(Contains spoilers for Game of Thrones through A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and Star Wars through The Force Awakens, but no Avengers: Endgame spoilers)
Death has been on a lot of minds lately. How can it not be? Eras are ending all around us. Game of Thrones will be halfway through its final season after a two year wait and Avengers: Endgame has opened this weekend. And A.P. Bio probably won’t get a third season (thank goodness Lodge 49 is coming back). At this moment, writing this, I don’t know who lives or dies in either, but by the time you read this, you might. I wanted to get this down now, before I could possibly spoil anything for anyone.
Why is death the only outcome we find ourselves obsessed over? Sure, it’s normal, at this point, to harbor fantasies of Tyrion Lannister popping out of a cake or something to strangle Cersei as has been prophesied, but why is there so much gleeful talk about what characters, which heroes, which characters we love will bite the bullet? Part of it may be a coping mechanism—we’ve had years with these characters, over a decade with some of the MCU heroes—and discussing how they might meet their end may be the only way to deal with the fact that they will. But it makes me wonder about the cyclical nature of the storyteller and the audience. Are storytellers death-obsessed, or is it us? Do we feed off each other? Are there other satisfying ways to end stories? I’m not talking about “happily ever after” kid stuff. But why would I ever root for my favorite characters to die? I want to banish the thought. Part of me doesn’t even want to see Endgame because of what might happen.
Sure, Game of Thrones, for example, built its rep on subverting expectations. No one watching that in the middle of season 3, episode 8 had a bad feeling about Robb Stark’s chances going into season 3, episode 9. That is, until episode 9 actually rolled into town and you couldn’t shake the feeling of a vice grip on your heart until the end of the episode when vice tightened until it could go no further. The Game of Thrones universe is one of special violence, of course, so something like the Red Wedding was bound to happen. And, really, when you look at where it happens in the story, it’s setup for where the story goes from there. And it’s gotten us to where we are now; staring down the barrel of the Night King’s army, dragon and all. But why would I want to agonize over how I think Davos, Tormund, or Brienne will die? Why would I not want Tormund and Brienne to get together and open a bed and breakfast together with Hot Pie as head chef? Do I think that’s likely to happen? No, of course not. But I would totally watch that show. (And if you don’t know me well, this is my go to wish for all my character pairings—they open a bed and breakfast together and possibly solve mysteries on the side, Scooby-Doo style. We’ll come back to this when I discuss Rogue One.)
I know a lot of things can result in a character’s death, including contract disputes, contracts ending, or getting a DUI while filming on location. But while death is an inevitability for us, and perhaps for all characters who live in a world as rich and with the longevity as Marvel or Star Wars, do we really need to be there for it? Does it need to be when a character “fulfills” his or her purpose? Okay, we’ve come to terms with the idea that Theon Greyjoy is going to pay the ultimate iron price for a seat in the sky when protecting Bran from the Night King, because his faults, his betrayals, and his redemption demand death. After turning on the Starks and burning two farmboys, I don’t think anyone will shed a tear if the Night King’s army shreds him. But do I want to see Tony Stark, Captain America, or Hawkeye fall? Absolutely not. I want them to open a B&B and solve mysteries. Okay, maybe not those three. Tony can’t play nice with anyone; that B&B wouldn’t be standing by the end of the first week. But my point is that their story isn’t finished when they’ve done something heroic—doing something heroic isn’t the purpose of a hero, and certainly not the type of heroes we’re talking about here. A hero’s purpose is to inspire us to be more heroic in our own lives. And that is an ongoing battle—a purpose that can never truly be fulfilled.
You might say that no matter how these characters find themselves at the end, that the lessons we learned along the way will never leave us. But I’m not so sure. Just as at the end of every Rage Against the Machine concert, everyone walks out a revolutionary, every time I watch Winter Soldier and Civil War, I’m reminded of what matters. Loyalty, friendship, integrity, standing when you know you should stand, even if others are telling you to bend, trusting in yourself, trusting that you’re not the only one who wants to do the right thing. Maybe I’m too sensitive—but if I lose some of my favorite characters, it makes it harder to go back and watch those movies and be reminded of those lessons. Yes, it’s all fiction, I know. Yes, these characters were never truly alive and therefore can never truly die. But the MCU started when I was in college. These movies weren’t part of my childhood, they were part of my truly formative years—when I was becoming an adult, when I was traversing crossroads, when I was making big life decisions—and as a result, they are part of me. Chris Evans’ Captain America is part of me. And if he were to die on screen, in front of my eyes, how could I not also have a part of me die with him? But if he stands, heroically against impossible odds, and, with the aid of his friends and found family, walks away victorious, isn’t the message that no evil, no villain, and no wrong is too strong to overcome? That if we stand with each other and for each other, that we are always unconquerable? Isn’t important to know that?
Because, make no mistake, the odds we face are impossible. Each day, the news is always bad news. We see hunger, murder, rape, harassment, bullying, the erosion of the rule of law, the erosion of basic human dignity, and other atrocities on a daily basis. It’s so much and the mountain is so high that it begins to make sense that we shouldn’t even bother to try to climb it. We shouldn’t intervene. We shouldn’t say something. It’s not my problem. I’m too small to do anything about it. Even if I wanted to, I’m too powerless to stop it. I’m guilty of it too, I admit; I’m no hero and I stand on no boxes that once contained soap. But I want to be better. And whether it’s childish to look to fictional heroes for the courage to try to do so, for better or worse, it’s what I’ve got. Real heroes exist, of course; firefighters, soldiers, teachers, nurses, doctors, and many others, too many to name. But these ones—dreamt up by men and women years ago—they’re the ones that can speak to all of us at once.
Of course, death is part of the story. There has to be real stakes to invest us as the audience, otherwise everything just ends up Agents of SHIELD, and no one wants that. That show is terrible. And death is a natural part of life, so it makes sense to be a part of the stories we tell. But to this day, I still can’t watch The Rains of Castamere again. I’ve seen it once, when it originally aired, and I haven’t been able to do it again. I don’t want that to happen to the movies for heroes I cherish so dearly; movies that don’t just entertain, but inform the soul and help shape who we are. If I can’t go back to these movies over and over, if I stop being reminded that the good it takes to conquer the bad that exists is worth the effort, won’t I start to forget those lessons?
There can be so-called good death. Death that is important to the story and important to the characters. Let’s take Han Solo, for example. His death, while it tore my heart asunder, didn’t take anything away from me because it was the ultimate act of a father who showed actual, real unconditional love for his son, no matter what he’d become. When Han’s final act was to touch the cheek of Kylo Ren as he murdered him, an act of love, I knew that Han’s death would stay with me forever, but in a good way. He is the smuggler. He is the general. He is the failure. He is the father. He is all those things at once, in life and in death. But it’s not easy to write a death like that. I’m not going to pretend that I won’t always get teary-eyed when I see it happen, or when I think about, but there’s a peacefulness to it. That kind of peace is hard to find, in worlds real and imagined. And, if I’m completely honest, Tony’s story does seem to be mounting towards a beautiful sacrifice, much like Han’s, and if it comes to that, I think I’ll be able to live with it. But, damn, will it be hard to see.
So, I’m not saying that no character I love should ever die. Just that they shouldn’t die only for the spectacle of their death. And I know this has mostly been about Captain America, but he’s not the only one. He’s just the one I love most. He’s the one who inspires me most. I truly, truly hope that when I go see Endgame tomorrow, I get to see Cap, Black Widow, and the other heroes I love ride off into the sunset. Even if we don’t get any more movies with them, just knowing they’re out there, righting wrongs in the periphery will make me feel better.
I just think that this real world is a better place with our fictional Captain America in it. I am now, have always been, and will always be, Team Cap. I get it; as Marvin Gaye told us, “there’s only three things for sure; taxes, death, and trouble”. But when the man who stood a weakling in an alley getting his ass beat and as Captain America taking a beating from Iron Man says “I can do this all day”, I’m with him till the end of the line.
If you’ve gotten this far, it’s only fair I do some housekeeping. The Study Room Podcast is currently aiming for a mid-August first episode, but until then, Adam and I will be hoping to intermittently put up blog posts, like this one, for you to enjoy. Catch us on Twitter as @aslamchoudhury, @afm144, and @StudyRoomPod for more musings, news, and entertainment.