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If Spider-Man Dies, We Grieve, Even if We Know He’s Coming Back

When real or fictional heroes die, even if we know they will return, we have freedom to mourn them.
E. Stephen Burnett | Jan 17, 2019 | 2 comments |

Double spoiler alert: Spider-Man dies twice in movies released last year.

He dies once at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, then again, early in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

On a personal note, I rank Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) death scene in Infinity War as the saddest superhero moment of 2018. As you probably know, unlike other heroes who perish at the (literal) hand of Thanos, Peter senses his impending death seconds before it happens.

“I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark,” he says. “I don’t want to go!”

Then Spider-Man dies, drifting away into dust on a distant ruined planet.

Fans recall the scene in parody and in sincere tribute. Fan art flourishes with cartoons, realistic art, sad art, silly art. In the last case, it’s pretty clear some fans are in total-denial, “I’m not crying YOU’RE CRYING” mode.

At this moment, I found myself shocked, then embraced the heartache. I like plenty of superheroes, but even then, Spider-Man is special to me. For these reasons.

Yet other fans, or fan-critics, seemed to finish their grief pretty quickly. They got home from Infinity War, started up their geekbait YouTube channels, and commenced to gripe. (Or feign to gripe.)

“Hey,” they said (paraphrasing). “Spider-Man is not really dead. Marvel has already announced the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)! It’s obvious he’ll somehow come back to life.”

What! Peter Parker lives again? (Image from the first teaser trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home.)

Other fan-critics, including some disgruntled DC fans,1 repeated their old criticism that Marvel movies just aren’t serious enough. “Nobody ever really dies in a Marvel movie,” they scoffed. “Spider-Man will ‘resurrect,’ right as rain. Like Nick Fury (twice). Or like Agent Phil Coulson. Oh—or like Loki (twice and possibly more).”

Well, of course Spider-Man will be back. I doubt anyone watching this moment actually thought otherwise.

But does that mean we’re silly to grieve?

If you’ve seen Avengers: Infinity War (and you are not some anti-superhero activist), and you see this screencap and do not whimper, check yourself in case of missing soul.

First, step back. No one actually dies in any movie. It’s all acting and special effects. That’s because, as a society, we’ve all come together and agreed—similar to paper money—that these enhanced moments captured on digital “film” have emotional worth. So it seems rather silly to holler the rather obvious point that none of this is real and it’s all make-believe. We all know that.

Second, whoever made the “rule” that it’s silly to be sad about story events, unless a character actually suffered permanent death? That’s an odd rule, and not just for movies based on heroes originally created for comic books. If we participate in the shared and deeply human story-game of pretend, then we’re already agreeing to a “simulation” in which we “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”2 Assuming the writers, director, actors, soundtrack composer, effects artists, et. al., have done a great job, we can do this if one hero thinks her beloved has died. We can weep if someone in dire financial straits suddenly gets a bill he can’t possibly expect to pay. That’s like real life. Plenty of suffering makes us grieve, not just a loved one’s permanent death.

Third, Biblical Christians have a special perspective on this. Even when a loved one dies, if we’re reasonably sure that person professed faith in Christ, we know she or he will return. That doesn’t mean we lock up emotionally, failing to grieve, or pretending to scoff at those who do. In fact, Scripture encourages us to grieve openly for that departed person, with just one catch:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.3

Of course, it’s easier for me to say that here, without actual death and suffering before me now. But this is part of our Christian “practice” for moments of suffering. We formulate and practice our weird and different, eternity-facing grief theology in moments when we’re not actually doing suffering. That way, in the best-case scenario, we’ve internalized the “God works all things together for good” truth4 rather than having to hear that verse or phrase sprung on you by a well-meaning saint by the emergency room doors.

I wonder, then, if grieving the deaths of fictional characters might be a small part of this “practicing.” This may not be true of everyone, especially Christians with more nonfiction– or systematic-oriented heads. However, I can say that rejoicing and grieving with fictional characters has helped “train” me for parallel moments in reality.

In fiction—or in superhero stories, anyway—our departed heroes sometimes come back. But the same is true in reality. And still we as Christians grieve. I say that if the fictional hero has affected us, we should feel free to grieve openly and unashamedly. Of course, not every fantasy story fan has this kind of personality. We react to stories in different ways, and some have tighter tear ducts that others. Regardless,  let’s at least not be too “cool” to shed a tear. Even if we already know the date of the resurrected hero’s next solo film release.

  1. Of course, every single disgruntled DC fan is completely justified in voicing dislike of the Marvel heroes or movies. After all, the Marvel fans always started the super-fight first. Right? #EndThisComicWar.
  2. Romans 12:15.
  3. 1 Thessalonians 4:15. The apostle Paul later describes the climactic event when Christ returns visibly to Earth, and all his people are resurrected to eternal life in glorified, physical bodies.
  4. Romans 8:28.
E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Cap Stewart
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An excellent perspective, Stephen! I am also reminded of when Jesus wept over Lazarus, even with the full knowledge that He would raise him from the dead in a matter of minutes. Suffering and death can and should cause grief, even though we know these things will one day be eradicated.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Ironically, in Infinity War, it wasn’t really a tear jerker for me. I guess maybe because I didn’t interpret everyone fading away into dust as a death, exactly. And I watch things that are infinitely more tragic (Fate Zero. Fate Zero will tear your heart out and rip it to shreds if you let it)

But, I agree on the idea of grieving even when we know the characters will live. There’s so many reasons to be sad about something even aside from permanent death. I’m not one to cry in movies, but in a well made show, it’s often easy to get caught up in the characters’ lives and grieve with them(even if only inwardly, in my case), because we get to know them. We see bits of ourselves or our family in them, so it hurts to watch them suffer or lose things that are important to them.

Killing off and resurrecting characters multiple times DOES run the risk of lessening the tragedy, though. If a writer wants to do this and have it be serious and heartbreaking nearly every time, there should be a lot of consequence to it. Steins Gate does a decent job of this. Every time Mayuri dies and Okabe time travels to try and rescue her, it really is heartbreaking because each death is basically another emotional weight piled onto Okabe’s shoulders. It gives the audience a sense of desperation, and a window to understanding how much Okabe is hurting at that point.