Hollywood has always had a problem with death. Yes, it’s a hugely effective plot device when you need to ramp up the drama. But it’s inconvenient when you kill off your main character and thereby boost demand among audiences to see them reappear.
The prequel, cloning, time travel, magic and alternative universes have all been used in science fiction and fantasy to bring back beloved mainstays of 20th and 21st-century Hollywood, with different degrees of success. Most fans of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley would wish she had never returned as a freaky xenomorph-infused clone of herself in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s tacky and implausible Alien Resurrection, but few Lord of the Rings heads took issue with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf returning with shiny ironed tresses a few shades paler after his battle with the Balrog in The Return of the King.
Is bringing back dead characters artistically acceptable in the Marvel universe? The jury is still out. The resurrection of scores of superheroes in Avengers: Endgame, after that film’s reversal of Thanos’s nefarious fingersnap in the preceding Avengers: Infinity War, was carried out smoothly. What we hadn’t necessarily expected was the news that two of the biggest casualties of Endgame – the characters who didn’t get to come back this time – will actually be sort of coming back after all in Cate Shortland’s forthcoming Black Widow movie.
Scarlett Johansson needs to be in the long overdue film if the Marvel Comic Universe is to preserve continuity. And given the movie is set after the events of Captain America: Civil War, it’s plausible for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man to be back, too.
Yet this rather feels like cheating. Marvel wants the tears streaming down your face as the always flawed and not always 100% heroic Stark finds redemption by making the ultimate sacrifice in Endgame, just as he’s finally found a soupcon of peace, settled down with his family and stopped chasing much younger women. But the studio would also like the opportunity to roll out its big metal gun for one last adventure.
This feels a lot like Disney’s decision to restore Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker to the screen in the forthcoming The Rise of Skywalker, in which the equally flawed cosmic paladin also redeemed himself by figuratively falling on his own laser sword for the greater good, only to be given another outing. That Skywalker will presumably be some kind of souped-up Force ghost in JJ Abrams’s return to the saga doesn’t excuse the fact that Hollywood is trying to have its space cake and eat it again.
Perhaps Hollywood has been eating too much space cake, and is thus toying with our wounded emotions so in the name of making a fast buck. Downey Jr’s classy and multilayered performances as Iron Man over the best part of a dozen movies were always the garlic and chilli sauce on the MCU’s delicious shawarma. Returning him to the scene only just over a year since he died (in real time), no matter how plausibly, is like digging a yummy morsel out of the compost bin and eating it next day for breakfast.
And who’s to say Downey Jr won’t be wheeled out for more episodes should Black Widow prove a huge smash? It can’t, and shouldn’t happen. Nobody likes to see something they’ve already consumed suddenly repeating on them.