This post is less about improv and more about drama. Spoilers below for Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion, Game of Thrones, The Wire and several older films.
I recently watched Edge of Tomorrow. While it’s a solid action picture, I hated the ending. The conceit is similar to Groundhog Day. Tom Cruise’s character mysteriously gains the ability to re-live each day whenever he gets killed. Since the world is fighting aliens and Tom Cruise gets killed frequently, this is advantageous.
What would you do if death were merely a minor irritation? Cruise uses his time to try different strategies to defeat the aliens. As you might imagine, he eventually lands on one that works. The twist is that Cruise loses the ability to reset the day before the big final battle. His next death will be his last. That raises the stakes of the film.
Indeed, he sacrifices himself to save the planet, killing the enemy menace and dying in the process.
Through another cosmic loophole, he suddenly regains the ability to reset the day. He’s alive again. Happy ending.
This reminds me of another Tom Cruise film – Oblivion. There’s a similar trick pulled, where Cruise dies heroically – but not really – because he has a clone that gets to go on living his life and making his wife happy.
I understand the impulse to cater to dumb audiences or studio executives who think people will only see a movie if the hero lives. Maybe Cruise is just trying to lay the groundwork for sequels. In the end, he’s only weakening his films.
The death of a hero is one of the best things in drama.
Consider these Best Picture winners over the last 45 years: No Country For Old Men, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, Gladiator, American Beauty, Titanic, Braveheart, Unforgiven, Ghandi, The Deer Hunter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Godfather. If you haven’t seen them, let’s just say you shouldn’t get too attached to the heroic characters.
When Ned Stark lost his head at the end of the first season of Game of Thrones, it was a dramatic masterstroke. All bets are off. No one is safe. Then there was the Red Wedding. And the Purple Wedding. And the Mountain vs. the Viper. With each murder of a main character, the tension rises. (One might argue George RR Martin is killing too many people, making it impossible for the reader/viewer to allow themselves to invest in a character. Character execution is a fine line to walk.)
The Wire is another example of a show elevated into the stratosphere because of how seriously death mattered. How could you not feel a wave of sadness when the end came for D’Angelo or Stringer or Omar? In the world of The Wire, sometimes those who died actually got off easy.
Joss Whedon has also made a career killing off beloved characters. I remember seeing him at a convention several years ago. Someone asked him why he let some characters die in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. He answered quickly, “In war, people die. That has to matter. Otherwise, you’re just shooting faceless clones.”
That’s exactly right.
Sacrificial death is even more important. Christianity is built on the idea that Jesus took the bullet intended for humanity. And I’ll be damned, but I actually cried during Armageddon when Bruce Willis sacrificed himself so Ben Affleck could live. Jack sacrificed himself for Rose in Titanic.
When characters come back to life (as a normal mortal, not a ghost or something), it cheapens death and dulls our ability to care. Yes, there are all kinds of monetary reasons to milk a character until the audience grows bored. But if death has irrevocable consequences, as it does in reality, it gives the author an incredible trump card.
This is why I’ve been so bored with Tom Cruise’s recent films. He refuses to die. It’s cowardly art.
If he died at the end of Edge of Tomorrow, it would have given the film much greater strength. Here’s a character who learns not to fear death because it has no power. When death becomes permanent again and Cruise makes the choice to sacrifice himself for humanity, that should be incredibly powerful. Instead, it’s a no-harm-no-foul situation. That’s weak.
I will say that death is usually something we treat lightly in comedy. There’s something cathartic about laughing in the Reaper’s face. If played for its reality, it can offer a truly dramatic tonic to an improvised show. It is a spice that should be used sparingly in comedy, though.