Sparing and Being Spared: Avoiding Character Death in ‘Captain America: Civil War’

This essay is the first in a series on the subject of Captain America: Civil War. It contains spoilers. (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)

In the days and weeks leading up to the release of Captain America: Civil War, there was a lot of speculation about what would happen in the film. One of the most popular topics of debate was which character(s) would be killed off. Rumors abounded that at least one high-profile member of the Avengers team would bite the dust, and there was a lot of talk about who that could be (and who it should be). Steve—who died in the comic book version of the story—and Rhodey—who was explicitly shown to face a life-threatening situation in the trailer—were often cited as possibilities. For my part, when the question was posed, I would suggest that no one was going to die for two main reasons: A) most of the characters in the film front (or were set to front) major comic book titles (and it’s not really sound business policy to off the main protagonist of a book series that you’re hoping will entice some crossover fans to spend money on),(1) and B) Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and the Russo brothers are smarter than that.

Good Character Deaths and Bad Character Deaths
Character death is ubiquitous in contemporary media. In television shows and film franchises, it has come to be held up as the gold medal standard for proving that your story is serious. It’s become well-nigh impossible to get through even one season of a television show without a major character death—if not two or three—and the rate at which people drop like flies makes said shows somewhat difficult to take seriously.(2) To put it simply, it feels like an easy fix. When a character dies on a show or in a film franchise, I often say to myself, “Clearly, the writers ran out of interesting ideas about how to generate dramatic tension.” Not always, of course. For every Antoine Triplett or Pietro Maximoff or Abbie Mills, there is a Han Solo to be found.

The main problem with character death is that characters cannot grow when they are dead. While the “heroic sacrifice” and “redemption equals death” tropes are popular methods for getting the most out of dead characters, the reality is that death is rarely an adequate resolution for a complicated character. Antoine Triplett, of Agents in S.H.I.E.L.D., was a legacy recruit into the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization whose grandfather fought alongside Steve Rogers as a Howling Commando. His death, heroic though it was, was a waste of an incredible wealth of narrative potential. Pietro Maximoff, in Age of Ultron, had a lot to atone for in the wake of his abandoned alliance with Ultron, but his redemption was not predicated on his death but on his choice—while living—to turn from that bad path and embrace a better one. His death cut off any possibility of developing, for example, a story about how people navigate mistaken impressions of one another while adding virtually nothing to the plot of the film. Abbie Mills, a black female protagonist caught up in a supernatural tale of suspense in Sleepy Hollow, was one of the most original and innovative characters to appear on network television in years. Her death, a heroic sacrifice to further the story of the white male protagonist, was a retread of a tired story line that many television shows have already told.

This is not to say that character death cannot be done well. The death of Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a notable example of a good character death. At the end of the line, having grown as much as it was capable for him to grow, Han Solo’s doomed attempt to reach out to his wayward son represented an unusual step for the character—an assumption of responsibility by someone who was generally prone to shirk it. His death posed no threat to future narratives and, in fact, served as a jumping off point for a multiplicity of possible stories. It was a crucial step on the heroic journeys of the series’ new protagonists, Rey and Finn, as well as a further fall from grace for the series’ primary antagonist, Kylo Ren. In other words, his death achieved things. Unlike the bad deaths of Trip, Pietro, and Abbie, which lessened the possible avenues of exploration, Han Solo’s death opened up a number of paths for the franchise writers to investigate.

Thus, while character death can indeed have a powerful impact on your story, it’s one of the easiest—and least imaginative—ways to achieve that. Not only that, but it is also a dangerous way to generate such impact because you have to be so careful about what, and not just who, you’re killing off. When a character has more potential dead than they do alive, and you can use their death to a good end, that’s a strong argument to kill them off. But when they have more potential alive than they do dead, it’s really best to find another way to make your story thrilling. The shock of the untimely death may pay immediate dividends in narrative pathos, but more often than not it puts a stranglehold on future story developments.(3) Moreover, for all that the act of killing off characters is meant to function as a way of demonstrating seriousness, the more serious narrative developments often come when characters do not die.

The Avoidance of Character Death in Captain America: Civil War
One of the best things about Civil War (and Winter Soldier before it) is how the film manages to turn the “character death = seriousness” trope on its head. In Civil War, a film that—at its core—is about the corrosive nature of revenge, the two most important character developments in the film come when someone has a chance to kill a person and doesn’t. For both T’Challa and Tony Stark, their individual story lines culminate in the question of whether or not a fatal blow will be struck. While for T’Challa, the need for revenge is the primary factor that motivates his actions, for Tony it is only in the end—when he is triggered into a sudden quest to avenge his parents—that he faces such a dilemma and presents a similar dilemma to Steve Rogers. Nevertheless, in each case, it is the fact that lives are spared rather than taken that causes both men to confront difficult truths about their actions.

For T’Challa, the decision to spare Zemo marks the point where he regains the part of himself that he lost when he father was murdered. T’Challa, for all that he is a warrior, is a man who values peace—and who values rational discussion as a means of achieving said peace. The death of his father galvanizes him (an example of a good character death), but it does so in a negative way, drawing him down a path that he would ordinarily abhor. His experiences—of loss, of rage, and finally of mercy—are the making of him, both as a man and as a king. He confronts his lesser self and decisively rejects it.

For Tony, the situation is a little more complicated. T’Challa spares a life; Tony has his life spared. And he has it spared by a man whose life he, in that moment, would not have spared had their positions been reversed—a man he mistakenly thought would not spare him. Whether you agree or disagree with Tony, there’s no question that he makes a lot of miscalculations in the course of Civil War, and the greatest is perhaps his repeated tendency to project his feelings and motivations onto Steve. He assumes Steve is acting emotionally rather than rationally, because he himself is. He assumes Steve’s choices are founded primarily upon personal needs, because his own are. He assumes that Steve would kill him to avenge a loved one, because he himself would and is prepared to. When Steve doesn’t, Tony is forced to confront his lesser self, although—unlike T’Challa—we are as yet unable to see what the result of such a confrontation will be.

These moments of compassion lay the groundwork for significant character growth, growth that would be impossible in the face of mere character death. They generate, rather than truncate, potential—as does the paralyzing, rather than killing, of Rhodey and the imprisonment, rather than execution, of Zemo. Of course, there are those who lament the lack of death in the film.(4) They feel that the lack of real stakes makes the series boring, but I don’t agree. In well-written stories, the plot is character, and the squandering of characters is a waste of precious commodities. We all know that the heroes are going to save the metaphorical day in the end—that’s what heroes do—but what we want is to see them save that day while growing as people and forming attachments to others who are doing the same. Character death, overused as it has become, rarely adds anything of value to that process. I’m glad that Civil War stayed as far away from it as possible.

Notes
1) Characters in the film who have their own comic book titles include Steve, Bucky, Sam, Clint (recently cancelled), Wanda, Vision, Natasha, Tony, Peter Parker, Scott Lang, and T’Challa. That’s every single “Avenger” except for Rhodey, who I assumed would be safe on the grounds that the filmmakers would never have tipped their hand with the trailers the way they did if he were actually dying in the film. (Given Marvel’s track record with characters of color, however, I still worried about him a bit.)
2) This is a particular issue when it comes to comic book media wherein the audience fully expects that the death in question will not be permanent and therefore cannot take it seriously, and it was a factor in the filmmakers’ deciding not to include any major deaths in Civil War. See Kevin Polowy, “The Screenwriters of ‘Captain America: Civil War Answer 5 Burning Questions (SPOILERS),” Yahoo! Movies (May 6, 2016).
3) A good example of how killing off a character can negatively impact storytelling potential is the death of Ben Urich in Daredevil season one. The writers didn’t need to kill him off to demonstrate how awful Wilson Fisk was—we already had ample evidence of that—and they didn’t need to do it to provide motivation to Matt Murdock—who was already committed to taking Fisk down by that point. Ultimately, all Urich’s death did was reinforce the idea that their show had real stakes, and in a world of shows with “real stakes” that essentially means nothing, but I digress. When the Daredevil team got into season two, Ben Urich’s absence became a narrative liability that forced them into moving a key plot point forward in an extremely awkward and roundabout way. Real stakes be damned; they’d have been vastly better off keeping the character alive.
4) Not everyone agrees about this. Here are two very good articles that articulate the pros and cons of character death as narrative device, specifically as relates to the Marvel Universe. Pro: Johnny Brayson, “Only 3 Characters Die in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ & Here’s What That Says About Marvel’s Greater Plan,” Bustle (May 12, 2016). Con: Bob Chipman, “Why Captain America: Civil War’s Ending Works,” ScreenRant (May 16, 2016).

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4 thoughts on “Sparing and Being Spared: Avoiding Character Death in ‘Captain America: Civil War’

  1. Very intriguing insights! I found your blog through your “Pain, Personhood and Parity” post about The Winter Soldier and I am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on CA:CW.

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    • I agree! T’Challa’s whole arc – and especially that highly emotional moment where he chooses NOT to kill Zemo – was my favorite in the film and firmly invested me in the character. I was left craving more of the character’s stories by that moment, and considering he’s getting his own solo film, that’s a very good thing!

      This whole article is an excellent argument, and I feel like bookmarking it. It perfectly sums up how I feel about the cheapness of character death in modern media. The idea that Anyone Can Die sounds hypothetically dramatic, but it loses a lot of drama when the show becomes more like a betting pool on who dies next than it does a story.

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