Is Death Meaningless In The Marvel Cinematic Universe?

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*This article discusses recent events in several films, most notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier and therefore does contain spoilers. If you have not yet seen the film, continue at your own risk.

A few friends and I were recently discussing events that occurred during Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a very fun film but one which I had a major complaint with. A complaint that elicited some seriously polar opposite reactions. Some are on board, some use the ‘It’s A Comic Book!’ argument, and some are even calling HATER! This demands discussion, so here it is:

 During the film Nick Fury is handed a major story arc where he goes full-throttle against the very government he has sworn to protect. Fury is then viciously and violently gunned down by the titular Winter Soldier. After much sobbing, weeping and exposition about his beautiful mocha skin, One-Eyed Willy seems to cash in his Marvel contract right there on the operating table. He dead.

Cap is renewed, reinvigorated and now determined to bring those responsible to justice. All of them. Whomever they may be. It serves as the catalyst for every other single event that happens after. And, at the end of the film, that sunufa bitch Fury is still alive! He duped us. Well not most of us, but they tried pretty hard to dupe us. You know what else they did? They told us that in the Marvel universe, life just doesn’t matter.

This is, by my count, the third major character ‘fake’ death in the last four Marvel films. Agent Coulson in Avengers (he’s on TV now, seems to be recovering from death nicely), Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3 and now Nick ‘Don’t Hassle the Hoff’ Fury. For you accountants out there, that means 75% of the time Marvel is pretending to kill off people you like. And 0% of the time they actually do. Life just doesn’t matter.

I am not advocating killing off characters we love in a Marvel world. This isn’t Game of Thrones and there is no need for heroes to bite the end of a proverbial bullet every film. But if you are going to continue to use this trope, you absolutely have to allow SOMEONE of importance to die. Anyone. Hell, Hawkeye is pretty pointless so start there if you can’t decide who. If they do not leave someone in the afterlife, these films become nothing more than flashy soap operas where there are no real consequences other than property damage. That is not raising the stakes, that is lazy writing.

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The argument that ‘It happens all the time in the comics’ is such a gross misrepresentation of the truth it makes me wish I had a cape so I could super-kick into the stratosphere. Yes, it happens in the comics. It does NOT happen 3 out of 4 issues of a standard series. If you really want to equate direct to the comics, that is how you have to do it: Pick up any 4 issues of any title in succession.  I’m willing to bet my Iron Man decoder ring that maybe one fake death occurs, if that. This argument is meant to shut down the point, and all it does is cause a cocker-spaniel head tilt followed by my ‘Whaaaa?’ face. Argue smarter, not harder

A good friend of mine said something very insightful on this point: ‘To do this almost every movie is lazy and unimaginative from a company that employs some of the most creative minds on the planet.’ He couldn’t be more right.

Think of The Avengers. They had split up, were not working cohesively, and then Coulson’s death united them. From the memory of their fallen comrade, they saw the realities of a cruel world. We felt that death and wept with them. We were wounded by losing a character we had built up such an affection and enjoyment for. Now if you turn on ABC, you will see the same Agent Coulson popping up every Tuesday with zippy one-liners and renewed zest on Agents of SHIELD. His death was marginalized and now, when re-watching The Avengers, it carries none of the weight it held previously. It has been cheapened.

The other prevalent argument is ‘You’re just being a hater’ or ‘That’s far too critical’. I call complete and total BS. Just because you are a fan does not  mean the same rules and expectations you put on everything else do not apply. If this happened in a series most of the accusatory voices were not a fan of, you would hear up and down how idiotic that is, how cheap, how that is why X film sucks. This is a great movie, but a great movie with a lazy plot device at its core. Calling that point out is not hating, it is a legitimate discussion point.

I loved Winter Soldier, truly, but this just has to stop. Marvel Studios has become an amazing cinematic storyteller, but for these films to continue to be successful we need to have investment in the fate of these characters. You have to show us you are willing to hurt us, otherwise stop trying to. That means if you place a character in peril, we NEED to feel there is an actual chance of losing them. Otherwise we feel it will always be ok…because so far, it always is. I want these films to be the absolute classics they deserve to be. And for me personally, that means that life should matter.

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About Author

Aaron Peterson

Once an aspiring filmmaker and now relegated to the more glamorous life of husband and father, Aaron is a lover of all things film...and Latina. His film taste varies in its openness to genre as well as anything that does not involve 'an inspiring story', with a particular fondness for horror and quirky acting. He has reviewed films for over a decade and strives to see a movie from a fan's perspective, not just a critic's. Aaron is also the producer and co-host of The Hollywood Outsider, a weekly movie & TV podcast.

  • bludwig

    You have read of comic book, right? This happens a lot in comics. Take a deep breath and relax. This too, shall pass.

  • madz

    Good article Aaron, but technically you missed one considering who the Winter Soldier really is. So then you have FOUR “deaths” in 4 movies….

  • Joe Lastowski

    Esp if they’re going to keep using Joss Whedon. I think he gets it written into his contracts that he can kill folks in the most heart-rip-outing ways, so when they undo that later on, it makes it feel so empty.

  • Alex Hughes

    Now while I agree with the majority of the points brought up here, I have to DIS agree about Coulson. Simply for the fact that if you actually watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you’d know that Fury put Coulson through a living hell in order to bring bring him back from the dead. His death wasn’t cheapened. He was dead. For days on end. Then Fury got some bright idea to resurrect the poor bastard despite how much he begged to be allowed to die while they ‘operated’ on him.

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  • James Cottle

    Don’t forget Loki!