On Death and Villainy

John Seavey, one of the regular posters at MightyGodKing, writes at length about Norman Osborn, the human alter-ego of Spider-Man villain Green Goblin. I don’t much have a dog in that fight, but I did like two different side points Seavey made along the way.


I have gone on record multiple times as saying that if contrived resurrections cheapen deaths, the answer is to stop killing off characters so frequently and not to have fewer resurrections. Killing off a character in a shared universe is generally an act of colossal arrogance and short-sightedness, a statement along the lines of, “Well, I can’t think of anything more to do with this character, and I’m the Most Creative Person of All Time! The only interesting thing left to do is kill them off.” It’s never true. There are always more interesting stories to be told with a living character than a dead one, and that’s what makes resurrections so inevitable no matter how contrived they wind up being. The blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the killing writer, not the resurrecting one.

I think death is kind of overrated as a narrative device. It’s kind of cheap, really, an easy way of amping up the stakes — just kill someone off, to show that everything is real, that we’re playing for keeps. I find that a lot of deaths in stories feel like they’re there more for narrative effect than for any other reason, and a lot of them end up ringing false when it’s obvious they’re supposed to be incredibly shocking.

Good examples of this can be found all over the place: A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance. (Game of Thrones, for you who know it by the teevee.) George RR Martin gets heaped with praise all the time for being willing to sacrifice main characters, but I’d posit that by the point we’ve now reached, it’s clear that he’s not sacrificing main characters at all; he’s just disposing of secondary characters at surprising junctures.

More oddly, though, is the odd notion that a character should develop only so much, and then they should die. This strikes me as deeply silly, and the two best examples I know are characters who didn’t die: Han Solo, and Martin Riggs (of the Lethal Weapon movies). Harrison Ford has gone on record in the past as believing that Han should have died in Return of the Jedi, because he’d reached the end of his narrative and because it would have given the story a lot more gravitas. And Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black apparently left the series after his intention to kill off Martin Riggs at the end of Lethal Weapon 2 — pretty much for the same reasons — was shot down by the producers.

The problem here is, our lives don’t end when we reach handy points in our development as human beings. Well, for some of us they do, but that’s just the accident of timing, not some existential thing about the Universe dispensing with us upon our reaching of our inner Zen. It’s a silly reason to kill off a character, and Seavey is one hundred percent correct: a character doesn’t run out of potential stories just because one particular writer does.

And besides, “Death as route to gravitas” is…well, it’s just plain overrated anyway. How many major, named characters among the protagonists die over the course of The Lord of the Rings? Two: Boromir and Theoden. That’s it. And yet nowhere in that entire story would I ever claim that the stakes don’t feel pretty damned high, nor that a price will have to be paid for victory.

(For the record: Yes, I do think that Joss Whedon overdoes death as well, but his deaths tend to be a lot more visceral, given his skills at getting me to care about his characters in the first place.)

And second:

(W)hen you go back and read the original Green Goblin stories, he wasn’t much of a villain. He was a C-list Kingpin wannabe who failed at everything he tried, lost pretty much every fight he was in, and whose only talent was in running away. He didn’t even really have a backstory, because Stan Lee and Steve Ditko couldn’t decide who he was going to be under the mask. (Ditko wanted it to be a totally unmemorable nobody, to show that villains didn’t always have to be someone important to the hero. Lee felt like they’d spent so long building up the mystery of the Goblin’s identity that the audience would be upset if it wasn’t someone they recognized. The dispute was one of the reasons that Ditko left the title.) Basically, the Green Goblin was by no means the most important of Spider-Man’s bad guys.

Now, I’m not sure about this, and a couple commenters in the thread over there take issue with Seavey’s description of Ditko’s views and departure from the series. But Ditko’s point here, even if it wasn’t really Ditko’s point, is a good one, an interesting one.

There was a very effective episode of Magnum, PI that did this to really extraordinary effect — so much so that it’s one of my favorite episodes of that series. Magnum receives a strange telephone call from a cackling guy who promises to kill and leaves Magnum bits of nursery rhymes as clues. This pattern repeats several times, and it becomes very clear that this killer knows Magnum well and has a very specific beef with him. It’s a very well-made episode — Magnum occasionally eschewed its Rockford Files-esque tone for a kind of “Hawaii Noir” mode, usually to very good effect — but what makes it stand out is the resolution. Eventually the killer stands before Magnum, unmasked and grinning and waiting for his sick payoff…and Magnum doesn’t recognize him. Even later, after the killer has been dealt with and the whole mess is over, Magnum doesn’t remember him at all. He has to go back into his own personal records to figure out who this guy is, and it turns out that Magnum investigate the guy’s wife some years back in a possible divorce case, but the case turned up nothing at all and Magnum didn’t even take the guy’s money. I don’t recall what caused the guy to spiral into insane killing, and there’s a good chance that the episode doesn’t even fill in that detail, leaving it a complete mystery. But that’s one of the things that makes it really memorable: that the villain isn’t some significant figure from Thomas Magnum’s past; it’s just some guy with whom he had a completely mundane association for a short time years before, so mundane that he doesn’t even remember him.

Of course, I can turn this back to Star Wars. One thing that really incensed fans as the Prequel Trilogy unfolded was the idea that at the very heart of the mystery that is Darth Vader is a pathetic teenager, a guy who couldn’t get over the loss of his schoolboy crush.

It’s a hard thing, explaining villainy. Sometimes no explanation whatsoever is the most disturbing way to go.

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7 Responses to On Death and Villainy

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I've noticed (though I don't watch them) that crime shows such as NCIS and CSI will use death as a tease on the TV promos: "Which team member won't be making it back?" It's a cheap trick, made even more banal by the ads.

  2. Ben Varkentine says:

    I don't think that I agree with you.

    If nothing else, I'd point out that Ford and Black were both *absolutely right.*

    I've read enough of the "expanded universe" post-Endor stories to feel comfortable saying that the Han Solo in them is unrecognizable.

    And killing Martin Riggs in 2 would have spared us 3 and 4.

  3. Ben Varkentine says:

    @ Roger: That's like the comic books that used to trumpet on the cover: "In this issue…someone DIES!"

  4. Kelly Sedinger says:

    Ben: Nah. First off, I don't really care about the Expanded Universe, so that's not really a good argument in any case. Killing Han would have felt like a "Required Plot Element", the token death of a major character to show that Shit Is Getting Real. I think it would have ruined the tone of the movie. Ford was wrong, and his argument was more out of boredom than anything else.

    As for Black and Riggs: Well, I like 3. 4, not so much, but 3 is pretty solid. And again, there really is no compelling reason to kill Riggs at the end of 2, except to basically close the whole thing down. When someone says that "this is when a character should logically die", they're full of crap. Death ain't logical, and rare indeed is the fictional death that doesn't feel forced.

  5. Ben Varkentine says:

    I'll concede the point about Han–if we're not counting EU.

    But you're completely wrong about LW3. And strangely, I thought *Rika's* death at the end of 2 was forced…

  6. Kelly Sedinger says:

    Rika's death WAS forced, you're right about that…and all the other cops, too. I've always thought that there's a pall hanging over the last act of LW2 because of all the death. Rika's was especially bad, because Riggs already saved her…to no avail at all.

    As for LW3, no, I'm not wrong at all. I'm completely right. The movie is a bit formulaic by this point, but they still do interesting things with Riggs's character, by (a) making him fall in love, and (b) showing his very real fear at a future without Murtaugh, when his association with Murtaugh is in large part what pulled him out of his suicidal spiral. LW3, amidst the formula (which is really entertaining, nonetheless), shows a Riggs who has finally managed to put aside all of his various inner demons. That's a big reason why LW4 isn't that good: it tries to put the demons back in there so he can have another epiphany, and it just feels false.

  7. Ben Varkentine says:

    For me, LW3 is just too much the big dumb loud action "comedy" with characters going through the motions.

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