The only thing more likely to come back than a dead superhero is the chili you had for lunch. If they were flowers, they could be hibiscus (i.e., perennial). If they were bugs, they’d be cicadas.
Superheroes come back from the dead. You know this. I know this. This is not an obscure piece of nerd lore that needs a 2,400-word explainer. It’s not a twist you can pull off on a viewer that hasn’t read the source material.
So why do TV shows and movies keep acting like it is?
Writers will never stop killing characters: Major Character Death is too valuable as a narrative tool and it’s not going away any time soon. Writers are never going to stop resurrecting characters: These are multibillion dollar franchise films that depend on name recognition of both actors and characters.
But there is a better way. A better way than the 5 minute tragic death scene and 15 minutes of mourning before the reveal of the hero’s survival.
Let superheroes die, and — this is the important part — let them stay dead.
[Warning: This post will contain spoilers for The Defenders. Also X2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Death and Return of Superman, Final Crisis, Logan, and potentially Justice League.]
A world without a Superman
Audiences don’t see a dead superhero and think “My word, what a significant and final consequence of this plot line! I am the picture of shock!”
They think “Huh. I wonder how they’re going to walk this back before the end of the movie.”
Because it is almost always walked back before the end of the movie, in X2: X-Men United, in The Dark Knight Rises, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and in The Defenders.
The Defenders became a perfect example of this on its premiere, by featuring a climax that trapped Matt Murdock in a collapsing building with a homicidally infatuated master assassin. We were given absolutely no indication that he intended to survive the event, nor any that it was even possible. We watched his friends mourn, and his teammates swear to honor his memory.
Less than an episode later, we saw him impossibly alive, with no explanation of how, in the last shot of the series.
When Superman died in Batman v Superman it was actually the second time the movie had tried to create an audience fear that he was dead. The final frame of the film, a half an hour later, gave us a clear narrative indication that he, improbably, wasn’t.
It has become an impossible and yet implausibly long-lived secret that Superman will appear in Justice League. Warner Bros. and cast members are still largely playing coy on whether the movie includes his comeback, even though it is no secret that Superman actor Henry Cavill will appear in the film and has been on set during principle production and recent reshoots.
The best superhero resurrection arcs have purpose
DC Comics’ 1992 crossover The Death and Return of Superman is the ur-example of the superheroic death and return, and it’s not because he came back. It’s because Superman’s “death” was treated like it was permanent for the better part of a year. DC Comics spent three publishing months of the storyline simply playing out the aftermath of his funeral.
Then the company swung into four parallel storylines featuring a strange assortment of Superman replacements. Characters in Metropolis wondered if some of these characters were truly a resurrected or cloned Superman — readers wondered if any of these new takes on the Superman myth were going to take his place in DC’s publishing lineup.
There was an aloof alien in a Superman costume who wore a visor and shot energy blasts from his hands — a potentially more alien and less humane interpretation of the last Kryptonian. There was a cyborg Superman, who appeared to have been resurrected with machine parts — he went evil fast. There was a headstrong teenager with all of Superman’s powers — a potentially more relatable Superman for a new generation. And there was a brilliant engineer who was moved by Superman’s death to build a super suit with his ‘S’ symbol and fight crime in his memory — a perfect tribute to the character’s inspirational qualities in and out of fiction.
A dead superhero is a time to examine the essence of their character. If a different character slips into their role, uses their name, protects their city, can it ever feel the same? How different can you go before you lose all sight of the original concept? Or could those differences provide an interesting new perspective on the original?
A superhero death is also a chance to allow the character’s supporting cast to get the spotlight they otherwise wouldn’t. Who are the Robins without their surrogate father around? Who is Lex Luthor without a Superman? Who are the X-Men without Professor X? Without Cyclops? Without Wolverine?
Wolverine has been dead in Marvel Comics since 2014, and in the meantime Laura Kinney, his cloned daughter-of-sorts, has been wearing his costume. Her series, All-New Wolverine, has keep the core themes of Wolverine’s character alive — the idea of being a living weapon, struggling to find the line between what you want to be and what they made you want to be — but in a fresh context. It’ll put out its 26th issue in October and shows no sign of stopping.
Let superheroes die, and let them stay dead
That way, when they inevitably do return, you have something to show for it.
When Superman did return, he had to contend with the fallout from the reign of these Supermen, events that had major repercussions for the wider DC Universe. And all four of those “Supermen” are characters that have since lived beyond the crossover event they were created for, as the villains Eradicator and Hank Henshaw and the heroes Superboy and Steel.
If Batman hadn’t died in Final Crisis, Neil Gaiman might never have been given the opportunity to write the superlative Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, a surreal, metatextual ode to the evolution and importance of Batman as a hero. If he hadn’t died, we never would have gotten a heart-wrenchingly quiet scene of Dick Grayson, the first Robin, admitting that while he never expected to see Bruce live long enough to have grey hair, still, this orphan didn’t think that he’d be orphaned again this soon. No scene of him telling Superman and Wonder Woman that they cannot tell the world that Batman is dead — there will be no public mourning for him as there was for Superman — so that Gotham City won’t descend in to lawless chaos.
If superhero deaths are going to mean anything, we have to actually let the audience see what the world is like without them through the eyes of the rest of the characters they love — not just imagine it for a few minutes or see it on a newspaper headline. That world has to be given enough time to become the new normal if reversing a character’s dramatic death is going to have any emotional resonance at all.
The DC Cinematic Universe is arguably taking the time to do this with Superman, but has undercut itself in several ways. None of the core cast really knew Superman before he died, so their mourning is necessarily impersonal. The largest of the fallout we’ve seen from his death has been global and also, therefore, impersonal. Wonder Woman didn’t even mention him and in Suicide Squad the responses we saw were those who would position themselves as his enemies.
The franchises currently set up to pull this off are few — Fox could potentially do it a couple movies down the line after Logan. The Marvel Cinematic Universe could get there in the aftermath of Infinity War when it renegotiates contracts on most of its core stable of actors. And The Defenders could easily do this too.
Daredevil has no set return date for its third season. We will have second seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage before we return to his story, as well as the first season of The Punisher, a series that spun out of Daredevil and shares some of its supporting cast.
That’s all the space and opportunity Marvel needs to really dig into what Hell’s Kitchen is like without its Devil, and see who rises to fill the void he left. But, thanks to one final shot of Matt Murdock in a convent bed, we have an audience ready for him to walk around any corner and back into the story. Marvel will not be able to convincingly act like he’s not alive.
And they should have let him stay dead.