(Beware: Spoilers lie ahead for several recent blockbusters, including Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness.)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) ends — like last week's frustrating quasi-remake, Star Trek Into Darkness — with a death. In 1982, Spock saved the Enterprise at the cost of his own life. "The needs of the many outweigh…" wheezed Spock. "The needs of the few," finished Kirk as he watched his friend die.
That's a lesson that the rebooted Star Trek franchise's Captain Kirk, played by Chris Pine, has not had to learn. And based on the first two films in the franchise, it's a lesson he'll probably never have to.
In the new Star Trek universe, there really is no such thing as a no-win scenario, because the creative constraints imposed on the modern Hollywood blockbuster don't allow for anything to change. So what happened at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness was as cheap as it was anticlimactic: Kirk was "killed," then lazily revived 10 minutes later thanks to Khan's magic blood — because story be damned, Chris Pine is the new face of Star Trek, and Paramount is afraid that Star Trek would fall apart without its leading man.
It's easy to pick on Star Trek Into Darkness, but it's far from the only culprit. Iron Man 3 took Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and dropped her hundreds of feet down the side of a construction rig before revealing, in a non-surprising twist, that being infused with "Extremis" enabled her to survive. Fast & Furious 6 is reviving Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), who was killed off in 2009's Fast & Furious. And although Agent Coulson's death was the lynchpin of The Avengers, Clark Gregg's character is being revived for ABC's upcoming TV spinoff Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Given current blockbuster trends, it's amazing The Great Gatsby didn't end with Nick Fury reviving Gatsby and inviting him to join the Avengers.
How long will audiences tolerate a series that never actually evolves? In theaters, it was fascinating to see how the apparent "deaths" in Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness inspired the same reaction from audiences: Scoffing and eye-rolling. No one believed for a minute that Pepper Potts or Captain Kirk was actually dead, because audiences understand that a blockbuster franchise rarely has the courage to do anything that shakes up its status quo. Every Hollywood studio is locked in a game of brinksmanship with every other studio's competing big-budget blockbusters: Every franchise has to continue until it stops being profitable — even as none of a franchise's fundamentals are actually allowed to change.
By contrast, let's look at the rare exception to the rule, and the best blockbuster released last year: Skyfall which — not coincidentally — took its characters' mortality very seriously. When Daniel Craig's 007 came back from what he thought would be a permanent retirement after being shot, he was off his game, and the results were fatal: Berenice Marlohe's Severine was killed when he failed to win a shooting contest with her life as the reward. Though 007 eventually managed to defeat the villain, Skyfall ended with the death of Judi Dench's M, who had served as 007's boss and ally since 1995's Goldeneye — more than a decade before Daniel Craig took over the franchise. Those are real stakes, and the fact that Skyfall — the 23rd film in the 007 franchise — earned the highest gross in franchise history is proof that audiences were more than ready for it.
This is, of course, not a new problem (though it was far less glaring when audiences rarely expected a movie series to tell a single, continuous story.) It's even a problem that Star Trek has dealt with before. As perfect as Spock's death scene was in Wrath of Khan, the series earns major demerits for almost immediately backtracking on Spock's death. The resurrection of Nimoy's character was the central plot arc for 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Wrath of Khan even hints that Spock could be revived in a future film. But for two long years, Star Trek fans waited to see if Spock could ever come back, and when he finally did, it came with the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of Kirk's son — worlds away from Kirk's resurrection, at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, which was handled with all the gravity of a 1-Up in Super Mario Bros.
The most maddening thing about Star Trek Into Darkness is how close it gets to the story it should have been telling. If Into Darkness is supposed to be a quasi-remake of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk's death replacing Spock's death, why not take it all the way and reverse Wrath of Khan's message? Spock's sacrifice in Wrath of Khan taught Kirk that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Kirk's death could have taught Spock the opposite lesson — that some losses cut so deeply that they supersede the logic by which Spock has defined his life. Kirk's death would have forced a sadder and a wiser Spock to take command of the Enterprise, and forced the rebooted Star Trek franchise to stop retreading its source material and start innovating. And if things got too far off the rails, they would always have had the safety net of Star Trek: The Search for Kirk to fall back on.
Instead, Star Trek and its fellow summer blockbusters are boldly going in the same, perennially low-stakes direction forged by their predecessors. "I haven't faced death," says Captain Kirk in Wrath of Khan as he reflects on the loss of Spock. "I've cheated death. I've tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing." Here's hoping that Hollywood eventually learns the same lesson, and realizes that being mortal makes silver-screen heroes more heroic, and not less.