Gosh, the Main Character Is Dead!? So, When Do They Come Back?
As proved with the colossal worldwide opening of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, superhero and/or action movies still seem to be the biggest draw for mainstream audiences. And even when it’s a subversive take on the genre like Deadpool or The Martian, there are still numerous tropes and set-pieces we have come to expect from these pieces of cinema. These aforementioned paint-by-number scenes are tolerated and put up with by theatre-goers because they know the purpose they serve and they are usually pretty painless to sit through in order to get their dose of smashy-smashy action. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate at least an attempt of originality when doing so; think of the quite literal ‘meet-cute’ scene in 22 Jump Street where Channing Tatum’s hapless undercover detective accidentally bumps into Wyatt Russell’s villain, causing Tatum to drop his meat sandwich (get it? Meat, like meet) and Russell to drop his cue tip (cue tip, sounds like cute. Aren’t writers clever, eh?) in said sandwich, making them have a literal ‘meet-cute’. This playful interpretation of a scene audiences know all too well shows that not only is there another way to present these carbon copy sequences, but that it can also elevate the material it inhabits.
One particular trope that has continued to surface in these big budget movies, and is in dire need of either more originality or extinction, is the temporary killing off of main characters. This trope has of course existed for an exceedingly long time across many different genres and platforms, but using the current example of Batman V Superman and drawing comparisons with other comic-book movies, this article will focus primarily on how this trope, be it frustratingly repetitive or inventively original, is employed in the blockbuster genre.
In this franchise-heavy environment we live in, actors are tied down for multiple movie contracts and their characters are integrally tied to the success of the movies they adorn. Meaning, we know that certain actors and characters have an untouchable status, not to mention that a mainstream audience don’t exactly want to watch all of the good guys they were rooting for up and die. So why do filmmakers still insist on killing them off when we know they’re going to be almost instantly brought back?
Batman V Superman
Staying with the first reference point, Batman V Superman features the eponymous offending trope right at the back-end of the superhero mash-up movie. After the dust has settled on the CG-heavy finale, the immortal Superman is shown to be sans life, which we know, because of the countless bullets, nuclear bombs and bad reviews he has endured thus far, will only last so long before his resurrection. Unless a touch of the green and nasty stuff is involved in his demise, Clark Kent’s alter-ego always finds a way back to life, but still Zack Snyder ends his movie with not one, but two funerals for the character. In attendance are all those who care about him: Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, his Ma’ and of course Lois. Now, the first defence of this trope would of course be that it is there to make an emotional impact on the characters who surround him and then in turn, affect the audience. But considering how savvy a 21st century audience is to Superman’s certain resurfacing, the whole scene just comes off as hollow instead, the fact that half of my screening were already out the door before the dirt atop Supes’ coffin inevitably moves just further illustrates this.
Another possible reason for doing this could be to give more weight to the alternative thinking of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Considering how much onus was placed on the differences between Superman and Batman throughout the film’s marketing, courtesy mainly of Jesse Eisenberg’s exposition-laden zany rambling, the opposition of the titular characters is seemingly crucial for the DC franchise as it moves forward. Meaning Bruce Wayne’s darker and more vengeful approach to crime fighting would come to the fore for the first part of the next string of movies due to Superman’s comparably idealistic approach being absent. But, as the unsettled dirt on his coffin confirms, he won’t be absent for long and unless his near-death experience has completely altered his views, the audiences will be treated (for want of a better word) to the same arguments and opposition that they have already sat through and apparently seen resolved in this first movie. Also, these discussions are something which can be achieved without the eye-rolling method of temporarily killing a main character as evidenced by the upcoming Captain America: Civil War which also deals with superhero squabbles but doesn’t resort to using this already exhausted trope, we assume anyway.
So how do we inventively side-step this trope? No matter how creative the actual death of the character is, most audiences will still spot the wool being pulled from miles away. Whether it’s Optimus Prime in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or either of the three characters of Jack, Will or Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the use of this method comes off as entirely expected, which stunts its impact. Meaning that maybe it shouldn’t be something we should alter, so much as fundamentally change. Let’s look at a few examples of how other movies have treated similar story beats.
How Other Movies Have Treated Similar Story Beats
Staying within the superhero genre for now, let’s go back to 2008 and look at Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, an almost universally praised comic-book movie which pulled off the decidedly difficult trick of keeping its plot hidden in an environment that was becoming near impossible to do so. Batman is a character like Bond, more on him later, a cultural staple that will always find a new iteration across multiple generations, one that even when he does die, usually in some alternate run of comic books, we know it will only be a matter of time before he is back in our lives. Knowing this, Nolan never legitimately places his Batman in a sense of mortal peril. Instead, leaving that honour to his supporting cast. The Dark Knight has two differing instances of this in its runtime, the first one being an exact copy of the trope but instead of killing and resurrecting Batman, he does it to Lieutenant Jim Gordon.
Despite Gary Oldman being a considerable string to the already exquisite bow of Nolan’s Bat-verse, he wasn’t Batman. And even though the landscape of comic-book movies has often proved unwilling to pull major shocks and kill any of its major characters off, unless your Uncle Ben of course, the fact that it was Nolan’s much grittier interpretation of Gotham left that landscape a little less certain. Around the halfway point in the movie Gordon, who often served as the moral compass in a corrupt city, is an unfortunate casualty caught up in the havoc that Heath Ledger’s Joker is wreaking on the city. This scene and the ones following, which show a seemingly guilty Batman watch over his family, build up a believability that is shattered when Gordon resurfaces not long after to help incarcerate the Joker. Not being the main cast member in the movie and being considered as comparably expendable, Gordon’s death and resurrection not only surprises the audience but also resonates with them much more on an emotional level.
As if presenting one alternative within the movie wasn’t enough, Nolan outdoes even himself within the same movie, how? By actually killing off a character. Having already faked the death of one of his main cast, the audience would be correctly sceptical of any future mortal brushes the characters may have. But as the Joker’s master plan comes into fruition later in the movie, events conspire to place both Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes at opposite ends of the city in their seemingly final positions.
As Batman and Gordon race to save both of them the audience could be forgiven for thinking that this is just another Hollywood false promise and that the heroes will once again save the day. Even most sceptics would assume that true love would endure and Batman, at the very least will save his beau, Rachel. But combining this audience expectation with his villains penchant for playing tricks proved to be a masterstroke by Nolan. As Batman opens the doors to the cries of Harvey yelling “No! Not me! Why are you coming for me?” we realise that the Joker has deceived everyone once more by lying about who was in what location and after a quick cut to Gordon and the trailing police, we watch the other building go up in flames and say goodbye to Rachel. The shocking demise of Gyllenhaal’s character not only has an emotional impact on the rest of Gotham and the audience, but it also serves as a warning that the rest of the cast could also be in danger, not only for the rest of the movie, but also for any future installments.
Another film that captures both sides of this trope is the Daniel Craig Bond picture, Skyfall. Opening in Istanbul, Bond and Moneypenny are in pursuit of a mercenary which culminates in Bond and the aforementioned merc’ fighting for their lives atop of a moving train. So far, so Bond. Fastly approaching a tunnel, Moneypenny watches on through the scope of her sniper rifle, she relays her doubts of being able to get a clear shot to MI6 in London but they tell her to take it anyway, resulting in Moneypenny accidentally gunning down 007.
Coming very early in the movie and existing within the fabric of a Bond feature which is known for toying with its lead character’s mortality, albeit never definitively, this actually comes not as a sigh-inducing development, but an interesting path for the film to take. Not because the audience ever truly believes Bond is actually dead, but for the way it allows the narrative to continue and broaden in his absence, giving centre stage to Judi Dench’s M as she is forced to deal with terrorist threats amid the equally real threat of losing her job to a circling Mallory. This plot development not only provides us with the initial tense scene of Moneypenny trying her best to hit Bond’s foe, but it also adds much more emotional depth to the character of M, a conscious choice on the filmmakers behalf to make her climactic death that much more hard to stomach.
We all know that the bankable stars of these adrenalin-filled action movies we consume are, nine times out of then, never going to die. Unless it’s some protracted contract dispute where the actor wants out of the franchise, and even then they’re more likely to simply be replaced, we can watch most big-screen crowdpleasers in the relative knowledge that our leads will end the film as they started them, safe. This well-known trope of killing off the main character, only to arbitrarily bring them back at a later date is well past its expiry date and unless it serves a bigger narrative purpose, like in Skyfall, filmmakers are probably better off finding alternative solutions to give the audience the shock they want to.
They should creatively look to change the situation as most audiences are already attempting to predict the outcome of the plot as soon as the opening titles end. Future filmmakers should take the lead from these examples that are already doing so, perhaps they could try altering a character’s death to a serious injury like in Nolan’s Bat threequel The Dark Knight Rises, which shifts the impending jeopardy from the character we know won’t die to a whole city that just might. Or maybe they could just pull the well-worn beat off as a joke like in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, where Tom Cruise dies for literally seconds and is immediately subject to a joke about it by Simon Pegg. And even if future films can’t creatively address this issue in the aforementioned ways, at the very least please consider killing off a semi-important character to achieve the same emotional impact. Because let’s be honest anyway, even if the main characters stayed dead, general audience members are going to be much more affected by the death of the gentile, lovely and worldly Alfred in future Batman movies than they are going to be by the death of half-man half-god Ben Affleck who just struts around making the rest of us look bad.
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