The hype for Captain America: Civil War couldn't be more intense, with rumors building that somebody dies. But as we all know, death for superheroes is something very, very different. Here, I want to look at five famous deaths, both in the comics or in the movies, and how they were undone.
No superhero death has been more iconic than the 1992 "Death of Superman" arc. A monstrous creature known as Doomsday broke out of confinement and rampaged across the USA, making a beeline for Metropolis. Although the Justice League were swiftly on the scene, they were demolished with ease, and it was left to Superman to match the monster blow for blow. Ultimately, both struck kill-strikes and both fell.
Ironically, the reason for Superman's death is rooted in the popularity of the TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Both the comic book team and the TV series were gearing up for the wedding of Lois and Clark, but the comics were a lot nearer to the event. The comic book writing team agreed to put their plans on hold, but were left with a year's worth of stories to create. They were struggling — they'd had longer-term plots ready and were having to adapt at speed. At the end of one meeting, writer Jerry Ordway joked, "Let's just kill 'im."
DC's goal was to give the world a glimpse of a world without Superman. The death was never intended to be long-term, and was undone in the arc that became known as "Return of Superman". Although the entire arc was a best-seller for DC, it did real long-term damage to comic book sales; after all the hype, many fans felt deceived when Superman was resurrected less than a year later.
Of course, this particular arc was iconic enough to make its way into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In the films, Doomsday is a reanimated (and mutated) General Zod, and Superman and Doomsday stab one another to death; Doomsday using a shard of bone, Superman using a Kryptonite spear. This time round, nobody is expecting the death to stick — the film ended with Superman's tomb, and a glimpse of strange vibrations.
2. Jean Grey
You'll find that the X-Men feature a lot on this list. Among X-Men fans, Jean Grey is a symbol of death and resurrection (appropriate for a character linked to the Phoenix Force). Although she's not died quite so many times as some fans make out, her most iconic death was in the famous "Dark Phoenix Saga."
Writer Chris Claremont had upped Jean's power-levels to a cosmic scale, and by 1980 he was taking things in a very dark direction. Manipulated by a psychic villain known as Mastermind, Jean began to fall, ultimately becoming Dark Phoenix! As Dark Phoenix, this cosmic entity launched a devastating attack on her X-Men comrades before heading into space and literally destroying a star. One of the planets orbiting said star was inhabited, so Dark Phoenix had committed an act of genocide.
Enter editor Jim Shooter, who felt there was no going back from that. Claremont had planned to have Jean rendered powerless, but Shooter felt that she should be imprisoned. To Shooter's frustration, Claremont believed the X-Men would just break her out; their angry argument came to a head with a suggestion to kill her. It was a wise decision; rather than fall to her inner darkness once again, Jean chose to commit suicide. It became an iconic moment in the comics.
Shooter decreed that Jean could only be resurrected if she was absolved of her crimes. Naturally, that became a challenge for future writers, and so Kurt Busiek ultimately found a solution. Dark Phoenix had never been Jean Grey; Jean had been replaced by a cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force. Claremont was furious (he almost quit), but Shooter signed off on it.
Ever since, the Phoenix Force has been a massive player in the X-Men's world — and has been inextricably tied to Jean Grey. Over in the films, X2 killed Jean in a way that made it clear where it was heading, and a (very poorly done) version of the "Dark Phoenix Saga" was the main plot of X-Men: The Last Stand. There are rumors that the film franchise will revisit this plot after X-Men: Apocalypse; I'm not so sure that's a good idea, frankly.
OK, this kind of plot could only happen in comics. Illyana Rasputin — known as Magik — is the little sister of the X-Man Colossus. She was kidnapped as a child by a demon lord known as Belasco, and taken to a realm known as Limbo. Although the X-Men rescued Illyana, time moved at a different rate in Limbo; Illyana emerged as a teenager, trained in sorcery by Belasco, and with her mutant teleportation powers now active. She took the code-name Magik and became a major part of the New Mutants series.
Eventually, of course, this was undone; Illyana's childhood was restored, and she returned to her family in Russia. Here's where matters went tragic. The villainous Stryfe had released a so-called Legacy Virus, an AIDS-analogue that targeted mutants. Illyana was one of the first to catch the Legacy Virus; as Professor X and Moira MacTaggert struggled against a genetically engineered illness from the future, matters got progressively worse. Illyana's death in Uncanny X-Men #303 — the death of an innocent child — was one of the most haunting single issues in the history of X-Men comics, and to me stands as one of the most powerful comics of all time.
Fast-forward over a decade, and Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost had a plan. Belasco found fragments of Illyana's soul in Limbo and used them to craft a twisted Darkchylde version of her older self. So began a long-running plot in which the character sought to restore her soul, gradually becoming human once again. This version of Magik was an adult now, one who had been brought up in a demonic realm and could be dangerously manipulative. She's also both tremendously cool and increasingly sexy.
Magik's death was one of the most iconic moments in X-Men history. Ironically, her return seems to have gone unremarked on; fans are just happy to have her back.
4. Agent Coulson
Although Agent Coulson has made the transition over to the comics, he's actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent created for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Clark Gregg first played the role in Iron Man back in 2008, and Coulson continued to be a major character through the first phase of the MCU. Matters came to a head in The Avengers, when Joss Whedon felt the team needed something to push them into working together. He chose a casualty: Coulson.
Here's where it gets awkward. When Marvel commissioned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., they chose to bring back Clark Gregg and Agent Coulson. The resurrection became a major plot in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with Coulson eventually learning he'd been restored through the TAHITI project. This in turn led to the team discovering the Inhumans; that particular resurrection really has been the cornerstone of the whole series.
But, of course, more people watch the films than watch the series. So Joss Whedon decided not to give Coulson a cameo in Avengers: Age of Ultron — he felt that people who've only watched the movies would be left confused. The show tied in a little (Nick Fury still borrowed Coulson's Helicarrier), but Coulson didn't get to make his presence known.
5. Professor X
Professor Xavier has died quite a few times. On one occasion, he revealed he'd had himself replaced by a shapeshifter, who died in his stead; on another, his mind was transplanted into that of a clone body! But his most recent comic book death was when Cyclops took on the mantle of the Phoenix Force, and went Dark Phoenix. In a shocking moment, Cyclops killed the man who taught him everything.
Behind the scenes, Marvel had struggled with Professor X for years. The X-Men simply seemed to have outgrown him, so all too often he was sidelined, a critical presence who clashed with leaders or manipulated events. Only Brian Bendis, who went on to write the next X-Men books after the death, saw any potential for Xavier; but even he realized he could do a lot with Xavier's death, and so Xavier was targeted.
The current series of Extraordinary X-Men seems to be revisiting that, though. The X-Men are currently based in the demon dimension of Limbo, and Storm is getting strange visions of Professor Xavier. There's even been a moment when he telepathically communicated with her, stirring her to action and saving her life! Given that Limbo is linked to afterlife dimensions, it looks likely that Professor Xavier will soon return.
Over in the films, Professor X was killed by Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand. The film closed with our learning Xavier had telepathically moved his mind into that of a man in a coma. In his next appearance, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, this body had mysteriously transformed itself into the exact shape and form Xavier had previously possessed, right down to being crippled. Realistically, it was just that Fox wanted to get Patrick Stewart back for that film and they never bothered to explain how it'd happened. To be fair, the whole point of the film was to erase the previous X-Men movies and allow Fox to begin again.
So there you have it! If a character does bite the dust in Captain America: Civil War, never forget that there's a (not-so) glorious comic book tradition of death and resurrection that means they could well come back!