The character death ret-con, in which a fan-favorite character is traumatically killed off, only for the story’s writers to miraculously bring him or her back later through an unbelievable plot contrivance, is one of the most frustrating tropes in all of fiction. Nevertheless, it continues to happen far too often in books, movies, TV shows, comics and other media, and it’s almost never handled well. Here are some examples that made us roll our eyes.
There are so many to pick from here, but I’ll go with the one that bothered me the most in recent years. In Season 5 of TV’s ‘24‘, popular character Tony Almeida (played by Carlos Bernard) tries to get revenge for the death of his wife by taking out baddie Christopher Henderson (RoboCop himself, Peter Weller) with a lethal dose of poison. Instead, Henderson is able to disarm Tony and injects him with the poison first, “killing” him instantly… or so we thought. Two seasons later, Tony pops up again, telling hero Jack Bauer that Henderson intentionally avoided injecting him in the heart and had Tony revived shortly after his so-called death, hoping to turn Tony against Jack and the other good guys.
Of course, when Tony does come back, he winds up being a bad guy, or at least doing bad things to get revenge for his wife and unborn son’s death. This makes you wonder why the show-runners bothered to revive his character at all. The last we saw of Tony was in a bonus feature to the home video release of ‘24: Live Another Day‘, which shows Tony in federal prison and possibly planning his escape.
The very worst offender in recent history was the supposed death of a central character on ‘The Walking Dead‘.
Disclaimer: If a character appears to be killed off (like James Gordon in ‘The Dark Knight’) and the characters and we, the audience, are led to believe that he/she is dead, then I’m okay with it when it’s revealed this faux death was part of the plot and not just a ploy for the audience. No harm, no foul. It served a purpose within the context of that movie – but that’s not at all what happened this season on ‘The Walking Dead’. (If you’re a fan of the series, but aren’t caught up with recent episodes, quit reading now.)
In one episode, Glenn (Steven Yeun) falls off a dumpster with another cast member. The two drop right into the middle of a herd of zombies. From a close-up shot that shows Glenn from his collarbones to the top of his head, we see zombie arms reach down into the off-screen area of his chest and abdomen, then retract with handfuls of dripping flesh as thick blood flows into the frame onto his shoulders, neck and face. That’s a pretty obvious death, right? Wrong. Without an ounce of impact to the characters or the story itself, several episodes passed before we saw what really happened. As Glenn fell, his buddy’s body fell on top of him, so the flesh and blood that we saw was actually his pal’s. That’s right, because of a camera angle, we were made to believe that he died. What a pathetic joke.
As far as back-from-the-dead characters go, Bucky Barnes from ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘ takes the cake. I can’t believe he’s not only alive, but now the centerpiece of two additional movies! His entire survival and return as a super-villain then cause for Civil War is so silly that it’s almost too much for me. Nothing about Bucky is interesting, so making him the focal point for two massive films is just puzzling.
Few things are as unset as a dead character in comic book, but what’s often more annoying is the inevitable exercise to bring back a popular character. That’s why Morph from ‘X-Men: The Animated Series‘ is such a chafing ret-con. He’s practically a Red Shirt in yellow and blue, who was killed off solely to cause conflict and reaction among the show’s lead characters. And yet, the writers couldn’t help but to bring his extremely non-resilient person back to life.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Aunt May had been portrayed as withered and frail from the moment she was first introduced into ‘Spider-Man‘ lore all the way back in 1962, and that was when our friendly neighborhood web slinger was still a teenager. By the time Peter Parker celebrated his 30th birthday, Aunt May must’ve been pushing 90. That’s a challenging age for anyone, let alone the maternal figure of New York’s most embattled superhero. Her death in ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ #400 was peaceful, loving, and in every way befitting the character we’d come to know so well over three preceding decades.
A few years later, it was revealed that the Green Goblin had long ago kidnapped the real Aunt May, and the woman who died was actually an actress he hired to deceive Peter for years on end. Sigh.
Easily the most notorious and most laughable example of a character death ret-con was the “It was all a dream!” resurrection of Bobby Ewing on ‘Dallas‘. That dumb plot twist not only rewrote one character’s death, it threw out everything that had happened on the show for an entire season. While I’m sure some fans were glad to have their favorite character back, they must have asked themselves why they bothered to watch the show at all that year.
The evil Cigarette Smoking Man was killed off at least three times on ‘The X Files‘, always to crawl back out of the shadows like a cockroach later. In the Season 9 finale, which at the time was supposed to be the series finale, CSM was blown to smithereens when a helicopter literally fired a rocket directly into his face and blew up an entire mountain. That should be a pretty definitive, unambiguous death, right? Of course, when Chris Carter relaunched the show with Season 10 this year, his first order of business was to reveal that CSM survived that massive explosion with just a few burns and flesh wounds. He’s even in quite good spirits about it.
The climax of ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘ saw beloved Vulcan first officer Spock sacrifice his own life to save the crew of his ship. In the film’s emotional final moments, Spock said his goodbyes to best friend James Kirk through a pane of glass separating them and promised, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.” – an event that sent Trekkies home bawling their eyes out. The movie was a hit, and the studio wanted a sequel, but how could ‘Star Trek’ continue without Spock? So, the producers threw a bunch of cash at Leonard Nimoy and told him he could direct the next sequel, and suddenly we have ‘Star Trek III: The Search for Spock‘, in which the dead Vulcan is resurrected through a combination of science magic bullshit and spiritual soul transfer mumbo-jumbo. While most fans forgave the franchise, even the most ardent of them have to admit that this was a lame copout.
What character death ret-cons have annoyed you the most? Tell us about them in the Comments.
The blog is taking the Good Friday holiday off. We’ll see you back here on Monday.
The very first issue of Alpha Flight (the so-called Canadian Avengers) I ever read was #12 where Guardian dies. He literally explodes as his wife walks in the room. It was a very startling and sad thing for a young boy to read, especially after coming to like the character in such an action-packed issue. The panels with Heather’s reaction are quite moving and reflect John Byrne’s work at its best.
Marvel lamely ret-cons him by saying he was teleported away just before his death and rescued by some alien civilization that rebuilds him as some kind of cyborg and lots of stupid stuff happens.
Josh: “…resurrected through a combination of science magic bullshit and spiritual soul transfer mumbo-jumbo. While most fans forgave the franchise, even the most ardent of them have to admit that this was a lame copout.”
Hey Josh, since you didn’t go with the franchise’s
more recent “magic blood” resurrection, and went
with “magic fingers” resurrection, I’ll declare victory.
The reason Nimoy came back for Star Trek III isn’t QUITE what Josh said above, but I’m sure he knows that.
Nimoy knew Paramount wanted another movie and knew they’d want him back, so when he was approached about how he’d liked to be involved, his response was “Yeah, I’d like to direct it.” It was Nimoy’s idea (he knew he was holding all the cards and this might be his only chance to direct a big movie), not the studio’s.
Sure, it works for the story (I guess) and you expect her return (I guess), but her return takes away from a very emotional death, retroactively making a great scene just so-so.
*SPOILER* – But wasn’t the big question there if it was actually Starbuck at all? I think there’s a good argument that it wasn’t. Kind of like how it wasn’t John Locke who came back on LOST. 🙂
Ooooh….yes, you are correct.
You also made me want to rewatch both BSG and LOST…LOST first….
Keeping with today’s previous topic; I thought it was a major cop-out in Man of Steel how Kal-el’s father is killed during the opening sequence on Krypton, and yet his character appears on the ship halfway through the movie and is able to help Lois Lane. Somehow his conciousness had been stored in the ship’s log, yet he’s still able to have real-time conversations with other characters? Really?! I mean sure the character was still technically dead, but this was a pretty cheap way to bring back a helpful ally.
Snyder was just cribbing from Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN – the father gets to have conversations with his son, even though he’s long dead.
That fake Glenn death on The Walking Dead really pissed me off. It was nothing but a cheap fake-out gimmick that made the show lose credibility. Like a person is going to be screaming in agony because someone on top of them is getting their guts ripped out. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight….. So Stupid.
I can’t believe nobody has said ‘Alien: Resurrection’ yet. If you want to completely rob a horror film of its suspense, make it so that you can just go to a cloning machine and pop out another copy of the protagonist whenever she dies.
And the best? ‘Crank 2’. It’s just too funny that Statham survives falling out of an airplane and landing on a city street. The tag line “He was dead, but he got better.” makes me laugh every time I think of it.
I’ve never read the Lost World book, but if memory serves right, Dr. Malcolm bit it in Jurassic Park, but somehow came back for the next book. I heard Spielberg had a hand in it. Anyone here know the whole story? Was the resurrection somewhat plausible?
Given the timing of this roundtable, I guess we’re supposed to be thinking of the Gospels…
To protect himself from religious backlash,
Josh did qualify the discussion to be works of fiction.
So if one is offended, then they must consider the
said subject to be fictitious.
Actually, I was thinking of Zod being resurrected as Doomsday in the new Batman v. Superman movie. (Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s given away in the trailer.)
I don’t know what you guys are going on about…
As I watched it unfold, I figured this round table couldn’t be that convenient a coincidence.
The lamest character death retconn was the last episode of Lost. Except instead of finding out that a character is alive, you find out that everyone is dead and everything you’ve watched for 7 seasons never actually happened. I watched the finale with a friend who was really into the series and the ending made me glad I had stopped watching back in the second season.
That would be frustrating, if that were what happened in that episode. Except that, it’s not.
LOL. Not sure if Elizabeth is being sarcastic or not…
But I actually knew a handful of people that thought the same thing…mind blowing
Strange, that was my understanding of the last episode. That the island was some sort of purgatory that the crash passengers went through before they could finally pass onto the afterlife. That’s why Jack ended up back where he first emerged from the crash (and actually died) and why the final shot was of the plane as it had originally crashed. I honestly don’t care either way. I could never get into the show and hated the constant flashbacks (and even more so that so many shows have adopted that constant flashback structure now).
Everything that happened on the island really happened. The characters were not dead the whole time. Many of them came and went from the island over the course of the series. Although the show did introduce a purgatory concept in the final season, the island itself was not that purgatory.
YES! THANK YOU! I thought I was alone in this exact opinion!
” That’s a pretty obvious death, right?” Not really. Given how many near death experiences characters on The Walking Dead have had, you should know that someone isn’t dead until you actually see them die AND come back as a zombie to be killed a second time. The way it was shot tipped it off that Glenn didn’t really die because such a fan favorite core character wasn’t going to have an ambiguous (even slightly) in the last shot of an episode. When someone like Glen dies, it’s going to be big, bold unambiguous and with lots of characters around to witness and react. Given that people were speculating minutes after the scene aired that he could still be alive given how they choreographed his fall with the other character on top of him AND a dumpster (with a shocking amount of ground clearance under it) nearby AND Glen’s well-known ability for squeezing in and out of tight places, you really can’t say his reappearance was anything out of the realm of possibility. Again this was all discussed on Twitter and The Talking Dead moments after it aired. Also, add to the fact that Steven Yuen DIDN’T appear on The Talking Dead should have told you something was up. Poor Chris Hardwick has to endure “OMG, they killing off X!!!??” every time he announces a cast member will be a guest on his show because of how consistently they have a swan song interview with a departing character.
An audience member’s perception of a character death should NEVER be based upon the angle of a camera shot. If they cut away instead of showing the death (ie, Stanis in Game of Thrones), then that makes sense – but when it’s determined based up the angle that some television crew decided to use, that’s LAME. It’s a cheap trick that’s not intentionally misleading, but offensively misleading.
BTW – I don’t hang out in Walking Dead forums and I certainly don’t watch talk shows that break down episodes for me. I don’t need my hand held as someone breaks down the same episode that I just watched.
How about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Or Thelma & Louise? Did they die at the end of their movies?
I am going to slightly break the rules, and instead of going with lamest character deaths, I am going to go with when characters die and are brought back to life so often, that it kills the suspense of the show. There is one that is blaringly obvious, and I may get some hate from this so let me start off by saying that I LOVE this show.
The worst at doing this is Doctor Who. The idea of the doctor reincarnating started when they wanted to continue the show, but the original main actor could no longer do the show (or at least that was how the documentary made it look). It was an interesting plot twist in the 60s, and has allowed the show to continue for 50 years. The problem is that it kills a lot of the suspense – the Doctor is never in any real trouble, he will just regenerate, plop in a new actor. The only real danger is to other people.
Of course, then they started bringing back other characters. Rose is trapped in another dimension. Rory died, to be replaced by some replicant or clone or something. Clara walked into the time stream and became infinate versions of herself, existing at every moment in time, then the Doctor uses some technology after she dies to bring her back to life. It just cheapens them killing off characters.
The second worst is Stargate, whose characters may not even stay dead an entire episode. All you got to do is either use a sarcophogus, a hand-held healing device, or inject them with an alien eel or nanobots, and the person is miraculously brought back to life. Halfway through the series, you are to the point where you are like “eh, thats a main character, they are not going to remain dead, but random Military dude with no name, we are going to leave your body to rot on this planet.”
Brent Spiner’s Character died in INDEPENDENCE DAY – yet his character is back in the sequel?!!!
Perhaps he’s playing an identical, older yet more naïf brother.
Or is that some other franchise?
I must admit I’m still pretty annoyed about Sherlock’s non-death in the season 2 finale of Sherlock. It’s not that he faked his death, but that they filmed it in a way that pretty much makes any plausible explanation impossible. And when they in the season 3 opener just handwaves it away, saying: “details, schmetails, who cares?”, I get annoyed.