Towards the end of Serenity, just as Mal is ready to climb the chasm to the backup transmitter, the Operative surprises Mal and shoots him in the back. Mal shrugs it off and moments later is able to swing and climb and fight. Later in the battle the Operative runs Mal through with a sword. Mal doesn't bleed and is still able to fight.

Why is Mal suddenly nigh-invulnerable? Was the Operative's gun non-lethal? If so, why did the Operative use a non-lethal weapon? If not, why was Mal able to survive the shot without much effect? And why was Mal not more effected by being run through with a sword?

I'm looking for in-universe explanations.

  • 10
    Mal had plot armor. Other members of the crew did not.
    – phantom42
    Apr 27, 2015 at 22:50
  • @phantom42 I'm looking for in universe explanations. Let me make that explicit in the question.
    – Schwern
    Apr 27, 2015 at 22:51
  • I figured. That's why I didn't post an answer.
    – phantom42
    Apr 27, 2015 at 22:53

2 Answers 2


If you watch the beginning of the scene carefully, whatever the operative shoots Malcolm in the back with, it produces some sort of electrical discharge. I would presume that it was some sort of incapacitating type of round, rather than a penetrating type of round. This could be further reinforced by the moved nerve cluster, in that Malcom's nerves just don't react as expected.

Also, remember the line that the Operative gives before Serenity comes out of the cloud towing Reavers - "We should have done this as men...not with fire". He prefers the face to face combat, rather than the sterility of guns and lasers.

In the second instance, with the sword, if you watch the above video clip in a frame by frame type of fashion (from ~ :33 - :38), it shows that the sword goes through his (Malcom's) right side, fairly close to the edge of the body, and from a mid to upper angle.

enter image description here

If you look at the above image, on the right side, presuming that the angle of the sword is such that it stays below the rib cage, then about the only thing that would be penetrated would be the descending portion of the large intestine. While it is a wound that can produce nasty infections, it won't necessarily be incapacitating nor produce a ton of blood (And it is very possible that the shirt would clot to it, it isn't a large wound from top to bottom.)

The nerve cluster gets explained in the film. I will give Serenity credit in that Mal limps away with more than the usual movie hero damage.

  • Thanks for the medical diagrams. :) I do enjoy that Mal, like Indiana Jones and original John McClane, is more vulnerable than your typical American action heroes.
    – Schwern
    Aug 21, 2015 at 1:53
  • 2
    I hate downsalkers, they're worse than trolls. Nice presentation btw.
    – zer00ne
    Aug 21, 2015 at 4:48
  • As an addendum to the answer I would point out that bladed weapons require certain skill and considerable physical training, as it's not as easy as it seems to be. And thrusting blows are way less common than cutting ones due to high risk of being disarmed in exchange for painful but definitely not incapacitating injury. And they require a lot of physical strength to both stuck it in and pull out. In fact, pulling out is harder, as it requires the blade to be twisted in addition to pulling out, else suction from hydrostatic (and other types of) pressure will hold it in place.
    – AcePL
    Jul 18, 2018 at 14:20
  • And it's the pulling out that does most damage to lower body. This is in contrast to upper body thrusts, where the damage is done by the organ itself - a blade in the lung causes more damage with every second it's in the way; same with heart. Also type of blade is crucial - sharp sword is usually on the thin and narrow side. It's easier to "use" but also causes way less damage. And last but not least - usually in combat it's not the damage itself that causes death but blood loss and/or shock from the trauma. That is why cuting wounds are preferable - it's slower but surer way to victory.
    – AcePL
    Jul 18, 2018 at 14:24

It's likely that this is a bit of dramatic license, though one possible explanation is quite convenient:

"Piece of shrapnel tore up that nerve cluster my first tour. Had it moved."

Mal does explain why one attack isn't effective: the Operative's paralytic-jab was aimed at a nerve cluster that Mal had moved during his wartime career. The way he tosses out the explanation, it's clear that moving a nerve cluster isn't a terribly impressive or unusual procedure.

enter image description here

Now, it's never stated explicitly, but it's not hard to imagine that that isn't the only modification/wound he experienced during the war. Even without touching on the more out-there scifi explanations (like genetic treatments and augmented endurance), it's not hard to imagine that soldiers in a future war might receive various drugs or treatments (either during training or as a result of injury) that make them tougher than normal. Hell, we could stretch it even further and say that, since the Operative is using Alliance tech, Mal might have had a special resistance to that Alliance gun, from his time as a Browncoat.

It's definitely speculation, but given that Mal comments on one useful medical procedure in that very scene, it's not too unbelievable that he might have had others, whether deliberate (like standard-issue drugs for Browncoats) or coincidental (like moving a nerve cluster that happened to save his life).

  • 2
    Mal is prone to making understatements like that, though. Even if it were a very unusual procedure, he would know the operative would be surprised by it, and I'd near expect him to willfully understate it.
    – Flater
    May 7, 2015 at 13:17
  • @Flater True. Like I said, it's a stretch, but it's the most plausible scenario I could come up with. Plus, he was a nobody in the war, just another Sergeant on the losing side, so I doubt he would have access to unusual procedures. Maybe it's not super-common, but I doubt a field-surgery for someone like him would be cutting-edge.
    – Nerrolken
    May 7, 2015 at 16:15
  • I kind of meant more that it was unusual in that it'd only be removed for a very specific problem (thus a minute % of people ever having had it), not that it'd be an expensive operation that generally only important people get. But either way, it's speculation :)
    – Flater
    May 8, 2015 at 7:41

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