Comic book death is notoriously impermanent. Jean Grey, famous telekinetic mutant of the X-Men series, has had probably the most powerful and lasting death in the history of superhero comics: the Dark Pheonix saga ended with Jean dead in 1977. But even she came back to life, with the use of some retroactive storytelling, in 1986. That’s a stunning interval of time by this standard; the norm seems to be first selling the major-event “death of” comic to raise revenues, then selling the major-event “resurrection of” six months later.
Modern comic book movie protagonists might have it even worse. The ever-expanding Marvel cinematic universe operates much like its comic counterpart (if on a smaller narrative scale), with continuity stretching across franchises and culminating in tie-ins like the Avengers movie. Once you know that, for example, Chris Evans’ original contract with Marvel obliges him to appear in six movies, it’s hard to be too scared for him during the umpteenth massive CGI fight sequence.
These movies can generate suspense or stakes in other ways (often by putting ancillary characters in distress), but you know the hero will stay the hero and stay alive to face his next foe in the next sequel ad infinitum. Superman’s dramatic problem (Why would I be worried that an unkillable alien might die?) becomes every superhero movie’s problem.
This is just one of the many pleasures of an original or self-contained film: You don’t get an easy road map for the characters’ fates. This is particularly crucial for a dystopian world-building exercise like Snowpiercer, for which the fragility of humanity is part of the premise. Many of the characters introduced in Snowpiercer’s opening 20 minutes seem like they could be crucial to the story’s endgame; many of them suffer awful fates. There is a rhyme and reason to this, but it’s not laid out by contractual demands.
Our inability to lazily predict who will survive (or must, because we know the sequel’s coming) forces us to pay more attention to each scene we have with that character; it makes their fictional life precious, which raises our emotional investment in the characters as we watch, which means that the risk of death in a violent action scene means that much more to us.
It helps, of course, that we like or sympathize with the characters in Snowpiercer, whose lives and interpersonal dynamics are drawn with efficiency and clarity in the opening act. But whenever I feel exhausted by the endless train of Hollywood franchises and sequels, this is usually why: I don’t want all of my movie protagonists to be James Bond, preordained to appear in the next sequel.