Sometimes characters die. It's tragic, heartbreaking, and powerfully fulfilling. The term Aristotle put forward is catharsis, a sense of satisfaction and contentment, an emotional cleansing that comes from witnessing tragedy in fiction.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for Marvel's recent superhero movies.
The Internet is rumbling with shared links to the trailer of Marvel's new Agents of SHIELD show. Top in the list of things people are raving about is the return of Agent Phil Coulson. Rumours abound for how he can return. Some believe he's a robot, others believe Nick Fury lied about his death to get the Avengers to put aside their differences. The most recent word is that Coulson did die, and was brought back to life.
While this has obviously made a lot of people happy, I think it's a risk move. It may even be a bad one.
When a character dies, that leaves a mark, not just on the characters but on the audience. Powerful events, like loss and suffering, have meaning because the remaining characters survive and carry on. They fight through the pain and come out stronger.
Bringing a character back robs the story of the power that loss held. If a character can just come back to life, there's no meaning to their sacrifice. It's a very difficult thing to pull off well, and regardless of how well you do it, you're permanently taking away the emotion of that scene.
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise. It's the first time Kirk loses someone close to him, forcing him to face his own mortality and his own failings. As he says himself at the end of the movie, he always cheated death, found a way around it and patted himself on the back for it. He's never had to really look at death and accept that he was utterly helpless against it. Star Trek II is widely regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies.
And in the next movie, Spock comes back to life.
The Search for Spock isn't too bad, and it manages to keep a sense of loss and acceptance of that loss by featuring the death of Kirk's son, David, and the destruction of the Enterprise when Kirk destroys the ship to give his crew a chance to escape.
But still, when I watch Wrath of Kahn, Spock's sacrifice doesn't hit me the way it did when I first saw it. Even my wife, who hadn't seen the movie before we watched it together a couple of years ago, was taken out of the story because she knew that Spock was in later movies, including the JJ Abrams reboot.
And that will happen to Agent Coulson. He was just an ordinary guy. No powers, no special suit, no codename. And he stood up to Loki because it was the right thing to do. Even in death, he was a badass, accepting his fate and knowing that because Loki had just made it personal with the Avengers, they would unite to stop him at all costs.
That scene was important for the same reason on a meta level. It made it personal for the audience. Before this, Loki and his followers had killed some random, un-named extras and thrown some special effects around. We knew Loki was a threat, and had to be stopped. But when he killed Coulson, he pissed us off. It wasn't just that we knew he had to be stopped, we wanted him stopped. We thought to ourselves "Loki better get his ass kicked!" And that made the payoff all the more satisfying.
Now, when we watch Avengers again, we'll see Coulson die, and think to ourselves "It's okay, he comes back."