The first time we saw Howard Stark, he was already dead. That was six years ago, when archival footage of John Slattery was the least-worst thing about Iron Man 2. But Marvel Studios has yet to find the dead horse it can’t beat. So Slattery popped up in Ant-Man, and Dominic Cooper played Howard across The First Avenger and Agent Carter, and our fun fun summer 2016 at the movies started when Civil War brought Slattery back just long enough to break his skull open. “At long last, we know how Iron Man’s father died!” yelled someone somewhere, ecstatic, alone.
Daddy was always on Tony Stark’s mind, of course. Way back in the first Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. shows off some groovy new missiles to U.S. military top brass. “They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire,” Tony says, giving the kind of pitch through which Slattery used to sip booze on Mad Men. “I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how dad did it. That’s how America does it.” That line always sounded like a Downey improv, and the first Iron Man was too zippy to dwell on emotionally distant fathers and leadweight political context. In 2008, Bruce Wayne was the mournful superhero billionaire with murdered parents, and Tony Stark was the superhero billionaire with the stripper pole in his private jet.
Eight years later, we lucky moviegoers watched Batman’s parents die, again, in Batman v Superman. (Hi, Walking Dead actors! Bye, Walking Dead actors!) But then, surprise surprise, Iron Man’s parents died, too, because anything Snyder does Marvel does better. The Stark parents’ murder played out in the prologue and the climax of Civil War, because blockbuster screenwriting dictates that anything worth doing is worth belaboring. Between deaths, Slattery and Hope Davis hang out onscreen with a freakish digital-botox monster clone of Downey. Now, Young Tony is supposed to look fake, I think; present-day Tony appears in the same scene, looking as always like a Post-Lapsarian George Michael.
Downey’s 51 and looks good: money, fame, clean living, yoga, whatever. At 45, Matt Damon looks a bit older, which I only mean as a compliment. In Jason Bourne, Damon is early-middle-aged in the best way, gray in his temples, salt in his pepper. The movie doesn’t care about Bourne’s age, but it keeps reminding you how much time has passed for the character. You keep spotting that old passport photo of Matt Damon, which has now appeared on background televisions and computer screens in every Bourne movie, even Legacy.
Like Civil War, Jason Bourne proffers a young-man flashback for its lead character. Even through Paul Greengrass’ trademark maniac cutting, Young Matt Damon looks pretty unconvincing, but that’s the least of the movie’s problems. Jason Bourne also conjures from thin air the idea that Bourne’s dad was the Howard Stark of the Bourne-verse, a CIA grandee who invented black ops and got retired via carbomb.
Jason Bourne always had parents. Duh. So do you and me and penguins and Jesus and Hitler and Donald Trump. But not every story needs parents, and in what we now have to sadly refer to as “the original Bourne trilogy,” mom and dad never mattered even after Bourne gradually remembered who he was.
And that was the point, really: The break from the past, the sense of being lost in the world. One of the most fun core ideals of the big-screen Bournes was how it suggested that the modern espionage-assassination complex was populated exclusively by attractive global citizens, stateless freelancers with Swiss bank accounts and priority boarding passes. Clive Owen, Karl Urban, Edgar Ramirez, Martin Csokas: here were dudes with unironic Monocle subscriptions, the kind of people who take business trips to Moscow and Morocco but never get see anything but the boardroom and the hotel.
Nobody had a family, really. And that was a big shift from the source material. In Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity, we learn that Bourne had a family, wife and two kids, killed in Cambodia by a fighter plane off-course from Vietnam. But Ludlum’s Bourne was also a Cold Warrior, deep-down loyal to his country. (By the second Bourne book, he’s repatriated to America and working as a university professor in Maine.) The Bourne movies never really took nationality seriously — Alicia Vikander plays CIA the way a danish plays a doughnut.
But the films all contrast the undifferentiated, attractive, globalized youth of the field agents with the craggly corroded American masculinity of the big men in charge. Chris Cooper, David Straithairn, Scott Glenn, plus Brits Brian Cox and Albert Finney playing Rumsfeld pastiche: these were the spiritual “fathers” of the Bourne series, a portrait of the modern security complex as a self-devouring patriotic bureaucracy, corporate-tinged G-men betraying each other into obscurity. And these were the bad guys. Bourne is a grown man, powerful enough to take down the dads who tried to screw him up. It makes sense that his only allies are women: Spiritual mom Joan Allen, spiritual stepsister-with-benefits Julia Stiles, lover Franka Potente murdered by the spiritual dads when she threatens to make their spiritual son a happy healthy man. The original trilogy is patricidal; that’s what makes it so thrilling.
Jason Bourne misses the point completely. We learn Bourne’s dad invented Treadstone — but unlike all the franchise’s other bad father, Bourne’s bio-dad was a deep-down sweet guy who wanted his son to be a happy healthy non-sociopath. So Jason Bourne reaches into the past to give Bourne his own Thomas Wayne, a murdered father requiring vengeance. It’s a retcontrivance that demolishes the whole foundation of the previous movies, all in service of a lame “This time it’s personal!” flashback subplot. It is the single worst act of franchise seppuku since Darth Vader said “Whooooo!”
And killing Iron Man’s parents in Civil War is almost as bad, really. In both cases, it’s a shortcut to drama, a way of circling the characters backward instead of taking any bold steps forward. And, in both cases, you can feel the filmmakers justifying themselves and their franchise’s continued existence. “This — this — is the important movie,” they seem to be saying. “This is the one where his dad dies.”
Howard Stark has always been dead in the comics, and in the fullness of time and eternal continuity, that death eventually retroactively became a murder. This is what happens when stories last forever: the cast of characters gets bigger, but the world around them gets smaller, until you discover that every Avenger had parents who worked for SHIELD. In the comic books, Spider-Man’s biological parents never mattered, but eventually someone decided they were both secret agents, or that Spider-man’s dad was a scientist working with future super-people, or whatever.
In comic book history, The Secret of Spider-Man’s Parents was just a very occasional plot, the kind of thing you could run with for a few issues. One of the saddest things about the endearingly misbegotten Amazing Spider-Man series was how completely it ran with this idea. By the middle of the first movie, Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker has lost his parents and his Uncle Ben. Lest you missed the point, Amazing Spider-Man 2 began with a flashback prologue to the assassination of Spider-Man’s parents. “Just like in Civil War!” you might say, although before you accuse anyone here of originality, keep in mind that Amazing 2 featured an eerily accurate recreation of Iron Man 2’s iconic “Dead Father Speaks To Son Via Archival Footage In A Laboratory” scene.
To lose one father may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two fathers looks like careless writing. Both of Superman’s dads died in the 1978 film, but it took 2013’s Man of Steel to make both dads into phantom authority figures, haunting their son with advice and exposition from beyond. how the two films treat the deaths is notable, too. In Superman, Jor-El dies with Krypton, and Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack. In Man of Steel, Jor-El is killed by the movie’s bad guy, inviting and justifying Superman’s vengeance; Jonathan Kent is killed by a tornado, in the process forcing his superpowered son to do nothing. “Do nothing” was what Edmund Burke advised good men to do, right?
In fairness, Superman’s dads are usually dead, although you can’t deny it’s weird how the movies focus on that. (There have been literally thousands of Superman stories where Superman doesn’t cry about dead parents.) More troubling, though, is how this ham-handed comic-derived origin storytelling has infected all blockbusters like a virus. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Captain Kirk’s dad died in Trek ’09, nor that Star Trek Into Darkness motivates Kirk by killing off his surrogate-father Pike. This year’s Star Trek Beyond begins with Kirk mourning his dead father — and, just when you think that these new Star Trek films have fixated quite enough on a Kirk’s Dad, you remember that Kirk’s Dad is the actual costar of the next film.
When Shatner played Kirk, “parents” never really came up. Kirk was a grown man, and then, in the Trek movies, an old man. But maybe men don’t grow up the way they used to. Ian Fleming made James Bond an orphan late in the book series, but that wasn’t meant to be some kind of all-encompassing origin narrative. It didn’t “explain” Bond, the way Crime Alley explains Batman. But Skyfall ended with Bond at his own private Wayne manor — and then Spectre fixated on a throwaway bit of literary lore to give Bond his own Uncle Ben. In the new lore, Bond was adopted by a kindly guy named Oberhauser; Oberhauser’s jealous son killed his father and grew up to be Blofeld. So, if you’re keeping track: Our modern incarnations of Superman, James Bond, Captain Kirk, and Spider-Man have all lost a father and an adoptive surrogate father.
To what end? It’s curious, how these dead dads change blockbusters. Bond used to fight Blofeld because Blofeld wanted to take over the world; now he fights Blofeld because, man, they’ve got some history. And Spectre wasn’t the only movie last year that turned iconic characters into orphans. In the original Terminator, Sarah Connor fought Skynet because Skynet wanted to take over the world. This was clearly not enough for Terminator Genisys, which killed Sarah’s parents — I guess to make things personal. The same summer, two of the Fantastic Four watched their dad die, killed by Doctor Doom. A good thing, too: besides the fact that he plans to conquer and/or destroy the world, there’s really no reason for the Fantastic Four to fight Dr. Doom if he hasn’t killed at least one dad. And I assume you didn’t see Pan, because you’re a human being, which means you missed the exciting part when Blackbeard killed Peter Pan’s father and then later on killed Peter Pan’s mother, because it’s hard to justify fighting Blackbeard unless he killed both of your parents.
Maybe this is all just a Batman thing: The final remnant of The Dark Knight’s zeitgeist, playing off across every franchise. It’s worth pointing out that, that in Batman Begins, the ultimate villain is the man who ordered Bruce Wayne’s parents killed — a reheat of the least necessary plotline in Tim Burton’s original Batman, which ludicrously decided that the Joker was the guy who killed Batman’s parents. Want to know when it started getting absurd? I would point to Men in Black 3. The first time we met Will Smith’s Agent J, he was a New York cop with an aggressive sense of humor and a distaste for authority figures — in short, a New York cop. MiB3 is mostly just a travesty, but it builds up to a gas-leak origin story, revealing that J’s father was killed by aliens, and that Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K was watching after him all along.
Will Smith was in Men in Black just one year after he starred in Independence Day. He was such a movie star in those movies — god, he was a star! — but in both movies, he’s just a dude, really. Oh, he’s the best pilot on Earth, yeah, and he’s the most talented cop on the force, but he’s the kind of guy who lives in the suburbs or a crappy apartment, who gets turned down by NASA and reamed out by his superiors.
Smith didn’t return for Independence Day: Resurgence. So his character is a dead dad in the new film — the looming inspiration for his stepson Dylan. Obviously, Dylan needs some more motivation, so the film also kills off his mom, the onetime stripper turned hospital administrator played by Vivica A. Fox.
Bill Pullman dies in the movie, too. Some poetry there, maybe: in the fullness of time, every movie hero will be some other movie hero’s dead parent someday. Seriously, how trendy are dead dads right now? Alden Ehrenreich, one of the year’s most exciting young actors, will play a dead dad in a new Star Wars film. Apparently, they’re planning a whole Han Solo trilogy, because lord knows we need another Star Wars trilogy about the youthful adventures of someone who will grow up to be emotionally distant father figure. Of course, in the original Star Wars, Luke was an orphan thrice over — long-lost parents, murdered aunt and uncle, surrogate father struck down before his very eyes — so maybe the patricide epidemic started in the galaxy far, far away.
How real is Hollywood’s modern parent apocalypse? I didn’t see The Jungle Book, but I just playfully Googled “Jungle Book Dead Father,” and get this: In the new version, Shere Khan kills Mowgli’s actual father and his wolf surrogate father? And I didn’t see Pete’s Dragon, but I just playfully Googled “Pete’s Dad,” and get this: The new version begins with Pete’s parents dying in a car accident. (Mowgli and Pete were always orphans, but the earlier versions of the story didn’t peg that as their defining story point; didn’t immediately default to mournful sad-sackery.)
I did, however, see Warcraft, because everyone makes mistakes, like the people who made Warcraft. At the start of the movie, the main Guy Orc and the main Lady Orc have welcome a little Baby Orc into the world. By the end of the film, both Daddy Orc and Mommy Orc have been killed — and, if you’re a Warcraft myth-head, you know that Baby Orc will grow up to be a heroic chieftain. That’s right: Warcraft is a origin story for Warcraft, right down to the murdered parents.
Can I make one thing very clear? I can’t begin imagine the horror and misery of losing a parent; I know it’s not something you “get over,” not just some prologue-worthy Moment. I’m being flip because these movies are so dumb, because they seem to be just pulling a “Dead Parent” lever in the writers’ room, and because I honestly want to know: Why is Hollywood killing everyone’s parents? It’s the self-importance problem, sure, and there is the weird way that these films need to make everything personal. It’s not enough to fight someone because they’re doing bad things; it only really makes sense to fight them when they have personally affronted you. That feels timely, in this moment of online outrage: everything political is personal, every cultural slight some kind of personal attack. (Maybe there’s some deeper historic symbolism here, too. Remember: George W. Bush, who started a war in Iraq, once called Iraq president Saddam Hussein “the guy who tried to kill my dad.”)
But this epidemic feels personal, somehow. It constitutes a statement by a generation of Hollywood filmmakers: Daddy-issues played out ad infinitum. These heroes love their dead dads, avenge them, try to honor them; yet you can’t miss how these movies positively glory in their killing, how those deaths provide the characters with motivation, with a greater sense of purpose.
Every movie I just mentioned is a sequel, of course. Or a remake, or a reboot, or whatever Disney’s calling their recycling nowadays. Many of these movies are made by talented filmmakers: Men, always men. Some of them grew up with the stories they are now retelling. Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig can talk about decades of James Bond; anyone making a Star Wars film can quote whole movies chapter and verse; anyone alive knows the story of Peter Pan. On the other hand, some of these filmmakers are returning to stories they began long ago: Roland Emmerich and Independence Day, Paul Greengrass and Bourne, Barry Sonnenfeld and Men in Black.
What kind of stories do you tell, when you know you aren’t telling an original story? What does your character struggle with, when you are struggling with your franchise’s legacy: with decades of comic book history, or the memories of generations of moviegoers, or your own long-ago success? Doesn’t it make sense that these heroes are struggling with legacy? With the memories of father figures, with their own creator?
“I’m limited by the technology of my time,” says Howard Stark in Iron Man 2. He’s speaking in archival footage from the early ‘70s. That was the early golden age of Iron Man; a few years after he fought Communists, a few years before he fought alcoholism. In a weird way, Howard Stark seems to be speaking as the original Tony Stark — a character “limited” by the technology of his time, who could only appear as an illustration in comics or cartoons, an idea waiting for the digital effects revolution that would make a live-action Iron Man into a mainstream going concern. “One day, you’ll figure this out,” says Howard Stark. “And when you do, you will change the world.”
Success, Iron Man! You did it! You changed the world! Your universe is now a movie-and-TV-spanning phenomenon, worth billions, with nowhere to go but up and out! So: What do you do now? The saddest thing about Civil War — and Jason Bourne, and Star Trek Beyond, and Spectre, and all the rest — is how they hermetically burrow backwards. The characters approach middle age, yet the films trap them in childish concerns. Bourne used to be a man who could fall in love with a woman; now he’s a son mourning for his daddy. The Iron Man movies used to run on the His Girl Friday-ish banter between Tony and Pepper Potts; in Civil War, the only woman in Tony’s life is his mom.
This is what happens when all our big movies are kids’ movies. Grown men act like kids. Aging actors play characters who don’t seem to be aging — who actually seem to be getting younger, fortysomethings dealing absent parents like they’re twentysomethings in therapy. They struggle with parental issues; they ultimately try to live up to their parents’ example. They never have to think about what their parents did wrong; that’s the kind of thing that only occurs to you when you’re too old to relate to the teenaged demographic. (By comparison, the mournful single-dad helium noir Inception looks like freaking Amour.) And keep in mind: These movies are reaching out to the first teenaged demographic in the history of teenagers that thinks the words “mom” and “dad” are a term of endearment.
And maybe it’s notable, too, that all these characters all men. (Even Terminator: Genisys proceeds from the dunderheaded idea that Kyle Reese is as interesting as Sarah Conner.) Is there some deeper nostalgia at work here? These movies kill the patriarchy, but only so they can reaffirm a new one. Everyone’s the Lion King.
“My greatest creation is you,” Howard Stark tells his son Tony, a moment played in Iron Man 2 like a tearful reunion. Of course, from every obvious evidence we can see, Howard Stark was a horrible parent — but to really question Howard would require these heroes, these filmmakers, these movies to question their core foundations. Jason Bourne’s dad actually should be a bad guy — the movie is structured around that idea, really — so his last-second change of heart (followed immediately by his murder) is actually a curious case of legacy management.
It’s difficult to question your creator’s decisions. Much easier, it turns out, to just kill them. You can honor their memory by doing the same old thing they did — to steadily declining creative returns, but nevertheless steady financial returns. Why learn history, when you’re doomed to make just as much money repeating it?