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Why Heroes Don't Stay Dead: Resurrection - Troped!

VO: Eric Cohen

Written by Spencer Sher

Have you ever wondered why writers even bother to kill of major characters only to find some magical or convenient way to bring them back to life? Resurrection has been a part of human culture and in our stories from ancient Greece and Egypt, to Jesus, to Superman - it's everywhere! So why is it so common for characters in movies, tv, comics, and video games to cheat death? Is resurrection a cheap marketing ploy, or a key aspect of the classic Hero's Journey? Don't worry, faithful pop culture fanatic - Troped! will answer these questions and more.


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Written by Spencer Sher

Resurrection - Troped

You know what they say, “no one stays dead in comics except for Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben”… well, at least Uncle Ben's still dead, right?

Welcome to WatchMojo’s Troped - the series where we deconstruct the clichés, archetypes, and story devices that won’t go away. In this episode, we’re taking a look at “Resurrection”: the act of bringing a character back from the dead.

The history of storytelling has proven that, in contrast to our own reality, death doesn’t have to be that big of a deal for our favorite heroes. Be it a comic book superhero, film baddie or Kenny, characters will often appear to die only to come back to life at a later date, with explanations for their resurrection ranging from the supernatural to the super-lazy. This happens all the time in comics, with the likes of Batman, Superman and Captain America returning from the afterlife, just to name a few.

Resurrection is one of the oldest story tropes in the business. So old in fact that it pre-dates any film, comic book or television show by a few thousand years. Many ancient civilizations believed in resurrection, with written accounts of gods being brought back to life peppered throughout the cultures of ancient Egypt and Greece. Of course, the most famous story of resurrection belongs to none other than Jesus Christ, who, as the story goes, was resurrected after three days of being dead.

In pop culture, this trope has persisted for as long as the entertainment industry has existed. From the works of Shakespeare all the way up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, characters have continued to be resurrected both literally, as well as metaphorically as one of the major steps of the standard Hero’s Journey. Batman climbing out of the hole and being born again in The Dark Knight Rises, is one example of a different kind of resurrection. In terms of literal resurrections, this trope has been played out on the big screen countless times. Some, like Gandalf’s return in the second Lord of the Rings movie, were epic and memorable, while others, like Landfill being killed then quickly replaced by his identical twin brother in “Beerfest” have been downright silly and poked fun at the wildly strange ways this trope can play out. The important thing to remember is that a resurrected character can come back in a variety of ways, often having undergone dramatic physical or mental changes. Take the “The Matrix” where Neo is brought back to life moments after being killed, now with the ability to stop bullets in their tracks, ultimately allowing him to defeat Agent Smith - who also comes back to life in the next movie.

You may find yourself asking, why do characters get killed off in the first place? While the death of a hero, sidekick or evildoer can have a dramatic effect on the story, it can also increase readership and boost sales. When Jean Grey died at the end of 1980’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” that was meant to be the end for that character, but she returned years later with a retcon that absolved her of all the crazy evil murdering she’d done as Dark Phoenix. Another famous example is the death of Barry Allen, aka “The Flash”, in the hugely successful “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover from 1985. It was a landmark moment in comics history, and he wasn’t brought back for over two decades - but in comics, what goes up will eventually come right back down, even if it takes a while. The most famous example of this trope run amok is 1992’s “The Death of Superman.” In this infamous story arc, the Man of Steel appears to be killed during an intense battle with Doomsday. DC got a ton of publicity for killing their most iconic character… but he couldn’t really be dead, could he? Of course not! Turns out, Superman wasn’t dead, he was just in stasis regaining his strength, finally awaking in practically full health a few issues later - oh, and he also now had long, luscious hair fit for a ‘90s hockey star. So, “The Death of Superman” turned out to be “The Power Nap of Superman” and fans were more than a little disappointed with the misdirection. This arc is cited as a huge turning point, as DC went on to kill and then quickly revive a bunch of their characters due in large part to the financial success of the story, despite fan backlash.

No one wants to see their favorite character bite the bullet and stay gone, and from a marketing standpoint, killing off a major character only to have them resurrected at a later date is pure gold, where creators can have their cake and eat it too. Fictional worlds depend on the protagonist to drive the plot forward, and character deaths are simply too dramatic and effective to pass up, even if everyone knows they’re just temporary. Cheating death has always been and always will be interesting to us mortals, no matter how predictable it’s become.

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