Marvel Studios, and the problem of killing people

Feature Simon Brew 4 Aug 2014 - 06:30
The Disney-owned (nearly) Marvel logo

Can important characters ever die in big name comic book franchises? It doesn't look like it...

Spoilers: This article talks about pretty much every Marvel Studios movie to date, The Dark Knight trilogy and The Amazing Spider-Man films.

Because this article has no shortage of spoilers in it, and because we don't want people to see them accidentally, if it's okay with you, we're going to start with a big picture of a squirrel.

If you scroll past the spoiler squirrel, then you're on your own.

For all the merits of the Marvel cinematic universe, the studio is fighting against a problem that it's managed to defeat in comics time and time again. By the very nature of a massive blockbuster movie, you can only really make one about a given character every two years, and that's if you're getting your skates on. Granted, Wolverine has popped up in cinemas three years running now, but even then, in one of the films concerned he's just popped up in a brief cameo.

In comics, it's easier and quicker to go back and relaunch a character, and to come up with a different line. That's why we've had heroes and villains die over the years, only to be resurrected by reboots, transferring of the cape, story meetings and such like.

Movies don't have that luxury. And given that Marvel in particular has spent an awful lot of money, and risked pretty much everything, on building a universe of interlinking characters, it's understandable that it's reluctant to really push at their mortality. We're at the point though where this has consequences.

Take Iron Man 2. Early on in the film, we learn that Tony Stark is dying. The things keeping him alive won't be keeping him alive for long. He's apparently doomed. Yet I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that not one single person watching the film ever thought he would die. Not a single one.

More recently, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, thanks to a brilliant action sequence, seemingly killed off Nick Fury. To do so would have been incredibly bold, without the safety net of a comic relaunch to bring him back, and would have upped the stakes significantly for the movie. The problem, again, is that even if you weren't aware that Samuel L Jackson had a long term contract with Marvel, there wasn't a moment where you really thought he was dead really. The reveal that he was alive held no surprise. And furthermore, after seemingly killing him so suddenly, his return dilutes a little the impact of what happened in the first place.

It's a problem that franchise cinema has often grappled with, to the point that when it does kill someone off, it tends to be with flashing lights, huge swirling music, and arrows all over the screen pointing out that this is a VERY MAJOR THING. Which made it all the more shocking when Agent Coulson, played by the wonderful Clark Gregg, bought it in The Avengers. More to the point, he bought it, and wasn't resurrected by the end of the movie. There was a death in the Marvel family, and it really felt like it meant a lot.

You know what happened next. Coulson was resurrected for the TV show Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, we learn he was resurrected by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s medical staff just after he died, we just never got to see it. That doesn't feel like a creative story decision. That feels like a boardroom reshuffle. The upshot is more Clark Gregg, of course, so it's hard to grumble too much.

Still, people laughed when Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower in the TV show Dallas, having been dead for a good year, but at least that was honest, straight down the line bullshit. It was so ridiculous, then it was basically played it for comedy, given that Dallas had backed itself into a corner. It also hugely undermined the credibility of the show, too, although by that stage, it would be fair to say that Dallas was creaking a little.

Still, cinematic stories can't afford that to even entertain that same sort of wink at the audience, and as a result, we're being asked to feel heavily for someone when they die, and to look all surprised when they're not dead really.

The irony, of course, is that when Marvel did kill off a character with some degree of finality on the big screen, it fluffed it. Rene Russo, in Thor and Thor: The Dark World, played Frigga, the wife of Odin. She barely appears in both films, in truth, but she's killed outright in Thor 2. It's framed as a moment of major significance, but - rarely for Marvel - we're never given anything other than a few pencil details as to why we should care. Thus, it's hard to.

That may sound hard nosed, but imagine if the film had followed through, and stuck to killing Loki off instead? We see him die in the film, only to learn he's not dead really, thanks to some nifty Lokiwork (look it up, it's a proper noun). Had Loki gone? We'd still be talking about it now, as it'd leave a huge, notable, narratively-interesting hole in the middle of the Marvel cinematic universe. Frigga died, meanwhile, and I doubt half the audience even knew her name.

Also, by the nature of the Lokiwork, Anthony Hopkins' Odin is dead, but again, the dramatic impact of that was surprisingly flat, taking second place to the resurrection of Tom Hiddleston.

You can understand why Marvel did it, of course. It has no villain in its cinematic universe that's anywhere near as fun and interesting as Loki. But if it does continue to throw a Jack Bauer-esque protective cordon around central characters, there may yet be long term dramatic problems its universe faces.

The upshot of all of this is that when we're taunted with the death of a major character in a comic book movie now, the drama feels diluted. In Guardians Of The Galaxy, there's a moment where Peter Quill looks like he's going to sacrifice himself for Gamora. But we know it won't come to that. There's a moment where it looks like Groot is lost forever. But he's not. There's a moment where Quill grabs the infinity stone, in another moment of self-sacrifice. Given that he's already got through one seemingly suicidal moment - in the same film! - there's not much doubt he'll survive the other. The stakes feel far less than they should be in that regard, no matter how well the film explains it.

There are exceptions, and they feel all the more shocking as a result. The most notable is the almost callous way that Rachel Dawes is disposed of in The Dark Knight. Faced with a choice between saving Harvey Dent and Rachel, Batman gambles and loses, and Rachel dies. In the same film, we've already seen Gordon die and survive, and it's as if Christopher Nolan knows he can't pull the same trick twice. It has real resonance as a result, albeit attracting complaints that Nolan relied on the unpleasant and widely disliked 'girlfriend in a fridge' plot device.

More recently, if you avoided the spoilers in the build up to its release, Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy dies - albeit slightly less abruptly, courtesy of a prolonged bit of slow motion - at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. We only get a glimpse as to how that impacts the characters in the current Spider-Man movie universe at the end of the film, but it has to have significant repercussions, as it did in the comics. There's no way back here either: she's definitely dead.

Alfred Hitchcock, infamously, used to take great glee in killing off movie stars as early as he could in his films, knowing full well that if the big name was gone, everyone else was vulnerable. Nobody left could have that cloak of invincibility that shrouds too many movie franchise characters.

In Marvel movies in particular at the moment, there's a decision to be made: when do you switch off the infinite lives cheat that at least a good half dozen characters, if not more, thus far seem to have access to? Given that the studio apparently has films planned for a good 15 years or so yet, can it even do that?

If it can't, then the challenge of heightening the drama and the stakes in such films is going to get even tougher. For all the special effects, action and noise surrounding blockbuster cinema, the best ones - and the best Marvel ones too - are all about character and story. If a logical path is blocked off, to keep certain characters preserved, then at the very least it might be time to retire the bit where you pretend you're going to kill them, or suggest that they're about to sacrifice themselves.

Because as much as we love the films (and we really do), it's a narrative device we're just not buying anymore.

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