Why Superhero Deaths Have Become Meaningless

Batman's iconic sidekick just met an untimely end — and fans wonder when he'll be brought back to life. Why can't dead superheroes stay dead?

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Chris Burnham / DC Comics

If ever a situation called for a “Holy [Subject]” exclamation, it’s this one: Robin, Batman’s under-age crime-fighting sidekick, is dead. News of his four-color demise (in the eighth issue of D.C. Comics’ Batman, Incorporated — on sale now) was leaked to the New York Post. But you could be forgiven for feeling just a little bored by his “passing.”

It is, after all, just the latest in an increasingly long line of headline-making superhero deaths over the last few years: Robin will join a graveyard of heroes that includes the Human Torch, two different Captain Americas, Thor, a couple of Spider-Men, Green Lantern, and even Batman himself. To make matters worse, almost all of those characters then managed to find their way back to the land of the living within a year of shuffling off this super-mortal coil.

The problem isn’t so much the impermanence of what should be ultimate fates; given the surreal and supernatural powers on show in superhero comics, the possibility of life after death is hardly the most outrageous concept to offer up to readers. In fact, superhero aficionados have been dealing with that kind of thing since the Legion of Super-Heroes‘ Lightning Lad returned to life just months after sacrificing himself to save the universe back in 1963.

Far more troublesome is the the banality – and depressing regularity – of these resurrections; whereas Lightning Lad’s “rebirth” required another character to die in his place, more recent returns from Beyond have been explained away by such plot twists as “He wasn’t dead, he was asleep” (Superboy), “He wasn’t dead, he was just traveling through time” (Batman and one of the Captain Americas, surprisingly), or the almost-impressively insipid “Fooled ya! He wasn’t really dead!” (one of the Captain Americas and the Human Torch).

Things weren’t always that way, of course; when Lightning Lad made the ultimate sacrifice fifty years ago, it was a big deal. It was the first time a lead character in a superhero strip had died — and introduced both a sense of mortality and a lack of certainty to the previously secure superhero narrative. Death, in those more innocent times, still meant something, even if that “something” was merely cheap melodrama. From that point until the 1980s — as the Doom Patrol chose to live up to their name to save a fishing village in Maine, Captain Marvel died of cancer and Jean Grey committed suicide on the moon, each an event that reverberated for months and years afterwards  – death remained something that had a certain dramatic weight to it, and a certain emotional impact.

(MORE: Is Hollywood Going to Kill Batman Next Week?)

So, what changed? How did we end up in a time where publishing executives cynically joke about killing a major character every quarter as a way of boosting sales, and writers find themselves switching from talking about death giving stories “gravitas and weight and meaning” to telling the same interview interviewer six months later that “death in superhero comics is meaningless” when promoting the climax of that same story that undoes earlier demises?

Part of it can be chalked up simply to familiarity breeding contempt; almost all of the major superhero characters have, by this point in their decades-long histories, been killed and returned, energized by the experience (Blame both creative desperation and the excited reaction of the world to Superman’s much-publicized death twenty years ago). Even deeper than that, however, is the inherently conservative nature of the superhero genre; something that Stan Lee, co-creator of many of Marvel Comics’ famous characters, once summed up as stories that don’t offer change, but the illusion of change, in order to leave the characters’ central appeal consistent with everything that’s come before. Costumes get updated and superteams announce that “The Old Order Changeth!” but by this point, any superhero fan who’s been reading for an appreciable amount of time has been trained to expect a return to the status quo sooner rather than later – and often via the shortest, and least believable, route possible in order to fit with the latest line-wide relaunch.

Any question about the permanence of Robin’s death, then, becomes one about how the status quo ends up being defined. That Batman will fight crime alongside Robin is an idea set in stone in pop culture even beyond comic culture, but it doesn’t have to be the current Robin – That character, after all, is not only the seventh incarnation of the Robin identity, but also the status-quo-defying son of Bruce Wayne.

It’s possible that fans will get to have their cake and eat it too with this death: Poor Damian Wayne can avoid the easy resurrection of his peers, but a new Robin could take up the cowl in his place, ensuring another happy ending where everything goes back to pretty much the way it used to be, way back when. Everybody wins — except for Damian, of course.