How to Kill a Superhero
We’ve all been there right? You’re happily reading your favorite comic when all of a sudden, BOOM, the hero gets killed by some happenstance or villain plot. It doesn’t hurt for long though. At most you wait for 2 years for the next big event where they’ll be resurrected. It’s happened time and time again in comics, to the point it has formed its own tropes, some good and some bad. I am a firm believer that most any idea can be weaved into gold, including the Death of a Hero.
There are several prime examples of how to kill a super hero. Supergirl’s death in Crises on Infinite Earths is a great way to give a heroic “end” to a hero, same with Barry Allan’s Flash in the same story line. They are allowed to have their moment of heroism before being snuffed out. In an event book like that, you have to have them go down swinging. It raises the stakes while keeping the reader emotionally invested. You can’t cheapen a long time characters final moments. It has to breathe as a whole scene, climaxing into the heroes fall, not a moment and then “everything’s changed”.
Death of Superman is another good example, giving major time to the building of tensions until Superman’s final moments. Doomsday (a brand new villain, created by the writers to have someone to kill Superman) has several fights with the Justice League, kicking their collective butts until it’s just Superman and Doomsday left standing. When the comic gets to this point, it switches to only two page spreads, each punch being an epic mural of the earth shattering battle. It’s a classic storyline not because of Superman’s death, but because the emotional impact of his death leaves the reader.
Death of Superman made national real life headlines. CNN ran a piece on it, The New York Times had several stories in the fall of ’92, the time of original release for “Death of Superman”. With all this attention I think it was the right move that a new villain was the one to take the man of steel out. In the aftermath of his death, we see Superman’s friends and foes process the loss. There is no satisfaction of victory for the villains, and no revenge seeking for the allies (Doomsday and Superman kill each other simultaneously). We get to see everyone connected to Superman grieve in their own way.
But the best “death of” story line was Death of Spider-man in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. It has an entire five issues to build the stakes, but more importantly let Peter’s supporting cast have moments with him. Even if you have never read the series, you get the feeling of everyone’s relationship to Peter. Iceman and Human Torch being his comrades-in-arms, Gwen and May being his adopted sister and mother and Mary Jane as his significant other. The weight of Peter’s death at the end of the story is felt by the audience because we connected to him through the other characters. This makes the whole story about Peter, not just one scene in a larger story, allowing for a more epic feel. We even have Peter get injured in a fight with the Ultimates (the Ultimate Universes Avengers) but the story never concentrates on the Ultimates. It doesn’t need to. All we need to know is he swings in trying to help, and then gets shot protecting Captain America (who gave Peter a hero speech towards the beginning of the story, another moment that adds to the overall story).
To dig a little deeper into this moment, this is where it could’ve fallen apart. There have been events where this is where Peter would’ve died. A sudden semi-heroic, but also semi-stupid, death. A footnote in the plot of the story. A frustrating way for a long time popular character to go out. If Peter’s death had been part of this Ultimate’s event, it should have been handled like the Flash and Supergirl deaths in Crises on Infinite Earths. Those were used to raise the stakes, yes, but still in a heroic way. They gave it their all, two of DC’s most powerful heroes, and it still wasn’t enough. A dive in front of a bullet to save someone else is a more “realistic” way to die, but not an emotionally satisfying story for a 10 year old character* with a massive fan base.
What IS emotionally satisfying is having an injured Spider-Man racing to stop not one, but SIX of his enemies rampaging across the city towards his house in Queens. The final battle is a slugfest with his greatest enemies, desperately trying to keep Aunt May and Gwen Stacy safe. The last villain left standing is Green Goblin. An injured Peter, barley able to stand, finally defeats Green Goblin and collapses. May takes her dying nephew in her arms, weeping “Oh god! Not him too! Please! Not him too!” and his last words to her are “Don’t you see…It’s ok. I did it. I couldn’t save him. Uncle Ben. I couldn’t save him…No matter what I did. But I saved you. I did it. I did…”
The reason this is such a great story is because it shows the heroes connection to the world that has been built around them. We see the villains’ hatred of Spider-man, the other heroes thoughts on him, and what Peter means to his family and friends. But most importantly we get a wrap up on the theme of Peter and Spider-Man. Peter tries to be utterly selfless, even to the major detriment of his personal life. He must save everyone he can because he couldn’t save his Uncle Ben, and his last act is rectifying that by saving his Aunt May, dying finally at peace with his conscious. That my friend is how you kill a beloved superhero. Tie up the relationships and themes into a nice big, heart wrenching bow that tops the package of the characters history.
*I say 10 years old with Spiderman because this version had constantly been published for 10 years. Don’t @ me.