Oliver Queen went over a cliff, but he’s still alive and kicking as the Green Arrow on The CW. Agent Coulson was stabbed through the heart, and yet leads the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over on ABC. Even Sara Lance took three arrows to the chest only to be resurrected as the White Canary for Legends of Tomorrow. Sensing a theme?
In an era where death on TV is hardly permanent anymore, killing off a character on a super series is even less so, which begs the question: Does death even matter on a superhero show? That question becomes more pertinent in the wake of what’s happening on the silver screen — spoiler alert: read all about that big Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice moment here.
As Arrow nears the end of its fourth season — which kicked off with the promise that someone would end up in a grave — EW caught up with Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow executive producer Marc Guggenheim to get his take on what superhero deaths even mean these days:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Nobody has really killed off any major heroes on TV. Can you even do that?
MARC GUGGENHEIM: Well, I mean, we killed off Hawkman (Falk Hentschel) in episode 2 of Legends. I do feel like we’ve done it. One could argue that you hadn’t spent enough time with Carter before we killed him, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that he is a major hero. That said, you’re right, we haven’t killed off — on any of the shows — a superhero yet. We’ve killed off plenty of other people.
Are you even allowed to do that? If you went to DC and said you want to kill off Arsenal (Colton Haynes) or an established character from the comics, are you even allowed to? Or is there a conversation that needs to be had where you show why it has to happen?
No, I don’t think so. We killed off Sara Lance in episode 1 of season 3, so that, for us, was the first time we killed off a superhero. Again, one can always distinguish by saying, “She wasn’t a series regular, so that doesn’t count.” I will say that there were some very brief discussions when we were writing Colton Haynes off the show of do we kill Arsenal? That actually led to the fake-out that we ultimately did in episode 319 where you thought we killed off Roy, but we revealed that we really didn’t by the end of the episode.
There’s no like we have to go to DC and get permission. DC is our partner in all this and we casually keep them updated on all the storylines. They are aware of all of our plans. It’s not like they watch the episodes, or even read the scripts and that’s the first time they’re hearing about something. We’re touching base with DC throughout the year on a very regular basis just saying, “Hey, we’re doing this or we’re doing that.” Sometimes it includes a character death and other times it’s a plot twist or plot development. They’re just in our process and aware of it. I can say that never, at any point, has DC said, “Don’t do that.” They never said, “Don’t kill off this character or don’t do this plot twist.” Whatever moments you want to reference either on Flash, Legends or Arrow, DC has never said, “No, you can’t do that.” Let’s say we decided to kill off Arsenal last year, I don’t think it would’ve been an issue.
Ultimately with Roy’s fake death, was that more of a case of you wanting to leave open the possibility of Colton returning?
Oh yeah, 100 percent. We love Colton and he was amenable to returning, and obviously we just had him back on the show. It was 1,000 percent we don’t want to take this character off the table for us.
Is there an argument to be made that comic heroes should be immortal? That they’re not regular characters in the classic sense, that since they go on and on in the comics that that’s just they way they should be — changing actors, different stories, but they’re just never-ending?
No. Here’s the thing, I’m going to give you a more inside baseball or deeper answer than you’re looking for, but I’m a longtime comic book fan. Any longtime comic book fan knows that death in comic books nowadays is pretty meaningless. Everyone knows that when a character dies, it’s a good story, particularly if it’s well done, but that character is coming back. Eventually, by hook or by crook, that character is coming back.
Right now, in the Marvel universe, Wolverine is dead. I can guarantee you — and I’m not talking out of school — that by the time the next Wolverine movie comes out, Wolverine will be back and alive. That’s just a given. I’m not spoiling anything and I’m not revealing any secrets, that’s just the reality. So, that’s comic books.
Now make the switch over to comic book shows and I feel like, right now in comic book shows, death operates in a different place, in large part because you’re dealing with actors who get let out of their contracts when their characters are killed off. You know it’s not such an easy thing for them to return. I think death has much more currency in these TV shows than it does in comics. That said, one of the things we own now in Legends, Arrow, and Flash is that death has a different meaning now that we’re in a world of parallel universes on Flash and time travel on Legends.
All that being said, I don’t believe that superheroes shouldn’t die. They are living myths, but I like the fact that they’re mortal myths. 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. I’m a big believer in it when the death actually matters. It’s harder in actual comic books where you can always bring characters back. That said, killing off a character in comics, that can make for a great story. The death of Wolverine that Marvel just did a few months back was a really, really entertaining, well told story that was a great send-off of Wolverine for the time. Even the inevitable resurrection doesn’t, in my mind, take away from the reading experience of enjoying a good story.
How do you keep the suspense going or subvert expectations about your main characters if they’re always in jeopardy and audiences know they’re ultimately going to be OK?
I guess that’s the thing, I don’t accept the premise that they ultimately are going to be OK, because I don’t accept the premise that superheroes can’t die. Hopefully the audience knows that everyone is up for grabs. The only one who’s probably not up for grabs on Arrow is Oliver Queen, but everyone else is fair game.
Even when we’re expecting a death not to be permanent, what’s the most important deciding factor in killing a character?
For us, it’s always been what is the impact that that death has on all the other characters who don’t die? Can you get more story or great drama out of killing off one character for all the other surviving characters? We internally refer to that as the story math. That’s something that we always consider. It’s not about — just to sort of channel my inner internet troll — it’s not about killing off a character to prop up the other characters. It’s what narrative possibilities, what story possibilities does the death open up?
What I find fascinating is you guys showcased the grave at the beginning of the season. You are using death as a driving force this season, because we don’t know who is in the grave — and really you guys didn’t know who was in it in the beginning. Did you have a big pool of people and then narrowed it down as you went? And why did you decide to go that route? Because that potential death would keep people coming back?
No. I don’t think we expected the reaction to the grave to be as profound or as scintillating as it turned out to be. For us, it was like we’re going into season 4, we’ve pretty much killed off a character every season — actually, not pretty much, we have killed off a character every season — are we truly revealing or spoiling anything to say, “Yes, someone is going to die this year”? Anyone who has watched the previous three seasons of Arrow knows that someone is likely to die in season 4. The big surprise would be, in season 5, if we didn’t kill anybody.
Do you feel like the possibility of being killed off keeps actors in line? Or does that just not work anymore given that people don’t feel death is permanent?
No, it’s not that actually. Because, again, death is permanent from a contractual basis. If you kill off a character, that actor is not working on the show on a regular basis. That said, I can tell you it actually doesn’t change the cast’s behavior.
What do you think about the trend of “faking” character deaths on tv — like Jon Snow on Game of Thrones or Glenn on The Walking Dead? Are TV shows taking a more superhero comic book approach to non-comic book shows?
First of all, you’ve cited two shows, one of which is based on a comic book, the other that’s very heavily genre…
But there are many other non-genre shows, those were just at the top of my head.
I know! I would say, in all honesty, in many ways, there’s always been an element of soap opera that runs through all comic books. In many ways, I think comic books have been borrowing from the narrative conventions of TV shows, more than TV shows borrowing from the narrative conventions of comic books. Maybe I’m saying that just to be contrarian, I don’t know, but I feel like death and, even fake deaths, have really been sort of a tried and true plot device in television for a very long time. In many respects, I think comic books have almost taken their cue from soap operas and television dramas.
Again, as death starts to lose its currency, writers are always looking, “Well, what’s the next surprise? Oh, faking someone’s death.” That’s why we did it on Arrow last year. Walking Dead did it this year. Game of Thrones is going to do it next year. Our job on Arrow, I always feel, is how do we be at the forefront of something and not following other people? How do we do stuff that no one else has done before? Like I said, we killed Canary on Arrow before we killed Hawkman on Legends. How are we always at the tip of the spear?
Arrow airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.