> There is something similar going on in numerous films and television series. The phenomenon has been called “universe-shrinking”. What happens is that the characters in a science-fiction or thriller franchise are initially sent off on adventures in the wider world. James Bond goes after Goldfinger, Doctor Who defends the Earth against the Daleks, and so on. But after a while that world grows smaller and smaller until there is nothing in it which isn’t connected to the protagonists.

> The most famous example of this phenomenon pre-dates the current trend by four decades. George Lucas’s “Star Wars” saga introduced a hero, Luke Skywalker, who was a farm boy from the back of beyond. There was a great big galaxy out there that had nothing do with him – and that was what made the film so magical. The message was that even a lowly peasant from the middle of nowhere could rescue a beautiful princess and confound an aristocratic villain. But the sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back”, revealed that Luke was the son of that aristocratic villain, Darth Vader. And the third film in the trilogy, “The Return of the Jedi”, added that he was also the brother of the beautiful Princess Leia. A humble nobody’s rise to universe-saving glory was recast as a squabble over a royal breakfast table.

> When “Star Wars” was revived in 2015 with “The Force Awakens”, this shift from galaxy-spanning epic to domestic soap opera was taken to a laughable new extreme: its villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was the son of Princess Leia and Han Solo, the nephew of Luke Skywalker and the grandson of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) opened by debating the ethical issues raised by superheroes, but its final fight was about one character murdering another’s parents. And when the Bourne franchise returned last year with “Jason Bourne”, its amnesiac hero discovered that he wasn’t just a soldier who had enrolled in the CIA’s shadowy Operation Treadstone: he was the son of the man who had created Treadstone in the first place. Again and again, sprawling conflicts are being reduced to family feuds. [...]

> It’s not too hard to see why such universe-shrinking appeals to screenwriters. Drama is fuelled by revelations, and there aren’t many revelations more momentous – or easier to write – than, “I am your father/sister/brother!” Giving the protagonist a personal involvement in the plot is also a simple way of raising the emotional stakes, as well as making him or her more sympathetic to the viewer. Most of us will never be lucky enough to blow up a moon-sized space station, as Luke Skywalker did, but we all know what it’s like to be angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling. [...]

> Whatever the reasons, I’d much rather see Bond and Bourne righting wrongs that had nothing to do with them. Boiling down every plot to the protagonist’s own coterie makes their adventures seem like petty, private matters. It isn’t just the fictional universe which is diminished, but the nobility of the characters within it. Surely, one measure of heroism is to put your life on the line for a cause which doesn’t affect you personally.
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