This week on Most Heroic, we’ll be tackling a more morbid area in the realms of heroism; death. Every story has an ending, and sometimes we have to watch our heroes fall, whether in battle, by betrayal, due to the effects of time itself. The death of the hero can be a very important part of the overall story, mainly because the death of the hero is so often tied to the ending of the story itself..
Like with many other aspects of good storytelling, there’s a few “rules,” for lack of a better term, about how heroes can and should die in a good story. There are a few different kinds of deaths That’s what we’ll be exploring today,
BLAZE OF GLORY
This is often where the hero is faced with his or her greatest threat, and may not survive the outcome, but they charge ahead anyway, because they know that their sacrifice may save the lives of friends, family and the people they protect in general. They end their lives so that others may live.
Superman actually died for a brief period in the 1990’s after facing down with an unstoppable alien monster named Doomsday. The two literally fought across the country before their duel culminated in a final showdown on the streets of Metropolis, Superman’s home. Unlike some of Superman’s other foes, Doomsday was strong enough to go toe-to toe with the Man of Steel, and he had earlier defeated the entire Justice League International on his own. Only Superman could stand up to the mindless invincible beast and he did so with a vengeance, fighting the beast with every breath in his body. He knew that if he didn’t, all the people in the city he loved could be killed by the monster. After hours of combat, the two finally began to wear each other down, and with the last bits of strength left in their bodies, gave their opponents the final death blows.
A death like that shows the heroes at their best. They’re willing to do what many people wouldn’t dream of, and sacrifice themselves so many more will live.
Unfortunately, the hero doesn’t always get their blaze of glory. Sometimes their heroic death leads them to….
Death is almost always a tragedy in its own right, but it can be made especially bitter by circumstance. Sometimes a hero can be betrayed by someone he trusts, or end up as a pawn in an un-winnable game. There’s plenty of precedent for tragic deaths.
In David Fincher’s famous suspense-thriller film Se7en, the protagonist Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is planning to retire from the police force, having become numbed by the daily tragedies that he’s forced to witness. However, the horrific events of the film make him reconsider his retirement, thinking that maybe the world needs him more than he gave himself credit for.
In George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice & Fire, several prominent characters are shockingly and horrifically killed off. However, they’re never given cheap deaths. Like the western stories of Larry McMurtry, Martin has his characters die in order to prove a point. The reader/viewer comes to learn that the world of Westeros is a brutal one, where death waits behind every corner. Anyone can be taken away and no one is truly safe. The good guys have to be tough to survive, and they can’t rely on codes of honor.
This is where a hero refuses to cross his or her own moral code, and society punishes them for it. By accepting this unfair punishment, their death enhances their own legend. Their unjust death serves as a tale of both caution and inspiration, giving future generations courage to face their own trials.
A prominent martyr in the Catholic Church is an English Lord named Sir Thomas More. Sir Thomas was a devout Catholic, and served as England’s Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII. Though he was loyal to his King, he refused to swear to new legislation that declared the King to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England, because it undermined Papal Authority and severed England’s ties with the Catholic Church. For his refusal, More was tried and convicted of treason and was executed by beheading.
In the case of martyrdom, death can make a man or woman more of a hero than they were in life. Sir Thomas had his share of sins, mostly in regards to how he persecuted Protestants while Lord Chancellor, but despite these criticisms he is one of the most respected men in British history for his intellect, his dignity for his final days and his willingness to die for his beliefs. He’s officially recognized as a Saint within the Catholic Church, and he is the lead character in the historical novel and play A Man for All Seasons.
He’s not the only one to receive such treatment. Consider the cases of men like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi. All of these men were very human, with plenty of human flaws and failings, but they have been righteously been considered heroes for the work that they did in life, and their untimely deaths add to their own mythologies. Each of those three men are remembered as having been killed just for wanting to improve the world.
Which leads me to my concluding point…
MAKE IT MEANINGFUL
Back in 2008, Marvel decided to shake up their Ultimate brand of stories with a crossover-event series called Ultimatum. In that story, Magneto alters the Earth’s weather to create huge natural disasters which kill millions around the globe. Throughout the series, 90% of the Ultimate Universe characters and heroes are killed off. Among the casualties are Nightcrawler, Beast, Angel, Cyclops, Colossus, Professor X, Wolverine, Magneto, Thor, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom, and a host of others who die offscreen. Some of them meet quite horrific fates, including cannibalization and disintegration. Almost none of those characters who die get any sort of heroic moment before they have to say goodbye. They’re just abruptly and callously killed for shock value. Fans and critics alike believed using such cheap back tactics was disrespectful to the creators who worked with them for years upon years. There was little to no meaning behind the mass character assassinations, and its a great example of how not to kill heroic characters.
This should be a general rule for all writing and writers. There must always be meaning behind characters’ actions and the events which happen to them. It’s especially important for heroes. These are the people that the stories are supposed to be about, the ones we may relate to, the ones that we are supposed to learn from and strive to emulate. In storytelling, a hero’s deaths should always mean something. If you ever see a meaningless death that grants the story no extra depth, odds are you’re reading a bad story.
Next week on Most Heroic, we’ll explore the differences between Marvel and DC Comics and their respective heroes.