Some time ago, Kevin Smith offered the insight that comic books are the “perpetual second act.” Since Smith carries so much “cred” within the nerd community, his theory was heartily embraced and advanced in blogs and articles. (One could argue that I am speaking redundantly here since there is no real difference between blogs and articles anymore, and that’s not necessarily a positive thing.) One example is a piece which enthusiastically demonstrated the point as decisively as one can in reference to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Also Wonder Woman is in It and We’re Establishing a Franchise.
My cohost from Words with Nerds, Craig Sorrell, also subscribes to this theory. He’s advanced it on and off air in many conversations.
Defining the Perpetual Second Act
If you’re not familiar with the “perpetual second act,” the idea is that comic book characters can’t truly resolve things. Whether internal or external trauma, if they were to resolve it, they would no longer have their raison d’etre. Forward progress is a Sisyphean torment for each character.
The theory has now come to explain, as mentioned above, why movies based on comic properties are caught in a never-resolving loop. It’s an interesting thought, and it holds up at a glance. But as I’ve continued to turn it over in my head, I think that Smith, and his acolytes, are wrong.
Let’s take one of my favorite characters as a convenient example.
Batman, Et Al. v. The Perpetual Second Act: Dawn of Arguments
The theory of the Perpetual Second Act supports two thoughts. One is that the story of the character is never ending, cursed never to resolve. The other is that the character can never progress past a certain point.
The first part I dismiss because if you really want to split hairs, no character is able to absolutely resolve their story until they die. So long as they are alive, their story can continue. The story you want to tell may be gone and buried, but so long as there’s the spark of life their tale can be brought back. It’s why Luke can come back in The Force Awakens. It’s why “Flynn Lives” in Tron Legacy. It’s why the Godfather series is so maddening. Technically, if you really want Michael Corleone’s story permanently resolved you have to accept The Godfather Part III, which is just a silly thought overall.
Let’s state it more plainly. Anyone would see the obviously be a fallacy to argue that, just because more stories can be found, no story ever resolves. You’d have to maintain that no story arc has a resolution unless every character dies. (To that end, though, creativity can overcome even that, as evidenced by Escape from the Planet of the Apes.)
In addition to story resolution, to accept the “perpetual second act” you’d have to accept the idea that characters never develop either. As an example, you’d subscribe to the theory that Bruce Wayne never overcomes the grief at his parents’ death. For if he did, he would cease to be “Batman.”
Would he, though?
The problem here is that, taken to its logical extreme, the Perpetual Second Act would have to concede that a character’s origin story is never-ending; if no story ever resolves, then they are never resolved about anything. This is in conflict with the fact that an origin story is by its nature limited, and it exposes a key flaw in the theory.
The players alter, swapping villains and allies, but these heroes aren’t what the audience wants if Superman dedicates himself to filling every pothole in Metropolis and advocating for healthier school lunches. So the stories have to carry a same basic familiarity, regardless of the players brought in for that arc.
However, this is not the same as a story never resolving. Batman is broken by Bane in the comic series Knightfall, and things proceed until they resolve. Moving to film for the sake of an example accessible to a wider audience, even Joel Schumacher demonstrated the same thing (or at least “Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman” did) with the resolution of the Red Book plotline in Batman Forever. Then, new villains show up in Batman & Robin and Batman resolves that story…only to be reborn in the hands of a new storyteller.
The Perpetual Reboot
I contend that, instead of a “perpetual second act,” it’s rather that comic book characters, and by extension their movie doppelgängers, exist in a state of perpetual reboot.
So long as they continue, they will be be updated and adapted to fit the times in which they’re being published. While characters’ base foci and origin points has remained similar, the details change to fit the times.
What we’re seeing is a continual postulation of themes using the characters as a constant and everything else as a variable and updated as necessary.
The perpetual reboot is naturally a continual reset button on a long enough plot line. Fans reject a story arc? They resolve it, hit the reset button and…Spider-Man was a clone. The New 52 falls apart? Hit the reset button and start again.
So it’s not that the characters don’t progress, it’s that they resolve, reset, and resolve again. As time progresses, this continual reset also gives creative teams the opportunity to incorporate changes in the world outside to appeal to newer audiences with different sensibilities while retaining the cachet of a baseline familiarity.
Lather, Rinse, Reboot. For all time.
While it may seem to long-time comics readers that there’s been no progress with a character, what’s really at issue is that they’ve become inured to it because they know that no matter how successful or unsuccessful it is, it will be rebooted. This creates a sense of inescapable non-progress since you know that no matter what happens, in the end it won’t matter…as the character is reimagined again.
So I can also understand why Kevin Smith’s theory makes sense to him, given his own approaches to character and story, as well as altered brain chemistry through continual drug use. He was close to the mark, but missed it ever so slightly.
Unfortunately, since he has such a large platform within the nerd world, his opinions tend to be taken as correct by default. I will publish this to see it languish, and for the sake of just getting the thoughts out of my head already. In short, “perpetual reboot” doesn’t see great chance for acceptance.
This is why I shouldn’t be Class President. I should be Class Tyrant.
Tune in Next Time for….The Corollary Argument – The Immutable Impermanence of Character Trivia*!
* Title subject to change