An unused ending for Terminator: Salvation had John Connor, the prophesied hero of the franchise, die and the Terminator-human hybrid (first introduced in this film) secretly take over his identity and authority as speculative messiah. Not only would this ending have provided a logical reason for why John Connor is so special (he’s a robot superman!), it would have been a logical progression of the earlier films’ gradual breakdown of the distinction between human and machine, putting the sophistication of the series about on par with science fiction stories published 50 years ago. Whether due to the early leak or not, the ending was replaced with a straight-from-the-playbook coda where the hybrid sacrifices himself to save Connor and preserve the brand image of ‘humanity’ (read: the vintage form of Hollywood-produced American narcissism). The future will be bleak, we’re told, but it will go on! Ultimately the movie does what all these reboots are supposed to do: lay the groundwork for sequels that can’t possibly be interesting, and which exist to legitimate the rest of the product line.
Hollywood’s thematic paradigm is convincingly laid out in Robert Ray’s Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema (hat tip chabert): an ‘outlaw’ hero (or villain), representing the values of spontaneity and individualism, meets an ‘official’ hero, representing social connectedness and responsibility to moral norms, and their confrontation is resolved in a way that overcomes the apparent necessity for choosing between them. “The American mythology’s refusal to choose between its two heroes went beyond the normal reconciliatory function attributed to myth by Lévi-Strauss. For the American tradition not only overcame binary oppositions; it systematically mythologized the certainty of being able to do so.” From here we get the stock set of variations and composites, presented with varying levels of irony and self-awareness. The most common by far is the reluctant hero archetype: the rugged individualist drawn out of isolation for one last spectacular act of violence before riding off into the sunset.
In Terminator, Michael Worthington, ex-con resurrected in the future as a cyborg, is the outlaw and reluctant hero, while Christian Bale, machine-slaying messiah, efficiently reprises his narrative function from 3:10 to Yuma and Batman as the official hero.* In another successful reboot, Star Trek, the relationship between Kirk (outlaw captain) and Spock (official sidekick) is exaggerated to the point of absurdity: Kirk is a character from a college sex comedy, and reconciliation is achieved when he forces Spock to admit he feels bad that his home planet was destroyed, thereby ‘revealing’ his true emotional nature (revealed also through unconvincing makeout scenes with Uhura). Both films praise ‘humans’ for their irrational willingness to put themselves and others at risk without adequate justification.
What this constitutive split between outlaw and official always amounts to is a split between the moral center and the interest center of the story. From Dirty Harry to the Joker (whether hero or villain), the assumed audience always roots for the outlaw no matter what the voice over says. When it comes to the problem of narrative resolution, which would seem to necessitate resolving this contradiction, the future presents itself as a wide open field, and the ideal Hollywood adventure fades out on an ever-receding horizon. Things get dicier with expensive franchises. Continuity and the establishment of a fictional history are added to the list of formal demands.
In comics this is typically managed according to the logic laid out by Umberto Eco in “The Myth of the Superman,” where both plot and the aesthetics of the form are geared toward sustaining an eternal present. Any narrative movement (Bruce Wayne gets put on trial! Spider-Man gets married!) is contained in miniseries format and marketed for all it’s worth. When a critical mass of narrative information is reached, the publishers launch a big multiseries ‘crisis,’ shake things up a little, then ‘retcon’ their way back to a relative equilibrium state (which incidentally has been happening more and more often). In network TV the rhythm of narrative development, the ratio between it and stasis, has to be timed according to volatile ratings. Despite its often bizarre pacing, it can and does develop narrative, albeit one that, as in comics, tends to escalate complexity instead of ‘going anywhere’ thematically.
Hollywood, having far more expensive individual units, has had to proceed by eliminating the interest center and starting over with a new one every time. This means that the favored solution to the narrative problem, the reluctant hero, is not an option. The hero has to continue being heroic, and given the huge special effects budgets, nothing ‘minor’ or forgettable can ever happen (for the characters of course, not for us). Indeed, the more history a franchise character has, the more innocent he must be. Batman, though grim, is always naïvely fixated on the same traumatic event. Jason Bourne has the built-in mechanism of amnesia. John Connor has prophetic knowledge and years of combat experience yet is easily manipulated. It’s the outlaws without history, the divine/satanic innocents, who have the greatest wisdom, who have seen reality for what it is. Actual character development would risk leaving this tried-and-true generic structure behind. Best not even to suggest it beyond the first entry, where its perfunctory deployment is not just to reaffirm the American-Hollywood myth (as with the ‘one-shot’ Western or action movie), but to (re)establish an individual brand. The franchise, however strong its start, is driven by ‘the market’ to greater and greater heights of hysterical violence, mercilessly violating its own premises in the interest of ‘brand sustainability.’
Call it the visual economy of prolonged adolescence. Or just the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex. Same difference, really.
Until expectations for film franchises devolve to the nadir of video games, where each sequel is expected by players and critics to update the experience of the previous game with new technology – and Terminator seemed to be heading in this direction – then any franchise will be driven to foreclose its history by ‘terminating’ (sorry) its means of narrative progress. While this hardly matters to management, change is still a necessity, though you wouldn’t know it simply from consuming the products by themselves. At the brute level of maximizing returns, it doesn’t really make sense for a franchise to ‘reinvent itself’ until after it becomes unprofitable in its initial form. Then, years later, it can return ‘with a vengeance.’ James Bond, Star Trek, and Star Wars are the great success stories.
One could argue that every franchise has the elimination of history in general as its more or less obvious subtext (I’m told that in the Terminator TV show the constant time traveling completely extends the apocalyptic man-machine battlefield into the present). This is certainly their function. The nostalgic distance separating adulthood from its childhood entertainment, or the entertainments of the previous generation, is never allowed to mature. Instead it is simply understood as something that adds value to a brand, akin to letting a field lay fallow in preparation for the eventual harvest.
For those of us born and raised in the ’70s-‘80s, the familiar criticism from ‘fanboys’ that Hollywood is raping our memories is literally true. In corporate culture production, time is treated as callously as space is in manufacturing and ‘development.’ We had the misfortune to grow up dreaming dreams that were corporate property. It’s in this sense that history itself isn’t allowed to become history, and memory isn’t allowed to stay memory, common or otherwise. As Ray argues, all Hollywood films have done this implicitly, recycling a narrow set of tropes and formal strategies while assimilating (rather than being fundamentally changed by) outside developments, whether in the area of historical/political change or aesthetic innovation. Contemporary fantasy franchises are just explicit manifestations of Ray’s “certain tendency.” The social space they reproduce has more in common with Circe’s illusory pleasure island than the barren Infernos they tend to depict.
*Incidentally, I’m also wondering how the most recent Hollywood action stars all got to be foreigners. Much like the similarly hysterically conservative 1980s it seems Hollywood in the ‘00s is interested in importing its beefcake from overseas.