Marvel has another critical and box office mega-hit on its hands with Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet for all the super-powered action, witty banter, and MacGuffin chasing we’ve come to expect, there’s one aspect of Marvel’s storytelling that saps a little more suspense with each passing film: The studio’s signature move of killing off that beloved character and then—volia!—bringing him right back to life.
Each big death is accompanied by all the appropriate bombast and grief. But then—usually before the credits of the same film—the character is resurrected by magic-science. The rules feel pretty clear: Major heroes are safe, while the big bad and minor heroes are potentially expendable. Some recent examples (spoilers, of course):
Thor: The Dark World: Loki is a big fan favorite, though more of an antihero/villain than a hero. He’s killed in a satisfying, self-sacrificial moment. But later, it’s revealed that he’s still alive, thanks to his tricky magical talents. Yes, Thor and Loki’s mother died for real in the movie—but again, she’s a minor character.
Iron Man 3: During the film’s climax, Pepper Potts takes a high fall into a raging fire. Her death gives Tony Stark the boost he needs to defeat the bad guys. But surprise—she’s still alive because of magic-science. (Her clothes were also apparently protected by magic-science.)
The Avengers: Agent Coulson’s death is the film’s big emotional trigger point. Then Marvel brought him back in ABC’s Agents of SHIELD via magic-science.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The non-death device is used repeatedly here, most notably with Nick Fury. The eye-patched SHIELD chief is assassinated. This death in particular felt earned and important, and it happens in a dramatic, intense sequence. Except later, it’s revealed that Fury is still alive because of magic-science. Plus: Capt. America’s buddy Bucky Barnes died in the first Captain America, but is revealed not-dead in the sequel (he’s the mysterious Winter Solider). Then there’s Agent Rumlow, who seemed like he was dead but was also revealed still alive (presumably since he’s going to be Crossbones).
X-Men: Days of Future Past: This comes from 20th Century Fox, not Marvel Studios, but it pulls the same stunt. Nearly ALL the main characters are killed by the Sentinels in the climax. Then they all get brought back to life (time-travel magic-science). But to give credit where due, another recent film with Marvel characters made by a non-Marvel studio—Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2—did kill off its heroine for real, staying true to the comics.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Hey, another heroic self-sacrifice to punch up the third act! Groot’s nothing but twigs on the ground… but he apparently wasn’t dead after all. That’s right: Marvel can’t even kill a plant. Oh, and did you think The Collector perished in that big magic orb blast? Nope; he just got a bump on the head, as seen in the closing credits.
To be clear, I liked Groot—I didn’t want the Chewbacca-Ent to die. Loki’s great too. In fact, I’m not arguing for any character to be sent to the Marvel afterlife. I’m objecting to the studio using the same fake-out narrative trick, over and over. Its impact gets weaker every time, making the films feel less impactful than they would haveotherwise. Marvel shouldn’t get to have its cake and kill it too. And yes, Comic Book Guy, you’re right—this plot device is very true to comics, where characters are repeatedly killed and resurrected. Some hardcore fans want the movies to follow the comic books, in which most heroes basically live forever. Yet Marvel movies need to function as wholly satisfying films in their own right.
We asked Marvel creative king and Avengers director Joss Whedon about this during our interview last year: Can he ever kill a major Marvel character? “I’m always joking about that,” he answered. “Um…maybe?… But I’d have to have a really good reason, a really great sequence for [Marvel executives] to go, ‘We’ll cut off a potential franchise, that’s fine!’ They know, as any good studio does, that without some stakes, some real danger, how involved can we get? We don’t just rule it out across the board, but neither is the mission statement ‘Who can we kill?’ We try to build the story organically and go, ‘How hard can we make it on these people?’ You go to the movies to see people you love suffer—that’s why you go to the movies.”
Right! And perhaps Whedon will get such creative license in Age of Ultron. I can imagine him arguing to board members that they’ve gotta let him murder mopey Hawkeye, at least.
One comparison to all this is the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke’s aunt and uncle both died and stayed dead; the resulting scene was rather gruesome and changed the direction of the story. Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda died, too. They were brought back, but in such a different spectral form that their deaths still had consequence and meaning (the characters could only advise Luke, not take action). And remember how Thor seemingly got his hand cut off in Thor 2 and—magic-science!—it’s back? Luke also got his hand cut off, but his injury had a dramatic resonance—his robotic replacement hand was a permanent change, and represented a constant reminder that he was one step closer to becoming like his father.
Or take another huge franchise: The Harry Potter saga. J.K. Rowling racked up quite the body count among significant heroic characters across seven books and eight films: Harry’s parents, Sirius, Cedric, Dobby, Fred Weasley, Dumbledore. Rowling even killed Harry’s owl. She could have used magic to bring them back—she used magic to accomplish just about every other dramatic need in her story—yet she didn’t.
It’s hard to criticize anything Marvel is doing when the studio is so incredibly successful. I can’t even argue that making death more real would make the films better or more popular. But each film leaves me wishing for greater dramatic consequences. In drama—yeah, even comic-book movies—death should at least mean something, right?
Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller put it best. He was recently asked by TV critics about his upcoming Batman prequel series, how restrictive it is that iconic characters like The Penguin and The Riddler cannot be killed on his show. His droll reply was perfect: “It’s a sad thing if you can only build tension by killing people.” So true—a great story doesn’t need a body count. But if it’s going to have one, at least make those bodies count for something.