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Stop Saying Joss Whedon’s “Thing” is to Kill Characters

May 4, 2015

[Light (name-free) spoilers for Whedon stuff, including Age of Ultron.]

“Well, you know, he’s gotta kill SOMEONE, he’s Joss Whedon.”

Variations of this comment have been going around the internet for a while now. Whedon’s latest movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, is now in theaters, and now everyone’s patting themselves on the back.

“I don’t like Whedon because he kills characters just to kill them.”

Oh, honey. You are so wrong.

Ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first came to the small screen–or even on the big screen!–Whedon has been killing important characters. From characters in the movie to the gotcha on TV, when we’re introduced to Buffy’s new Sunnydale friends and one of them immediately is killed by a vampire, Whedon began his career with death. But it’s not because killing his characters makes you gasp, or surprises you. It’s because without death, the stakes (heh) stay low. And without death, they always would.

Whedon’s talent isn’t saying “Look, that character is happy, so it’s time to kill their significant other.” It’s saying, “This is a dangerous situation. The people involved have put themselves in mortal danger. They may get through it–but perhaps not all of them–but there will be a cost.”

And for this I say “bless Joss Whedon.” I no longer want to live in the (media) world where everyone lives all the time, because it feels fake and plastic. There’s no challenge without fallout. The joy comes in those moments where everyone gets away.  For example, the “Everybody lives!” scene in the first season of New Who. You can’t have a Doctor who takes such joy from that moment if there hadn’t been moments in his life where almost everyone had died.

If you want to be that person who wants everyone to be okay, to keep the stakes low and the heroes overpowered, that’s cool. You can totally be that person and you’ll never get any judgment from me. You have decades of television to keep your spirits high. You can see every person parachute out of a falling plane, break through the water after their car flies off a bridge. You can have every scene at a hospital bedside where everyone’s relief that their hero will be okay is plastered across their faces. Maybe you’re not the kind of person who sees it for the 400th time and feels anything but relief with them.

But I am not that person, and I want high stakes. I want actual danger, and personal sacrifices, and to feel like lives are on the line.

For me, death doesn’t have to happen often, but it has to happen.

You can not want this type of media. But don’t say that Whedon is just killing his characters to kill them. Whedon has always given us real life wrapped up in metaphor, and part of life is death.


Buffy: Does it ever get easy?

Giles: You mean life?

Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?

Giles: What do you want me to say?

Buffy: Lie to me.

Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everybody lives happily ever after.

Buffy: Liar.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jesse permalink
    May 5, 2015 9:29 am

    Yeah, despite what the internet seems to think, Joss Whedon, much like George R.R. Martin, did not invent killing characters. I suspect it’s a case of his particular characters cultivating a passionate fanbase that it creates an emotional effect on nerds much akin to the death of Bambi’s mom when he does kill someone. Thus, despite the fact that he’s not particularly bloodthirsty, Whedon’s reputation as a beloved-character-killer was cemented. I think it might be fair, however, to say he does target happy couples. This seems to come from the idea that settled romantic tension makes for weak drama (I don’t necessarily agree with this, but his work serves as pretty strong evidence he feels this way).

    In my own opinion, major character death is (or should be) the closing of a door, and all the possibilities behind that door. That makes it sound like I think it’s necessarily bad, but I consider it more the idea that death, even in fiction, shouldn’t be treated lightly, or used as a cheap emotional stunt. I see where you’re coming from as far as there being danger and a price for victory, but I would say the tone of a series matters. In grimmer stories, death may be common, but not every action adventure tale needs a pile of bodies, or even one mandatory death. We joke a lot about red shirts, but would Star Trek really have been better if Scotty or Bones or Uhura got killed halfway through the 2nd season? Danger can be shown a lot of different ways, and I know that I for one get burnt out when some series have their sweeps sacrifice just for shock value.

    • bookslide permalink*
      May 5, 2015 10:31 am

      Oh, absolutely. There are stories where the death feels like a stunt, or just because an actor wants to go on to new things, and that’s no fun to watch. Light shows don’t need death, although comedies always seem to hit harder when death happens as a result.

    • bookslide permalink*
      May 9, 2015 7:32 am

      Tone definitely matters.

      Oh, I found this today. Thought it was relevant.

      • Jesse permalink
        May 11, 2015 9:27 am

        I must admit, he makes some good points. The business with Groot in particular rankled me, as it was such a powerful moment for both him and Rocket, and then he was back before the audience could blink.

      • bookslide permalink*
        May 14, 2015 8:41 am

        I like that Whedon was like, “The Avengers believe Coulson is dead so we’re acting like he’s still dead despite the TV show.” He didn’t word it that way, and of course some people read it differently (“TV canon doesn’t exist”), but he’s not wrong. You can’t have a blockbuster juggling a million characters and throw Coulson in there just to make the fans happy.

        I would have preferred Coulson to be a LMD, frankly.

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