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Culture » Big Shiny Robot!

Failing Up

We need to allow our heroic narratives to address what happens when we fall.


  • Lucasfilm

"Why do we fall?" Thomas Wayne rhetorically asks his son in Batman Begins. His answer? "So that we can learn to pick ourselves up."

This is the central conceit in heroic narratives. Joseph Campbell's hero's journey revolves around that cycle of failure and learning, and it's embedded in almost all of geekdom's great storytelling, designed to show us hope through the darkest parts of our journeys.

Sometimes, however, fandom can rebel, especially in an age of instant gratification. The cliffhangers that used to keep us questioning now feel like flaws or mistakes to many fans. How would the reaction to the bleak ending of The Empire Strikes Back play out today? Our heroes are scattered to the wind: Han Solo is trapped in carbonite, Luke is a mess who has lost his hand and found out who his father is. This spells bad news for the galaxy. "How in the world are they going to get out of this one?" we're left asking.

In the moment, Empire seemed unsatisfying—it's a film without a neat and tidy ending. When Return of the Jedi came out, we saw the resolution of Empire. As a result, that "unsatisfying" middle chapter cemented its reputation as, arguably, the best of the Star Wars films.

The same pattern is repeated in 2017's yet-to-be-resolved The Last Jedi. In that film, Luke Skywalker sacrifices himself to save a handful of Resistance fighters, few enough by this point that the entirety of that rebellion can fit aboard the Millennium Falcon. Things are bleak. And a small, vocal band of fans revolted.

The discourse was anything but civil. Director Rian Johnson even received death threats. This group didn't like not seeing the happily ever after they expected. They didn't like seeing Poe Dameron make bad decisions. They didn't like watching Rey fail so hard that she inadvertently helped Ben Solo/Kylo Ren become the unhinged leader of the First Order. And they certainly didn't like watching the Resistance get torn to pieces.

The Last Jedi might not have given us the heroes we wanted, but I'll be damned if they weren't the heroes we needed. We needed to see their failures in order to pave way for future success, and their eventual victory will be all the sweeter. Why else do we fall?

Would Frodo have gotten the ring to Mount Doom had the fellowship not broken? Would Bruce Wayne have become Batman without the guilt of failing to save his parents? Would Harry Potter have defeated Voldemort had he not learned the lessons from Cedric Diggory's death? It's doubtful any of those heroes would have succeeded without what appeared at the time to be failures.

All of this has me worried about how audiences might react to the impending release of Avengers: Infinity War. It's the first part of a two-part story involving what looks to be the end of the Avengers as we currently know them. If you've read the comics the film is loosely inspired by, you know that things don't go well for our heroes. In fact, in the comics, Thanos kills pretty much the entire Marvel Universe of heroes. They fail. They fail pretty hard. And it's going to be brutal to see it play out onscreen.

But the surviving heroes, at least in the comics, learn from those failures, and eventually overcome them. That's what the entire hero's journey is about.

Will fans learn from their reaction to The Last Jedi as they watch their favorite heroes from The Avengers get pulled apart? I hope so. Like Master Yoda reminds us in The Last Jedi, "The greatest teacher, failure is."