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Superhero shows are overdue to pull the trigger

February 22, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST

“Hey did you see last week’s shocking episode where that superhero was killed off?” — said no one ever.

And why is that?

Because a major comic-book-based TV hero going to the great secret hideout in the sky has never happened. Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., that other ABC one … we are three years into an unprecedented surge of superhero shows, yet soapy procedurals like CBS’ The Good Wife and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy have higher “hero” body counts than all the Marvel and DC titles combined. 

Now you probably don’t spend much time pondering the fact that superheroes have statistically safer jobs than deep-sea fisherman, but we do. Because caped characters face more weekly lethal threats than any other characters on TV (yes, even Olivia Pope), and we can’t keep believing our heroes are in such dire jeopardy over and over again if there’s never any major consequences. And the trend in Hollywood storytelling has been to prove that stories have “real stakes.” Shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have trail-blazed a creative mantra — “no one is safe!” — which top producers all tend to agree with, at least, in theory.   

“No one is safe,” S.H.I.E.L.D. showrunner Jed Whedon tells us. See? 

So our first question is: Why haven’t comic-book hero shows pulled the trigger by getting rid of a heroic series regular? Avengers director (and Jed’s brother) Joss Whedon once noted (in an interview that if you’re a Whedon fan you really ought to read) he’d need a very compelling reason to convince Marvel to let him blow up a main character (huh, even Hawkeye?), because each is a “potential franchise.” Even Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) couldn’t stay dead, and is now headlining S.H.I.E.L.D. So are Marvel and D.C. overly protective and limiting the stories their writers can tell? 

The answer is: Very likely, though it’s tough to get anybody to come right out and say this. We asked several top showrunners and the answers ranged from “we can do whatever we want” to “we probably can’t do whatever we want” — often from the same person.  

Like Daredevil showrunner Doug Petrie: “Absolutely, you can kill anybody,” he said. 

But then we really put the screws to him with our toughest journalistic hardball follow-up question: “C’mon, really?”

Petrie admitted: “We’ve had those conversations and [Marvel’s] reaction has ranged from, ‘You guys are great storytellers, go with God,’ to ‘Get the hell out of my office.’ ”

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Echoes S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Maurissa Tancharoen: “[Marvel] cares about their intellectual property, so if we were to do it, we’d probably have to do it in a way that left it open for other people to step into a role.” And then naturally she adds: “But no one is safe.” Uh-huh, yeah, we’ve heard that. 

In the comics, even the major icons get killed off, but are almost always resurrected, sometimes years later — The Flash, Wolverine, Arrow, and Superman have all had glorious deaths on the page. Whereas on TV, comic-based series have been reluctant to even shed second-tier performers – Arrow’s Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) took three arrows to the chest, yet is now starring in Legends of Tomorrow. Arrow‘s Arsenal (Colton Haynes) seemingly sacrificed himself for Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), then we learned he faked his demise (and recently returned). 

“There were brief discussions of: Do we kill Arsenal?” says Arrow boss Marc Guggenheim, whose fourth season opened with a flash-forward scene showing a tombstone for one yet-to-be-revealed character. “[But it’s not like] we have to go to DC and get permission.” 

Shows have killed off a few major villains, such as Kilgrave (David Tennant) in Jessica Jones. But even with the bad guys there’s some reluctance to make any permanent moves. The first season of Daredevil stuffed Kingpin into a cell for future unpacking, while Gotham’s Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) — not even a comic-based character — landed in a watery grave and is now coming back

Now here’s the second big question: Do we actually want this trend to change? Do we really want Gotham City or Central City or National City — you’d think comics would have more creative names for their made-up cities — or any of these places to have the same perils as Westeros? Should we instead embrace the idea that superhero tales, which are often loved by younger viewers, are safe spaces from the grim reaper? Perhaps these shows can be exempt from the rules that govern more grounded tales. They are fantasies about transcending mortal boundaries; shouldn’t they paint an idealized reality where the worst of our fears never actually materialize when it comes to those we love? …

Nah, they should just quit being so wimpy and pull the trigger. 

“I don’t believe that superheroes shouldn’t die,” says Guggenheim. “I think it gives stakes to the stories and I think it humanizes them in a necessary way to make you care about these characters. They are living myths, but I like the fact that they’re mortal myths.” 

So what you’re saying is … no one is safe?

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