From Wayne: I had been noticing a trend in a lot of recent media that hadn’t really fully formed in my mind until a couple of weeks ago when we recorded our Indiana Jones episode. Dial of Destiny was very much a movie about an old man, facing the ravages of time. Indy is o longer the young, virile action hero. Instead he is an old man who can no longer run or fight his way out of physical confrontations. He is not the only character who we have seen dealing with these issues. Jean-Luc Picard, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Rocky Balboa, and even Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Nick Fury in the current Secret Invasion series come to mind.
There have always been movies that have dealt with aging. This is not the first time this sort of thing has taken place. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and John Wayne’s last movie, The Shootist, were very much about western characters past their prime. What I see as different now is that in the cases of the character’s mentioned above is that these are all franchise characters who we have seen at various stages of their lives. We have watched Luke Skywalker grow from a callow youth to a disillusioned old man, all portrayed by the same actor.
This feels different to me than the two westerns I mentioned. In those, the main characters were new, though I suppose the argument could be made that both John Wayne and Clint Eastwood played the same character in every movie they were ever in. Eastwood has had late career success playing the cranky old man. Wayne’s aging cowboy was essentially just aging John Wayne. But those character’s do not carry the same weight of history that Indiana Jones does.
There are examples from comics as well. Marvel’s Old Man Logan was the story of an older Wolverine in an alternate future. This concept was franchised into series about Old Man Hawkeye, Old Man Starlord, and others. But here they are merly characters on paper, written by a variety of authors. While the character’s have a history, it still feels different than seeing a real human embody a character, revealing the real frailties of their aging bodies which can be directly contrasted with their performances from decades earlier.
In a 1960 essay called “The Myth of Superman” Umberto Eco discussed what he saw as a structural problem of superhero narratives, which called the problem of consumption. This is the idea of growth, moving toward death and a resolution. The fate of traditional mythic heroes is known (Hercules, King Arthur, etc.). The enjoyment of engaging with these tales is not surprise, but the familiarity with the trope. They are cultural touchstones that everyone knew. Eco makes the point that you can’t have that with Superman et. al. There is a need for endless stories because of commerce. Because of this, superhero characters can never actually grow old and die. Superman, Spider-Man, et. al. Are roughly the same age they have always been, and in the main narrative universe, they always will be. The only place these ideas can be explored is in alternate reality, Elseworlds stories.
There are few comics that step outside of this ageless trope. In the comic strip Gasoline Alley a baby named Skeezix was found on a doorstep in 1921. The strip continues to be published and Skeezix is now a centenarian. In Love & Rockets, by the Hernandez Brothers, characters have been allowed to age and grow along with their creators and readership. Maggie, Hopey, and I were going to punk shows in the mid 1980s and now we are all in our 60s. But these are the exceptions.
I’m also not coming up with any examples where women characters are being given the same treatment. The rest of the Enterprise cast appear in Season3 of Picard, so there is some exploration, and of course, Leia’s story was cut cut short by the death of Carrie Fisher. This is worth some exploration.
(Mav’s Note: I think perhaps looking at Soap Operas will help here. Frances Reid played Alice Horton on Days of Our Lives from the time she was 50 in 1965 until she was 93 in 2007. Technically she was under contract until she died in 2010. Melissa Reeves was cast as her granddaughter Jennifer in 1988 at age 18 and is still on the show today. Genie Francis has starred as Laura Spencer on General Hospital since she was 15 in 1977. But I agree, other than this specific arena, it’s harder to find female performers who have a role quite as long. I guess general sexism? If you have some examples, certainly let us know in the comments. Back to Wayne…)
Part of what I’m curious about here is where do these tropes and storytelling traditions comes from, and what are they speaking to. Is it a youth-obsessed culture that keeps fictional characters in a state of Peter Pan-like stasis? Are we getting these stories of aging heroes now simply by virtue of the success of these specific franchises and the fact that the actors are still around, or is there some deeper psychological reason. Thanks to the baby boom we live at a time with a larger demographic of old people than ever before. Does that play into this, and if so, in what ways?