Rocky, Star Wars Let Us Grow Old With Favorite Characters

In youth-obsessed Hollywood, an exception to the rule.

I went and saw Creed last weekend. Reader, I cried.

I cried when Rocky Balboa got sick.

I cried when Creed put on his papa’s boxing trunks.

And the waterworks absolutely flowed when — after being held in abeyance all movie — the horns of the original Rocky theme finally sounded at a critical moment in Creed’s climactic big fight.

It was all very macho.

This weekend, my wife and I took my 7-year-old son to see the new Star Wars movie. I got a little misty at getting to repeat a ritual that my parents and family shared when I was a child; and yes, there were key points in the movie — I’ll not spoil them at this early date — when my eyes were so wet I could barely see the screen.

I mention this not just because I am exceedingly vulnerable to cinematic manipulation and nostalgia — though that is surely true — but because the two movies together made me realize this: Forty years after the modern blockbuster franchise movie era was born, with Jaws and Rocky and Star Wars and a blaze of both special effects and Roman numerals, corrupt old youth-obsessed Hollywood has been forced to give us something it usually tries to avoid:

Meditations on aging, loss, and death.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s probably an accident of circumstance. For the most part, Hollywood remains the place good ideas go not to die, but to be repeated and rebooted ad nauseum, often to ever-diminishing thematic and entertainment returns, as long as they can keep the dollars flowing to the studios: Witness the previews before this weekend’s showing of Star Wars — big-screen ads for Star Trek, Harry Potter, Captain America, and more. Familiar stuff, with familiar faces. And consider this: We’re about to get our third actor playing Spider-Man in the last 15 years. Do we really need that?

There have been exceptions to the rule, though. In some occasions, we’ve been allowed to watch our favorite characters — and the actors who played them — get old. Some of this might be because baby boomers refuse to get off the stage: You think Stallone is going to let anybody else play Rocky?

The result has been this: In Star Trek, we watched William Shatner go from being “the youngest captain in Starfleet” on TV to a middle-aged man burdened by his son’s death in Star Trek VI.

We’ve seen Rocky and Adrian romance each other as young people; and we’ve seen Rocky, the widower, act as the mentor using lessons from the man who taught him, Mickey.

And now we’ve seen cocky roguish Han Solo … well, just watch the movie. If you’ve spent a lifetime watching these characters, rooting for them, it’s difficult not to have an emotional reaction to all of this.

Yeah, there’s been a fair number of toupées, Botox sessions, and visits to the plastic surgeon along the way. But this is not the kind of stuff that Hollywood usually gives us. These are the journeys taken by main characters in indie movies, or by side characters in big movies to help the main characters learn a lesson.

But logic of blockbuster franchising is to keep cranking out movies. Sometimes — 20 or 30 or 40 years in — the best story to tell is about how, sometimes, stories end. It can even be enough to make you cry.

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