Blaze of Glory

December 14, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

For the longest time, it was assumed that, on those rare occasions when a great hero died, it would be in an act worthy of his (or her) legacy. This was standard operating procedure for literature, movies, and television: one didn’t create a character, spend decades developing that character and building a loyal following, then carelessly discard the character. In addition to being an incredible downer, it was a betrayal of all those who had invested a part of themselves in the character.

To be sure, there are instances when a meaningless death can have power. For some stories, that may be the point. But, for the purposes of this entry, I’m referring not to protagonists in stand-alone films or individuals whose character arc demands an unsung demise. I’m referring to The Titans, icons everyone knows by name. When sketching out the death of such a person, great care must be taken, especially if the character was created by someone else. So let’s take a look at a few of these instances in cinema going back as far as the 1980s and, to keep things streamlined, I’ll restrict myself to two franchises with which I have a solid working knowledge: Star Trek and Star Wars. Both have been willing to kill off characters and that has come to represent a strength and weakness.

Spoilers will abound for various Star Trek films and for entire Star Wars saga, up to and including The Last Jedi.

One of the most effective deaths I can recall in a movie is Spock’s demise in Star Trek II. Strangely, even though he was resurrected a mere two years later, that recognition robs little of the impact. His death and funeral remain as emotionally charged as in 1982. Part of that is because of Nick Meyer’s impeccable direction and part is because of the acting of Shatner and Nimoy – neither of which has done anything more affecting. But the biggest factor is that losing Spock felt like losing a best friend. In 1982, I was a relatively “new” Trekkie/Trekker (choose your nomenclature), having only been a Star Trek fan for about four years, but many had “known” Spock for 15 years. The thing about Spock’s death, however, is that he went out doing something meaningful. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one. He sacrificed himself to save a bunch of characters we cared about equally. He saved the ship and deprived Khan of the victory. That’s the way to kill a character.

Only a year later, Anakin Skywalker met his maker. Although Darth Vader was a villain, he was arguably Star Wars’ most recognizable figure. More Vader merchandise was sold in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s than Luke, Leia, and Han merchandise combined. In 1977, Vader was the #1 Halloween mask sold, and I believe that continued for several years after. At the end, Vader flipped dramatically from villain to hero with one grand action that changed how we regarded the character. By killing the Emperor, he not only saved Luke in a tangible way but also saved the Rebellion. (Consider if the Emperor had survived. After killing Luke, he surely would have turned his awesome Force powers on the fleet.) The prequels would flesh out Anakin’s backstory and make the ending of Returnof the Jedi more meaningful but, even without that, Vader’s demise, like Spock’s, was an act of sacrifice to save characters we knew and cared about. Another meaningful death. Another passing where the sorrow was mingled with a sense of satisfaction. Alas, not all Star Trek and Star Wars deaths were so grand.

In 1994, the Star Trek: The Next Generation creative team took over the Star Trek movies. Paramount, eager to capitalize on the success of the TV series, rushed Generations, the seventh Star Trek film into production. As a “hook”, they recruited William Shatner to guest star, thereby providing the oft-desired meeting between Captains Kirk and Picard. Nothing wrong with that. However, producer Rick Berman and his cohorts had a second mission in mind: kill off Kirk and, in doing so, bury the old show. As a concept, killing Kirk wasn’t a bad idea. After all, it had worked brilliantly with Spock. Shatner, then in his sixties, was starting to get a little old to play the swashbuckler anyway and neither Leonard Nimoy nor Deforest Kelly was showing interest in returning to their Original Series roles. (Kelly would die in 1999; Nimoy would eventually relent and come back in 2009.) So there was ample reason to believe that Kirk’s end would be an effective way to close an era. The problem isn’t that they did it; it’s how they did it.

Kirk should have gone out in proverbial blaze of glory. He should have flamed out saving earth and/or the crew of the new Enterprise. He should have gone down on the bridge of his old starship in final combat with an enemy that couldn’t be defeated except through the sacrifice of a great man. That’s how it should have gone down. That’s an ending fans would have loved. But such an ending would have undermined the Next Generation crew, and this was their movie.

“Captain on the bridge” was a common saying whenever Kirk would exit the tubolift and move toward his chair. “Bridge on the captain” is how it all ended. Kirk died because a bridge fell on him. Sure, he helped save millions of lives, but those were nameless, faceless people that we in the audience didn’t care about. There was no funeral – just a short scene of Picard putting a stone on his cairn. The whole experience wasn’t just a wasted opportunity, it was dispiriting and anticlimactic. It made Generations, already weak because of a poor script, among the most hated of the Star Trek movies. And it started a movement to bring back Kirk. Kill a character off the right way, and fans will accept the death. Kill a character the wrong way and it becomes an albatross.

One of the most anticipated return engagements in the history of cinema was that of Han Solo. The 32-year gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens fueled excitement and speculation. It was widely assumed that Han would meet his end in Episode VII. As far back as The Empire Strikes Back, Ford had been ambivalent about continuing to portray Han. (The reason for the carbonite gambit was because, at the time, Lucas didn’t know whether Ford would agree to appear in the third movie and needed an option that would allow him to proceed either way.) The actor is on record as having lobbied for Han’s death in Return of the Jedi (Lawrence Kasdan agreed with him but Lucas vetoed the idea, not wanting the final Star Wars to be “too dark”). The suspicion is that the lure for his appearance in The Force Awakens was being able to play Han’s death scene. He got his wish, but the only ones happy about it may have been those involved in the production. As with Kirk, the problem wasn’t that Han died but that he died in such a meaningless way.

Yes, there’s pathos and tragedy in his death. But the scene is more deflating than wrenching. The character seemed so un-Han-like in that moment. More than that, there’s a sense that he should have gone out in a suicide run on Starkiller Base in the Falcon with Chewbacca by his side. Dying to save the Rebellion, to save countless lives on countless planets – that would have been a worthy ending for Han. Getting light sabered by his son and toppling off a bridge (at least it didn’t land on him) may not have been the worst possible way for him to expire, but it’s up there.

After the massive lack of respect shown to Han in The Force Awakens, it was hard to believe things could get worse with the new leadership at Lucasfilm, but they did. Luke Skywalker, the raison d’etre for the entire Star Wars saga, wasn’t given a single line in Episode VII. Then, when Mark Hamill was finally allowed to bring back the character, the Last Jedi was given a storyline and character arc that made everyone who watched him in 1977, 1980, and 1983 feel gut-punched. Never was it clearer that the purpose of the new trilogy wasn’t to conclude the story begun by George Lucas but to replace his vision of the galaxy and its inhabitants than those of the New Leadership. This was about ego. And, as a result, not only did Luke have to go out in a fashion only marginally more meaningful than Han’s but he had to do so after having the core of his character, the basic goodness and determination that made him the focus of the original trilogy, stripped away. In The Last Jedi, Luke was no longer the hero. He wasn’t even the wise old mentor. He was a cranky, disillusioned antihero who needed Rey to remind him of his place in the universe and prod him to find a feeble redemption. Luke should have died fighting (and defeating) the ultimate evil on the Dark Side – whether Snoke, a resurrected Emperor, or someone else – not using a projection to duel a second-rate villain to a standstill then collapsing of exhaustion.

Deaths like those of Spock and Vader leave viewers saddened but satisfied on an existential level. In fiction as in reality, death is a part of life. Sometimes it makes dramatic sense to end the arc of a character. Those moments must be approached carefully, however. An icon shouldn’t be discarded like any other character. The ways in which Kirk, Han, and Luke met their ends feel wrong. They don’t satisfy on any level. They leave an open scab that needs to be picked at.

I can (and have) watched the ending of Star Trek II countless times. Ditto for Return of the Jedi (in fact, I often watch only the second half of the film because the first Ewok-infested half is unwatchable). But I find it difficult to rewatch Generations and have no desire to revisit The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. Great movie characters should die the way they live but when they go out in anything less than a blaze of glory, those who have loved and followed them have every right to be angry and dismayed.