Opinion

Haven’t We Seen These Characters Before?

Summer has always loved a sequel. So why do this year’s comebacks and next chapters feel somehow worse? Not just mildly disappointing but also a little disquieting?

Perhaps because this season’s third and fourth acts aren’t just happening onscreen; it’s as if the entire world has its finger hard pressed on the repeat button. Not only is Hollywood digging into financially secure franchises, but everything else also seems stuck in a permanent déjà vu.

Monkeypox is echoing the anxieties of the AIDS crisis while Covid continues to bound and rebound. Pop open your laptop, and it’s the same grid of Zoomed faces from yesterday. On our political news feeds, we’ve got revival acts like please-not-Donald-Trump, sounding the same apocalyptic alarms he set off six years ago; Mike Pence, traveling to Iowa to begin his not-so-shadow bid for the presidency; and Beto O’Rourke, campaigning to be governor of Texas while raising the terrifying prospect he’ll livestream another trip to the dentist.

Please, not again.

Not all repeat performances need be a recurring nightmare. One of the pleasures of watching a sequel or long-running show, for example, is settling into the sofa with the same cast of characters we hung out with last time. Viewers segued from five seasons of “Breaking Bad” to six of “Better Call Saul” for a reason. We want to spend more time with these people.

But that doesn’t mean everyone’s welcome on that sofa. Even beloved characters or the real people behind them ought to consider a few basic rules about if, when and how to reappear.

Rule No. 1: It’s OK to come back, but your character should at least follow a coherent arc. Take this summer’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the fourth installment in Marvel’s “Thor” franchise. Anyone who has seen a superhero movie knows superheroes can lose their powers and regular people gain them. But Thor Four was neither Norse god Thor nor Lebowski Thor nor campy Thor but barely-a-hero Thor — at which point, who cares? Even comic books have rules.

Likewise, did it make sense that Eric Greitens, a former Navy Seal and Rhodes scholar, came back this summer in ultra-MAGA format, hellbent on winning the Republican primary for a Senate seat from Missouri? After resigning in disgrace in 2018 as governor of the state? And after being accused of abuse this year by his ex-wife? This was a guy whose 2015 best seller, “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life,” was hailed by Publishers Weekly in 2014 as “a gift not only to Greitens’s comrades in arms, but to readers everywhere.”

Blessedly, this grotesque character was judged implausible this month by the Republican voters of Missouri, failing to win their nomination. But stay tuned, I fear, for “Greitens III.”

Rule No. 2 of the rerun: Characters should evolve — but not into caricature. One of the pleasures of the first three seasons of “Stranger Things” was the show’s fine calibration of teenage banter and believable adolescents; anyone who lived through the 1980s had a Barb in their midst. But Season 4, released in May and July, was a disappointment. It trapped us in long tête-à-têtes between committee-run renditions of stock characters — the stoner, the metalhead — and an overgrown cast speaking in the insipid cadences of an “ABC Afterschool Special,” each of them dealing with a problem.

If only J.D. Vance had heeded Rule No. 2. Vance, whose 2016 memoir/manifesto “Hillbilly Elegy” was embraced as a thoughtful guide to Trump country by the blue-state establishment (“a detailed and moving account of American struggle,” according to The New Yorker), resurfaced this summer as a seething far-right crusader, having won the Republican primary for Ohio’s open Senate seat in the spring. In yowza comic book fashion, the same guy who tried to validate The Other Side came back showing us exactly how ugly The Other Side can be.

Enough, already.

And last, Rule No. 3: When you bring back a cast, you don’t have to bring back everyone. You can let go of the unwanted and the unnecessary. Yet in June, “Jurassic World Dominion,” the sixth major installment in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, requisitioned not only the leads from the previous movie but also seemingly every character who wasn’t dead from the first three. Similarly, did they really need to loop Professor X, from the “X-Men” franchise, into the chaos of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”?

If only the specters of yesteryear were limited to entertainment. Was anyone champing at the bit for Pence’s second act? Was anyone eagerly awaiting the return of the increasingly unhinged Mehmet Oz, who in June secured the Republican nomination for Senate in Pennsylvania, back like a rerun of “Oprah” best left off air? Do we need another round of Sarah Palin’s drama?

Fortunately, this season of onscreen sequels featured one comeback that was a return for the better. It pains me to admit it — having walked out on “Top Gun” when I saw it in a theater in 1986 — but the one saving hero of the summer of 2022 was “Top Gun: Maverick.” It managed to ditch its predecessor’s jingoism, misogyny and boorishness. It didn’t pander; it didn’t hit screens oozing cynicism and opportunism.

Best of all, it remembered the basics of character. It brought back Iceman — played by Val Kilmer, who lost his voice to cancer — in a sensitive way. It gave its new female lead a dose of respect. And while it retained that extraordinary extraterrestrial Tom Cruise, it took his toothy swagger down a notch.

I suppose this means that at least onscreen, even deeply flawed characters can improve the next time around. In a season nearly devoid of optimism and originality, that may count as something new.

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