In "The Myth of Superman," the late Umberto Eco's pioneering essay on the semiotics of superheroes, a useful distinction is drawn between the heroes of myth and those of the traditional novel. What Eco points out is the way that mythic heroes are never "used up" by their experiences in the way that novelistic heroes are. The narrator, say, of Great Expectations is a different man at the end of his story than he was at the beginning (this, of course is Dickens' point), and if a sequel were to be written, the Pip of that novel would have to show the effects of time and experience that we see in the original tale. Superman, on the other hand (and the mythic heroes like Hercules that he resembles) is the same person from adventure to adventure, not taking up where he left off but simply reappearing in new story lines that can be multiplied indefinitely.
As I contemplate the appearance of yet another installment in the endless Star Wars franchise (along with the equally endless stream of superhero sagas that dominate the American cinematic box office), however, I can detect a certain difference that calls for a readjustment of Eco's still-useful distinction. And since differences are the key to semiotic understanding, this one is worth investigating.
All we have to do to see this difference is to consider the casting of Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Of course, part of the reason for this was simply marketing: nostalgia is a highly effective ticket seller. But when we associate this movie with other action-adventure films whose heroes can be seen to be aging in ways that they have not done so before (the Batman and James Bond franchises are especially salient in this regard), another, much more profound significance emerges. This is the fact that while the characters in today's most popular designed-to-be-sequelized movies are coming to resemble the characters of conventional novels (as Eco describes them), the situations they find themselves in remain more or less the same. Quite simply, they are forever at war.
To see the significance of this, consider the plot trajectory of the traditional war story. Such stories, even if it takes a while for them to come to a conclusion, do eventually end. From the Homeric tradition that gives us the ten years of the Trojan War (with another ten years tacked on for Odysseus to get home) to The Lord of the Rings, the great wars of the story-telling tradition have a teleology: a beginning, a middle, and an end, as Aristotle would put it. But when we look at the Star Wars saga (especially now that Lucas has sold the franchise to Disney), or the Justice League tales, or (for that matter) The Walking Dead, we can find provisional, but never final, victories. Someone (or something) somewhere, will be forever threatening the world of the hero, and the end is never in sight. It is violent conflict itself that is never "used up."
There are a number of ways of interpreting this phenomenon. One must begin with the commercial motivation behind it: killing off the war would be tantamount to killing the golden geese of fan demand, and no one holding onto a valuable movie franchise is going to want to do that.
But while this explanation is certainly a cogent one, it raises another question: namely, why are movie fans satisfied with tales of never-ending war? In the past, it was the promise of a final victory that would carry audiences through the awful violence that served as the means to the happy ending that would redeem all the suffering that preceded it. The popularity of today's never-ending war stories indicates that the mass audience no longer requires that. The violence appears to be self-justifying.
Perhaps this receptiveness to tales of never-ending war simply reflects a sophisticated recognition on the part of current audiences that wars, in reality, never really do end. World War I—the "war to end all wars"—led to World War II, which led to the Korean War, and then to Vietnam. And America has been effectively at war in Afghanistan since 2001, with no end in sight. And, of course, the "war on terror" is as open-ended as any Justice League enterprise. So maybe Hollywood's visions of endless wars are simply responding to a certain historical reality.
I would find it difficult to argue against such an interpretation. But somehow I don't think that it goes deep enough. I say this because, after all, the purpose of popular entertainment is to be entertaining, and entertainment—especially when it comes to the genres of fantasy and action-adventure story telling—often serves as a distraction from the dismal realities of everyday life. And so, just as during the Great Depression movie-goers flocked to glamorous and romantic films that were far removed from the poverty and deprivation of that difficult era, one might expect war movies today that offered visions of final victory—a fantasy end to war in an era of endless conflict.
So the successful box office formula of endless war suggests to me that audiences are entertained, not repelled, by sagas of wars without end. Interchangeable visions of heroes (I use the word in a gender neutral sense) running across desert landscapes and down starship corridors with explosions bursting behind them, simply promise more such scenes in the next installment as violence is packaged as excitement for its own sake: war as video game.
Which may help explain why we tolerate (and basically ignore) such endless wars as that which we are still fighting in Afghanistan.
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