In the DVD commentary for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot, Joss Whedon (known now for helming The Avengers as well as planning for the entire non-Sony Marvel-verse) talked about how much he wanted to kill a main character in the very early going. So much so, in fact, that he considered putting Eric Balfour – the actor playing Jesse, best friend of Xander – in the opening credits of the show despite the fact that he doesn’t make it past episode two of the series. Whedon’s point was that by killing a “main” character early, the creator was setting the stage for some serious uneasiness by fans concerning the fate of all of the characters. It’s a red, blinking sign that says “No one is safe.”
That’s part of the reason I admire The 100, a new series on the CW. The basic premise is that 100 kids who have grown up on a now-dying space station are launched to a post-nuclear war Earth in hopes of saving what’s left of humanity floating around the planet. Brilliantly, The 100 makes it seem as if they kill a main character off in the pilot, when Jasper, played by Devon Bostik (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), takes an enormous spear to the chest. It’s a red herring, as Jasper survives to fight another day.
However, in episode three, The 100 shows us what it’s made of. Wells Jaha (Eli Goree, pictured above) is the best pal of the main character Clarke. Wells is also the son of the political leader of the space station, Chancellor Jaha. He is earnest, interested in what’s best for Clarke, a bright mind who can help lead the rag-tag group. But, in an extremely gripping scene, Wells is murdered, tragically, quietly, away from prying eyes. Wells had all the traits of a main character expected to be there for the bulk of the show, if not the entire run. It’s a brilliant example of what Whedon talked about on the Buffy commentary: Don’t let the viewers feel safe, and put doubt in their minds about the safety of their favorite characters.
On the big screen, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 went where I wasn’t expecting, allowing Gwen Stacey to fall to her death before Spidey can save her. Spider-Man 2 is a long, slow movie, decent but bogged down in the middle by plot meant to explain much and set up more. But the payoff was brilliant. Peter Parker lives haunted by the fact that he didn’t act during a bodega robbery, followed by said robber killing his uncle. Here, Peter is marred by the fact that he did act, he did stop the bad guy, he did save hundreds and maybe thousands of lives by battling and defeating Electro. Yet he still failed, setting up Gwen to die a pre-mature death because he both failed in his promise to her father and because with great power comes great responsibility. Peter abdicated his responsibility to Gwen’s dad, and the predictable happened. Peter loved Gwen and would do anything to protect her except that one thing that really would protect her: Walking away.
It’s satisfying to see franchises with much to lose – Spider-Man, a global movie juggernaut, and The 100, trying to find its footing and an audience – willing to make such difficult choices. It might hurt them in the short run, but the payoff is a fan base prepared for anything and on edge about what that anything might mean for their favorite characters.