Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Emma Frost: Jean Grey is dead.
Agent Brand: Yeah that’ll last.
Astonishing X-Men: 6 by Joss Whedon
I was running errands while listening to NPR in my car yesterday and there was this guy being interviewed, what he was saying was that deaths in movies where having less effect on people than back in the old days. He added this was a general trend but it was especially true in comic book/super hero movies. He said the reason was that it was less emotional was there’s now so many ‘fake out deaths’ where the audience is led to believe someone died and they are back in action a few scenes later. That got me thinking.
Now anytime you discuss death scenes in movies you are going to be discussing spoilers. So just be forewarned. He gave an example of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor: Dark World, who goes down in battle, scored by hyper dramatic music only to return in the last reel disguised as his adopted father Odin. Or Agent Phil Culson whose death brings the Avengers together, but he gets to be resurrected in his own TV show. And just how many times did Nick Fury fake his death in Winter Solider? Another good example is in the new Trek movie where Kirk stays dead for like five minutes.
And to a degree he’s got a point. When a main charterer gets shot halfway through a movie and I still think he or she has some screen time left, I begin going…Wait for it…wait for it…Wait for it.Then finally the character gasps, shoots up and reveals they were wearing a bullet proof vest the whole time. Compare this with death scenes like Sargent Elias’ in Platoon, after he is left by his men to be killed by the Vietcong, or when Roy Batty ran out of time in Blade Runner, or even the scene that caused thousands of childhood nightmares, the death of Bambi’s mother. It’s easy to see the guys point, these death is temporary scenes defiantly don’t have the emotional impact of those classic scenes.
There may be a valid point in the fact this is more prevalent in comic book movies. “Comic book death’ is the trope name for a story where someone dies and then eventually comes back. Twenty years ago it was not uncommon to hear in a comic book store the following conventional wisdom. “The only people who stay dead in comics, are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben,” now however out of these three iconic characters only Peter Parker’s uncle stayed dead. There have been a few ‘real’ deaths in the four color universe, and these have more impact because the characters stayed dead. Bruce Wayne’s parents, set the whole Bat Man story in motion. Spider Man accidentally killed his girlfriend Gwen Stacy when he tried to save her is part of Peter Parker’s psyche. And the scene where Rorschach yells at Doctor Manhattan “Do it!” Before the near godly super makes him explode still gives me shivers.
The epitome of comic book deaths took place in 1992, with the death of Superman. Killed by Doomsday Superman was able to stop the behemoth, but he was fatally wounded and died in the arms of his long time love Louis Lane. Even mainstream news agencies ran the news of Clark Kent’s death at the hands of the alien Juggernaut. In my local comic book store they had to limit the sale of that issue, in black Mylar bags, to ten per person. I don’t think anyone believed that a cash cow like supes would stay dead. This would open the door for even more diseased DC characters to return to earth.
This trope is occasionally played with, like Nick Spencer gleefully does this in his Morning Glories. It has characters reappearing after their death. (Your guess is as good as mine as to how this happens but I think it has to do with pull characters form other dimensional timelines) In one story arch a character gets so mad upon hearing that his father wrote him out of his will, he stabs his old man to death. Only to have the door open and another version of his father walks in and helps him dispose of his own body. As far as I am concerned that is how you keep a trope fresh and new.
A cool twist was also done in Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country. Though a comic book this one is grounded in the real world of espionage and not superheroes so when a character dies they die. The last few story arcs deal with a major character being killed off in a raid against a terrorist base. Also in the middle of the series a major character suddenly dies in his sleep. He was a healthy ex-solider, so the team suspects fowl play bust there is no evidence and he was on a routine surveillance mission. The reader’ never finds out how he died because the characters never do. Both his team and the readers are left with the devastating knowledge an otherwise healthy man, who had survived many combat missions just stopped living for no apparent reason.
Death is often used in many origin stories. Thomas and Martha Wayne, Drax the Destroyer’s family, Uncle Ben, and even Bambi’s mom, stir the protagonist to a quest for super fueled justice. What Bambi, with his super jumps and oversized antlers, isn’t a superhero? This is even mocked in Mike Millar’s Kick Ass, when Dave’s mother dies because of a cerebral hemorrhage rather than an act of violence. Characters who are only used in origin stories almost never come back other than in flash backs and occasional alternative dimensional romps.
Death is defiantly a legitimate subject for a story, comic book or otherwise. And coming back from death can be too, but the fact remains that it is just over used in comic books, and this trend seems to have bled into comic book movies and other movies too. Part of it is because we go to movies as well as read comic books to escape from the depressing aspects of real life. In reality we don’t have heroes in spandex to save us from our troubles. We willingly put away part of pour disbelief to immerse us in a superheroes world, our reward is a fantastic setting were death as well as evil can be overcome. But has triumphing over the grave been so played out that not only is it cliché on screen death has become blasé?
TV shows are a bit different. When I was a child and I would wig out because I thought that my favorite charterer on a TV show would get bumped off my parents would calmly explain “They don’t kill off main characters.” Well I couldn’t say that with complete certainty to my children. Not only is killing off a protagonist a ratings boost it is often a jump the shark moment, it also happens when an actor is leaving TV for a career in the silver screen. With the rise of ensemble shows from Law and Order, Trek, NCIS et al, it is just a conclusion that by season five one or more of the original cast members is going to be killed off.
This can be done for shock value or to move the plot along. Tommy Meryln’s death at the end of season one of Arrow, inspired Oliver’s choice to go from killer vigilante to hero, as well as Laurel’s drug and drinking problem. Now I have only seen halfway through season two so if he comes back from the dead like his father, then I think it may undermined the drama that his death caused. Also Agents of Shield, used the whole, “Uh…Didn’t Coulson die in the Avengers” thing to its advantage. Where Clark Gregg’s character wasn’t even aware he had been killed and brought back by alien super science.
But back to the revolving door death in comic book movies, is it going to last? Probably not. Here is why. Just like a TV series actors in franchise movies move on. You can go the James Bond, or Bat Man route and get another actor, or you can retire or kill off the character and try to move on with another.
It has been recently announced that Captain America III, will be Civil War. In the comic books Cap was killed by a sniper (he did get better) at the end of Civil War. The shield was picked up by Bucky Barnes, the ex-Winter Solider. Chris Evans who plays Steve Rogers, has a contract for three more films, Sebastian Stan, who plays Bucky has a contract for six. It doesn’t take a math genius to guess, that just like in the comics, Bucky or maybe Falcon, will take up the shield. But would audiences still watch the franchise after Steve Rogers’ demise?
Also when thinking about the future fatality of existing line up of Marvel Universe characters, remember who is charge here. Joss Whedon is the most prolific mass murder of fictional charterers in our era, look at all the beloved characters he has killed off, Wash, Shepard Book, Tara, Joyce Summers, Jonathan, Jenny Calendar, Doyle, Winifred ‘Fred” Berkle, Wesley, Cordelia Chase, Kendra even Buffy and Spike (though they did come back) He is like the killer DM who gets off on killing player’s characters. Since this trend continued in the movie Serenity, I suspect that it won’t stop with the Marvel U.
So is this a good thing? It is more to the point a thing. It like death is real thing. Thorough in no way am I saying that the death or non-death of comic book characters is on the level of real human being, Artist will use death as a metaphor, such as Anne Rice writing Interview with a Vampire to seal with the death of her daughter, swimmer in Jaws being embodied in small island politics. But just as writers will imbue death with their own feelings, and concerns, audiences will continue to react when their emotional buttons are pushed only time will say how it affects us as a people.