Back from the Dead
Bringing back the dead is a tricky business, story-wise. For a major character to die adds gravitas. It gains our sympathy; it makes us take the story more seriously.
But in adventure stories, characters who die have a pretty good chance of turning up again later. This has become such a convention that we are often adjured not to assume someone’s dead unless you actually see the body.
There’s a strong temptation for a writer to save a beloved (and sometimes lucrative) character; yet the return undermines the impact of the death. Are there ways to manage that dilemma?
The White Rider
The theme of one who was dead who turns up alive has a very long history—as we may note particularly in this Easter season. For the literary trope, however, I think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings as the the ur-example. Gandalf’s loss is appalling for the reader, and his reappearance is a classic example of the sudden turn beyond hope that Tolkien called “eucatastrophe.”
LotR comes early enough in the history of modern high fantasy that it may have been unexpected, at that time, for a character to really die and then come back. Merely apparent death is much more common—even in LotR. An article I read once observed how frequently someone is thought to be dead in the course of the story. For example, Aragorn thinks Frodo has been killed by an orc-spear in the Mines of Moria (Book II, Ch. 5). Sam assumes Shelob has killed Frodo, when in fact the spider has merely put him into a coma (Book IV, Ch. 10). Éomer believes Éowyn is dead, but when she’s borne back to the city she is found to be alive (Book V, Ch. 6). Et cetera.
Gandalf, on the other hand, really does die at the end of his extensive combat with the Balrog. But this isn’t as fatal as it seems. Gandalf is a semi-divine spirit, one of the Maiar, and his mission in Middle-Earth is not yet complete. He says: “Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done” (Book III, ch. 5). The “naked” is not simply a bodily description. In passing “through fire and deep water,” he has given up his old self, Gandalf the Grey, and become an elevated version, Gandalf 2.0, the White Rider.
This is perhaps one clue as to what makes a return from death succeed, in a narrative sense. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t trivial. Gandalf’s being “sent back” is extraordinary, and it changes him in deep ways. To my mind, this death-and-reversal add to the depth and power of the story.
The Descent into Routine
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. If the return is taken for granted, then we aren’t moved or edified by the dying. We don’t believe it in the first place. In fact, reading or watching a death we know is reversible tends to make us cynical. The writers are playing on our emotions, and we feel manipulated rather than moved.
In the 2016 movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman dies at the end. Did anyone believe for a minute this death would last? No one is going to kill off such an iconic character. If nothing else (here’s the cynical part), the future income stream from Superman stories is an irresistible lure. Just as with the comic-book “Death of Superman” sequence from which the idea was taken, I suspect my reaction was shared by many: here’s a cheap trick to get our attention.
To be sure, there are some affecting moments in the transition from BvS to Justice League (2017), in which Superman is revived—partly because reviving him is arduous and difficult, as further discussed below. But those moments are not easily attained. The artifice is too transparent.
I have somewhat the same reaction, for a different reason, to The Princess Bride—one of the flaws in that admirable tale. Goldman’s narrator makes a great deal out of telling his son (in the movie, grandson) that Westley dies (ch. 6). Really. He’s not faking. And naturally, the boy is outraged. The hero isn’t supposed to die! Yet he did. —But no, the author has tricked us. Westley isn’t really dead. Miracle Max tells us, “there’s different kinds of dead: there’s sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead. This fella here, he’s only sort of dead . . .” (ch. 7).
That’s cheating. We may be willing to accept the trick in The Princess Bride because it’s already such a roaring stream of clichés, so enthusiastically devised and appreciated that we never do take the story quite seriously. But we aren’t really moved. Our appreciation is of a different order: we’re laughing fondly at the author’s willingness to indulge with such unreserved gusto in the most absurd fairy-tale stereotypes and gimmicks.
If we’re commenting on Batman v. Superman, we really ought to say something about Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame. But it’s too soon—too many spoilers. Maybe another time.
Incidentally, the routine return can apply to villains as well as heroes. A hero’s recurring nemesis may also be an iconic character, and the fact that the nemesis keeps coming back is a convention we rather enjoy. TV Tropes refers to it as “Joker Immunity.” Superman’s Lex Luthor, Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom: if any of them appear to be dead in the comic books, we can be pretty sure they’ll be back. On the other hand, movie series don’t run on forever in the same way that comics series do. The screen adapters of Spider-Man can thus afford to “expend” the Goblin, or Dr. Octopus, because they’re only going to make three or four films in a given series. There isn’t time for repeated recurrences of an arch-enemy.
On the other hand, it’s notorious that we hear Emperor Palpatine’s sinister laughter at the end of the most recent Star Wars IX trailer (4/12/2019). immediately following Luke’s voiceover line, “No one’s ever really gone.” Some movie series do go on that long . . .
Once revival has become routine, it’s a noteworthy exception when an author is willing to let a main character go permanently (Killed Off For Real; see a list of film examples, and also the trope Deader Than Dead). J.K. Rowling, for example, killed off Albus Dumbledore for good, well before the end of the Harry Potter saga. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series allows the heroine herself to die at the end, though this seems to have been omitted from the corresponding movie.
In Star Wars, the regular appearance of “Force ghosts” provides a sort of compromise. The fallen heroes don’t come back to life, but they do hang around to provide advice, commentary, and snarky explanations.
The Search for Spock
Let’s return to an instance where a temporary death does work to see if we can determine what makes that possible.
Along with LotR, my other go-to example is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Wrath is generally considered to be among the best of the Trek movies (for example, here, here, and here), and a sizable part of its draw is the death of the beloved Spock. Like Gandalf, Spock perishes heroically, subjecting himself to a fatal overdose of radiation to make a crucial repair that saves everyone else on the Enterprise. And his loss is fully realized by his long-time friends, along with the new characters we’ve just gotten to know. Maybe I’m sentimental, but Kirk’s eulogy at Spock’s funeral has always struck me as a genuinely moving moment.
At the same time, there was no doubt in my mind when I first saw the film that Spock would be back. The whole atmosphere of the final scenes in Wrath—hopefulness so intense you can almost taste it—lent itself to anticipating eucatastrophe rather than a final end. The shiny “casket,” nestled in the burgeoning growth of the Genesis planet, seemed to promise some kind of resurrection. What made us feel Spock’s death so effectively, even though we were morally certain we’d see him again?
Part of it is that these characters had had such a long history together. We’d seen their relationship grow over three TV seasons, and we’d been recently reminded of that history in the first Star Trek movie, flop though it was. To the numerous loyal Trek fans, at least, these were truly iconic characters, and we were emotionally invested in them. The history had built up a kind of emotional potential that the death sequence could draw upon.
Even more important, the other characters were visibly affected. They didn’t know Spock would be back. We grieved for Spock through his friends. The screenwriter and director wisely gave us enough time, in the final sequences, to absorb and appreciate that grief with the other characters. I suspect this, more than anything, is what makes a provisional death effective: a powerful portrayal of other people’s response to the loss.
Finally, the heroism of Spock’s final acts, and the overwhelming sense of something wonderful that’s been achieved on the Genesis planet at the end, lend depth and further feeling to the event. We respect his sacrifice, and it means something. The hope for new life doesn’t necessarily erode the gravity of the death.
Moreover, the sequels navigated the difficulty pretty well. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock did unavoidably undercut the resolution of Wrath a bit. The Genesis planet is unstable; it isn’t quite as wonderful as we thought. The adversaries in Search are much more mundane than Khan (who had his own history with the Enterprise crew). And the death isn’t permanent.
Yet the complex, gradual, effortful reconstitution of Spock manages to become something wonderful in itself, rather than just a reversal of the loss. The notion that Spock’s katra or spirit survives adds an element of the mystical or sublime to the science-fiction texture of the series. The notion that it survived in McCoy’s head gave the situation humor and irony. The unconventional expedients the Enterprise crew must use to get McCoy back to Genesis provide both adventure and a maverick sense of, well, enterprise. Meanwhile, the scenes of Spock’s body re-growing from childhood to adulthood as accelerated by the Genesis effect have their own sense of wonder.
When the Vulcan ceremony of reintegration rejoins Spock’s spirit with his body, the impact of the result is heightened by the fact that Spock is clearly changed by his passage through death. (The final film of the trilogy, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, continues this theme by showing Spock visibly struggling to get used to life again.) The return, which takes two whole movies to complete—a quest in itself—is far more than a handwave. It’s an achievement.
From these examples I think we can pick out some factors that help a story to make good use of a temporary death, as opposed to a routine we-know-they’ll-be-back.
- The death is heroic; it means something.
- We care about the lost person—and so do the other people in the story.
- The other characters experience the death fully, even if the reader or viewer knows that it won’t be permanent.
- The deceased character is absent long enough to let the loss sink in.
- The deceased character earns the return. It doesn’t come easy.
- The returned character is transformed in some way by the experience.
When an author can incorporate these elements, we the audience can extend our “willing suspension of disbelief” to sympathize with the rest of the cast in their loss, even when we are aware in propria persona that the beloved dead aren’t gone for good.