Sacrifice has been a common component of storytelling throughout history. Many of the stories that we know and love feature some sort of sacrifice, ranging from physically sacrificing one’s self to the mental, internal sacrifice of an aspect of one’s personality. It helps to make a story more compelling and can help a character to foster more progress and developmental growth. The stories we read and the films that we watch include sacrifices that have an impact on us.
Think of the highest grossing film ever: Avengers: Endgame (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019). What are two of its most impactful moments? Most likely, they both include the concept of sacrifice. One that instantly comes to mind is the end of the film – in order to finally defeat Thanos (Josh Brolin) and save the universe, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has to use the full power of the Infinity Gauntlet, which he knows will kill him. He does so anyways and sacrifices himself for the good of the universe. The world mourns him and his death has an incredible impact on the future Marvel films that premiere afterwards.
Another moment is the death of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Natasha sacrifices herself in order for her team to acquire the Soul Stone to build the Infinity Gauntlet, even fighting Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to see who would sacrifice themselves. The whole concept of gaining the Soul Stone centers around the person being willing to sacrifice the thing (or person) they love most in order to get the item. It requires the person to think about more than just themselves and think about their larger purpose.
Avengers: Endgame utilizes sacrifice as one of the most important aspects of its story. Though it is a great storytelling technique, is there a possibility that the concept of sacrifice is now overused in film?
In many recent films, specifically superhero films, sacrifice is seen as the most heroic thing that a person can do. It is implied that the act of sacrifice makes you a hero – you have to think of something bigger than yourself, you have to give something up, you have to put aside your selfishness. It becomes the simple, easy way out in order to build a hero in a story. Sometimes, superhero films only use sacrifice to drive their character’s motivation forward. Take Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013) as an example. First, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), sacrifices himself in order to protect his son and his planet’s culture. Then, Kal-El, now known as Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), watches his Earth father sacrifice himself in a tornado in order to protect Clark’s powers. Sacrifice is what drives his character forward; his fathers’ sacrifices shape and mold his sense of being and help him to believe that, eventually, he will need to sacrifice himself. It happens to Spider-Man across his films as well, seeing Uncle Ben take over the fatherly sacrifice. What if these sacrifices didn’t happen? Would we still be interested in their characters and their stories? Would they still be considered a hero? What other aspects of their character define them? Would they still have these same aspects if they weren’t impacted by sacrifice? For one superhero, sacrifice defines his entire arc.
In the Captain America trilogy of films, sacrifice is a component tying together each film. Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston, 2011) sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) sacrifice himself by nose-diving his plane holding the Tesseract into the ocean so that New York City could be saved. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014), Steve sacrifices the institution he is part of in order to face its corruption, but also sacrifices himself once again, this time to trigger the memories of his former best friend turned brainwashed assassin, Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). And, in Captain America: Civil War (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2016), Steve sacrifices his relationships with his teammates to stand up for Bucky and what he believes is right. With the character of Steve Rogers, sacrifice is what defines him as a hero. He constantly has to put others before himself, to make difficult choices, to be willing to undertake a sacrifice and he is rewarded and idolized by being considered a hero. Sacrifice outweighs and influences every aspect of his character. It defines him as a hero. Sacrifice simplifies the need for character development within superhero films by using it as a plot device to force the characters through their issues. Yes, it is a great way to tell a story but it is featured so often in films that maybe, writers and audiences have become too accustomed to it. It doesn’t happen only in superhero films, it extends to so many other genres. Why feel the need to fully flesh out a character and plot when sacrifice is the easy way to go?
Over and over again, audiences have seen sacrifice played out in films and some writers seem to use it as their crutch (the writers of those various Marvel films seem to really love it). It is ingrained in us from a young age, as many classic Disney animated films feature forms of sacrifice, The Lion King (dir. Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers, 1994) immediately coming to mind. We have become comfortable seeing sacrifice in films, we enjoy seeing sacrifice in films (see: Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest grossing film), and writers see that as a confirmation to continue adding it into their stories. The use of it seems to be gratuitous at times, with the theme and concept of sacrifice becoming a part of pretty much every major studio film that has come out. Sometimes, it feels as if the intended sacrifice doesn’t have the same emotional impact. It is a continuous cycle that feels like it will never end.
Luckily, it does seem like audiences may be starting to push back against this constant concept of sacrifice. When the Spider-Man franchise was rebooted for the third time, audiences were adamant about not having to see Uncle Ben sacrifice himself for what felt like the hundredth time on screen. Other, more independent films have focused more on character-driven films that focus on internal growth and progress without resorting to sacrificing something. However, it has become so ingrained as part of our storytelling techniques and so ingrained in our culture that perhaps it is more difficult to define characters and their stories without sacrifice. Sacrifice is a great way to tell a story when it is needed, but when used too much, it does not carry the same impact.