Contradictheory: Infinite lives of superheroes vs death of viewer innocence

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  • Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The death of Jean Grey a.k.a. Phoenix in 'The Uncanny X-Men' #137 (1980) is still the benchmark for all comic book deaths.

**Warning: This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War**

Of course I watched Avengers: Infinity War. I like movies, and I like comics, and I have watched all 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe films up to this point.

I think I enjoyed it as much as most people did. But I also noticed many complained about the ending. And to them I say, “Well, what did you expect?”

Before I carry on, beware there are **spoilers** coming up, not just for the movie but for an array of comic book titles. If you haven’t seen the film or if you’d like to catch up on the comics (some of which are decades old), read no further.

So, there has been criticism that some of the heroes die, although we know they must live again to appear in MCU sequels scheduled for 2019. Which means as far as criticism goes, their deaths mean nothing. Or at least something cheap and tawdry. It’s not drama; it’s a fake out!

I agree, I don’t like fake outs. I don’t like deaths that don’t matter. Remember Bobby Ewing who “died” for a whole season on Dallas (1985-1986), and then reappeared from the shower in Season 10 as if nothing happened? “It was just a dream.”

Think about this: Comic books kill their characters all the time, then resuscitate them, and people still buy comics. I blame this all on Superman.

Once upon a time, Superman died. This was in 1992 when DC Comics shocked the world by announcing they would kill off arguably their most well-known character. There was a lot of anticipation and debate whether they would really go through with it.

Finally when issue #75 of Superman arrived, the question was answered. It really happened. Superman was pummelled to death by the villain Doomsday, and the world – fictional and real – go into mourning.

There was intense media coverage, and DC let fans believe Superman’s death was permanent. "The Death Of Superman" made US$30mil worth of sales on the first day alone and continued to sell six million issues in total.

Except Superman wasn’t dead. Less than a year later, he magically came back to life. And with his rebirth was the death of innocence of the comic book reader.

Because Superman’s death sold lots of comics, the thinking was “more is better”. We began to see other heroes die, then come back to life. Batman and the Flash to name just two out of very, very many.

What this has developed is the knowing reader who knows the death of comic book heroes aren’t actually permanent. Instead of bemoaning the development, you can play with expectations to tell new stories.

I think that’s what writer Dan Slott did on the “Dying Wish” storyline, where Peter Parker a.k.a. Spider-Man died. He put in a few red herrings to make people speculate how he could come back, just to toy with readers by shutting them down one by one.

Peter did eventually reappear after being dead for most of two years and 30-plus issues of Superior Spider-Man. Still, a Spider-Man series with no Peter but instead we find out his greatest enemy has taken his place? That’s ambition to be lauded.

Superman #75.
Crisis On Infinite Earths #7.
The Amazing Spider-Man, "Dying Wish".

I can think of at least one comic book character who I would say practically, if not technically, died permanently. This was Supergirl in the series Crisis On Infinite Earths.

Crisis was DC’s attempt to streamline their universe. By 1985, there were so many characters and so many versions of characters, it was a mess. So the series was meant to streamline everything by reducing the number of characters.

Which meant deaths by and large were real deaths. Supergirl died in #7 and remained so for some time. Along the way, other characters adopted her identity but none of them were Kara. It wasn’t until 2004 that the real Kara reappeared, and now you can see her as Supergirl in a weekly TV series.

So what is the upshot of all this? Characters dying are a plot device to tell a dramatic story. As I mentioned before, deaths are not the be all and end all, but an opportunity to say something important about peoples’ lives, either before or after a death.

What it means to have characters die can change as audiences grow with a series. The first hero to “die” in the MCU was Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). That started off a great chain of movies as he’s brought back from the other side, as it were.

So you should view the deaths in Avengers: Infinity War not as the end, but the chance for a new beginning, new stories and new ways of looking at familiar characters. Just as long as they don’t walk out of the shower saying it was just a dream.

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