Culture At Large

O Superhero Death, Where is Your Sting?

Joe George

Editor’s note: This post includes spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.

Audible gasps filled the theater. Everyone at my opening-night showing of Avengers: Infinity War recoiled in shock as the villain, Thanos, killed yet another beloved superhero.  

Well, almost everyone gasped. Thanos’ death tally did not impress longtime comic-book readers. Not because we didn’t enjoy the movie; we love superheroes and Infinity War is a Costco-sized bargain of a superhero movie. We’ve just seen it all before. Green Goblin killed Spider-man in 2011. The Avengers died fighting a telekinetic giant in 1996. Thor fried his brother Loki in 1991. And so it goes.

Just about every superhero you know has died, from Superman and Wonder Woman to Wolverine and the Fantastic Four. And they’ve all returned to life—sometimes after several years, sometimes after a month. These deaths can be a cheap way to create drama or boost sales, but good writers use them to rethink a comic’s central themes. Death doesn’t end the story, but forces a hard change in a character’s ongoing narrative.  

Take writer Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, which featured the 2007 death of main character Steve Rogers. Time-travel shenanigans brought Rogers back a few years later, but in the meantime former sidekick James “Bucky” Barnes took the title role. A famous dead character, who disappeared from the comics after World War II and whose death was considered permanent, Bucky was reintroduced by Brubaker in 2005 as a brainwashed assassin called the Winter Soldier. When he later donned Rogers’ star-spangled super-suit, Bucky did so with guilt and reluctance, forced to confront his terrible past.

Packing a gun and wearing a costume with more black than red, white, or blue, Bucky’s Cap was pragmatic and more violent than his predecessor. He shot enemies instead of wrestling them into submission, he impulsively disobeyed orders, and he eschewed patriotic speeches. Brubaker used this Captain America to explore the guilt of the nation the character represented, to wonder if there’s redemption for a country that has done horrible things. Where Steve Rogers stories were about a fundamentally decent idealist forcing his country to live up to its myth, Bucky stories were about a man and a country who failed Rogers and all he believed in.

Although Rogers retook the identity in 2011, neither his death nor Bucky’s tenure were meaningless. Brubaker’s revision of Captain America gave the then 66-year-old character new purpose and context by reshaping his story.

Superhero deaths can be a cheap way to boost sales, but good writers use them to rethink a comic’s central themes.

In a way, Christians approach death much like comic-book writers. While none of us welcome it, we know that death isn’t the end of our story. Nor does it determine our actions in the here and now. We live our lives according to another death, that of our old, sinful nature.

Paul underscores this point in his first letter to the Corinthians by revising Hosea 13:14. Talking about the importance of resurrection for living Christians, Paul refers to Hosea’s prophecy of redemption for Israel, who had turned from God and fallen into captivity. Against those who believe that death renders life meaningless, Paul contends that Christ’s resurrection puts earthly actions into eternal perspective. Salvation has clothed “the perishable […] with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” Echoing Hosea, Paul concludes, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Crucially, Paul frames his interpretation within his own story. Identifying himself as “the least of the apostles” because he “persecuted the church of God,” Paul focuses on the way salvation changed his identity: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” In between the death of his old self, the zealot Saul, and the resurrection promised in Christ, Paul lived according to a revised story.

Like Bucky, Paul approached his past from a new identity. As the death of Saul made room for Paul, Paul acted out of faith in the resurrection. He lived a resurrected life—a reflection of which I fully expect we’ll see in next year’s sequel to Infinity War.

Topics: Culture At Large