Allow me to clarify, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), or DC Comics’ answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), has taken a lot of heat since their Man of Steel debut. In my opinion, some of this is warranted, some is blown out of proportion, yet the fact remains that for the time being the MCU has had much more success than the DCEU. But there is one area that the DCEU has handled better than the MCU: death.
Marvel has a history of fake deaths:
Whether it’s basing a movie on a comic book involving an important death, like Captain America’s death in the Civil War comic, or having a trailer convey that it’s the end of the line for one of our favorite heroes, like having Iron Man clutching a lifeless Rhodey (again, in the Civil War trailer). It seems that now in every Marvel movie the production team teases a main character’s death, and then does not deliver.
Even with all of this apprehension built up, Marvel refuses to sacrifice its own. Captain America did not die in the Civil War movie. He merely “gave up a part of his identity” (mid-life crisis, anyone?), and remember Rhodey? Well, after falling from a ridiculous height he walks away with new robotic legs and a better outlook on life.
Remember in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Nick Fury was beaten to a pulp in a car chase and then shot? Well he’s fine; it turns out he was using a special plant to play dead so he could get off the grid. Remember when Captain America’s sidekick Bucky fell off of a moving train into a ravine in the first Captain America movie? Well it turns out he only lost an arm. Remember in Thor: The Dark World when Loki gets stabbed by a dark elf and dies in Thor’s arms? Well he comes back later that movie with no explanation other than a lousy, ‘it’s cause he’s magical.’
Marvel loves to bring people to the box office by claiming a character will die, but they rarely actually kill off fan favorites.
Marvel fails at delivering emotionally when they do kill off characters:
Marvel’s issue is not that they are afraid of death, on the contrary they make it a point to claim that death is an ever-present threat to their heroes. Marvel’s issue is that they are afraid of their fans. They have built up such a massive empire that they refuse to take out any main players to avoid losing even a small fraction of their fan base. So instead they make death a threat by killing off minor characters like Quicksilver in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. While we got an emotional reaction from Quicksilver’s twin, Wanda, the other Avengers barely noticed.
Quicksilver had no character development whatsoever, so it’s no surprise that his death was forgotten so quickly. Frankly, nobody cared that Quicksilver died because we as an audience were not exposed to who he was as a character and as a hero. For half of his screen time he was a bad guy, so why should killing him off be the emotional climax of a story barely involving him?
DC isn’t afraid of upsetting anyone:
The DCEU is not as established as the MCU. Because they are relatively new, they are not as afraid of upsetting their fans by killing off major characters. This means that no one is safe, and it makes for a much more suspenseful film as the boundaries are not known. For example, when one of the evil Zod’s goons is choking Superman’s mom in Man of Steel it holds more weight because we do not know if DC is willing to kill her off.
When a similar event happens in a Marvel movie, for example when Captain America is choking the life out of a brainwashed Bucky (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) we know that even though it’s been established Bucky is beyond saving there is absolutely no chance he will die.
DC uses death better than Marvel does:
Marvel seems to use death to increase the stakes for its main characters. If you kill someone off, the audience is left wondering, “Who’s next?” which is exactly the kind of suspense a company wants for an audience already emotionally invested in their characters. However, death can be used much more effectively, it can be used as a transformative agent.
This is exactly what DC does. Every time a character is killed off, it dramatically changes not only the stakes for the other characters but it permanently alters their perspective on the events of the story and the actions they take as they respond to these events, and this is much more emotionally compelling because it does not brush over the long-term consequences of death. DCEU deaths are messy, they are raw, and they are potent.
For example, when Superman’s father Jonathon Kent dies in a tornado in Man of Steel we get a drawn out, painful scene of him struggling to get out of his car and run away before the twister reaches him. That scene was a much more powerful scene than say, Bucky’s “death,” in which we get an almost comical shot of him disappearing into the ravine below as the train zips right by him.
And DCEU’s use of death is not just reserved for heroes. When Superman kills off Zod in Man of Steel, it is the climax of the entire story. Superman snaps Zod’s neck to save a group of innocent bystanders, a much debated killing. Some argued that the Superman of previous films and comic books would not kill with his bare hands, but to those I argue that having Zod’s death be as brutal as it was is part of the brilliance of the DCEU deaths.
Killing Zod forever changed Superman. It opened him up to the reality that being a hero requires sometimes sacrificing everything you stand for, and soldified his resolve to only kill when absolutely nessecary. It launched him into his second movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, with this resolve, and it shaped him into the compassionate, steadfast hero of the past films and comic books.
So, why does death matter? Well, when comic book companies like DC and Marvel are built on a foundation of such epic scale, it can be expected that death will be a tool utilized to advance their narratives. As long as this is the case, it is important that such a compelling and irreversible realtiy is able to keep the same weight it holds for us mortals, and that we do not let the ultimate price become a stale cliché.