Marvel Studios

For fans of Joss Whedon, plenty of the writer-director’s signature flourishes were on display in his latest foray into superhero blockbusterdom, The Avengers: Age of Ultron—the humorous banter, the sudden reversals, the clever callbacks. (That scene with the Vision and Thor’s hammer offered perhaps the movie’s second-best moment, behind only … the initial scene with the hammer.)

But in the run-up to the film, the most nervously anticipated Whedon trope was the filmmaker’s longstanding penchant for killing off characters to whom viewers had grown attached.

This compulsion dates all the way back to the shocking death of Jenny Calendar in the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1998. Over the years, a couple of particular sub-variations on the theme have become evident. First, Whedon enjoys killing off characters on the cusp of a long-awaited romantic fulfillment: Ms. Calendar and Tara on Buffy; Fred (who died in Wesley’s arms) and Wesley (who, perversely, died episodes later in Fred’s arms) on Angel; Penny in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, etc.

Second, he has a fondness for killing characters off in indiscriminate, even accidental fashion (a stray bullet, a malfunctioning Death Ray), often after a principal battle appears already to have been won: Tara (again); Penny (again); Wash in Serenity.

So the question of whether Whedon would try to kill off an Avenger—and whether Marvel would allow him to do so—has been in the air ever since a sequel to the original movie was announced. (Whedon did kill Agent Coulson—temporarily, as it turned out—in the first Avengers, but the death took place in the middle of the film and was unconnected to any romance.) Cinemablend even took a reader poll on who would be the most likely casualty.

The major franchise characters were generally presumed to be off the table (though Captain America and Iron Man do have potential successors in place to eventually take up the shield and helmet in Bucky Barnes—possibly also Sam Wilson—and James Rhodes, respectively). So speculation tended to fall on two non-franchise characters, Black Widow and Hawkeye. The first possibility, in particular, picked up steam after the trailer for Age of Ultron was released.

Now, Joss Whedon was obviously aware of all this speculation, and if there’s anything he likes to do more than to kill off characters, it’s to confound viewers’ expectations of whom, exactly, he’s going to kill off. (To this day, I am convinced that Whedon intended for Serenity viewers to worry that Kaylee would be his chosen victim—sweet, helpless, Fred-like Kaylee, right on the verge of having her crush on Simon requited—and toyed with us by killing Wash instead.)

So what does Whedon do in Age of Ultron? (Again, big-time spoilers ahead. Get out if you don’t know what’s coming.)

Well, he supplies Hawkeye with a secret, loving, pregnant(!) wife and two adorable kids hidden in a bucolic paradise far away from the carnage. (This is roughly akin to being the likable cop partner who’s two days away from retirement.) He also introduces both a tragic backstory and a budding romance for Black Widow. (This is akin to being the likable minority cop partner who’s two days away from retirement.) The imminent demise of one or both characters could hardly have been more aggressively advertised if it had been announced in a screen crawl. (It’s probably worth noting here that Whedon says Marvel execs didn’t like the family-man-Hawkeye subplot and that in order to keep it he had to make compromises elsewhere.)

Fast-forward to the climactic battle with Ultron and his robo-minions. Stranded on floating hunk of Eastern European terrain, Black Widow notes to Captain America that she’s willing to die if need be: “There’s worse ways to go. Where else am I going to get a view like this?” Likewise, Hawkeye gives the Scarlet Witch a heartfelt, inspirational speech about the necessity of courage in the face of desperate odds. None of this is accidental.

The heroes all do their hero thing, and Ultron finally appears to be defeated, shattered beyond repair and hurled off the floating island to his presumed death. Hurray! But as no one knows better than Hoban Washburne, in a Joss Whedon movie it’s never too late to seize death from the jaws of victory. A battered but still-functional Ultron improbably finds himself a quinjet, and pilots it back for one last round of trouble.

What is Black Widow busy doing when Ultron returns? On the assumption that the fight is basically over, she is gently calming the Hulk down so that he will revert to Bruce Banner, the man she loves. What is Hawkeye doing? He is rescuing the very last local trapped on the floating island, a little boy whose mom lost track of him in the market. I mean seriously. Each character is one step removed from rescuing a kitten trapped in a tree while holding hands for the first time with someone they’ve secretly loved since childhood.

So when Ultron strafes the island, whom does he target? If you haven’t been paying attention, he shoots at exactly two characters: Black Widow (OMG! She’s dead!) and then Hawkeye (No, wait! He’s dead!). The truth, of course, is that Whedon has been toying with us all along. Black Widow turns out to have been protected by the Hulk, and Quicksilver takes the bullets intended for Hawkeye, expiring with yet another callback on his lips, this one to the first line shared between the two characters in the movie’s opening scene.

A few final notes: Who knows what Marvel would and would not have allowed Whedon to do, character-death-wise. But if he’d had Ultron kill Black Widow as Hulk reverted to Banner-dom, so that we could watch the latter’s helpless horror and despair as he cradled his dead or dying love in his arms, it would probably have been the most Whedon-y moment of all time—for good, ill, or (quite possibly) both. By contrast, one assumes that Marvel was unperturbed by the death of Quicksilver, a newly introduced character saddled with movie-rights issues, who was probably never going to top the “Time in a Bottle” scene that Bryan Singer and Fox afforded him in X-Men: Days of Future Past. (Though Whedon did shoot a version of his movie in which Quicksilver survived his wounds, just in case.) Regardless, Whedon ended up with arguably the best of all worlds: killing off a character whose death will not overly enrage the Marvel fan base, while once again toying with—and ultimately confounding—the expectations of his own longtime viewers.

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