From their repetitive origins to good’s inevitable triumph over evil, superhero movies aren’t exactly cinema’s most surprising genre. While traditional superhero tales can still be thrilling adventures, a character’s death can raise the stakes in a superhero movie to a whole new level. Whether characters were doomed by their comic book history or made unexpected sacrifices, their deaths add a human moment of pain to bloodless CGI-spectacles. Even if these characters are resurrected by some fantastic means, their deaths can be a legitimate agent of chance in a genre that naturally reverts to the status quo.
Whether they inspired a hero’s journey or brought a beloved character to a bitter end, these deaths have tugged at audiences’ heartstrings and caused more than a few teary eyes. Now, CBR is counting down some of the most heart-breaking deaths in superhero movies. For this list, we’ll be looking back at times characters actually died in live-action superhero movies, even if they were later resurrected. We won’t be including characters like Groot or the Winter Solider, who seemingly died but survived in some capacity. While some of the more recently-deceased characters on this list might find a way to avoid death’s icy grasp, we’ll be including anyone who is presumed dead as of this writing.
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Logan and almost every other superhero movie ever made.
15. UNCLE BEN AND THE WAYNES
The deaths of Ben Parker, Thomas Wayne and Martha Wayne are among the most important events in superhero history. By inspiring Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne to start their respective crusades against crime, their deaths provided solid foundations for two of comics’ greatest heroes. Even though they’ve been filmed a ludicrous number of times, they still have enough emotional resonance to be at least somewhat compelling for most audience members.
For these deaths to really work, audiences need to feel their presence in their children’s lives. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Cliff Robertson’s Uncle Ben exuded a fatherly decency and strong moral character that made his famous words about power and responsibility ring true. While Sara Stewart’s Martha Wayne was drastically underserved, Linus Roache’s Thomas Wayne’s lessons about fearlessness and civic duty shaped Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and the rest of his Dark Knight trilogy.
14. THE FUTURE X-MEN
After six X-Men movies, some of Marvel’s most beloved mutants finally arrived on the big screen in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014. Unfortunately, most of them were slaughtered minutes after their debut. After an impressive action sequence, Fan Bingbing’s Blink, Adan Canto’s Sunspot, Booboo Stewart’s Warpath and Omar Sy’s Bishop died brutally in a Sentinel-controlled future.
Although that timeline was eventually erased, several more established X-Men were also slaughtered. Halle Berry’s Storm was impaled by a Sentinel’s spiked arm, and Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman was decapitated. Sentinels also ripped off the arm of Daniel Cudmore’s Colossus before crushing his organic steel skull. Even though this particular dystopian future was avoided, Logan revealed that some of the X-Men presumably met an equally bleak demise when Xavier’s powers malfunctioned. Despite that, Jamie Chung’s Blink will get another chance at life as on The Gifted, due out later this year.
13. GWEN STACY
While Marc Webb’s pair of Spider-Man movies weren’t exactly critical darlings, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy was one of those films’ strongest points. With a surprising faithfulness to the comics, Stone’s Stacy was smart, utterly charming and had a believable, effortless chemistry with Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker.
Of course, Gwen Stacy’s most famous moment came with her death in 1973’s Amazing Spider-Man #121, by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane. That death cemented Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, as Spider-Man’s greatest foe, and became a watershed moment in the superhero genre. In 2014’s crowded Amazing Spider-Man 2, Stacy’s inevitable cinematic death occurred during a CGI-filled battle with Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin, Harry Osborn. Despite the film’s flaws, this quiet, slow motion scene and her limp corpse gave the movie a grim finale. It’s currently unclear whether or not Gwen Stacy will get another chance at life this summer in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Almost a decade before the cast of Watchmen joined the DC Universe in DC Rebirth, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen brought Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal work to life in 2009. While the film divided critics, its operatic darkness predicted Snyder’s Superman films in the DC Extended Universe. Despite some major changes in the final act, the adaptation was dominated by almost-too-faithful recreations of moments from the landmark comic.
Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as the unhinged vigilante Rorschach gave the film some of its most thrilling moments. Like his comic counterpart, Rorschach accepted his inevitable death after discovering Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan’s casualty-filled plot to save the world from itself. His death allowed him to stay true to his uncompromising moral philosophy and highlighted the power and increasingly distant humanity of Billy Crudup’s Manhattan, his former teammate.
11. PEGGY CARTER
In 2011, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter stole the show in Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Through two seasons of her own show, Agent Carter, and her cameos throughout the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she co-founded S.H.I.E.L.D. and continued the good fight while Chris Evans’ Captain America was on ice.
Unlike most of the other deaths on this list, Carter’s death didn’t actually happen on screen. In 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Steve Rogers met with an aged and ailing Carter in a nursing home. Since she wasn’t seen again before her funeral in the Russo’s 2016 follow-up, Captain America: Civil War, that scene served as her de facto goodbye. Although she said that she had lived a full life, the melancholy moment hinted at the shared life that was stolen from them by time and circumstance.
10. DOCTOR OCTOPUS
Long before Doctor Octopus tried to prove himself as the Superior Spider-Man, Alfred Molina turned Otto Octavius into one of Marvel’s better cinematic villains in 2004’s Spider-Man 2. In Sam Raimi’s film, Molina’s Octavius was a cultured, kind man in a loving marriage who mentored Toby Maguire’s eager Peter Parker.
After a lab accident took his wife and bonded his trademark tentacles to his nervous system, Doctor Octopus acted more in line with his comic book origins. Even then, his actions were mitigated by the growing influence of his tentacles’ artificial intelligence. In the film’s climax, Octopus finally reasserted his control over his metallic arms and died to keep his fusion reactor from blowing up New York City. While not undercutting his role as the film’s villain, this redeemed the character and reaffirmed him as a more likeable character than his comic counterpart.
9. HARRY OSBORN
James Franco’s Harry Osborn, Spider-Man 2‘s other antagonist, also met a redeeming end after tangling with Spider-Man. As in the comics, Harry blamed Spider-Man for the death of his father Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. In Sam Raimi’s last Spider-Man film, 2007’s Spider-Man 3, Harry adopted elements of the Green Goblin’s arsenal to become the New Goblin.
With a hoverboard and a costume more suited for extreme sports, Harry’s New Goblin was one of three villains Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man had to deal with in a crowded feature. After lightly menacing his former friend, Harry discovered that his father accidentally impaled himself on the Goblin Glider and rushed to Spider-Man’s aid. After he was also impaled by his glider, he reconciled with Parker and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane in his dying moments. Despite the film’s flaws, this quiet moment gave that film’s three central characters a fitting sense of closure.
8. AGENT COULSON
Although writer/director Joss Whedon is notorious for killing off fan-favorite characters, the death of Clark Gregg’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson in 2012’s The Avengers still came as a shock. After his debut in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Coulson helped tie the early releases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. As the newly-formed team struggled to cooperate, Loki stabbed Coulson through the chest while escaping S.H.I.E.L.D. custody.
While this moment was jarring in its graphic brutality, it helped unite the Avengers. As Coulson noted in his final moments, the team needed something to “avenge.” As detailed extensively in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury used Project T.A.H.I.T.I. to revive his fallen friend with an alien-derived treatment. Although he hasn’t appeared in any subsequent films, his death has been cheapened somewhat by his presence on the long-running series, which has been renewed for a fifth season, set to premiere in January 2018.
In 2013, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy portrayed Michael Rooker’s Yondu as a ruthless, opportunistic space pirate with few redeeming qualities. While this was a dramatic departure from the character’s comic book history, it served the film well and gave Rooker a chance to play the kind of endearing renegade he excels at.
Earlier this year, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 used those few redeeming qualities to set-up Yondu’s heroic sacrifice. After Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord discovered his biological father’s true intentions, Yondu revealed that he adopted a young Star-Lord to save him from his father’s grasp. As he sacrificed his life to save Star-Lord once again, Yondu completed his transformation from lovable rogue into full-fledged father figure. While it’s unclear whether or not he’ll appear again, his noble death brought the Guardians and the Ravagers, the MCU’s version of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, back together.
6. JEAN GREY
Thanks to the Phoenix Force, death and Jean Grey have been intertwined for decades. In Bryan Singer’s X2, Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey seemingly died saving the X-Men on the big screen in 2003. As Brett Ratner’s sequel, X-Men: The Last Stand, revealed in 2006, her sacrifice only unleashed a dark, powerful personality called the Phoenix.
In this very loose adaption of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s landmark “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” the Phoenix joined Magneto’s Brotherhood and killed Cyclops and Professor X. During an all-out assault on San Francisco, Grey briefly regained control of her powers and begged Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine to kill her. Logan’s decision to kill the woman he loved haunted him and was a key part of James Mangold’s 2013 film, The Wolverine. While her initial death was lost in the shuffle of the crowded X-Men movie, revisiting Logan’s pain added a retroactive poignancy to the moment.
5. PROFESSOR X
Even though Patrick Stewart’s Professor X died in the middle of X-Men: The Last Stand, his return began in that film’s post-credits sequence. While time-traveling shenanigans eventually erased that movie’s timeline, Charles Xavier met an even more depressing end earlier this year in James Mangold’s Logan. After a seizure caused his telepathic powers to spike and kill most of the X-Men, he lived a life of seclusion in an increasingly dystopian world.
After encouraging Logan to bond with his cloned daughter, Dafne Keen’s X-23, Xavier was killed by the feral Wolverine clone X-24. In his final moments, Xavier looked into the face of his friend’s clone, also played by Jackman, as claws plunged through his chest. In the same way that his powers betrayed him and destroyed his dream, Xavier momentarily felt a similar betrayal before dying in the real Logan’s arms.
4. RACHEL DAWES
Initially, Rachel Dawes was one of the more curious parts of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. With no direct antecedent in the comics, her first appearance was in Nolan’s Batman Begins. In that 2005 film, Katie Holmes’ Dawes served as a link to Gotham’s District Attorney, a tangible link to Bruce Wayne’s childhood and Wayne’s conscience.
In 2008, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Dawes served as the Assistant District Attorney in Nolan’s urban epic, The Dark Knight. While Christian Bale’s Wayne and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent vied for her affections, she played a vital role as the film’s complex tapestry unfolded. After she and Dent were both kidnapped by Heath Ledger’s Joker, the Joker’s misdirection kept Batman and the police from reaching her in time to save her life. The unexpectedly brutality of this moment was punctuated by her death in mid-sentence. Her death helped shatter Nolan’s Batman and left him grieving for years.
3. STEVE TREVOR
In Patty Jenkins’ recently-released Wonder Woman, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor was an unexpected highlight. With a performance that slipped effortlessly from charming befuddlement to tireless dedication, he made a pitch-perfect partner for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, on the battlefield and off. With his rugged every-man demeanor, he was a perfect guide to the wonders of Themyscira and the horrors of World War I.
At the film’s climax, Trevor’s ultimate sacrifice served as another stark reminder of the human costs of war. Their final, briefly unheard, moment together inspired Wonder Woman and made her final bout with the embodiment of war, David Thewlis’ Ares, even more personal than it already was. Considering the praise that Pine’s performance has received, only time will tell if audiences have really seen the last of Steve Trevor.
In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon had to deal with Quicksilver, an Avenger who was already a breakout star in Fox’s unrelated X-Men movies. To make the MCU version of the character stand out, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver was heavily influenced by his Eastern European roots and his relationship with his sister, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.
The MCU Quicksilver’s most defining moment was his shocking death in the heat of battle. While Quicksilver has been one of the longest-serving Avengers in comics, his cinematic tenure with the team came to an unexpected halt in one of Whedon’s trademark surprise deaths. After bickering with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye for most of the movie, Pietro Maximoff sacrificed his life to save his fellow Avenger and a child from a barrage of bullets. As Maximoff said to both Hawkeye and the audience with his dying breath, “You didn’t see that coming.”
With a powerful healing factor, Wolverine is usually close to immortal. On film, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine survived everything from car crashes to atomic bombs without a lasting mark. That’s part of what made his death in James Mangold’s Logan so affecting. Even though Jackman’s Logan still cut an imposing figure, years of endless violence and berserker rages had finally taken their toll.
Shortly after losing his surrogate father, Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier, Logan died saving his surrogate daughter, Dafne Keen’s X-23, from a younger, more vicious clone of himself. This literalized the inner battle between civilized warrior and feral weapon that made Wolverine the icon he is today. By urging X-23 to reject her violent nature, Logan tried to steer her away from the parts of himself that ultimately took his life. In his moving final moments as Wolverine, Jackman gave one of comics’ biggest superheroes a quiet, fitting end.
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