Make Death Matter and Give Characters Their Due

Boiling Point

Death is a profound thing. It has long been utilized in the art of storytelling to make the fiercest of impacts. From the first written work of fiction (“Beowulf”) to the works of Shakespeare to the films of Uwe Boll, death has been ever present.

When handled correctly, a death can be a haunting memory in a film, a momentous moment that effects the viewer on a very real and very emotional moment. Let’s cut to the jump so we can discuss a lot of spoilery stuff and bitch about how a thoughtless death is cruel to the character and an affront to the audience.

The reverse of this coin, and what’s got me riled, is when a beloved or respected character is given the shaft. A poor death. A worthless death, one that doesn’t advance the character or embody him, but rather disposes of him. It seems of late this has been happening more and more, or maybe it’s just me noticing it more. It’s not a new problem, as I hope to illustrate.

So what are some recent examples of a poor death? Oh yeah – here there be spoilers. So back off, because I’ll spoil Falling Skies, The Avengers, Serenity, The Matrix Revolutions, Dollhouse, X-Men: The Last Stand, Alien 3, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Jaws 4, 

The one that brought this out of me today was from TNT’s alien invasion show Falling Skies. In this second season, the humans have started to form an uneasy alliance with some of the invaders – namely a Skitter called Red Eye. Over the course of the last few episodes, we’ve come to respect this alien. As you may have figured out, in the season finale he dies. No big deal, if he went out like a trooper, but his death kind of sucked.

Red Eye jumped onto a big bad “fish head” alien and whipped on his ass for a few seconds, but then the evil alien slashed him once and the fight was over, Red Eye bled to death a little bit later after telling the humans to continue the fight. It just seems that a character who just recently earned our respect earned a better ending. There is nothing wrong with dying in battle like that, but a single slash in a fight that only lasts a few seconds? Lame.

Similarly, I’ve griped against Agent Coulson’s death in The AvengersWhile I definitely love the character and wish he survived, dying to inspire The Avengers to avenge is a pretty noble death – except it wasn’t handled well. Coulson confronts Loki, talks way too much, then gets stabbed in the back when Loki does his little transport trick that we’ve seen him do like three times before already. Coulson more or or less (I side with more, others less) then dies off-screen and it’s not very climactic.

Joss Whedon has a poor track record in this department. I’m no fan of Buffy or Angel, but in my research people have had problems with deaths in those shows. Likewise, I thought Wash’s death in Serenity was completely random and not worthy of the character, a fate that was shared by Trinity in The Matrix Revolutions. Whedon also lamely and unceremoniously killed Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) in Dollhouse. One second he’s running across the street, the next, dead. Sure, it’s supposed to be “realistic” and “random,” but these are movies – things are supposed to be grand and cinematic. Even a random, true life death can be filmed in a moving and dramatic way, not just a blink and you miss it bullshit manner.

What were some other shitty deaths not involving Joss Whedon? Cyclops in X-Men: The Last Stand. He dies off-screen and his death is never really dealt with until the end of the film. Really? The leader of the X-Men dies off-screen and unceremoniously? No one gives a shit? Poor writing.

Alien 3 completely took a shit on Aliens by killing off Bishop, Newt, and Corporal Hicks in the opening scene, having them be discovered dead in a starship crash. Basically the entire installment before it was about these people fighting for survival, only to die in a car accident off-screen.

That is perhaps the most dismissive death of all time – the one where the character doesn’t even show up. At least with guys like Coulson and aliens like Red Eye, they were there. Sure, it wasn’t handled well, but someone got paid.

If you’ll recall, against your will, that shittastic pile of doodie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we find out via photo that Henry Jones, Sr. is dead. Why? Because Sean Connery didn’t want to be in the movie. So rather than just ignoring Henry completely or letting the audience jump to whatever conclusion they wanted, this noble knight was dismissed. Bullshit.

Even more offensive was the death of Chief Brody between Jaws films when Roy Scheider didn’t feel like returning to the franchise. Rather than have him move somewhere else, or retire, or pick up with a different family, he was dead. Unceremoniously of a heart attack caused from stress over the shark attacks. Doubt it! Some bad ass dude who hates the water overcomes his fear of the water and kills two of the biggest, meanest Great White sharks to ever exist in fiction later dies of a heart attack? No. A guy like that deserved to live, he earned his freedom from the franchise, but no – not only does he die, he doesn’t even get the dignity of a good death.

There are plenty of characters who don’t deserve a good death. They’re random bad guys and cannon fodder. But once you’ve spent the time to get the audience invested in a character, you owe it to us, and the character, to treat them with care. If you must kill them, kill them well. Every time I see an awesome character get a lame death scene, I go past my boiling point.

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Robert Fure is many things: horror expert, ruggedly handsome man of the world, witty prose composer, and writer of his own biography page. Beneath the bravado is a scared little boy, ready to grow into an awesome man and make lies about a scared little boy inside of him. Wait a minute...

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