You only live twice:
Once when you’re born
And once when you look death in the face.
– Epigraph from You Only Live Twice (1964), by Ian Fleming
The new James Bond has me thinking about an old Flash. (It always comes back to the Flash, somehow….) SPOILERS for Casino Royale and other Bond adventures after the jump.
As we all know, the first twenty “official” Bond films spanned forty years and five leads. However, the one-shot Bond, George Lazenby, ties them all together through the adaptation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In OHMSS (SPOILER!) Bond falls in love with mob heiress Teresa di Vicenzo, and marries her, only to see her brutally murdered at the end of the film. Sean Connery spends the first few minutes of Diamonds Are Forever apparently avenging Tracy, and Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton remember her in The Spy Who Loved Me, For Your Eyes Only, and Licence To Kill. The Pierce Brosnan films don’t reference Tracy expressly, but the title The World Is Not Enough (included in dialogue as Bond’s “family motto”) is a direct reference to OHMSS, so I figure that counts.
Accordingly, one can make the case that, no matter who the Bond is, he still loved and lost Tracy. She is, in a sense, the Gwen Stacy of the series, because her death helps inform the character from that point forward.
However, now that the new version of Casino Royale has wiped the slate of Bond continuity clean, one has to wonder whether Vesper’s death serves much the same purpose as the ending of OHMSS, thereby obviating the “need” for Bond to suffer the same kind of loss again. The books had him endure both, of course, but the original OHMSS novel also begins with Bond’s annual visit to Vesper’s grave. Therefore, Fleming makes it clear that Vesper and Tracy entered Bond’s life at two different points, and invites the reader to compare and contrast them. (Does this make Vesper the Uncle Ben?) Since the movies have presented Bond as a fairly static character, it may be sufficient for them to inflict this sort of emotional pain on Bond only once, as part of his “origin.” The fidelity of Casino Royale 2K6 notwithstanding, I wouldn’t expect future Daniel Craig movies to just remake the books more faithfully, so a marriage doesn’t necessarily await his Bond. He’s not going to grow up to be Sean Connery, just like Christian Bale isn’t going to turn into Michael Keaton.
What’s this have to do with the Flash? Well, these kinds of reboots always make me wonder which post-origin elements of a character are so essential that they survive various iterations. Vesper’s death is part of Bond’s origin story, as it were; but Tracy’s is not. Anyway, when I was a kid, the star of The Flash was Barry Allen, faithful husband of Iris Allen. Iris had been around since the title started, but their marriage was a later development, some time before I started reading. However, after I’d been following the book off and on for a few years, Iris was murdered, and that led to all kinds of complications for Barry down the road. Eventually Barry died, arguably as an indirect result of those complications, and his death became part of Wally West’s origin-story as the new Flash. Thus, owing to her death’s effects on Barry, Iris was his Gwen Stacy.
In 1990, when the “Flash” TV show premiered, I was pretty excited to see it focus on Barry, who was still a police scientist, with Iris as his girlfriend. That was fine, I thought; there would be plenty of time to marry them off. Nevertheless, Iris didn’t make it past the pilot. She wasn’t killed — just written out of the show in favor of Wally-era scientist Tina McGee. Shows what I know, huh? I was used to the idea of Barry and Iris 2gether 4ever, at least until Professor Zoom killed her, but just as in the comics, the show felt it could get along without her. Indeed, without Iris, TV Barry arguably wouldn’t have shared his comics ancestors’ fate, at least not in the same way.
Death isn’t mandated for every iteration of a particular character. Ma Kent survived to Clark’s adulthood in Superman (1978), although none of her comics counterparts had to that point. This foreshadowed John Byrne’s sparing the elder Kents in the 1986 Superman reboot, which in turn influenced future TV adaptations. Ultimate Bucky Barnes got out of World War II relatively unscathed, and the post-Zero Hour Ferro Lad made it past his encounter with the Sun-Eater. The Earth-1 Supergirl’s heroic death in Crisis On Infinite Earths also doesn’t seem to have informed her current revival.
The DC animated adaptations have similarly refused to follow certain characters’ established stories. Animated Barbara Gordon apparently won’t become Oracle, and Animated Lois Lane still hasn’t learned Superman’s secret identity, let alone get married to him. (She did, however, learn Batman’s, which is very cool.) It’s not clear to me (at least not from this article) that Animated Wally West was the sidekick to an as-yet-unseen Barry Allen Flash.
In fact, the first Spider-Man movie famously plays with fans’ expectations by switching out Mary Jane Watson for Gwen Stacy and allowing Spidey a positive outcome at the George Washington Bridge. (Ultimate Spider-Man did something similar as well, before introducing its own Gwen.) Accordingly, when Gwen appears in Spider-Man 3, it’s pretty much a given that she won’t suffer her comic-story fate, because audiences would see that as a ripoff of the first movie. Still, Gwen, like Barry, is associated with a tragic death, and whenever she shows up, one has to wonder how long she has….
Still, while expectations can be manipulated, a back-to-basics approach is inevitably saddled with them. Even if I hadn’t read the original Casino Royale, as soon as Vesper and Bond started getting really chummy towards the end of the movie, I would have wondered how she’d be written out. Craig might not grow up to be Sean Connery, but he’s still going to be Bond; and one of the essential elements of the Bond series — book or film — is that the love interests never stick around.
And that’s the crux of any adaptation: it has to retain the essence of its source material, otherwise why bother? Even the hard reboots like Casino Royale and Batman Begins must still struggle to make their successive installments as fresh and novel as the inaugural films. The reinvention of venerable series both allows the caretakers to choose from a smorgasbord of familiar, favorite elements, and requires said caretakers to avoid the formulae into which those elements may have degenerated. Furthermore, if the caretakers want to prevent the reinvented series from getting too silly, that must also be balanced against its becoming too staid, or even boring. The question then becomes which after-added elements are, like Gwen Stacy’s death, so powerful that they become part of that essence and which (regardless of appeal) can be safely ignored.