There are significant spoilers for Pixar’s Lightyear in the article below, starting in the second section.
If Hollywood and filmmakers, in general, excel at something, it’s riding the wave of a good trend. Alright, that isn’t quite fair. They’re good at the obvious things as well, such as making good movies and entertaining people BUT they are also adept at recognizing storytelling techniques popular with the public. As an old expression says: beat the iron while it’s hot. Lightyear, the most recent Pixar outing at the time of this writing, serves as a fascinating example. Since about 2018, although earlier examples exist, several films have utilized no less than two storytelling devices du jour. The popularity of each has skyrocketed in the past year. Multiverses (or alternate timelines. Both are similar) and meta storytelling.
Regarding the meta-storytelling angle, Nicholas Cage recently starred as himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. At the time of this writing HBO is running Oliver Assayas’ Irma Vep, a sequel, reboot, or alternate version of a film he made in the 1990s. Along comes Lightyear. It is being marketed as the origin story of the famous figurine from the Toy Story movie series. It is the film its main human character Andy saw as a kid and made him want a Buzz Lightyear action figure. A piece of fiction within the universe of an already existing piece of fiction that made a toy immensely popular, no less. A popular, profitable figurine in the Toy Story movies and in our real world. Woah.
Why Stop at 1? Go Beyond! SPOILERS.
The character of Buzz strives to reach infinite and beyond. Lightyear’s creative team, led by co-writers Angus MacLane and Jason Headly, hopes to achieve a similar goal. A story moulded in a meta casing is nice, but why stop there? After all, alternate timeline and universe movies earn big dollars at the box office too.
The Miles Morales Spider-Man met Peter Parker and others in 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, to say nothing of a 2-part sequel coming soon. Peter Parker as played by Tom Holland recently swung around New York with Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield in Spider-Man: No Way Home. That movie’s supporting character, Doctor Strange, then travelled through the multiverse to encounter several versions of himself in Multiverse of Madness. Lest anyone say that Disney and Marvel have a monopoly over the alternate universe/timeline template, it was only a few months ago that Michelle Yeoh starred in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Next summer DC and Warner Bros. expect to release The Flash, the early teaser trailers have hinted at multiple versions of several iconic characters. In light of recent news, god only knows what The Flash’s status is, but the point is DC is in on the action too.
As Lightyear enters its third act, the plot thickens considerably. The protagonist is ensnared by the lead villain, Emperor Zerg. Rather than vaporize its foe or whatever it is the Zergs do, the Goliathan droid reveals itself to be controlled by a human from the inside. Not just any human. As an older, square-jawed gentleman descends from Zerg’s control seat, a dumfounded Buzz queries “Dad?!”. A cute joke in reference to a hilarious moment in Toy Story 2, but inaccurate! The lead villain of Lightyear is, hold onto your jaws, Buzz Lightyear!
Heroic Decisions Based on Illogic
Shocking. Positively shocking.
The elder anti-hero explains that he is from a different timeline that resulted from the light-speed flight attempts earlier in the film. The older Buzz’s trials were successful, enabling him to time travel. The main objective now is to ensure the humans return home before they ever get marooned. The problem is that hero Buzz has seen what the stranded people have become. A colony, a community, a self-organized society made up of people who live, love, and laugh. Going back in time erases all that. It erases the love his now long deceased friend Alisha found after they became stranded, and by that logic erases his new friends, like Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy.
It’s not at all a bad story beat. It opens discussions about allowing life to maintain its course, not always obsessing over changing what has already come to pass, reckoning with one’s mistakes, and making better decisions to affect the present. In a nutshell: appreciate what one has rather than lament what one lost.
Perfectly decent material, all things considered. This article does not intend to argue that there is a problem with it per se. More to the point, the overall Hollywood trend rests on illogic, something that simply isn’t possible in real life and to a certain degree makes many protagonists come across as weaker than they should be.
Emperor Zerg revealed as Buzz Lightyear is a neat twist. Fans justifiably salivate when the three iconic Spider-Man actors come together in the same movie. Doctor Strange encountering evil Doctor Strange is the stuff of dreams. Michelle Yeoh living multiple zany versions of herself leads to hilarity and action. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those examples. It’s subtle, but the issue is that the protagonists get to make better, morally just decisions because they have the privilege of witnessing what happens if they don’t. As awesome as that would be in real life, it sadly is impossible.
Humans must make insignificant, moderately important, and life-altering decisions based on what they know. There is no master of the mystic arts to open a portal and reveal what would have happened had we gone home early from the party, turned left instead of right, taken the other job offer, and not missed that darned flight. At the risk of sounding obvious, it’s what makes us human. We don’t get to be reassured by another version of ourselves that “hey, we are amazing!” We can only go out into the world and be the most amazing version of ourselves based on what we know, can do, and are willing to learn and try.
Let Them Be Heroes
To reiterate, it is completely understandable why filmmakers are adopting the alternate universe/timeline element for their stories. It makes for fun twists, satisfies long-time fans of certain properties, and provides answers to some crazy but admittedly amusing “what if?” theories. Ultimately, fans see these films to enjoy themselves. If the current trend helps, more power to them.
Nevertheless, the mounting number of films that play in this sandbox awards the possibility to theorize more seriously about what it means. The more there are, the easier it is to compare them. Certain commonalities about them begin to stand out. When the heroes get a cheat code as potent as witnessing alternate versions of themselves, it runs the risk of taking away the heft of their own decision making.
The decisions they make go a long way in moulding our favourite movie heroes. Perhaps Hollywood should let them be heroes.