Marvel Needs To Get On Brand With Death

By  · Published on May 16th, 2016

For a Disney subsidiary, the MCU falls short on making its audience cry.

The following contains spoilers for Marvel movies in general, though mostly Captain America: Civil War.

On the 30th anniversary of Top Gun, I wanted to write about how much I was affected by the death of “Goose.” But the more I thought about how today’s blockbusters rarely have the balls to punch us in the gut like that movie did, the more I considered the issue of death in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, this has a lot to do with how surprising Captain America: Civil War was in its lack of major character casualties. Not that loss of life in the MCU is that substantial anyway, thanks to its source material not taking death seriously enough. Still, comic book movies don’t need to adhere to comic book (im)mortality. And anyway it makes Marvel stand out as an outlier as a part of Disney, which has tended to do movie deaths right.

Before Top Gun, besides the stuff in heavy dramas (ahem, The Champ), my association with major characters being killed off was with family fare like Bambi and The Fox and the Hound. Even today, the company’s reputation stands, with significant characters dying with great emotional weight in Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Pixar’s Up and Inside Out. And it’s not just with animation. The studio that had us bawling over dogs and dads dying in the past with Old Yeller and, um, Armageddon now owns the Star Wars franchise, which has also done major character deaths well since its beginning and continued to do so with the first Disney-produced installment, The Force Awakens. So, why can’t the Marvel movies get on board, as well?

The ironic thing about Marvel skipping Spider-Man’s origin story with their takeover of the superhero, in collaboration with Sony, is they are therefore losing out on the Uncle Ben death, which might have been the closest thing to a real character-changing moment of mourning for the MCU. Of lasting significance anyway. So far the franchise has poignantly killed Bucky, Groot and Agent Coulson, yet they all came back soon enough, one of them within minutes in the very same movie. Marvel is sometimes good with emotional resurrections, at least. But as far as full-on expirations, they occasionally only get there in their TV series. I’m pretty sure the only time I felt something when a character died was with Agent Dooley’s self-sacrificial heroics on Agent Carter.

In the movies, deaths definitely affect the characters. See the climax of Civil War for measurable evidence of that, and the same movie also shows people dealing with the demises of Quicksilver (carried over from Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Peggy Carter. But these deaths never have much affect on the audience. Even with Peggy, whom fans have gotten to know and love over many movies and TV seasons, her passing was expected – and not just because of the spoilers from set spies. She died off screen of old age, gracefully. That said, the movie could have tugged more at our heartstrings about it, but Marvel just doesn’t work that way. And sometimes simply can’t. The Thor sub-series has some big deaths, like that of the hero’s mother, Frigga, but the tone of those movies doesn’t allow them to mean much.

We can give the DC movies a point over Marvel in this department. Can you imagine the MCU killing a character like Rachel Dawson, the way she’s done off in The Dark Knight? Both Batman and Superman have also had parents die on screen in ways that affect both the characters and the viewers. Jonathan Kent’s demise in Man of Steel may be frustrating in its logic, but it still works on an emotional level. And even if we’ve seen the Waynes killed in too many movies and TV shows for them to carry much weight for most of us, they tend to work enough in isolation, if you’ve never seen it done before. Also, in the first Superman movie, Lois Lane is quickly resurrected after dying in an earthquake, yet before and even afterward we experience her demise, through the hero, as a gut-wrenching moment.

Marvel doesn’t need to make us weep. That’s not their thing, and being a part of Disney doesn’t have to change that. I just want to care about their characters more and care if they live or die, and I also want to feel their pain more. For a franchise as big as it is, the MCU is pretty flat in terms of the emotions it gets out of us. And it’s not that today’s blockbusters all lack that kind of feeling we got from Top Gun three decades ago. Both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games movies managed to have very sad major character death scenes. For the MCU it’s not just that they didn’t kill, say, War Machine. It’s also that we might not have been upset enough if they had.

I urge even the biggest Marvel fans out there to look over a list of MCU deaths and try to recall what they felt when those characters bit it. And consider whether any of them over 13 movies and four shows have come even close to deserving a spot in the video below.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.