During a recent interview with Film Comment about the upcoming DVD, Blu-ray and digital download release of his film The Dark Knight Rises on Tuesday, director Christopher Nolan said something that struck me as out of character for superhero narratives.
"To me, for that mission to succeed, it has to end, so this is the ending," Nolan said of his decision to end the Dark Knight Trilogy and walk away from Batman at the end of the film.
An ending? And (spoilers for those who haven't seen the film) a happy one, to boot? Egad, man, it's as though you've never read a comic book before in your life!
It's the nature of ongoing, serialized storytelling that you can't give anyone a true happy ending, but in recent years, the major comic book publishers have been particualarly aggressive at rolling back even the most modest gains made by our heroes in an effort to keep them eternally young and forever trapped in the status quo familiar to casual fans who know them only from Saturday morning cartoons.
DC Entertainment co-publisher Dan DiDio addressed the issue at the Meet the Publishers panel at San Diego Comic Con International this year, where he said that the hardest part of writing these long-running supehero characters is separating the best interests of the characters and their hardcore fans from the best interests of the company. As a fan, he admitted, you want these characters to eventually be able to rest.
Poor Wally West may be the biggest, worst example of this. After growing from an immature kid to one of the strongest characters in the DC Universe, marrying the longtime love of his life and then retiring to raise their kids together, he was pulled out of retirement when a poorly-thought-out Flash gimmick blew up in editorial's face. Not yet ready to resurrect Barry Allen, but certain that's what they wanted to do, Wally's happy ending was ripped from him so that he could come aboard as The Flash for another six months or so, then be relegated to the back burner and never really used again. Once the New 52 came around, he was removed entirely from the DC Universe, with his fans terrorizing the publishers at every convention.
Would Wally have the same level of support behind him if they hadn't made him The Flash again just before retconning the character? It's hard to say; look to Jack Knight for a comparison. Almost nobody seriously takes the position that the character would be better served by a return to action, or that they would like to see it happen.
Of course, there's an argument to be made that it's better to simply stop appearing than to be changed beyond recognition in service of a story that makes no sense. Spider-Man may not have been ready to retire, but he had a pretty good thing going; there was character evolution and development and maturity. One day it was gone. Why? It's magic--we don't have to explain it. Now, we're hearing that he won't be the next Spider-Man, but that he'll still be alive and operating in the Marvel Universe. Taking away the mask seems like the perfect opportunity to give him some semblance of a normal life, but it won't happen--because to do so would fly in the face of the philosophy that these characters have to stagnate always.
(Besides, it would become problematic when they inevitably return him to being Spider-Man in time for the second Amazing Spider-Man movie in a year or two.)
Recently, I pointed out to Roger Stern that the Superman comics of the '90s were a bit like the Nolan Batman trilogy. Everything from John Byrne's Man of Steel until about 1999, when Jeph Loeb joined the writing team and Krypton and Kryptonians started making regular in-continuity appearances kind of sits in its own bubble, where it can be read as having a beginning, a middle and an ending. During that time, Superman's origins were tweaked and his backstory truncated, but before the roughly fifteen years of that period were over, he had aged, matured and accomplished more in his personal life than the combined previous fifty years of his publishing history combined.
So, of course, that had to go. Most of that stuff didn't even make it until the reboot before being dismissed from canon; the marriage was the last to go.
To say that comic books are like long-running soap operas at this point is an observation so old it's become trite - but there's a difference. Filming in real time means that as actors age, their characters inevitably have to change somewhat, or else be written off the show. It may not even be what the writers particularly want, but there are practical concerns at play. Superhero comics have no such concerns; every so often, somebody just cracks the dash, rolls back the odometer and keeps on driving. Some fans might complain, others might enjoy the feeling of cruising down the highway in the comfort of their childhood ride, but it's the nature of the beast.