May 16, 2013

When Characters Won't Stay Dead

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."


  1. You've just hit on one of my absolute pet hates in fiction. Killing someone off and bringing them back does rob the death of its power, and moreover it creates a universe where death isn't final, so further deaths within the universe won't have the same impact.

    1. Exactly. That's another reason why bringing someone back from the dead is so risky. The next time someone dies, the reader/audience is going to wonder why they don't just bring them back to life.

  2. it's especially annoying since Whedon usually does death properly :( Like Joyce and Tara from Buffy, Serenity obviously has very painful ones and Angel has some to good effect.

    I can only hope that SHIELD keeps clones of their best agents in order to retain their knowledge and such in case the agent dies.

    1. Clones are as bad as resurrection! :-p

      Besides, if an organisation like SHIELD cloned all its best agents, and those clones were as capable as the originals, why not just clone an army out of the top agents?

      Of course, this is the organisation that let Tony Stark flounder along on his own without any help whatsoever in Iron Man 3... :-p

    2. perhaps the psychological ill effects from working with yourself are too risky to have a clone army of Coulsans.

      There's that danger that the "original" would be greatly resented, knowing you're a clone while the "parent" is still alive could be a major stumbling block for the clone itself. It's something that was explored a little in the Prestige but needs a good full on workout sometime.

      It always annoyed me that we didn't get to see anything about Alice dealing with her cloned status in Resident Evil especially after her clone army gets completely wiped out.

    3. The more excuses a writer has to come up with to explain a decision, odds are the worse that decision is ;-)

  3. An excellent post that stopped me making a big mistake with one of my bits of fiction, thanks Paul! As soon as I mentioned it, realization hit, helped by the 'Yeeesh.' :D

    I think I have a better way plotted out now. I hope.

    - Ellen J. Miller