The Greatest Comebacks

One of my favorite story devices is that of the comeback. A hero's victory is so much better if we first see him or her at the lowest point of defeat, from which there can be no recovery. The story is that much more interesting when it seems like there's absolutely no hope, no possible way to turn things around. Empire Strikes Back is considered one of the greatest sequels because, in the words of Dante Hicks, “it ends on such a down note.”

Now he does focus on a rather pessimistic view that life itself is a series of “down endings”, and it is an easy trap to fall into when things don't go our way. But as they go on to point out the flaws in Return of the Jedi, they focus on the (hilarious) independent contractor issue and miss the fact that the whole thing was one big comeback, setting right everything that had gone wrong at the end of the first movie. And even then, even after Luke shows up with more confidence and Jedi prowess than ever, he still nearly leads his friends to defeat and falls victim to the Emperor's schemes. A trap? A fully-operational battle station? Luke going dark side? It all leads to a pivotal moment where he refuses to kill Darth Vader, and the Emperor turns on him with his Sith lightning. So now our hero has made a stand, but he's still being murdered! And then we get the comeback moment, the last shred of humanity in Vader reached by seeing his son nearly killed, and Vader redeems himself by turning on his former master, leading to the ultimate sacrifice, but a necessary one in order for the good guys to finally turn things around.

Superman II featured not one but three great comebacks. After spending most of the movie without his powers, our hero returns to confront General Zod and his super-powered minions. I always get a chill at the “Would you care to step outside?” scene.

I wish I could find a slightly longer version of that clip; it's a lot more effective with the scene leading up to it, in which you don't see Superman yet, only the wind from his flying in rustling newspapers and people on the street looking up in hope and wonder. After one of the greatest brawls in comic book movie history, it all comes down to another near defeat, in which it seems that Superman has again given up his powers in order to save the woman he loves, and is now kneeling before his enemy. But, awesomely, all was not as it seemed. I can't embed that one, so you'll have to click this link.

The final comeback is a small but satisfying victory that show's Superman's human side, as he returns to confront an obnoxious diner patron that terrorized him when he didn't have powers. Again, embedding is disabled, so you'll have to watch it here. The best line isn't included in that video: “I've been, uh, working out.” I love it. Rest in peace, Mr. Reeve.

By now, killing Optimus Prime is something of a cliché. Transformers fans expect an Optimus death to stick about as much as Jean “Phoenix” Grey or any other deceased comic book character(James “Bucky” Barnes and Norman Osborn, I'm looking at you). But the first time he died, especially for those of us who were 10-year-olds in the audience at some of the first theatrical showings of The Transformers: The Movie, it was a surprising and devastating moment.

For the first third of that movie, the body count is high, and up until Prime shows up, the good guys are getting torn up. So he turns the tide, and his sacrifice is both a comeback and a low point. Only later in the film when his successor arises do we get a true comeback moment:

Just when things couldn't possibly get any worse, Hot Rod unleashes the power of Matrix to transform into Rodimus Prime, defeat Galvatron, and save his home planet by destroying the world-devourer Unicron all in one fell swoop. It was a truly inspiring moment only marred by the truly sh*tty job Rodimus ended up doing in the 3rd season of the regular television series. Optimus was such an iconic hero, that they had to make Rodimus a less competent screw-up that lost the Matrix every other episode, and eventually they had no other choice but to resurrect Optimus:

No force in the universe could stop him beyond the cancellation of the series three episodes later, but I digress. The legacy lived on in future generations with new toys, comics, and animated series. The only one I really embraced was Beast Wars, a computer-animated series that was a direct sequel to the ‘80s cartoon, unlike other shows that were unrelated reboots. Beast Wars was set in the future, but had an awesome twist reveal that the planet on which those characters were marooned was Earth's distant past, where the original Transformers had crashed and remained dormant. So their actions could have altered their very existence, especially when it looked like a sleeping Optimus was killed:

Yeah, that was a pretty hardcore cliffhanger to end the second season with. Like the nuke at the end of LOST season five, I had no idea where they would go next. They manage to stabilize Prime and thus the timestream, leaving them with much higher stakes in their third season as they now had to guard Prime and the others. It was definitely a bigger transition for the show than the one at the end of the first season when, in keeping with tradition, they killed off Optimus' descendant, Optimus Primal. For the first few episodes of the second season, he remained dead after perishing in an explosion high above the planet. But his “spark” or spirit was still out there, and with a new upgraded body, his friends did their best to bring him back. In the midst of trying, it seemed like they themselves were going to be destroyed, and then this happened:

That's such a great scene. The finality of the unwinnable scenario. The disbelief of the villains as the smoke clears to reveal who fired on them. The relief of the good guys. It's all very basic and simple, but it's the outline that's been used countless times in film, television, and literature. If geek pop culture, and the countless mainstream action movies, sports movies, or Westerns I didn't get to this evening have taught me anything, it's that it's always darkest before the dawn. I'll cite one last great example from The Matrix:

Neo is DEAD, and then he gets BETTER. MUCH better.

There are so many great comebacks in fiction when it seems like all hope is lost, when they've even gone so far as to kill a protagonist. I wonder where they got the idea for that. I don’t know why this is on my mind right now.


Blogger cube said...

Optimus Prime's death was like Spock's death in The Wrath of Kahn to a Trekkie like myself. I feel your pain. Luckily, they both came back.

2/04/2010 3:23 PM  

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