Better Off Dead

By now many of you have seen the trailer for The Kingsman sequel, featuring Colin Firth among an all-star cast. Firth’s Harry Hart was killed off in the first film, so seeing him in the trailer gave me pause. Maybe he was killed in an ambiguous way, leaving the door open for a return. Nope. Hart was shot. On Screen. Point Blank. In the Head. See for yourself.

The Kingsman is hardly the first film series to bring a character back from the dead. The sequels of both the Hong Kong action film A Better Tomorrow and the American comedy City Slickers conveniently found long-lost identical twin brothers of deceased favorites. The Lord of the Rings resurrected Gandalf. More recently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave SHIELD agent Phil Coulson a dramatic death scene in The Avengers, only to have him headline TV’s “Agents of SHIELD” a few months later, a decision that disappointed Avengers director Joss Whedon. Nick Fury was ostensibly killed early in Captain America: Winter Soldier, only to reappear at the end. Not to be outdone, the DC Comics Cinematic Universe had Superman die in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but everyone knows he will be back in Justice League.

It’s become easier to bring people back on film than in soap operas. All too easy. Few people batted an eye when Firth came back in The Kingsman trailer. These days a character’s return from beyond is more an expectation than a surprise. So the death itself becomes pointless, devoid of any power or meaning.

Take Star Trek Into Darkness. Echoing Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk gives his life to save the Enterprise. Yes, in the earlier film Spock eventually came back, but let’s remember how. Two years after Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, has Kirk and McCoy reeling from Spock’s death. To even have a chance at recovering Spock, Kirk and his crew risk their lives and their Starfleet careers. Kirk even destroys the Enterprise, the ship he loved, as a last-ditch effort to get Spock back. The lengths Spock’s friends go to, and the sacrifices they make, resonate. When Spock’s father Sarek thanks him, Kirk responds that “What I have done, I had to do.” Sarek asks, “But at what cost? Your ship. Your son.” Kirk resolutely replies that “If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.” You believe Kirk that he had to do this. When Spock does return at the end of the film the resurrection feels earned. For the power and the gratification of that scene is a testament to the struggle beforehand. It meant something.

Compare that to the ending of Star Trek Into Darkness. Between 10-15 minutes of screentime after Kirk’s death, McCoy injects him with Khan’s “superblood.” Kirk comes back to life. That’s it. It was about as easy as me getting my weekly allergy shot. No struggle, no sacrifice, no power and no resonance. Kirk’s dead, and then he’s back. It felt cheap and perfunctory.

Death and resurrection have become a quick and lazy storytelling crutch. It’s a way for screenwriters to have their cake and eat it too. You can create a death scene with the trappings of emotion, but then do not have to meet the challenge of dealing with that character’s absence. But these shortcuts dull the impact for the audience, because when the characters face dangerous situations, nothing is at stake. As Whedon said, “I think it’s disingenuous to say we’re going to fight this great battle, but there’s not going to be any loss.”

If you are going to kill off a main character, than own it. Star Wars killed off Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker’s mentor in the film. For the sequel The Empire Strikes Back, it would have been easy to bring Obi-Wan back to play that role again. Instead it used brief snippets of Obi-Wan, but transferred his main responsibilities to Yoda. The film challenges our perceptions by making Yoda basically a Muppet. Where Obi-Wan was the supportive “You can do it” teacher, Yoda is much tougher on Luke. The scenes where Yoda pushes Luke and calls him out for his shortcomings are among the most affecting in the movie. Those moments help make Luke grow up. So instead of cheating Obi-Wan’s death, Empire used it and its ramifications to make the story deeper and richer. Let’s hope The Last Jedi can also do this following Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens.
In the meantime, speculation abounds on how The Kingsman: Golden Circle will bring back Harry Hart. Maybe the bullet miraculously missed his brain. Maybe there’s some implant in Harry’s head. Does it really matter? Of course not, because the film has already been cheapened. But at least it shouldn’t involve superblood. That’s been done.

Adam Spector
August 1, 2017

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