Whedon has continued to kill off his characters away from the 'Buffy' universe
As effective as Whedon and his team have been at handling the deaths of major characters, it hasn’t always worked quite as well with more minor characters. The death of Cordelia on Angel came after her character arc took some truly bizarre turns. First she spent some time as a “higher being” before supposedly becoming dissatisfied and returning to Earth, whereupon she seduced Angel’s son Connor and became pregnant. It was later revealed the Cordelia had been possessed by a powerful god the entire time she was back. After giving birth to this god, she slipped into a coma from which she never awakened, eventually passing away. Although she was given a poignant sendoff halfway through Angel’s final season, the whole “possessed by a god” story arc did irreparable damage to her character. This, combined with the long-term coma, dulled the impact of her eventual death.
On the other end of the spectrum was Anya on Buffy. She was cut down in the middle of a battle in the series finale, dying quickly and without much fanfare. It was a terrible way for the character to go out, but it was clear that Whedon needed to kill somebody during the massive battle against the forces of Hell. Anya was a formerly great character who was marginalized after Season Six’s disastrous aborted wedding episode, “Hell’s Bells.” Without much of an arc after that point, her death made sense because there just wasn’t much left for the character to do. This was also the case with poor Giles in the penultimate issue of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight comic book. Giles was always a welcome presence on the show, but after Buffy graduated from high school he was never as effective as the mentor character, eventually leaving the show to let Buffy fend for herself. Giles appeared sporadically during Season Eight, mostly as a mentor to Buffy’s fellow slayer Faith. But he was heavily involved in the comic book’s final story arc, where he was eventually killed by Angel for reasons too complex to get into here. This was a death that may have had a major impact for Buffy herself, but with little left for Giles to do as a character, his death in the comic book felt perfunctory. And that’s a damn shame considering his importance in Buffy’s life and to the property as a whole.
Whedon has continued to kill off his characters away from the Buffy universe as well. While Firefly managed to keep its entire cast intact over its brief 14-episode run, the same can’t be said for the movie follow-up Serenity. Shepherd Book, the mysterious preacher with a secret past, has left the ship, and the remaining crew arrives at his new home to find it ravaged and Book mortally wounded. As far as Whedon deaths go, this one ends up somewhere in the middle. Book was a great character, but a good portion of his allure was his mysterious past. The fact that he dies without the audience ever gaining real insight into his backstory is as painful as the death itself. But that’s a function of the television series failing in the ratings before Firefly could reach its full potential. The storytelling of the movie is compressed, and Book’s background necessarily gets short shrift in deference to the main plot.
The death of Wash, on the other hand, is classic Whedon. Joss seemingly loves to set up his characters with moments of great happiness before killing them off. It happened to Doyle, it happened to Fred, and it happens to Wash, too. Wash is the pilot of the Serenity, and he makes a nearly impossible crash-landing on a planet’s surface. Wash and the rest of the crew are briefly jubilant. And then Wash is instantly killed by a harpoon from one of the crazy bad guys, the Reavers. His death is sudden and completely unexpected, and it produced audible gasps and loud “No!” reactions from the audience when I saw the movie in the theater. It’s the very definition of a shocking death, and it very effectively sets up the movie’s climax, where you aren’t sure that any of the cast will make it out alive.
The death of Penny in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog comes under similar circumstances. In the climactic battle between the wannabe villain Dr. Horrible and his nemesis, the heroic but arrogant Captain Hammer, Dr. Horrible finally achieves victory. Unfortunately, his moment of celebration is cut short when he realizes that his love interest has been caught in the crossfire and mortally wounded by shrapnel. Penny is such a sweet, easygoing character that her death comes as almost as much of a shock to the audience as it does to Dr. Horrible. Even though longtime fans should’ve seen it coming by this point in Whedon’s career, Penny’s death still hurts. It also hardens Dr. Horrible’s heart, seemingly putting him on the path to true villainy since the only other thing he had to live for is now gone.
This brings us, sadly, to Dollhouse. Whedon’s second attempt at a show for Fox lasted almost twice as long as his first, but it still netted just two 13-episode seasons. And the concept of Dollhouse was much, much harder to set up than any of his other shows. It’s sort of amazing that the show ended up being as solid as it was, because a show about a secretive corporation renting out mind-wiped “dolls” to rich clients is creepy and difficult to sell. The cast eventually ended up rebelling and trying to take down the corporation, but it required a large chunk of the first season just to set up the ins and outs of said corporation. The amount of legwork Dollhouse needed to do to really get going was much longer than the attention span of general TV audiences. Still, Fox graciously bestowed a second season on the show, where it improved greatly.
But all that legwork made the various character deaths in that second season sadly predictable. The show introduced Bennett Halverson, a fascinating love interest for resident tech-geek Topher, and their relationship haltingly began to develop over the course of just a couple episodes. And then Bennett was shot in the head and died. It was supposed to be a huge shock, but at this point, audiences were onto Whedon’s tricks, so the reaction was more “of course she died” than the intended “Oh my God, they killed Bennett!” As the plot twists piled up to give the show its appropriately apocalyptic conclusion, Topher made a completely predictable noble sacrifice to save humanity, and the surprise villain Boyd Langton ended up as dead as expected of a Joss Big Bad. It’s possible that Whedon’s bag of death tricks was finally empty by the end of Dollhouse, but it’s just as likely that the show’s general awkwardness made it much harder to surprise viewers.
Despite some stumbles along the way, Whedon and his associates remain masters of the character death. The effort they put into character development makes it that much more effective when they pull the rug out from under us. It’s tough to kill this many characters and still make us care about it nearly every time. Next up for Whedon is his horror film Cabin in the Woods and Marvel’s Avengers movie. One expects that the former will have plenty of death, but how much character development Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard will be able to work into a horror movie is a legitimate question. Avengers, on the other hand, is the biggest project Whedon has ever worked on. As the steward of characters from several other movie franchises, it will be tough for him to use his familiar techniques. We already know that Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson has a ridiculous nine-picture deal with Marvel) will make it through the movie alive. So the question becomes how much leniency will Marvel allow Whedon with the second-tier team members? If that answer is “a lot”, then fans of Hawkeye and Black Widow might want to brace themselves come the summer of 2012.