How does one go about killing an iconic character? It used to be such a difficult, almost profane question to ask. But over the past decade or so, Marvel and DC have made that question about as difficult as asking who they should cut from their fantasy football team. The death of iconic characters used to be a rare event that needed to be handled with the utmost care. The Death of Superman in the early ’90s established the blueprint for such an event and its success, for better or for worse, established the precedent that so many would follow.
But since the Death of Superman, a lot has changed. Bill Clinton’s affairs with interns is no longer news. Brett Favre finally retired from the NFL. Mel Gibson no longer has the clean image he once enjoyed. And in that time, Marvel and DC have killed, resurrected, and replaced so many characters that it’s really not much of an event anymore. People look at the death of a major character the same way they look at jury duty. They just roll their eyes, suck it up, and wait for it to play out. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a compelling story. Death of Wolverine #4 attempts to trigger those same emotions that events like Death of Superman once triggered among fans. It succeeds only in part, but it still manages to feel fitting.
There’s nothing terribly epic about the setting. Wolverine doesn’t go up against all his greatest enemies again and he doesn’t face some overwhelming new enemy. Instead, he goes up against Dr. Abraham Cornelius. On paper, this doesn’t sound like the kind of enemy that should be the one who successfully kills Wolverine. But from a conceptual standpoint, he is perfect for that role.
In many ways, Abraham Cornelius is the man most responsible for turning James Howlett into Wolverine. He is Dr. Frankenstein and Wolverine is his monster, minus the neck bolts. He’s the man who is behind the greatest turning point in Wolverine’s exceedingly long, horrendously complicated life. So him being the final enemy Wolverine faces works on so many levels. It’s not quite full-circle. Wolverine’s life can never be a perfect shape, but the concept still fits.
Where the concept breaks down is the actual details of the struggle. There’s nothing terribly epic about it. If it were a big battle scene, it would barely qualify as a dramatization in a World War II documentary on the History Channel. Dr. Cornelius doesn’t really throw much at Wolverine. The biggest threat Wolverine faces is some generic, Weapon X knock-off that’s more forgettable than the last three Adam Sandler movies. It’s a threat that’s not really intended to take him down. And this is where the greatest weakness of the story is exposed.
When broken down into its basic elements, there’s one uncomfortable detail. Wolverine didn’t really have to die. The conflict he faces here is basically a dime a dozen for him. He finds an old relic of his past, seeks to destroy it, and succeeds. His lack of a healing factor isn’t really relevant here. What he does to stop Dr. Cornelius wasn’t the only way. It wasn’t like he needed to sacrifice himself like Jean Grey, Superman, or Charles Xavier had to in their big deaths. What he did felt forced. He wasn’t terminally ill. He wasn’t critically wounded. He just opted for the one tactic that would kill him. It’s like having a self-destruct button on a car and using it on a simple flat tire.
Even if what Wolverine did felt forced, the purpose behind his actions do carry some weight. This goes back to Dr. Cornelius being the driving force behind this conflict and everything that made Wolverine who he is. Wolverine did what he had to do to prevent Dr. Cornelius from making more living weapons like him. As inefficient as it was, he still succeeds in keeping the test subjects involved from suffering like he did. It’s noble, it’s heroic, and it’s honorable. And he did it without hitting on married women or smoking a cigar. It is as fine a moment as Wolverine can have.
In the end Wolverine saves the lives of would-be victims when he had a chance to save his own. That has been one of the most common themes for Wolverine in his long, convoluted history. He seeks to stop those who would try to create monsters like him. And he had to succeed here because Dr. Cornelius said outright that he would never stop trying to recreate Wolverine. He believes that this is his only way of changing the world for the better. It’s exactly as crazy and senile as it sounds. It still works, but it also feels forced.
As fitting as Wolverine’s final battle might have been, it still comes off as emotionally flat. And it’s not just because his death felt forced or unnecessary. There’s a moment where Dr. Cornelius, with his dying breath, asks Wolverine what he accomplished. It sounds like a loaded question since Wolverine is older than a number of countries in the world, but it’s meant to make him recall how far he’s come from test subject to X-man. There are a lot of moments in that legacy and not nearly enough of them got touched on. There is an effort, but it feels incomplete. It’s like only the first 10 pages in a 500 page photo album.
While the details might be lacking, there are enough of them to get the point across. If the goal of this issue was to have Wolverine die with a sense that he accomplished enough to die honorably, it succeeded. But if the goal was to do so in a way that felt epic and worthy of his character, then it came up short. Death of Wolverine #4 doesn’t have enough details to feel like the truly definitive end for Wolverine. It’s impossible to make a life like Wolverine feel truly complete. His character and his history is so big and so profound that it just cannot be done. But in an era where characters like Bucky Barnes can come back to life, maybe that’s the point. It doesn’t have to be big or detailed. Like a good Apple product, it just has to work.