Sunday 12 April 2020

The Phoenix Farce

Jean Luc Picard didn’t have the decency to wait the traditional three days before rising up out of the grave.

The quick-and-easy revival of the Enterprise captain is emblematic of a trend in pop culture — particularly in science fiction and fantasy — in which all-too-many significant characters are “killed off” one moment and then resurrected the next.

It’s a lazy writing technique that undermines dramatic tension, cheapens character moments, and
Fun fact, if you start playing the song
“Back to Life” by Soul 2 Soul
when Picard dies, he will be resurrected
before the song ends. We timed it.
(Image via  
impoverishes the emotional experience of narratives. For us, it was one of the biggest disappointments in an otherwise pretty decent season of Star Trek.

Picard is dead for fewer than three and a half minutes of screen time. He literally spends more time saying that he will lay down his life for a cause than he spends being dead. Why should viewers get emotionally invested in Picard putting his life on the line when his life costs him nothing?

Although the finale of Star Trek: Picard’s first season provides a case example of this trend, we’d like to be clear that his pointless death and meaningless resurrection is by far not the most underwhelming. Even within the past few years of Star Trek, we’d note Dr. Hugh Culber’s resurrection in Star Trek: Discovery, and Kirk’s resurrection in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

This latter example offers an interesting comparison between resurrections of fictional characters, and what makes some more egregious than others. Into Darkness is a soft remake of The Wrath of Khan, and follows many of the same character moments: a reactor overloading, and a beloved protagonist sacrificing themselves for the greater good. In the case of The Wrath of Khan, it’s Spock who gives his life for the greater good, while in Into Darkness, it’s James Kirk. In both cases, the character who dies gets a prolonged death scene, and an emotional farewell. The narrative asks audiences to grieve for the character’s demise.

But post-mortem, these stories diverge. Within the same movie, after just a few minutes of grieving,
Somehow, while The Wrath of Khan
is considered one of the great Star Trek
movies, Into Darkness is often regarded
as one of the lesser ones.
(Screen capture via Youtube)
Kirk is injected with ‘super blood,’ and is healed almost instantaneously. He’s back on his feet and able to go toe to toe with Khan. End of story.

Compare this with what happened in the earlier movie — Spock stays dead. And when (years later) he’s brought back to life, it’s only through adversity and sacrifice that his friends manage to revive him. When Spock is resurrected, he continues to suffer adverse effects of the trauma. In essence, Spock’s sacrifice is a sacrifice because he actually gave something up.

This is not to suggest that Spock’s resurrection in The Search For Spock is good, but rather that it is a less anemic use of a resurrection plot device than Kirk’s. The ‘Genesis Planet’ may be no less risible a contrivance than ‘Super Blood,’ but the amount of effort and turmoil caused by Spock’s death means that his sacrifice has narrative weight.

In essence, the differences between the two stories highlight the fact that that death without consequence is empty.

This phenomenon is not limited to Star Trek. In movies and television, Spider-Man, Superman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5 captain John Sherridan, Ellen Ripley, Agent Phil Coulson, and Harry Potter have all died and come back to life with essentially little consequence.

It gets absurd when you consider that X-Men comic book mainstay Jean Grey has been killed and resurrected numerous occasions; two "official" deaths, three more fake-out deaths …

Why bother with killing off a character if their rebirth is expected by audiences? In part we suspect that characters are killed off in order to imbue a story with meaning — and we naturally associate death as a serious and consequential event in the narratives of our lives. But the significance of death is not in the event itself, but rather in the consequences.

The Death of Superman is a good case study of how resurrection stories often fall flat. Retailers assumed Superman's resurrection would be as big or bigger than his death and over-ordered copies of Adventures of Superman #500, the much-hyped issue in which he returned. To this day the issue in which he dies sells for about $20, but the issue with his resurrection is in the quarter bin of most comic stores.

Death sells, but resurrection doesn't. There is drama in death, after all, everyone without exception has to experience it eventually. But (Easter Sunday and generations of its normative cultural expectations aside) resurrection is not something we empathize with. The experience is alien to us.

Abhay Khosla once observed that in recent years the big superhero crossover had become a pagan ritual where a super heros life is given up as a blood sacrifice in the hopes their death will bring prosperity to the comics. Its like Shirley Jackons ‘The Lottery, except you can often predict who will have the ticket by analyzing sales data trends.

Viewers rarely want to say farewell to a beloved character, and rights holders never want to release a
Did any of us really expect Spider-Man:
Far From Home
to be set in Hades?
(Image via Twitter)  
profitable intellectual asset. Excessively long copyright terms on pop culture icons and the hegemony of franchise culture leads to strong incentives for the corporations that control the rights to these characters to ensure that stories about those characters are in perpetual production.

Spider-Man was never going to stay dead — in fact, even when he “dies” on-screen in Avengers: Infinity War, studios had already announced the movie Spider-Man: Far From Home. For moviemakers to expect his demise to resonate is manipulative, cynical, and insulting to audiences. They expect us to grieve for a character we know isn’t actually gone.

The superficial treatment of death means that our heroes live in a consequence-free environment.

This trend is so pervasive that when fan-favourite protagonist Ned Stark dies in the first season of Game of Thrones (and the book on which the show is based), his death is shocking in its finality. While later seasons may have undermined this consequence-rich storytelling, the show stands out for having the guts to let the dead stay dead.

Stories resonate most when they reflect and engage with human emotional states, including grief. When death is meaningless, and resurrection is easy, these stories become little more than shallow wish-fulfillment fantasies.


  1. What you imply but do not state at the end is that the wish fulfillment fantasy being serviced when a long-running character is "killed" is likely that of the writers charged with turning the tired loam over for another decade of the same damn stories.

  2. My brain's now going down a rabbit hole thinking about this...
    I think the only genre character that has reliably stayed dead in (Peter Parker's) Uncle Ben? Used to be Uncle Ben and Bucky Barnes, but..
    I'm wondering if this is a more modern issue, with companies worried about losing money/reliable market of fans for a specific character - or even more recently, social media backlash; it's certainly weird/meta watching something like the Marvel movies, knowing that characters XY&Z aren't going to stay dead bc they have a movie coming out the next year. I don't know enough about pulp/serial pub type history to know if this resurrection problem was around in earlier genre history. (And I guess I'm assuming it's mainly a genre issue since you don't get resurrections etc. w/o some supernatural/sup-science type means.)