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Marvel needs to learn that killing characters isn’t everything

Secret Invasion has been a lackluster Marvel series, and it has seen the MCU lean on character deaths more than we'd like. There's more to life than death.

Emilia Clarke as G'iah in Marvel series Secret Invasion

This week marks the sixth and final episode of Secret Invasion. Three of the five episodes we’ve seen so far ended with the (apparent) death of a main character – if you haven’t been watching and want those identities to stay secret, stop reading now. I think we can all agree that 60% of the episodes ending in a death is probably a bit too much.

In a show that’s struggling for believable and dramatic stakes, it seems like the only arrow the MCU has in its quiver is to spin the roulette wheel of death and kill someone. Broadly, nobody has cared very much. None of these ostensibly shocking moments in the new Marvel series have raised as much as a flicker on the heart rate of Twitter – or X, or whatever we’re calling it today.

Frankly, this issue isn’t new to the MCU, and it’s partly our fault as fans. We’re a blood-thirsty lot, and there was plenty of criticism that Marvel was shy about killing off the best MCU characters in its new movies. The phrase “plot armor” is overused in fandom circles, but there was definitely a feeling that certain characters were too big to die.

This came to a head earlier this year when the Guardians of the Galaxy cast got together for a final time. We were sure that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 would spell the end for at least some of the key players. Many column inches were devoted to who would die – and we were among those writing about it – as if that was more important than the satisfying story we ultimately got.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 release date: Chris Pratt, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3

While James Gunn ultimately chose to keep all of his misfit heroes alive, Secret Invasion has gone the other way, swinging the Grim Reaper’s scythe with merry abandon. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who has been part of the MCU since 2012, was summarily dispatched at the end of episode one, followed in episode three by Emilia Clarke’s G’iah – subsequently resurrected – and her dad Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) in episode four.

In itself, there’s nothing wrong with killing off characters. In fact, when the fate of the planet is in the balance, there probably should be some blood sloshing around. But the thing missing from it all is weight and heft. Death is only a useful narrative tool if it means something. Otherwise, it’s all just A-list pieces being moved around Kevin Feige’s multi-billion-dollar chess board.

When it comes to this issue, Game of Thrones has a lot to answer for. However, we’d watched nine hours of narrative groundwork and character build-up before Ned Stark lost his head in that first season.

It didn’t just mean something; it meant everything. Suddenly, the whole thing went up a notch as King Joffrey’s madness ensured nobody was safe, and everyone needed to be on their guard.

Ned Stark in Game of Thrones paved the way for character deaths

But by the final seasons of Thrones, it had become the epitome of an emotionless chess match. Characters died at random and by the score as if the only thing that mattered was thinning down the ensemble so they could give the weird tree kid the Iron Throne. Death had just become a thing the show did because we all expected it rather than a part of the story.

The MCU, as a sort of cinematic Pangea made up of different franchises drifting about, isn’t quite as guilty as Thrones when it comes to the inevitability of character death. But, in the case of Secret Invasion, there has been a hint of desperation about the whole thing. In lieu of the genuinely fascinating paranoid thriller narrative we hoped we’d be getting, we’ve instead got a slightly tepid drama punctuated by occasional character deaths.

And did any of it matter? Cobie Smulders was always a welcome addition when she popped up in the best movies of the MCU, but audience members won’t mourn Maria Hill too much. We’d only just met G’iah – and she’s back anyway – and we hadn’t really thought about Talos since Mendelsohn’s enjoyable turn in Captain Marvel. Killing them was fleetingly sad, but it felt more mechanical than emotional. That’s pretty damning.

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Hopefully, showrunner Kyle Bradstreet can pull a rabbit out of his hat this week and deliver a satisfying conclusion to Secret Invasion. But in order for that to happen, we need more than just indiscriminate character slaughter. Storytelling needs emotion above all else, otherwise, what’s the point? Be more Ned Stark and less Cersei and Jaime in the crumbling Red Keep.

To get yourself ready for the Secret Invasion finale, check out our Secret Invasion episode 5 recap and familiarize yourself with some of the most important details, including Raava, The Harvest, and Flora Colossus. You can also read about how this Secret Invasion star couldn’t believe that shocking moment didn’t leak. Surprise, surprise: they’re talking about death.

You can also look back through the franchise and watch the Marvel movies in order, or head into Marvel’s Phase 5 with The Marvels release date and the Loki season 2 release date. We’ve also penned an open letter to Kevin Feige about the upcoming Marvel movies.