Cheating Audiences with Fake Sacrifices

In Stephen King’s novel Misery, Paul Sheldon, a famous author, is held hostage by his number one fan after a horrible accident. She demands that he write her favorite character back to life. His first attempt brings the main character back but without a plausible story. Annie, his captor, launches into a tirade about watching movies as a kid:

Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no breaks chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!

She then makes him rewrite it without cheating his audience. He is able to do this and realizes as he is writing that this is the best writing he has ever done. Just like Annie, moviegoers, particularly those of the sci-fi genre, also do not want to be cheated by pretend sacrifices.

We’ve Been Cheated Before

In 2014, the X-Men franchise released X-Men: Days of Future Past which made the preceding X-Men movies pointless with its time-traveling antics. Deaths, catastrophic events, and important plot developments were reversed. This left the viewer with a vague sense that they had wasted money on movies that no longer “happened” and emotions on events and characters that no longer existed in the way they previously understood them. Even more frustrating was the unexplained resurrection of Xavier, leaving the viewers to speculate online how he miraculously shows up without a single reference.

Wolverine is sent into the past to change the horrible future they are living in at the beginning of the film.

Even in the very popular Black Panther, we see this reversal of fates. When T’Challa fights Killmonger and loses, he is thrown off the waterfall to certain death. The audience is left to believe he is dead, while Killmonger asserts his kingship with calculated and horrific steps. However, the audience cannot really believe he is dead. They just wait to see how it will be undone. In the case of this movie, unlike X-Men, there is a sense of cost. He is not immediately restored, and they must depend on the generosity of a rival tribe. Though it is expected, his resurrection is at least not easy.

Will It Be Believable?

This precedent or resurrections, however, makes Marvel Universe fans wary of the next plot development in the Avengers series. Since the Infinity War ends with the death of a large number of iconic superheroes (many with upcoming movies to be released), the viewer is once again wondering what kind of trick the Marvel Universe franchise has up their sleeves that will bring their heroes back but with little cost.

There are many speculations about how these events may be undone. These fan theories touch on revelations from the comic books series, as well as hints in the films. Some believe that Dr. Strange’s vision of the one possible scenario in which they win is still in effect. Others argue that the soul stone may exact a different price from Thanos from what he expected. While a dramatic ending like the one in Infinity War sparks much online discussion, it does challenge the viewers’ needed suspension of disbelief. If the characters cannot truly suffer harm, can we really care about them? Don’t most of the conversations just focus on the various possible plot twists and less on what this means to each character?

Star Wars Does It Right

Where Infinity War is weak, the Star Wars trilogy from the seventies and eighties is strong. What makes Star Wars so believable is not high-tech cinematography. They didn’t have any! Instead, it is found in their handcrafted worlds and believable characters. For one, every set and prop was painstakingly created by hand. This commitment shines through in the finished product that blows the CGI-infested Episodes I-III out of the water. The Star Wars movies captured the imagination of that generation and those preceding it with very little cinematic magic.

Their greatest success though is in the creation of characters that we cared about and who remind us of our own complicated natures: Luke’s innocence and fierce loyalty; Hans Solo’s selfishness in combat with his desire to help; Princess Leia’s strength and biting tongue. As we watch them, we feel like a friend invited along, part of this group of exceptionally ordinary people. We are clearly aware of their mortality, and the scenes are wrought with tension because the audience believes the characters could die.

For characters to really mean something to us there have to be real consequences. When Hans Solo is frozen in carbonite, the viewer is not sure if he will live. The Empire Strikes Back is effective as a check to the success of the previous movie because we no longer feel our main characters are safe. Even Luke, our Jedi, loses his hand in a battle against Darth Vader. This is not the case in the Marvel Universe where deaths are faked often and injuries healed miraculously.

The scene where Hans Solo is frozen in carbonite is heart-wrenching.

Give Us More

It is in these areas that sci-fi viewers do not want to be cheated. The Marvel Universe has given many interesting storylines, some humorous moments, and great special effects, but Infinity War does not compare to the Empire Strikes Back in terms of believability. We’ve been cheated before, and we know that, like Thor’s eye, the problem will most likely be resolved with little sacrifice on the part of the characters. This puts a chasm between viewer and movie character. There was much anger and disbelief from audiences who spent six years following the Lost series on TV when they realized the show was simply a dream sequence. Learning from this, the Marvel franchise must be careful not to sacrifice meaningful plot and character development for a theatrical “dream” that leaves the audience no longer invested.

It should cost something because, in real life, tragedy costs us. The stories that move us are not the ones where everything turns out perfectly but the ones where the characters transform their struggle into something heroic. Unless Avengers 4 is able to recapture this lost believability, they will have cheated their audience of a truly great experience that rises above clever sayings and CGI tricks.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. DC movies are trying and failing to make us think Superman is dead when we all know it’s a bunch of lies, and even if it was true, he is barely established as a character before they killed him, so who really cares.

    • tclaytor

      I must confess that the only DC movie I’ve watched is Wonder Woman which I actually enjoyed. I just couldn’t muster enough interest to watch the others.

  2. My rule’s always been, if we don’t see them die, they’re not dead.

    • Conchita Krebs

      The Hound in GoTs was left to die, but because we didn’t see him shut his eyes and expire his last breath, dude’s now running around stealing zombies.

    • True. We didn’t see Matt, Electra, or Madam Gao get crushed to death (even showing dust fill up the room), then none of them are dead.

  3. Has Logan come back yet? I didn’t think they would go this long without bringing him back, but yet he’s still dead unless I missed something

    • Old Man Logan’s still kicking, I think. As long as he’s around, I doubt they’ll do anything to bring back the young upstart.

      Oooh… I just realised something bad. Marvel will probably return their status quo by de-aging the old Logan.

  4. The problem isn’t that superheroes come back, but that they do so so poorly, and without impact.

      • Tonette

        Me too. We already know and accept that superheroes are modern gods, and like most gods they die and they come back. What we need from writers are good deaths, and good resurrections – good writing, quite simply. If we simply opted to let the dead lie, it would never be (financially) possible to let characters die, and we wouldn’t have Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow. We need to let them come back in order to let writers play with the idea of them dying. The problem, ultimately, isn’t that comics suffer from a lack of permanence, but that comics suffer from a lack of good writers.

        • tclaytor

          Excellent observation! I think the emphasis is too much on big, showy productions which lack depth. I know it’s the superhero genre and expectations can’t be too high, but I believe there is much scope for meaningful plot lines and character development in every genre.

  5. Ketchum

    This is why I don’t read any of these long-running comics. They are too afraid to do anything to really shake up the status quo. If something seemingly earth-shattering happens, something that will have a permanent, lasting effect, it is always reversed or ignored later.

    • That’s the problem when you have a franchise instead of a storyline.

    • But that’s also the interesting effect of having a franchise – you get to experiment, starting with a familiar baseline and the knowledge that you are going to rest everything anyway. Superhero comics have always, at their best, been a remix culture. The iconic highlights of superhero comic writing, few as they may be, have completely embraced their franchise culture – the only reason you can write a Watchmen, or a Sandman, or an All Star Superman, is if you have years and years of endlessly remixed archetypes and weird experiments to build on. Sure – this means that a lot of awful franchise comics have to be written and consumed, for the really amazing remixes to be made and appreciated, but that’s the fundamental nature of superhero comics. Jimmy Olsen became a giant turtle monster just so someone could write a decent story 20 years later.

      Permanence, plot lines, and real arcs are for indie comics. Superhero comics are a weird niche experiment of endlessly repeating, and endlessly varying (though the variants are minor), takes on the same dumb theme of punching things to solve problems.

  6. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. Yes, that has bothered me when I see some movies and other movies made as part of a series and see odd plot developments that look like they don’t fit. Spending time thinking about what just happened and concluding that something makes no sense takes away from a movie or series of movies that are suppose to fit together.

  7. I dislike death and resurrection because it makes Comic Book Time increasingly ridiculous. Batman is 110 years old and he’s been fighting crime since the 1930s! He’s trained five different Robins who all started at the same age! That makes sense! If you absolutely must keep the name, go full Legacy Character and have a nice heroic death and/or fake death into permanent retirement every few decades, passing the role onto the protege. Let the dead rest.

  8. Faustino

    I think it depends on a few things. 1. The handling death scene 2. The fanbase of the character. 3. The impact of their death. 4. The quality of their successors (if any) and 5. Do they really need to come back.

    • Deaths are usually to introduce a new character to come in and take the role, but this can either be well done or a cop out. Death is good if death is death and there is an important outcome for it. In comics every panel counts. Same goes for story telling.

    • I think that universe reboots should be a good time to reintroduce characters, like Barry Allen was right before New 52. Also, I find that the more dramatic the reason for a character’s death, the more likely they won’t be missed and will be brought back (see Batman, Jason Todd, Damian Wayne, Superman, Peter Parker, etc…) I think how Ted Kord got killed off almost a decade ago was fantastic. He got killed for being a hero that thought he was invincible, shot in the head in a beautiful panel by an undeniably evil villain. He stayed dead generally, and I think Jaime Reyes is the perfect successor. He’s an interesting character, has cool powers, and brings a bit of diversity to the role.

  9. If Marvel ever brought back Captain Marr-Vell I could not get behind it. Not after the death he had.

  10. Macklin

    I think they should stay dead and have someone else take up the mantle like when people thought Bruce Wayne was dead so we got a Dick Grayson batman and we got a Jim Gordon batman but it was all taken down when Bruce was revealed alive, honestly I love batman but it would have been better if he was left dead.

    • tclaytor

      I think it’s a matter of not really understanding what the audience/reader wants. Yes, we want it to be fantastic and larger than life, but we also respect when some realities of our existence come into play. It creates a connection point that helps us buy into the movies and comics.

  11. Stephane

    Some should stay alive, while others should stay dead. You certainly cannot kill off Superman forever.

  12. Kiara H.

    It all depends on the superhero. There are certain characters who deaths meant something, but important ones it all depends. I want the characters death to meant something like Blue Bettle, like Supergirl, Barry Allen, or Golitah having rampifcations. But its comics no one stay dead forever so its accepted, but I do think some popular characters if your killing them kill them and dont bring them back and if you have to bring back do like what DC did bring them back after 15 to 20 years of death not 5 or months.

  13. Best comic book resurrection of all time? My money’s on the resurrection of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore.

  14. If it were up to me, they’d all die. Together. Starting with Jared Leto’s joker. Then maybe something resembling innovation and creativity could rise from the ashes.

  15. Munjeera

    LOST would win the prize for the biggest cheater.

  16. Yvonne Tapia
    Yvonne T.

    I somewhat agree with the part mentioning that some movie viewers may feel that they wasted their time and money on movies such as the X-Men, because everything is being changed. However, it cannot truly be a waste if they enjoyed watching them and were left with all kinds emotions – that is the purpose of a great film – to make you feel. I completely disagree with your line “This precedent or resurrections, however, makes Marvel Universe fans wary of the next plot development in the Avengers series.” – As an Avengers fan, I am NOT wary at all for what is to come in the franchise. I am quite excited actually. I believe there should have been a revision to that line, because it sounds biased and not everyone feels the same way.

    I agree that there are many scenes in others movies were some deaths seemed obvious, only to be told the next day that they did not happen. It depends on the writing of the plot, and whether it is justified or not.

  17. First of all, Lost wasn’t all a dream – the creators debunked this weirdly popular fan theory years ago – but I understand the confusion. Also, this is why the trilogy format works so well! They have just enough movies to give characters their due time while also not needing them to stick around for 10+ years, so when the plots calls for their deaths, the writers can deliver. Not to mention, a trilogy is normally heavily outlined whereas Kevin Fiege only has a rough draft of his 10-20 year Marvel plan. I love Marvel, and the Infinity War claims here don’t hold much water with me, but I do agree that they need to reinforce stakes. I’m fine with *big spoilers* all the snap victims come back, but I don’t want Vision, Gamora, or Loki back – their deaths had meaning and their lives, at this point, would seem a bit meaningless if they came back (I don’t even want the Loki show that Disney has been talking about).

  18. Great little article. We have been duped too mamy times now. Heres hopimg that Avengers Endgame breaks a few eggs this time for the good of the franchise going forward

  19. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    This was an eclectic discussion, but a really enjoyable read.

  20. I definitely relate to this issue. Without spoiling anything, I feel like Marvel’s getting better. Now that Endgame is out, I feel it handled the issue better than it has in the past.

    But on a broader note, cheating the audience has been an issue in not only in the superhero and fantasy genre, which are the main ones you discussed, but also in science fiction and especially in horror. Some creators believe they can get away with anything by “playing the genre”. With science fiction, it’s the use of technobabble and with horror, it’s gore and gratuitous violence/sexual content. By playing up these elements, they think people will not notice the gaping plot holes.

  21. Perhaps a documentary version of how a fan reacts to their super hero, might be a good angle to focus on.

  22. I completely agree with you. However, I think Avengers Endgame did a good job at making the deaths in infinity war still have impact (spoilers for Endgame by the way… and Cast Away). I honestly expected for Avengers Endgame to simply reverse the effects of the snap with the use of time travel, or some plot device like that. And while they did end up bringing all of the dead hero’s back, the movie did so in a way that still retained the large cosmic impact of Thanos’ Decimation.

    Five years had passed before the heroes brought everyone back, and the heroes’ ultimate success does not change that fact. The original Avengers are jaded, dead, or deeply depressed, and the families left behind have carried on with their lives for half a decade. In many ways, this story reminds me of Cast Away in that regard. Tom Hanks’ character may have accomplished the impossible and made his way back to civilization, but there are still massive consequences to the plane crash at the beginning of the film.

    Dr. Strange’s time stone is gone, Rocket Raccoon has been mourning his companions/family for five years, and the original Avengers pushed themselves past the breaking point in order to bring everyone back (No more Captain America, Thor (kind of), Hulk, Black Widow, and of course, Iron Man. At this point, the state of the world is more different than it has ever been in the MCU. This massive shift in world state is almost reminiscent of the Red Wedding because of just how different the politics are.

    Overall, I think Avengers Endgame did this right.

  23. I don’t care what anyone says, I loved Infinity War. The way they portray the doomed Earth in the aftermath of the Snap was brilliant. The time-travel think was dumb, but well within stupidity tolerance. They explained it best they could, and admitted in-film that it was dumb and shouldn’t work, but did – and they just rolled with it. Don’t treat the MCU like a Hitchcock film.

  24. Elpis1988

    I really enjoyed this read. You are right. Star Wars has not brought characters back from the dead as other franchises have. However, Luke did have his arm repaired after Vader chopped it off. Kind of like what happened to Thor in Infinity War…

  25. Generally couldn’t agree more with your arguments. Star Wars has always been better at keeping the stakes high in comparison to the MCU, right from the very beginning with the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi at the hand of Darth Vader. Although I’d say there’s aspects to be admired in both franchises, this reason probably plays a significant part in my own relatively higher level of excitement for a new Star Wars movie over a new MCU movie (in addition to the fact that Star Wars Episodes are fewer and farther between than MCU entries).

    Interesting that you should mention Lost though among these other offenders. Despite the fact that it ended with a pseudo-dream sequence, alternate reality re-set, or whatever the heck was going on there, it seemed like big characters were constantly getting killed off by that dang island throughout the run of the series. This uncertainty in regards to the safety of the main characters was something that I thought the series did pretty well, and one of the many things that kept me tuning in from week to week. Although I may be in the minority here, I didn’t feel cheated by Lost overall.

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