The Problem with Fighting Death
Kevyn: It's like we stole fire from the gods, or something....Is that even when you win, you'll eventually still lose. As nemeses go, you can't do worse than be Enemies with Death. The Grim Reaper isn't unbeatable, he can be whipped into submission by a sufficiently cunning Guile Hero with The Plan or a sufficiently Badass Action Hero with a good enough weapon or a nice game of Chess. There's just one small problem: these cosmic entities usually play a pretty important role in the universe and afterlife. Beating them to a pulp just means you've pissed off the guy who's in charge of your eternal reward. He/she/it may decide to punt you into Hell instead of Heaven, or simply trap you in an unnatural state between life and death when it would be your time to "die." Even Immortality is no guarantee of safety, because Death will make sure the hero regrets eternal life one way or another. Heck, Death may even levy immortality as the punishment! Killing or imprisoning Death (which is not as contradictory as you'd think) might not offer protection either, as his sister Entropy goes around making everyone grow old and wish to die while Death Takes a Holiday or cause a plague of ghosts as the souls of the dead get stuck on Earth. This is the problem with fighting Death, Hades, The Devil, Psychopomps, Anthropomorphic Personifications or even God; you just can't win. However, a draw may be possible with creativity. If all that matters is that there be a Death, then replacing him with someone friendlier or someone with whom deals can be struck and honored can be a way to go. This can be done by appealing to someone higher on the divinity ladder, getting someone else to kill and replace Death (or doing so yourself, if you're willing to accept the job for the rest of eternity), and flying Like a Badass out of Hell are all possibilities. In this way, one can say Living Forever Is Awesome. This is rarely mentioned in stories, which can become a rather horrific revelation for viewers on a walk to the fridge as they realize that their beloved hero will eventually die and be at the mercy of their enemy. If it is dealt with in the story, it makes a fight that much more heroic, since the hero knows that winning means he's condemning himself to an afterlife of pain. Having the character face the consequences makes it a case of Broke Your Arm Punching Out Cthulhu.
Ennesby: In most of those stories the mortals get away with it.
Kevyn: Yeah, until they die, and they find out why the gods can afford to be patient.
Ennesby: In most of those stories the mortals get away with it.
Kevyn: Yeah, until they die, and they find out why the gods can afford to be patient.
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Anime and Manga
- While the issue isn't really brought up in the games, the Pokémon anime touches on this. Legendary Pokemon are depicted as deities, rather than simply exorbitantly powerful specimens that can ultimately be captured by a plucky teenager given enough time, willpower and Pokeballs. Even if someone does manage to take one down, the fallout hits really, REALLY hard. Want the Legendary Birds? Watch as the planet ends in fire, ice and lightning. Fancy the Eon duo? Hope you can swim. There's not enough suntan lotion in the world for what'll happen if you piss off Groudon, and Kyogre will drown the entire planet. Dialga, Palkia, Giratina or Arceus? Reality itself turns inside-out. Ultimately, common consensus among the sane is that screwing with Legendary Pokemon is not worth it: you either lose and get your ass handed to you, or 'win' and doom the planet.
- In the Hades chapter of Saint Seiya, this question is left unaddressed. In the follow up Heaven chapter, the gods, angry at the dead Gold Saints for killing Hades cursed them to be trapped in a statue for all eternity. Hades being a repeat Omnicidal Maniac didn't affect their judgement.
- In Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas this is actually explicitly referenced. At one point one of the Gold Saints (while living) is teleported into Hades (the location) and notices that all of his dead friends are trapped in the ice of the ninth circle, cursed to this punishment for having opposed Hades. It backfires since their souls help the Gold Saint beat the crap out of his opponent by powering him up.
- Explicitly dealt with in Earth X's sequel Paradise X. After Captain Marvel kills Death, the old and sick start piling up. They resort to recruiting Jude the Entropic Man to dematerialize those who seek the relief of death, going on to the Paradise Mar-Vell constructed.
- Incredibly minor Marvel Comics villain Deadly Ernest gained immortality after refusing to die during World War I and fighting off Death itself; he became an immortal with an uncontrollable Touch of Death, something he discovered when he returned home and embraced his wife.
- In The Sandman Morpheus, the Anthropomorphic Personification of dreams, uses this trope to his advantage when surrounded by the hosts of Hell intent on tearing him apart. When Lucifer mocks him by asking what power dreams have in Hell, Morpheus responds by asking them what power Hell would have if those within could not dream of Heaven. The host lets him pass without incident.
- The very first issue lampshades this. Dream's capture and imprisonment by the sorcerer Roderick Burgess causes all kinds of things (from the merely weird to the truly tragic) to happen all over the world. But when Dream finally escapes, Burgess's son admits that the original plan was to capture his sister, Death. Dream's response is basically, "The entire freaking world should count itself lucky you blew it and got me instead."
- Averted elsewhere, as it's implied from time-to-time that pissing Death off is the biggest (and last) mistake a person could ever make. Whenever something irritates her enough to just make her snippy, whoever's doing it stops dead. Even The Kindly Ones fear her.
- Thor, after invading Hel to rescue the souls Hela had stolen, she, as the goddess of death and decay, cursed him to never die or heal. While this actually saved his life when he battled the Midgard Serpent, a fight fated to end in a Mutual Kill, he eventually sent a Magitek robot called the Destroyer into Hel to make her lift the curse and restore him. By this point his bones had been reduced to mush and he was unable to move without assistance.
- The french comic Zorn et Dirna has this as its central premise. A king trapped Death in a magic mirror so he'd never die. Neither does anyone else, and while the king got the unaging bonus (due to looking at Death in the mirror, a privilege only he enjoys), no one else did, resulting in people aging into still-living zombies, crying for release (killing is only possible via decapitation, and even then the dead person's soul is transferred to the killer's). The government deal with this by rounding up the aged (even those who still want to live a bit longer) and sending them to "Les Laminoirs" to have them decapitated (causing the soul to leave the body and possess the nearest person) and storing the souls in the bodies of criminals. Needless to say, it's a short-term solution at best, and many of the hosts become quite dangerous and crazy from housing hundreds or thousands of desperate souls.
- Became a plot point in an early Doctor Strange story arc. He was told he had to meet Death in combat, but he quickly realized that no one can overcome or escape Death. So he surrendered to it, accepting its inevitability — and became immortal.
- One of the horrors of Shuma-Gorath and Many-Angled Ones like him is that they invoke this trope in the dimensions they conquer, feeding on the chaos as life grows out of control.
- In The Thanos Imperative, the Marvel Universe is invaded by an alternate universe where death was destroyed and life grew unchecked throughout the universe to the point where life itself has become an Eldritch Abomination, governed by "The Many-Angled Ones".
- Subverted with The Flash. He found a safe way to foil Death (at least the entity who fills that role on Apokolips): outrunning him. He was actually faster, proven when the hero outran the Reaper to a child he was intent on claiming and rescued him.
- In the IDW Ghostbusters comic, one of Egon's old college classmates gets hold of the magical bag from the "Russian Soldier" entry under Folklore, and traps Death with it in order to save his life after being hit by a car. In the end, he has to accept his fate and release Death to save Egon (and the rest of the world) from a ghostly Armageddon.
- Happens to Jack in Fables for about a page or so. During the Civil War. Results in Technically Living Zombie.
- Actually a subversion. Jack manages to trap Death and is later forced to release him when the consequences are made apparent. Death, however, was quite thankful because it was the first day off he'd ever had.
- In myth, there's the old story of The Russian Soldier, who trapped Death in a magical bag. This resulted in Death Takes a Holiday, so nobody could die - the suffering of the wounded was extended, and the old just became more and more tired and infirm... eventually, hearing the cries of the people, he released Death from the bag, expecting to become his first victim - but Death was frightened by the soldier's powers, and fled from him before resuming his duties... Which was all fine and dandy until, of course, the SOLDIER grew old, and Death would not come for him. Growing older and weaker, he became tired and weary of life... Who Wants to Live Forever?, right? He even tried to walk to the gates of Heaven himself, but they wouldn't let him in - he had sinned against the natural order of things by preventing Death from doing his job, after all. He then resigned himself to his fate and walked to the gates of Hell... but the Devil knew of his reputation, and was afraid that he'd be Like a Badass out of Hell and take over, so he barred the doors and refused to let him in. And so, due to his fight with Death, the Russian Soldier had all paths to the final end denied to him... and some say, he wanders still, hoping for the day he will be forgiven and allowed to rest at last...
- Numerous versions exist, including some with a sort of happy end when the protagonist uses a last trick to get into Heaven after all.
- There's also the tale of Stingy Jack, after whom Jack-o-lanterns are named, who captured and tricked the Devil into agreeing to leave him alone. All fine until he died, and God wouldn't let him into Heaven for being unrepentant, while Satan wouldn't let him into Hell because that would count as not leaving him alone. Jack was left to wander through eternal darkness with no home to go to. When he begged Satan to at least lend him a light, Satan carved a demonic face into a gourd or a turnip, and lit it from within with an ember from Hell, presumably so Jack had something to remind him of exactly why you never mess with Satan.
- There's an alternate telling, where Jack's soul is left to wander the earth alone and cold and in an odd case [or inversion of] Sympathy for the Devil, Satan himself lends him an ember from hell to keep him warm in a hollowed-out turnip.
- Latin America gives us Pedro Urdemales who manages to zigzag this trope. He was such a skilled trickster he even managed to trick the devil three times. When Pedro finally dies of old age, the devil does not try to take him to hell and when he shows up to the gates of heaven St. Peter won't let him in. However Pedro tricks St. Peter into letting him get a peek at heaven and gets his nose stuck in the gate. When St. Peter opens the gate more so Pedro can get his nose out Pedro slides in. Knowing this would be the end of peace in heaven St. Peter decides to turn Pedro into a rock. Pedro agrees but ask that he have eyes so he can watch people enter heaven.
- In Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana, the Prophet Yun-Ilara constructs The Tower of the Ending of Days where he daily curses Mung, the god of death. And when he grew weary of life, Mung passed him by, saying, "Shall a man curse a god?"
- In the Final Destination series, Clear is the only one on Death's list to have survived a meaningful length of time beyond her intended end. In 2, Kimberly goes to her for advice, only to learn that Clear hasn't really cheated Death, merely had herself institutionalized to protect herself. Under the circumstances, nothing short of destroying the entire building would be able to kill her, and Death isn't so overt. Once she leaves the building, Death gets her in short order.
- The story of the three brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and The Tales of Beedle the Bard) uses this. Three brothers use magic to cross a dangerous river without dying, much to the annoyance of Death. The anthropomorphic personification pretends to congratulate them, and offers them each any prize they want. The first asks for an unbeatable wand. It works, but when the he boasts too much about it, someone slits his throat while he's sleeping. The second asks for a stone that lets him see the dead. He uses it to call upon the spirit of his fiancee, who passed away shortly before their marriage. However, she's only a shadow, and he finds himself pining after someone he can never have, so he commits suicide to join her. The last one realizes that Death is really pissed off and thus cannily asks for something to let him hide from "anyone" - and Death grudgingly gives him the cloak off his back, the very one he uses when he invisibly collects the dead. It's a perfect invisibility cloak, which he uses to hide from Death for many years. When his own time draws near, he gives the cloak to his child and willingly goes with Death as an equal.
- Therefore, the moral is that if you are unable to accept the futility of escaping death or are unable to accept the death of a loved one, death will be your greatest enemy. However, if you instead accept death as the inevitable and move on with your life, he will greet you as an old friend. In simpler words, "Don't fight death."
- Discworld examples: Mort picks a fight with Death towards the end of the book; in a separate incident, Granny Weatherwax cheats him at cards to save a child. Death, of course, admires this aspect of humanity, and lets them both win (eventually, in Mort's case).
- Death briefly tries to trick Mort into winning conventionally (by killing him), which would force Mort to bear the burden of being Death in turn. Mort of course refuses to take the bait.
- Also, in Reaper Man, Death literally takes a holiday and the whole book is about the issues that causes. In this case, he was "retired" by the Auditors of Reality, who, not being alive in the first place, are therefore not subject to Death, and avoid this trope. He eventually kills the more wrathful and arrogant New Death of Humans and takes back his position after appealing to the Death of Universes.
- In the Incarnations of Immortality series, the first book On a Pale Horse centers about a man (Zane) who, when he goes to kill himself, refuses and ends up killing Death. Then, he must assume Death's office and duties, kicking off the main plot.
- In the backstory of Malazan Book of the Fallen, a whole Jaghut race waged literal war with Death, with armies and all. End result was one of them assuming a mantle of God of Death as Hood.
- Antagonists of the Felix Castor series will often make elaborate plans for war against the dead. When confronted with these plans, Felix will point out that, if it comes to war, the living are screwed because of this trope.
Live Action TV
- Jim Henson's The Storyteller has a retelling of the Russian Soldier's story.
- This is a very prominent recurring theme in Supernatural, sometimes literally involving Death himself. By the fifth season and later the Winchesters have made enemies out of both Angels and Demons, who control much of the afterlife — Heaven and Hell respectively of course. Since this is a show where Death Is Cheap and characters have come back from the dead multiple times, the real concern isn't about actually dying, but what happens afterwards. If Sam and Dean weren't required as Angelic vessels, they would just be tortured in the afterlife for all eternity considering all the havoc they have caused to both factions. They even manage to get Death annoyed at their constant resurrections, and he implies this trope to them when they try to bind him.
- In season 5's "Dark Side of the Moon", Sam and Dean enter Heaven (as Ash tells them, it's hardly the first time either, but the Angels keep wiping their memories) after they are killed by another pair of hunters. The high-ranking Angel Zachariah eventually captures them and immediately begins torturing the two. Because they humiliated him by escaping his clutches several times on Earth, he promises that he's "gonna be the Angel on your shoulder for the rest of eternity".
- In season 5's "Two Minutes to Midnight", Dean tries to kill Death to stop the Archangel Lucifer, unaware that he could've gotten what he wanted without killing him, as they both had a common interest in stopping the "bratty child". Dean assumes that Death would be angry at this, but it turns out the problem with a human fighting Death is that the human just doesn't matter.
Death: You have an inflated sense of your importance. To a thing like me, a thing like you, well... Think how you'd feel if a bacterium sat at your table and started to get snarky. This is one little planet in one tiny solar system in a galaxy that's barely out of its diapers. I'm old, Dean. Very old. So I invite you to contemplate how insignificant I find you.
- In season 6's "Appointment in Samarra", Dean gambles with Death to get Sam's soul back from Lucifer's Cage and return it to his body with a temporary fix to keep the hell memories from killing him or worse. Death buys him a hotdog and holds up his end of the bargain—even though Dean failed his—because Dean learned something. Death of course continues to impress upon Dean the depths of his insignificance at every opportunity. It's here that Death also clarifies that he himself cannot, in fact, die.
- In the season 7 premiere, this trope is almost actually achieved when Dean, Sam, and Bobby use a spell to bind Death so they can politely ask him to kill Castiel before the mutated angel gets even more destructive, explodes and takes the world with him, or worse. Dean attempts to placate Death with fried pickle chips, but you can tell by their expressions throughout the affair that they expect him to lay the smackdown on them whether it works or not. It doesn't. Except Death does give them an extra eclipse so they can try to fix Castiel's overpoweredness. Death doesn't seem to hold a grudge (probably because they're too insignificant), but he warns them not to try that again. When you're Death you don't need to hold your grudges, they all come back to you eventually.
- In season 8's "Taxi Driver", Bobby Singer gets to find out what the result is of pissing off someone who has a say over the afterlife allotted to mortals, in this case the King of Hell by undermining his plans and killing his demons on a regular basis. After he dies again after having been a ghost, Crowley instructs a Rogue Reaper to take his soul to Hell so he can have him tortured forever. Crowley intervenes again when the Winchesters try to release Bobby's soul to Heaven instead, but Bobby is saved by intervention from the Angel leader Naomi, who's a tad higher on the cosmic scale.
- However, Death conveys to Sam in season 9's "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" that it would be an honor to reap him when he faces his death willingly, because of all the persistent self-sacrifice and good they've done despite being only humans. He considers Sam one of the rare beings he has come across that he would both take an interest in judging and find worthy of praise.
- Xena: Warrior Princess:
- In one episode, King Sisyphus captures Celesta (aka Death) in order to prevent his own death. This results in there being no death ever (for example, those who are terminally ill or fatally injured are still kept alive even if they happen to be on the brink of death at the time... oh, and a crazed bandit who Xena dealt a fatal injury to ends up becoming undead and persuing her), and, should Celesta herself die (which will happen if she remains restrained for too long), then it will be permanent.
- Much later in the series, Xena attempts this herself to obtain immortality for herself and her loved ones when they end up on the Olympians' hitlist. It's a ploy to obtain Celesta's tears which can place people in a state of temporary death. Xena had intended to fake her and Gabrielle's deaths to throw the Olympians off their trail. Unfortunately, Ares was also fooled and took their bodies to a secluded location out of grief. As a result, Xena and Gabrielle were revived much later than they had planned.
- In Greek myth, as punishment for ratting out Zeus, jerkass tyrant, and Manipulative Bastard Sisyphus was to be punished by being personally taken by the death god Thanatos to an especially unpleasant corner of Tartarus in chains. Of course, Greek myth also spoke of how Sisyphus arrogantly thought himself even cleverer than the Gods. So, the tyrant coyly asked Thanatos how the chains worked, and in demonstrating, Sisyphus trapped the god in his own chains. Of course, this meant that no-one could die at all. Eventually Ares, the god of war, got pissed off because none of his opponents would die when he killed them, which was no fun, so he freed Thanatos and let the god of Death carry on with his mission. This wasn't the first time he cheated death. Another time when Sisyphus was about to die, he instructed his wife not to give him any funeral, shroud, or even money to pay Charon. So, when he did die, he made his way to the palace of Hades where he schmoozed and pleaded with the goddess Persephone that his wife was very, very cruel and disrespectful. Touched by the trickster's words, the goddess permitted him to return to the world of the living to *cough* scold his wife. Of course, when Sisyphus was finally delivered to Tartarus, Hades made a bargain with Sisyphus, in that Sisyphus could walk out of Tartarus scotfree if he could just roll that boulder up that hill, and make it stay there... And we all know how that turned out...
- Problem averted when Hercules wrestled with Thanatos to keep the god from taking Alcestis, the wife of his friend Admetus.
- Not quite death, but, Thor once wrestled with Elli, the personification of Old Age, when she was disguised as an old woman by the illusions of the sorcerer-giant Utgardloki. He lost, but not as embarrassingly as he thought: the giants were terrified that he had wrestled Old Age to her knees first.
- Exalted: If you're Badass enough, you can kill the creators of the world. However, doing this drags the world to Oblivion. A solution is imprisoning those creators. It's not a lasting solution.
- Dungeons & Dragons has the Binder class, which allows a character to borrow the power of unfortunate entities left homeless in the afterlife. These include:
- The avatar of a trickster god who stole his own soul back via a deathbed repentance. The god was so (sincerely) touched by this final act of devotion that he decided the only way to properly repay him was by granting him demigod status. In limbo.
- A powerful mage who almost became a god. Key word:almost. Understandably, this tends to burn a few bridges along the way.
- God of War III has Villain Protagonist Kratos killing most of the Greek pantheon, including Poseidon, Hades, Hermes, Hera, Helios, Hephestus, and Zeus. The result? Horrible floods, plagues, plants dying, the sky blackened by storms and the dead unable to find their resting place. Oops.
- In the backstory of Soul Nomad & the World Eaters, Lord Median The Conqueror killed Master of Death Vigilance to save his son from a wasting disease. Not only did his son die anyway, but killing Vigilance ended up completely wrecking the circle of reincarnation and allowed Gamma to steal all the souls Vigilance would normally be responsible for, it caused Vigilance's partner Virtious to kill Median in retaliation, and finally Gamma ended up poaching Vigilance's soul and his boss reincarnated him into Psycho for Hire Gig and sent him back to his own world to hurry along the collection, as it were.
- Odin Sphere. Oswald the Black Swordsman must repeatedly fight off the Halja since his foster father Melvin sold Oswald's soul to the Queen of the Netherworld in order to empower Oswald's Belderiver. While the Belderiver gives Oswald the power to drive away the Halja, he must also never let go of it or else the messengers of death will be on him like butter on toast.
- The Brothers Sun in Jade Empire decided to go off and mess with the Water Dragon, which trapped the spirits of the dead in the world of the living where they quickly went insane and started massacring people.
- Awesome (if somewhat narmy) aversion in Castlevania: Lament of Innocence. After whipping Death into submission, Leon basically states that "Death" is only a psychopomp (which is why he could), and that as a good, God-fearing Christian, he'll be going to Heaven anyway in the end, so it doesn't matter.
- On the other hand, Death in Castlevania 64 directly states his intent to admit Reinhardt to hell. Judging by Reinhardt's ability to invoke God's forgiveness, though, it's unclear if the threat is valid.
- In Chakan: The Forever Man, the main character has this problem. Chakan is a master swordsman, who defeats all comers. Eventually, he boasts that he could beat Death himself. Death is not amused and takes him up on this challenge. Chakan summarily beats Death like a slave, causing Death to concede, and grant Chakan's wish for immortality, but neglecting to do anything about physical aging...
- Black Bart and Captain Blood from Pirate101 discover that that Death does not like it when people try to prevent him from claiming souls. Once the player makes it possible for him to claim these two, Death's voice makes it clear that he's enjoying claiming their souls.
- Discussed and later inverted near the end of Xenoblade. The party is holding one last strategic meeting to decide what to do now that Zanza has awakened and started cleansing the Bionis of life. Alvis brings up the point that even if the remaining peoples of Bionis could hold out against Zanza's direct attacks indefinitely (which is itself highly unlikely), Zanza could simply feed on them as they die of natural causes, making a war of attrition a losing strategy even in the best case scenario. The party eventually decides to take Zanza head on, as not fighting him at that point would only lead to him becoming stronger.
- The Lake Trio of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl have abilities like this. They represent knowledge, emotion, and willpower and also have the power to take away their respective attribute if threatened.
- The Cat Lady toys with this idea. The Queen of Maggots attempts to force Susan back to life after she just committed suicide so that the latter can kill off five "Parasites" still amongst the living. When Susan refuses, the Queen points out that, as the gatekeeper between life and the afterlife, she can keep Susan in a perpetual twilight existence, denying her the eternal rest she craves until she does as she's told.
- Touhou Project: spellcard duels are intended in part to prevent the Problem. Not only do they serve as a Power Limiter for immensely powerful beings who could otherwise squash any opposition with a snap of their fingers, but they are also nonlethal, which means that there is no risk of causing The End of the World as We Know It by killing someone vital to the continuation of existance. Interestingly, Reimu (one of the main characters of the series) is among those, because without her the barrier that keeps Gensokyo separate from the main world would collapse.
- The SCP Foundation has quite a few examples, but SCP-1440 is in a league of its own: a reluctantly immortal man who has wandered the world for an unknown length of time because his presence destroys everything associated with humanity.
"Should you choose to challenge Death to a game of cards for your life, there is one thing you must never do... Win."
- In The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy ''Jacked Up Halloween" special's backstory, Jack O'Lantern forces Grim to grant him eternal life, in exchange for returning his scythe. However, Grim decapitates him, and he's forced to use a pumpkin as his head. At the end of the special, during which Jack attempts to cause a Zombie Apocalypse with pumpkins, Grim decides that Jack has overstayed his time on Earth and sends him to the Underworld, so now Jack is immortal...in Hell.