This post contains spoilers for the following movies and TV Shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Serenity, Firefly, The Hunger Games, Dr. Horrible's Sing-along-Blog and The Avengers. If you have not seen any of these and do not wish to be spoiled, then please move along. Otherwise, everything from those is open season.
So, we saw the Avengers this weekend. Going in we were excited because it's a Joss Whedon movie, written and directed, and we've been fans of his writing since Buffy (for which he got an Emmy nomination for the one episode, oddly, that had almost no dialogue).
Of course as we sit down, the wife looks at me and says, "you know that since this is a Whedon movie, everyone's gonna die."
Now that's a little unfair. First, Whedon doesn't kill off every character ever. He does, however like to kill them off, to keep the audience off balance and unsure what's going to happen next. For the pilot episode of Buffy, Xander's friend Jesse is introduced, turned into a vampire and then killed. We met someone who did give off an air of "extra buddy who's not going to live" but it wasn't until he met the stake that we knew for sure.
But what Whedon wanted to do went one step further. He wanted to do an entire title sequence just for that episode that featured Jesse as a main character getting the same billing there as Allyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendan, and Sarah Michelle Geller. He wanted us to watch the openning, see Jesse as a main character and then be shocked when in the first episode a main character was killed off.
Why didn't he? He didn't have the budget to edit together two title sequences.
And as you move through the body of Whedon's work, he really does like to see people go down. A major turning point in Serenity was the sudden and rather unexpected death of Wash. One second they had just narrowly missed disaster, and the next moment Wash was dead. In the commentaries, Whedon comments that he did this in order to set up the fact that everyone else lives. He reasoned that a sudden and very obvious death (there was no chance of recovery for Wash) at that point would make all the close calls (which people survived) later in the movie all the more tense. You'd start to wonder who was and was not going to live.
Now there's a problem that Whedon had with Firefly that was unique to that film over many other projects. Firefly had been cancelled and had, really, little to no hope of ever coming back. Through a great deal of fan pressure, Whedon was able to get the movie on the table as what most people believed to be the "final chapter" in the Firefly story. That meant that it was quite possible, even probable, that his direction was going to be to end this show with a massive tragic and epic finale as everyone goes down in a blaze of glory together. For many people watching the movie (or at least for me), that moment was where I checked out and said to myself "Yep, he's gonna kill them all off out of spite."
Maybe not out of spite, but I was quite sure this was it. And because of that, I stopped cheering for them.
I just sat back, sipped my soda, and waited for the reavers to take them all out.
Now this wasn't helped much by the last season and final episodes of Buffy. While it was great that the show ended with a mass awakening of Slayers, there was still a pretty high body count. You could say that it was only logical that not everyone would live to see the end, that people would die in the great battle. But it also goes into that "we're all going to be okay" that many people look to when they look at film. At the time I wrote it off as "the show's over, might as well have some random death".
Which is why when Wash went, not only did I mentally check out, but I've been told that many Browncoats up and walked out of the theater. That was the point of no return, the point where they'd decided there wasn't any hope left in the 'verse and it was time to return to mowing lawns, filing taxes and changing dirty diapers. The escape of the high action movie was over. Life sucked, people died, and babies poop.
Now to contrast this, consider the ending to Dr. Horrible. That story is intended to be a tragedy. In true Shakespearean form, you think you're watching a comedy, perhaps a farce, or even some kind of under-dog hero story. But in the end, it is Dr. Horrible's hubris, his need to be accepted by others that blinds him to the logical risks he imposes on others, and leads to Penny's death. I would have liked Penny to live and for Heroine and Villain to live Happily Ever After, but that would have been a very different film.
To really be true to the theme of the dangers of obsession with acceptance, Penny had to be sacrificed to show Dr. Horrible (Billy) as having paid the highest price he could. Death would have spared him having to live without the thing he thought the most important next to his acceptance into the Evil League of Evil.
Which gets me, as I work my way towards my comments on The Avengers, onto a question that I hinted at when I wrote my response to the Hunger Games.
At what point does a death shift from quality story telling to blatant emotional manipulation?
Collins wanted us to be outraged at the Games when Rue died. It was meant to tap into our anger, and make us root for Katniss just that little bit more. Whedon wanted us (with Jesse) to always be on the edge of our seats as to who might die next, and then he wanted us in the same emotional place when he ran a massive wooden spike through Wash. He wanted us to be off balanced through the ending.
What starts to wear on me is that it feels like this was less about story telling and more about "I know there's a button I can push that will get this reaction so I'm going to push it and push it."
Now I understand the power of conventions and emotional investment. The problem is that when those manipulations become too obvious, or they erode my sense of investment they jar me out of the moment. In the case of Rue, I knew the button was being pushed. There was no subtlety. It was as though there was a big flashing sign that said "You're going to cry for her", followed later by a sign that said "Okay, Cry Now."
Whedon I think is little more circumvent but I fear, for me, it does the same thing. Where it may put more people into the moment and the tension, for me it does the opposite. A sudden random death makes me stop wanting to care because how do I know who's going to be next to get knocked off? I can start cheering for that neat cool character and waiting for them to really kick some butt, and then... wait? They died HOW? Where's my investment after that? Why keep watching? In the hope that the people I ~didn't~ like will avenge them?
It's like watching American Idol for those three people you think are really talented and then asking yourself why you're going to watch the final two episodes after all of them are voted off.
Perhaps it's the result of me getting old. Perhaps I'm not a 20 something who figures that the world has enough happy endings it's fun to engage in some not so happy ones. Perhaps it's seeing more and more real unhappy endings that I turn to movies, TV and video games to escape that reality, to find something more fun to slide into and forget just how bad it is. I can root all I want for a family member with a really bad medical condition, but odds are odds, and often the odds are not good.
So I look to popcorn action movies to help me get past that, to just forget for a while how bad it can be and to cheer for an underdog who is going to knock in the teeth of evil, and quip about fashionable footwear while she does it.
Which takes us, finally, to The Avengers.
We meet Phil Coulson, agent of SHIELD in Iron Man. Or I did at any rate. He was a professional if a little awkward agent who had a job to do, and he did it well and he did it without airs. He didn't flash a badge, he didn't demand attention. He showed up, he did his job and he did it well.
We see him do it again in Iron Man 2. We see him do it in Thor. Every time Agent Coulson makes an appearance we're given a guy who has a job, the job's not glamorous, and yet he does it.
I'm still not sure what to mentally do with his own spear through the chest. Unlike Wash (who also died with a gaping chest wound), Coulson gets some final dialogue, indeed some of the best in the movie. "Oh, so that's what it does." And also unlike other Whedon deaths, it gets used as a plot point. It united The Avengers with that final piece they needed. The bonding had always been there. Caps and Thor knew about doing the right thing for the right reasons. Stark and Banner knew about the dangers of science run amok and bonded over what could happen if the portal was opened. Black Widow and Hawkeye had a past. But it was Coulson that was the final glue.
It was a death with Purpose.
Now, to be fair, I had mentally put Coulson in the same box where I kept Wedge Antilles from Star Wars. That punky minor character who gets a handful of lines in each movie and still survives from one fight to the next. You're never quite sure HOW he survives but you root for him anyways. Seeing Coulson go down I was left trying to figure out if they could keep him alive somehow, or if he'd turn into some other character later down the road. But I don't think so. I'm pretty sure that as far as the movie franchise story arcs go, he's dead.
And this time, I kept rooting. Wash's death made me give up. Rue's death annoyed me because I hated the way I was being blatantly played for emotional reaction. Penny? It was a tragedy; I was meant to sit and stare at the screen in quiet respect when that story was over.
But in The Avengers? No, that's a popcorn munching brawl fest where you're supposed to pump your fist in the air and cheer when the good guys break a bus over the bad guy's head. And yet... Phil....
I'm going to miss him in later movies, but I get it. And for the first time in a while I saw a character I cared about in a movie die off in a way that I think was perfect to the story, respectful of me as an audience member, and neither oversold nor undersold the relevance of death.
I don't like it, but respect it the most of all the carnage that's been visited upon characters I cared about.