Celebrity Deaths vs. Eternal Franchises: How Hollywood Avoids Mortality

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Warning: The following post contains spoilers about Furious 7.

The problem is that death at the movies has died. The movie industry has corrupted one of cinema’s – if not all of fiction’s – most emotionally taxing moments into hollow formula, the kind of thing that passes in the blink of a plot point leading to a literal, if not figurative, explosive finale that takes up half the budget. Considering this, it’s odd that death’s killer is the new, risk-averse economic logic of Hollywood.

In an article written last year, Alexander Huls discussed how Hollywood franchise films (particularly, though not exclusively, superhero films) utilize the death of major characters not as an actual means of building emotional and thematic stakes into narrative, but often as a brief ploy before an inevitable moment of resurrection. This, according to Huls, is where Hollywood’s current practice of risk-aversion is at its most overt, with the unlikely resurrections of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Iron Man 3 or Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier creating less of a narrative surprise and more of a clear demonstration that Hollywood is unwilling to let any potential component of its franchise arsenal go for good, although it’s more than willing to pretend to do so now and again.

The Fast and Furious franchise is particularly demonstrative of this tendency. A “re-birth” of sorts is essential to the series’ revival at the hands of Justin Lin, who introduced – and killed off – the character of Han (Sung Kang) in Tokyo Drift, a character around which Lin built an entire reverse-trajectory timeline over four subsequent movies, including the revenge plot that structures James Wan’s Furious 7. A supporting character’s reverse-engineered pseudo-”resurrection” effectively reconstructed the franchise anew, building an unlikely mythology in the process.

But Furious 7 is also structured by a tragic, high-profile, real-life off-screen passing that tells us even more about Hollywood’s curious, complicated relationship with death.

As a record-breaking mass of audiences flocked to Furious 7 this weekend, many entered the theater wondering how the film would say farewell to Paul Walker, who died in 2013 in a tragedy that halted filming and pushed back its release date. At the end of the film, Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner (who has appeared in all but one film in the franchise) is given an elegant goodbye especially notable for a series that made its name on high volume. Utilizing the family-building storyline that had been part of O’Conner’s character since Fast Five, the film stages a warm departure between Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) who, we assume, continues a life of motor-based global espionage and street racing, and O’Conner, who settles into a quieter family life. Their farewell is completed with a nostalgic montage of Walker’s past appearances throughout the franchise.

Subsequent careful re-shoots, the help of Walker’s brothers and, apparently, some very shrewdly accomplished CGI, Brian O’Conner is given a satisfying closure that Paul Walker – who died in a high-speed car crash no less – was not. As the words “For Paul” grace the screen of Furious 7 before the end credits roll, the ending serves as a nice eulogy for Walker on a massive platform. But this eulogy highlights the gap between the “happily ever after” sendoff O’Conner gets versus the sudden real-life loss of the actor playing him.

I neither expect nor desire Hollywood’s tentpole franchises to acknowledge the reality of high-profile celebrity deaths in any fashion other than this. But the departures of Walker and other performers during the production of big-moneyed sequels reveal an inadvertent, morbid irony within the way Hollywood’s risk-aversion motivates its treatment of character death. As franchises in contemporary studio filmmaking are geared ever more towards seemingly infinite perpetuity, actual, real-life deaths of actors, performers, and celebrities become distinctively incompatible with this formula.

As Marvel no doubt muses on setting its sights towards the 2020s and beyond, it should be little surprise that the permanent goals of franchise filmmaking come into conflict once in a blue moon with basic human frailty, vulnerability, and mortality. In the current design of Hollywood, at both the production and narrative levels, death is never part of the equation. The risk-aversion of Hollywood can hardly account for the inherent risk of living. And there’s nothing that speaks more loudly to the fact that Hollywood’s assembly line has transitioned largely from the production of stars to the perpetuation of franchises than the fact that a franchise must go on despite the demise of one of its leads.

Of course, in some ways we’ve been here before. Numerous films including Giant, Game of Death, The Crow, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus endured the death of a lead during production, and each film adapted to this scenario in various ways – voice dubbing for James Dean in Giant, stand-ins for Bruce Lee in Game of Death, rewrites and digital effects for Brandon Lee in The Crow, and the creative integration of existing Hollywood actors in place of Heath Ledger for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Even in film for which the leads died shortly after filming – like Lee in Enter the Dragon or Ledger in The Dark Knight – there’s a strange, uncanny quality to seeing a recently deceased star onscreen, as if the film itself has unwittingly turned into an ultimate demonstration of talent (this despite the fact that film fans regularly watch dead movie stars onscreen).

But there’s something even more unique – and uniquely odd – about a star’s death amidst a franchise that contrasts from an unexpected tragedy within the production timeline of a standalone film like Giant.

It’s amazing how quickly news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death in early 2014 was followed by assertions by Lionsgate that the celebrated actor’s passing wouldn’t affect the production or release date of the final two Hunger Games entries. But perhaps it’s even more astounding that this is a natural, inevitable curiosity that arises in such unfortunate circumstances. It points, I think, to a peculiar existential question embedded but unaddressed in Hollywood’s need for the long-term commitment of talent to an ambitious continuum of interrelated films: in a Hollywood that runs on a seemingly endless investment in franchise properties, is there room for finality of any kind, behind the scenes or in the film itself? Moreover, why is it a seeming relief, much less a necessity, that we be comforted by these films and their PR that Brian O’Conner lives on or Plutarch Heavensbee’s scenes go to completion as intended, even when audiences know full well that the actors embodying these characters are no longer with us? Why is it important that the text more or less proceed as if a major real-life death never happened?

Death, especially of the unexpected variety, is shocking, messy, and disorienting. While Furious 7 and Mockingjay – Part 1 each provide thoughtful hat-tips to their late major players, the alleged ease with which these films adapted these deaths into the larger aims of their franchises gives an unintended impression that these two tragic passings disturbed the production of these films at a bare minimum, that the machinery of these individual films and the franchise as a whole will proceed smoothly without the very existence of key performers.

Asserting that such an impact on production is minimal and easily navigable is an odd, contradictory way of recognizing a late star’s importance. And that, perhaps, is the most unnerving thing about how recent high-profile deaths are dealt with in franchise Hollywood – the prospect that the life of the star doesn’t ultimately matter to the life of the franchise.

Death is of seemingly little consequence in franchise Hollywood, on screen and off. In the words of Brian O’Conner early in the film, there will be “no more funerals.” But there will most certainly be a Furious 8.