In the comics, death is just a speed bump. When a primary character meets his end, the act may arrive with a whole lot of pomp and circumstance — warranting a full-page panel, perhaps, or a full-blown media circus like the “death of Superman” in 1992 — but it’s not likely to stick: Give it a little time, and that superhero will be back in battling form, resurrected by cloning, or a twin, or a reboot. Unfortunately, while that death-and-resurrection shtick may be the norm in comic books, it doesn’t work quite as well in comic-book movies and other action spectaculars, and yet our big event films can’t help but pull this fake-out over and over again, reviving freshly dead characters to increasingly diminishing returns. When we kill off our action heroes, why can’t they stay dead for more than five minutes?
From here on out, I’m going to be kind of spoiler-ific when discussing the most recent Marvel movies and Star Trek Into Darkness. But you’ve seen those, right?
This past weekend’s Thor: The Dark World is the latest perpetrator, pretending to kill off Tom Hiddleston’s popular Loki, only to resurrect him roughly twenty minutes later for a last-second twist. (And if you didn’t see that one coming, your 3-D glasses must have been malfunctioning.) But it seems like this year, the resurrection twist is bigger than ever: Iron Man 3 killed off Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, then brought her back new and improved (thanks to a super-powerful virus she’d been injected with) just a few minutes later, while Star Trek Into Darkness killed off Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, then brought him back to life (thanks to a super-powerful blood sample he’d been injected with) just a few minutes later, too. Even the one Marvel death that had really seemed to count — the meaningful murder of Agent Coulson in 2012’s The Avengers — was undone this year when Coulson was revived for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (But let’s not focus too much on TV right now, or I’ll get way too waylaid by this season of American Horror Story, which seems to resurrect a dead character in every episode.)
When comic books kill someone off, you know that character is probably coming back, but you’ve got weeks or months to ponder the ramifications of that death and to even fool yourself into thinking it might be permanent. Movies don’t have that luxury: They’re two hours long, and if they’re going to dispatch somebody in a dramatic fashion at the end of the second act, they’ve only got fifteen minutes or so before they’ll have to bring the character back and assure the audience that all is well. They don’t even wait for the sequel anymore: When Star Trek Into Darkness killed off Kirk, it was mirroring the death of Spock from Wrath of Khan, but that movie had the balls to keep Spock dead until the next sequel, which came years later. Into Darkness could hardly wait the length of a single reel.
The result is that these deaths, which are supposed to be so important and shocking and weighty, now seem like an irritation. We know that Loki’s not going to go out like a chump in Thor: The Dark World (especially given that he’s one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most beloved characters), so when time is spent on Thor grieving him, we’re impatient to move on. If Kirk was really dead in Star Trek Into Darkness, the movie would practically stop in its tracks; instead, it thunders on to another action sequence, and you can tell by the pacing that you shouldn’t be too concerned. The third-act moment that resonates most from Iron Man 3 isn’t Pepper’s brief death — it’s the fact that Tony Stark destroys all his Iron Man suits, and the movie has the balls to end on that. Obviously, he’ll have to cobble something together for the next Avengers sequel, but the extra-textual fact that Robert Downey Jr. is reluctant to commit to more Iron Man movies makes his choice to junk those suits feel weightier than a five-minute fake-out.
So get creative, filmmakers. If you’re going to kill someone off, maybe figure out a way to keep them dead: We’re going to miss Rene Russo in the Thor series (she was just starting to come into her own!), but we’d rather have her death stick than deal with a Thor 3 reveal that she clambered out of that flaming death boat at the last minute. And next time you’re tempted to try one of those five-minute resurrections, be aware that the audience is on to you. That’s one trick that needs to meet an early grave, and stay buried six feet under.