Warning: This piece discusses plot points from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. There will be spoilers, read ahead at your own risk.
I think, all in all, it’s safe to say that the modern superhero movie has something of an aversion to consequences. This could be for a host of reasons, like just how much they can get away with showing in movies that will typically be, if you’ll forgive the Americanization, PG-13 rated. Another, perhaps more pertinent reason could be just how franchise-minded superhero movies have become in the wake of the first Iron Man film and the now infamous post-credits sequence where Nick Fury wants to talk to Tony about “the Avenger Initiative”. Marvel recently announced that they have plans for cinematic ventures spanning into the next decade, so, if you’re planning that far into the future, can you really afford to kill off major characters and have them stay dead? Probably not. The most ridiculous example of this is probably in The Avengers when Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is run through and killed by Loki. To my knowledge – I don’t watch Agents of SHIELD, the TV series he was revived to participate in – his miraculous survival is yet to be explained, although, explanation or not, it does show a rather clear preference for what I suppose could be called the good of the franchise as opposed to long term impacts on the shared universe that these characters occupy.
This aversion to killing off major characters appears again in the latest of Captain America’s outings, The Winter Soldier. Within the first act – if you could call it that, given the film’s rather haphazardly episodic structure – Nick Fury is shot and killed in Steve Rogers’ apartment by the eponymous villain. One would think that this not only sets up a compelling motivation for Cap to catch the Winter Soldier (which it does), but also create emotional resonance for the characters (the Black Widow watching his surgery and eventual/alleged death is among one of the finest acted scenes in a Marvel film) and ripple effects for the rest of the characters, the ones who don’t feature in this particular feature. Alas, this is not the case; after many half-missions and escapes, Cap and the Black Widow are reunited with a splinter group of SHIELD agents who were aware of Hydra’s presence, and Agent Hill says that they’ll “want to see him first.” Lo and behold, Nick Fury has survived. Needless to say, I was far from impressed and couldn’t but ask why they didn’t let him stay dead, and of course I’ve mentioned the good of the franchise and actor contracts and the like, but still, it can’t help but feel like a slightly cheap move to create interesting drama and character development only to have it utterly invalidated an hour later, it’s a cop-out that almost reaches the abhorrent levels of Iron Man 3.
There is of course a rather clear exception to this rule, one that exists outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a film that is deliberately, in everything from aesthetic to characterisation to the presentation of violence, darker and edgier than other films of its genre. That film is, of course, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Much has already been written on the “importance” of The Dark Knight as a film, people have discussed its “transcendence” of generic constraints, the way it made comic book adaptations “serious” and the like. But those decidedly broader strokes are not my focus here, that lies on a more singular event, both within the film itself and, I suppose, the whole cinematic superhero canon. Rachel, the woman who gives Bruce Wayne a reason to give up the cowl, is killed and, more importantly, stays dead; there is no dramatic third act reveal where miraculously survived and the two of them ride off to the sunset in the Batmobile. On the other side of this spectrum, even within Nolan;s own Bat trilogy, wherein Batman somehow, with no explanation given, survives a nuclear explosion. It, much like the non-deaths of Coulson and Fury, is what could charitably be called a cop-out, but this one is worse because it goes against the precedent set in the film that came before it.
This talk of precedent is where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes in. Now, first off, I’ll admit that this film has plenty of faults; it’s running time is unnecessarily inflated, it tries to juggle too many villains and plots (I mean, who really cares about Richard Parker?) and is tonally all over the place. However, in the film’s climactic sequence, all of those faults disappear as it goes against the precedent set by both the tonal lightness of the film that came before, but also Marvel’s cinematic tradition of not killing it’s characters. Now, I’ll admit that the Spider-Man films and Marvel Cinematic Universe films are produced by different companies, but that doesn’t make the departure from this norm any more shocking or satisfying. To put it bluntly, Gwen Stacy dies. In a strikingly faithful adaptation of a sequence from “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” the Green Goblin (who, I feel the need to single out in terms of performance, simply because Dane Dehaan hijacks the film with his incendiary presence) throws her from a high place (in the comic she’s thrown into a river), and, in spite of Spidey’s best efforts, she dies in that way that everybody dies when they’re thrown from a high place, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard.
Given the way the death of Gwen Stacey impacts our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler (until the still necessary sequel set-up that closes the movie), the question becomes, what’s next? – both for Spider-Man (as a character and film franchise) and comic adaptations in general. Given that perhaps the lightest in tone of all the major comic adaptations went so far as to kill it’s main female character, one can’t help but wonder if this is a step towards a brave new world where filmmakers aren’t afraid to kill their characters and have them stay dead. I suppose, in perhaps a rather morbid way, we can only hope.