Mass media is a funny thing. While we clamor for originality, we also love the comfort found in the familiar. I love completely original science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, and all of that, but I also love reading the adventures of Spider-Man, the Flash, Superman and so many more. So how do we find a balance between the two? It's a concept that's come be called "legacy character."
The History of the Legacy Character
The funny thing about pop culture is that it creates stories that last forever and characters that we never want to go away. It's not a new concept. It happened with Sherlock Holmes and his death at the Reichenbach Falls in 1894, when fan uproar finally caused Arthur Conan Doyle to bring Holmes back in 1903. We can see it with Superman, who has been more or less published continuously since his 1938 debut. It's even happened on television with Doctor Who, which is over 50 years old.
Even outside of genre entertainment we can see it all over. Soap operas are an easy example. The Days of Our Lives has been on the air for fifty years. All My Children aired from 1970 to 2011. Long-running novel series are another. Alex Cross has appeared in 22 novels since 1993. Jack Ryan has appeared in 18. These are a very small sample how long pop culture heroes can last.
In novels, it's easy to make characters last. They're never seen outside of the reader's imagination so the writer can continue to create new stories starring your favorites long past their potential retirement. Holmes, for example, is still having new stories published about his adventures today. However, when you are faced into a visual medium, such as a TV series, movies or even a comic book, you run into a new problem. What happens when the actor ages out of their role, becomes sick, or unexpectedly passes away?
Doctor Who came up with an elegant solution. The character of the Doctor was an alien. What if when the character "dies" he's able to "regenerate" into a new body, and, behind the scenes, a new actor? They had their solution, and thus their longevity.
Other TV shows weren't that lucky, but they were able to utilize a similar principle. When an actor was ready to move on, the baton could be passed on to a younger, perhaps more modern actor in a new, but inevitably similar role and carry on their mentor's legacy. We saw this multiple times during the ten season run of Stargate SG-1, with Michael Shanks passing his role on the team to Corin Nemec, and Richard Dean Anderson's role being passed to Ben Browder. Cameron Mitchell was a very different character than Jack O'Neil, but they shared similar enough qualities that the show was able to carry on for several years. These changes didn't always stick, with Shanks' return a season later, and other changes in other shows.
Movies had it easy. Jack Ryan has been portrayed on-screen by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine. James Bond has been played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. With a popular character, you could just make a few films with one actor, retire the franchise for a few years, then bring it back as a reboot, or in the Bond franchise's case you don't even to acknowledge the change with more than a wink and a nod.
Unfortunately comic books didn't have it that easy. They had to contend with both worlds. The characters were ink and paper, so sure they didn't age. However, they were also a visual medium, so they had to create an illusion of change. Characters were married, had children, had sidekicks that grew up to be heroes in their own right. Eventually it came to a natural point that maybe a character would be killed or injured and replaced.
The 90's were a prime time for this. In DC Comics alone, Barry Allen was replaced by his sidekick Wally West (which actually took place in the late 80's, but set the precedent), Hal Jordan by new character Kyle Rayner, Ollie Queen by his son Connor Hawke, Bruce Wayne by both John Paul Valley and Dick Grayson, and Superman was replaced by FOUR different characters for a short time.
Those stories were often all about living up to the high standards set by their predecessor. Barry was practically sainted upon his death, and Wally struggled with his worthiness. Kyle was suddenly the last living member of a massive intergalactic police force, and had to do the job once done by thousands of others.
The legacy concept often also inserted more very welcome diversity into a predominantly white male line-up of characters. Kyle Rayner was half-Latino. Connor Hawke was half-Asian. And so on.
The Superhero Boom Hits
Then, the superhero movie boom changed everything. X-Men was released in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002. Suddenly, superheroes besides Batman had to potential to not just be crowd pleasers but remarkably lucrative franchises. Suddenly comic book companies weren't just graphic publishers. They were IP machines. A writer could now publish a comic book strictly to sell as a movie pitch. Characters like Iron Man were on the table as the next big thing. And comic book publishers were in a tough spot.
Marvel generally speaking was in the best position. All of their characters were more or less in their most iconic state. A few characters died but for the most part they were sure to return.
DC on the other hand really only had Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in their most iconic state. Flash, Green Arrow and Green Lantern were all legacies, and Aquaman had been changed so substantially that Arthur Curry had pretty much become his own legacy character. And don't even get me started on DC icon Hawkman, whose history was so convoluted that no one could tell you if he was the original, a legacy character, or something else entirely.
They had to scramble fix it. While their IPs were valuable, there was no way they could adapt the current characters in the costumes. It was too complicated. Ollie had already been restored to the Green Arrow role by writer Kevin Smith, but two of their biggest icons were still overly complicated. Kyle Rayner became Green Lantern after the previous Green Lantern from Earth slaughtered all of the Green Lantern Corps, leaving him with the last GL ring in the universe. That wasn't a story you could tell in the first thirty minutes of a big screen epic. And Wally was even worse.
Geoff Johns and Dan Didio worked together to correct this. The writer and editor created a series that would be titled Green Lantern Rebirth. They would bring back Hal Jordan, the most iconic version of Green Lantern, and in six issues reestablish him as the premier Green Lantern of the DC Universe.
Fans were unhappy at first, but Johns created a thrilling story that continued into a years-long run on the character. He added to the mythos, including the emotional spectrum, the Sinestro Corps, and a firm reestablishment of the Green Lantern Corps.
Johns would later take the same approach with Barry Allen, bringing the most iconic Flash back from the dead.
The Current State of the Legacy
And now for the point I've wanted to get to the whole time I've been writing. Thanks to the new era of multimedia, we live in a time where the illusion of change is prevalent. Spider-Man makes more money than any fictional character except Batman. Even the most minor character is getting pulled into massive "cinematic universes" where every IP is exploited.
Simply put, Peter Parker is always going to be Spider-Man. Bruce Wayne is always going to be Batman. Barry Allen will always be the Flash. The characters in their most recognizable, and thus marketable, state would take priority. All in the name of the all-mighty dollar.
Unfortunately that means there's already an expiration date on characters like Sam Wilson, who just took the mantle of Captain America, and the new Thor. However, the changing way these legacy character have been handled doesn't mean they'll go away, just that Steve Rogers and Thor Odinson will return to the role. But wait, doesn't that mean they WILL go away? No, and to the reason why, we can look at the Green Lantern franchise.
As part of Rebirth, DC reestablished the Green Lantern Corps. That included the multiple versions of GL all co-existing- Rayner, Guy Gardner, and John Stewart, the Green Lantern who starred in the Justice League cartoon. Somehow, this didn't cause confusion, and writers could have several different versions of the same character concept floating around.
This paved the way for some of the current legacy characters that exist today. Miles Morales is able to co-exist with Peter Parker, and Kamala Khan with Carol Danvers. John Stewart is still a popular and important DCU character. Teddy Altman, Hulking, is extremely popular, and is barely connected to the Hulk.
What Does this Mean for the Future?
The concept of the legacy character isn't going away. However, the legacy character isn't going to be replacing the more "iconic" version character permanently like they did in the nineties.
Steve Rogers will eventually become Captain America again. However, Johns has proved that Hal Jordan and John Stewart can still both be Green Lantern side by side. The readers haven't been confused by this once. Why can't Steve and Sam?
This is what's most likely to happen with the Spider-Man line. Peter Parker will star in Amazing Spider-Man, while Miles Morales will star in Ultimate Spider-Man. The two will run into each other, crossover, and interact in a way similar to Hal and John.
Legacy and Diversity
That doesn't mean we're not going to see the diversity that legacy characters provided go away either. On the multi-media front, movie-makers, and television producers have realized that race is an unimportant character trait. It's great to see an African American actor playing Johnny Storm on the big screen, and not only that but updating the Storm family into a much more modern blended family. And honestly, I hope the new Peter Parker is a person of color (although I don't think he'll be black because the suits will wrongly think that takes something away from Miles). My personal hope is that the new Peter is half-Latino on his mother's side. And that Mary Parker's new maiden name is Morales... aka sister of Rio Morales (mother of Miles Morales, natch).
Miles has proven that comic book readership is open to characters of diverse backgrounds. Teddy Altman and his boyfriend Billy Kaplan (son of the Scarlet Witch) have proven that readers are not only open but are willing to embrace LGBT characters. And Kamala Khan has shattered the barriers of religious diversity and proven a Muslim character could be not only accepted but become remarkably popular.
However, we still have a long way to go. Diversity in geek culture is still a struggle, but the door is open. Kamala and Miles are proof of that. I for one pray that it happens more and quicker.
But that's an opinion piece for another day.