Monthly Archives: June 2018

Marvel Musings: Death and Consequences

I am sorry that I haven’t managed to continue my villain series as planned. Partly this was due to real live concerns (mainly a bout of flu which really hit me hard), but partly it was because the articles I had planned (and even already partly written) were about Hydra, which suddenly made a reappearance in the MCU. This lead me to delaying the articles, and I am glad that I did. I will eventually continue with the series, but a little bit closer to Avengers 4.

Meanwhile though I think it is time to address a notion which has bothered me a while: The idea that killing off characters make a story automatically better. Frankly, I blame The Walking Dead and Games of Thrones for the popularity of this idea. And while I can’t really comment on the former, I have some thoughts regarding the latter. Not in terms of the show, but I actually read the books. Well…most of them. By the time the TV show aired, I had already given up on the series, and one of the reasons was the Red Wedding. It wasn’t the only reason, but it played heavily into the decision (alongside with me being sick of reading about violence against women without no proper exploration of the effect aside from “look how badass our heroines got by surviving”).

Yes, I know, a lot of people think that the Red Wedding is brilliant. They say that they liked it, because it was so unexpected and they like the idea that no character is safe. I never saw it the same way. To me it was the result of an author wanting a cheap shock effect and getting rid of a character he got bored of. Which brings me to my first thesis regarding this matter:

A story in which certain characters don’t have a plot armour doesn’t exist.

There are always those which are more interesting than others, so a writer tends to hold onto them, unless killing them off would allow them a rewarding narrative opportunity. And this is actually a good thing. Because from a reader or viewer perspective, I think there is nothing as frustrating as investing a lot of time into a character and then said character dies for no reason whatsoever. I am ready to bet if the victims of the Red Wedding had been Daenerys, Sansa, Arya and John Snow, the reaction of the audience would have been very different. More along the way the fans reacted when BBC’s Robin Hood killed off Marian.

For the record, I certainly don’t begrudge anyone to be a fan of Game of Thrones. The only reason why I address this at all is because the raising readiness of TV shows to kill more characters than in the past bred the notion that Marvel movies will never be as good as they should if they follow suit – and yes, this is the point at which I will eventually discuss Infinity War, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should stop reading right now.

There is this general notion that Marvel has to start killing characters to create stakes. To which my reaction is: Have you watched the MCU? There have been plenty characters killed since the MCU started, and not just villains. Not counting the TV series, the list of heroic characters dying before Infinity War and staying dead includes Yinsin, Erskin, Howard and Maria Stark, Peggy Carter, Quicksilver, Freya, Odin, the Warriors three, Denarian Sal, Yondu Udonta and Groot (yes, the first Groot died, Baby Groot is NOT identical with him).

And yes, I am aware of the obvious counter argument: Those are mostly mentor or parental figures, or side characters, we need to see one of the main characters die. Do we though? One should never forget that:

A dead character is a missed narrative opportunity

For example, Yondu sacrificing himself for Peter was a beautiful moment, but it also robbed the audience of seeing more of their complicated relationship on screen. And just imaging how many great stories we wouldn’t have gotten if more deaths in the MCU had been permanent. There would be no Winter Soldier. There would have been nobody to attack New York. There would be no Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. To me, a dead character is a five minute shock effect, a living one is an option for even more interesting stories. Hence there is always the need to consider if a death is really worth it. In Yondu’s case, it might have been worth it in the end. It was a tragic and meaningful moment which will resonate through the whole of the GotG franchise. But had they killed Loki in Thor, it would have been an unforgivable waste of a great character.

All this said, there is a danger of overdoing it with holding onto characters, especially if you keep killing and then reviving them. In comics, this is a common problem. More or less every character has been killed and revived at one point. But, I would argue, the problem is not the act of killing and reviving someone in itself, the problem is circular storytelling. I will take Supernatural as an example. Sam and Dean have both been killed multiple times by now. But at what point did those deaths actually become meaningless? I would argue that they became meaningless when there was no story left to tell with those deaths (again, what follows are major spoilers for Supernatural).

Sam dying the first time was meaningful because it lead to Dean sacrificing his soul. Dean not managing to get out of the deal was meaningful because it subverted expectations, but also lead to him spending what felt like years in hell, adding a tragic story to his character. Dean being killed multiple times by Gabriel was mostly done for fun, but also served to explore the dependence between Sam and Dean from Sam’s angle. When Dean and Sam both got shot it allowed for a great episode exploring heaven. But there was eventually a point at which those deaths didn’t happen anymore to create narrative opportunities, but for fake drama during which the audience could get the swelling music and the tears – again! It felt like “been there, done that, can we move on now?”.

A resurrection is only problematic when it becomes repetitive.

So, let’s apply this thought to the MCU and discuss Loki, the master of not-dying. Currently he is up to three deaths, the last of them seemingly permanent. Are those deaths sufficiently different? My answer is yes! The first time is a suicide attempt after he realizes that Odin doesn’t approve his actions, the second time is a deliberate trick and the third time, well, it looks like his action finally caught up to him, but he went out defending Thor. He basically got the death he pretended to have in The Dark World for real in Infinity war.

What is important regarding Loki’s various deaths is not just what we did see, but also what we didn’t see. None of the previous deaths spend a lot of time on Thor’s reaction to it, and what we saw of it played out differently each time. Or, in other words, it was a good decision to make Loki’s death quick but visceral in Infinity War, because we already had the scene of Thor holding a dying Loki in his arms in The Dark World. Doing it again would have been a repetition, hence the writer avoided it. Instead they allowed Thor some time to actually grief over all the people he has lost – finally – hence covering ground the audience hadn’t really seen beforehand.

To be frank, I don’t have a problem with any of the fake deaths in the MCU with the notable exception of the five second loss of Pepper Potts in Ironman 3. Her seemingly falling to her death didn’t really have much of an effect on the narrative, because Tony wasn’t even given enough time to grief properly about it. Nor is this traumatic event ever addressed again. It is the epitome of an utterly pointless fake death.

And that doesn’t mean that I wanted Pepper Potts to die. Nor do I think that the audience would have been pleased if she had died in this manner. The reality is that we tend to get attached to characters and hence we don’t want them to die unless it is done in a way which honours the character. That is what 90% of the discussion surrounding The Last Jedi is about. That’s why the Robin Hood fans were so angry about Marian dying. That’s why Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes back in the day.

And don’t get me wrong here, losing a character can be a emotionally satisfying experience. Yondu is a good example of that. But I would propose that:

The ending of Infinity War works not despite but because we know deep down it isn’t permanent.

Just let’s imagine that those deaths never are reversed and next we see Shuri stepping in as Black Panther, a new Spider-Man and hey, Bucky, after everything he went through, was just snapped out of existence and Cap is giving up on him without a fight again. The audience would be p….. This would be like killing of a main character in the last episode of Enterprise or killing off Arthur the moment he realizes that Merlin has magic. Or, to put it differently, a death is usually a terrible pay-off for years of investments into a specific character or plot-line. That doesn’t mean that it can’t work (most memorable example of it is the series finale of Dinosaurs), but it needs to have a point which is bigger than just a character dying.

And this is what Avengers 4 has to deliver. In a lot of ways the ending of Infinity War is a promise for greater things to come. Avengers 4 has to be about the characters left dealing with the consequences and finding the strength for one last battle to set this right again. And, speaking of consequences:

Death is the most boring of consequences

It really is. To use some examples from the MCU: The Vulture dying after having figured out Spider-man’s true identity would have been handy, but having a villain out there who has this information but decided to not use it (yet?) because he owes Spider-Man his live is way more compelling. Bucky falling from the train is a beautiful turning point in The First Avenger, but even better is him being turned into a brain-washed Hydra Assassin who ends up attacking Steve one movie later.

The MCU is full of interesting consequences which, to be honest, enthral me often more than someone dying. What is more dramatic than the truth about Bucky’s action being revealed towards the end of Civil War? What is more heart-breaking than seeing Spider-man trapped under concrete, calling for help like the teenager he is?  Or Bucky having to take the mouth piece, bracing himself for torture? Even Marvel’s arguably best death so far works so well not because Yondu dies, but that he declares himself to be Peter’s dad with his last breath followed by a funeral scene which runs the gambit of all emotions, from anger to sadness to happiness back to sadness.

More often than not a death is a neutral feature – I doubt that many in the audience cared much when the Warrior’s Three were wiped away – and sometimes a character has to die to make room for something else – Odin dying is an example of this, he had to go so that Thor could step up to the throne. And, to be frank, if there is one death in Infinity War they won’t reverse for sure, it is Heimdal’s. Oh, I am sure the character has its fans, too, but overall he was always barely utilized played by an expensive actor. Narratively there is no direction to go in with him.

To be clear about this: I am not saying that a death, even the death of a main character, can’t be a satisfying and meaningful experience. It always depends on what the impact on the narrative is. If the audience will feel cheated, one shouldn’t do it. The death of a popular character should always provide some sort of conclusion for the audience or open up new interesting storyline to explore.

Which is why I am torn about Loki dying in Infinity War. See, I was actually looking forward to seeing the Avengers interact with a somewhat redeemed Loki. And yet I don’t think that they should bring Loki back in Avengers 4, not after Thanos practically turned to the audience to confirm that yes, this time it will be a real. Loki escaping death again after this assurance would be kind of cheating. Plus, I have to admit that the character went full circle. His last act was acknowledging both his ice giant heritage as well as his kinship to Thor, so it mostly worked as a conclusion for his storyline.

But if they bring him back a few movies down the line, maybe this time as kid Loki, I would be all for it! Again, Loki as a character is too compelling to lose him permanently. And, speaking of characters which could be resurrected eventually but not immediately, Vision could be brought back too. He is an android after all, there is a possibility that down the line there will be another version of him. And that would be completely okay, as long as said version is different from the Vision we saw before. Again, it’s the consequences which count, and the narrative opportunity.

Gamora on the other hand, well, I think the audience expects her to play an important role in Avengers 4. But will she be brought back to live at the end of it? Both options work for me (depending on the narrative built around them), though for the record, it would be a shame to permanently lose one of the few relationship between two females in the MCU. And with few I mean the only one left in the movies outside of Black Panther considering that neither Jane nor Darcy will make a reappearance anytime soon.

I guess I went a little bit off the tangent there. So, to summon this up, a death can be a narratively satisfying option, but it is by far not the only way to have stakes in a movie franchise and, imho, it is one of the least creative ways to create suspense. Characters making far reaching decisions and having to deal with the fall-out of said decisions is a way more satisfying approach.

Do I think that the MCU will kill a main character in Avengers 4? Actually, yes, I do, I don’t think that Ironman will survive the movie because his character arc has come full circle and frankly, RDJ is too expensive to stay a part of the franchise. But if Phase 3 ends with a wedding instead of a funeral, I wouldn’t be disappointed either. The only thing I need from Avengers 4 is that consequences of the Snap are felt, and that the reversal of it doesn’t involve reversing the whole of Infinity war. And, to be honest, the less characters die, the better in my book.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements