As we prepare for Avengers: Age of Ultron, fans will continue to theorize about which Avengers might die or which characters will meet grizzly ends. The thing is, I’m not sure we’re going to get any major deaths. If the trailers have indicated anything, we’ll surely see plenty of death and destruction. But to answer the question, “Does death in superhero movies matter?” I can reply with a resounding: Maybe but mostly no!
Death doesn’t intrinsically make your story better. How many countless TV shows pitch themselves as “anybody can die!” as if that were to automatically gain our approval. Oh, any character can die! Cool! But do we care about them? What will their death mean?
Wonder why The Walking Dead got mostly awful between Season 2-3. There were people constantly dying from being betrayed or torn apart by zombies, but so what? The message by the end of the first season is: Either we succumb to grief or keep on fighting! The main reason I think thematic through lines are really fucking important in tying together a narrative is exhibited in Seasons 2-3 of The Walking Dead. Nobody has ever been able to tell me what the purpose was beyond “people die” which in no way makes a story worth watching. It might have been more forgivable if the characters that died were at least likable, but they were all cannon fodder from the start.
Many people have pointed out a series of tropes Marvel movies have created for themselves with death fake-outs. Yes, they should probably stop that, but it’s yet to be a serious detriment. Did The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy suffer from a lack of character death? Nope. They still connected with audiences on a global scale and people can’t wait for the next installments.
Joss Whedon is notorious for killing off many characters, when in reality he just kills off characters to make a point thematically or help enhance the narrative stakes. I can think of two that may be argued as “gratuitous,” but for the most part, he understands why, when, and how death should matter. He also understands that death doesn’t instantly make your story better.
Phil Coulson’s death resounded with audiences as more than just a “let’s kill someone to add stakes.” It was a culmination of his (admittedly last minute) arc in assembling the Avengers. He gave them something to Avenge. On a more reactionary level, Phil Coulson was also one of us, a fan. That’s also thanks to Clark Gregg’s effortless likability that we felt a unison punch in the gut when Loki’s scepter pierced through his chest, and we all cheered when Iron Man acknowledges his friend, “His name was Phil.”
If you want the best example of Whedon understanding death, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode ‘The Body’ which is worthy of its own article. Basically, Whedon examines death and how it affects our lives in every shape and form. Bring a box of tissues.
Business reasons state they can’t kill off any major Avengers because this is an ever-growing franchise. Until contracts run out, there won’t be the death of Thor or Iron Man. Even Agent Coulson came back through a TV show. But let’s keep in mind plenty of stories told on the big screen don’t involve the death of main characters. Is the contender for Best Movie Trilogy (the original Star Wars movies) less than the sum of its parts because Han Solo wasn’t killed off? Was Edge of Tomorrow rendered moot because Tom Cruise doesn’t die? Or are these movies all totally kick-ass because they didn’t need death to raise stakes without purposeful direction?
Implying death is the only way to create an interesting story is as close-minded as saying Superman is boring because he’s too powerful. There’s no single way to approach a story of any magnitude. Whedon’s reputation for being a mass murderer of fan favorites often overshadows his abilities as just a good writer. He knows how to put heroes through the ringer, how to craft villains, and how to explore personal stories with a large scale backdrop. There’s a good chance Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to be a great movie. If it is, it won’t have to do with whether or not a character dies.
Featured Image: Avengers, Marvel Studios, Walter Disney Studios