Like, yeesh: Magic Mike XXL. The whole point of the Magic Mike sequel was to be the less-serious Magic Mike — to pretend that a grim dark comedy about broken dreams was secretly a lighthearted sex farce all along. But if XXL is more fantastical in its world-building of a Strip Club Cinematic Universe, it’s also more generous in its portrayal of the supporting cast as poignantly dashed dreamers. Early in the movie, Channing Tatum’s Mike asks Matt Bomer’s Ken what he’s going to do after the road trip is over. “My agent’s got me doing YouTube videos now, man,” Ken says, groaning.

He has a plan, kind of: “Send my head shot around. Hope for the best. There’s a casting director comes around the club every now and then.” Ken isn’t worried, not really. “I’m still pretty,” he says. This line resonates, partially because Matt Bomer is one of our most comically attractive beings and partially because he makes that “still” sound just a little bit sad.

“Look at these guys,” says Mike, gesturing to their pals. “What are they gonna do after this?” Magic Mike XXL is a fun movie, but it never really answers that question.

The Magic Mike guys are, like, 35. They’re young. But they’re in a sequel. They feel old. They’ve all become Kirk in Wrath of Khan. Maybe, in the end, we all become Kirk in Wrath of Khan.

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