While most people think of comic book movies as silly, over the top action-adventures full of colorful characters wearing elaborate costumes, true fans know that they can be so much more. These heroes, and even many of the villains, have been dragged through the wringer, emotionally speaking. The action scenes may excite audiences, but the emotional baggage is what connects them to the characters. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 (2017), Logan (2017) or even The Dark Knight (2008) aren’t remembered for their amazing action scenes (of which there are many), but instead for the emotional roller coaster that they took audiences on.
In fact, most of the reviews for the “Guardians” sequel talked more about the themes of the film than they did the set pieces. The film’s message about family was what audiences left the theaters thinking about. The studios love to drag their heroes through the mud first, and don’t always give them happy endings. Many of the entries involve death, while others deal with broken hearts, but the one thing that they all have in common is loss. That’s what makes a hero a hero: no matter how much they lose, they keep doing the right thing. Here are the 15 most heartbreaking moments in comic book movies.
SPOILERS: MAJOR Spoilers ahead for various DC and Marvel movies, including the new Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2.
15. GWEN STACY’S DEATH
Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend, was infamously killed off in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973) by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane when she was thrown off the George Washington Bridge (later retconned to the Brooklyn Bridge) by the Green Goblin. Spider-Man caught her with a web, but she either died from the shock of the fall or the sudden stop from the webshot.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) loosely adapted this scene when Gwen (played by Emma Stone) was dropped several stories by Harry Osborn. If watching Peter cradle his girlfriend’s lifeless body wasn’t bad enough, the scene was followed by her funeral, which was followed by shots of Peter visiting her grave, every day, while the seasons changed around him. The Amazing Spider-Man films may not have gotten much right, but they nailed Peter and Gwen’s relationship, and this moment completely shattered fans’ hearts.
14. CAP VISITS PEGGY
After growing close while working together taking down Hydra bases in World War II, Peggy Carter finally kissed Steve Rogers right before he jumped onto the Red Skull’s flying monstrosity. Right before bringing the gigantic airship down over the arctic, he got on the radio and promised to dance with Peggy when he got home. When Rogers woke up nearly 70 years later, he almost immediately brought up the fact that he still owed Peggy that dance.
The duo were reunited in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2015), but the dance would never happen. Rogers visits her in her retirement home, where Peggy’s memory is clearly failing her. As the two reminisce, she forgets who she is talking to for a second and is shocked to see Steve sitting beside her. He comforts her, and makes it clear that he still owes her that dance.
13. RACHEL’S LETTER TO BATMAN
In The Dark Knight (2008), Bruce Wayne has decided that once there’s no longer a need for Batman, he’s going to retire. It seems that his motivation for this is that he wants to settle down with Rachel Dawes, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Unbeknownst to Bruce, however, is that Rachel had chosen Harvey Dent over him, and had decided to marry him.
Before she is kidnapped by the Joker’s thugs and killed in an explosion, she gives a letter to Alfred explaining her intentions. After her death, Alfred reads the letter, and as it’s narrated by Rachel’s voice, it’s revealed that Rachel understood that Bruce would never truly give up being Batman. Alfred decides not to give the letter to Bruce, simply to spare the feelings of the grieving hero.
12. XAVIER BREAKS UP WITH MAGNETO
X-Men: First Class (2011) shows Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr forming the first team of X-Men to take down Sebastian Shaw. While the two form a close friendship, they’re constantly reminded of their differing world views (Lensherr is motivated by revenge for Shaw’s participation in the Holocaust, while Xavier simply seeks peace).
They defeat Shaw, but when the nearby naval vessels launch missiles at the beach, Magneto attempts to turn the missiles back on the warships. Xavier tries to stop him, and during the fight, he gets shot in the spine. Magneto drops the missiles in the ocean and cradles his injured friend, trying to reassure him that they need each other. When he says that they want the same thing, Xavier finally states that they do not, forever shattering their friendship.
11. YONDU AND STARLORD
SPOILERS FOR GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL 2
After being abducted from Earth as a child and being raised by Yondu and his Ravagers, Star-Lord eventually discovers that his father wasn’t from Earth. In Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 (2017), it’s revealed that his biological dad is actually Ego, who describes himself as a Celestial. At first, Star-Lord is ecstatic, until he learns that not only is Ego evil, but he’s also responsible for the death of Star-Lord’s mom.
When Yondu comes to rescue him, Quill finally realizes that he had a dad all along. Even though Yondu raised Quill to be a pirate, he still protected him from Ego and taught him the skills he’d need to make it in life. Unfortunately, Quill realized this too late, as Yondu had to sacrifice himself to save Quill after Ego’s destruction.
10. ODIN REJECTS LOKI
After preventing Thor from taking the throne of Asgard in Thor (2011), Loki successfully tricks Thor into attacking the Frost Giants. This results in Thor getting banished to Earth. Loki then finds out that he isn’t really Odin’s son, but instead a frost giant that Odin rescued as an infant. The ensuing argument causes Odin to fall into the Odinsleep and Loki takes the throne for himself.
Eventually, Thor returns to Asgard and confronts Loki. The two brothers fight on the rainbow bridge, but as they’re about to fall into the abyss below, Odin wakes up and saves them. As Loki hangs over the edge, however, he pleads for his father’s acceptance, which Odin refuses to give. Even after everything Loki gained, all he really wanted was to be accepted in his father’s eyes. Finding that he failed at that, he let’s himself fall, seemingly being lost to the abyss.
9. LOIS LANE DIES
Superman always saves Lois Lane. No matter what situation she gets herself into, he always shows up to save the day (or she saves herself, but the point is, she survives). That was what made the ending of Superman (1978) so shocking: Lois Lane got caught in an earthquake, her car was swallowed in a crack in the Earth and she died. Superman came to save her, but he was too late.
The scene was followed by one of the most ridiculous moments in any comic book movie, where Superman flies so fast around the Earth that he reverses the flow of time (or goes back in time, which makes marginally more sense). As over-the-top as that moment is, it’s grounded by the emotion of the scene. Superman finding Lois broke him emotionally, as it showed that even with all of his power, he could still fail.
8. BRUCE FIRES ALFRED
After the death of the Waynes, Alfred Pennyworth was left in charge of raising their young, orphaned son, Bruce. Even after the he grew up and became Batman, Alfred still felt a fatherly connection to Bruce, and in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), he reveals that all he truly wants for Bruce is for him to be happy. As he sees Bruce falling back into the Batman persona, he decides to take drastic steps.
When Alfred reveals to Bruce that he burned Rachel’s letter, which revealed that she was going to marry Harvey Dent, he knows he’s about to ruin their relationship. He’d rather have Bruce hate him than see him waste his life in the memory of something that never would have been anyway. Bruce fires Alfred, and he isn’t seen again until he’s crying over Bruce’s grave towards the end of the movie.
7. CAP CAN’T GET DRUNK
While trying to capture Arnim Zola as his train sped across a snowy mountainside, Bucky Barnes gets knocked out of the side of the speeding train and seemingly falls to his death in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Bucky had been Steve Rogers’ friend since childhood, and Rogers had personally recruited Bucky onto his team. Even though it was later revealed that Bucky survived the fall, at the time everyone believed he was dead.
Later on, Peggy Carter comes across Rogers sitting alone in a bar, trying to drink his pain away. Unfortunately, his super soldier metabolism prevents the alcohol from affecting his system, forcing Steve to fully confront his pain. Even though Peggy attempts to comfort him, the scene makes it clear just how lonely Rogers now feels without his best friend by his side.
6. HARRY OSBORN DIES
Spider-Man 3 (2007) may have had its problems, but it nailed the relationship between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn. The two had been best friends, until Harry learned Peter was Spider-Man, who he believed had killed his father. After terrorizing Peter for most of the movie, the two fight it out, ending with a pumpkin bomb exploding in Harry’s face, permanently scarring him.
It isn’t until the end of the movie that Harry forgives Peter, and the two team up to save Mary Jane from Sandman and Venom. Just when it looks like their friendship is back on, Harry jumps in front of Peter just as Venom tries to stab him with a jagged piece of metal. He ends up dying from his wounds, but not before Harry tells Peter that despite everything that happens, they’re still friends.
5. COULSON’S CAPTAIN AMERICA TRADING CARDS
In The Avengers (2012) it was revealed that Agent Coulson was actually a huge fan of Captain America, and his desire to have Cap sign his complete set of Captain America trading cards is brought up several times. At first, it just seems like a joke, but after Coulson is killed by Loki, Nick Fury uses them to inspire the Avengers into working together for once.
He shows the bloody cards to Cap and Tony Stark, revealing that Coulson never did get them signed. It’s later revealed that Fury faked the blood on the cards, but the moment still resonates. Coulson died before getting to see his heroes pull it together and work as a team, although he did become the thing that they would ultimately avenge.
4. THE TURTLES DISCOVER SPLINTER IS MISSING
Unlike the popular cartoon from the ’80s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) had a surprisingly dark tone. There were still plenty of silly moments, and the turtles were still obsessed with pizza and the word “cowabunga,” but the movie also dealt with plenty of grown up themes. In an early scene, Splinter warns the turtles that he won’t always be around, which leaves Donatello pondering the possibility of Splinter dying.
Things ultimately come to a head when, while the turtles are out with April, the Foot Clan launches a surprise attack on their hideout. The turtles return to find the place trashed and Splinter missing. After Raphael lets out a pained cry, they return to April’s. When she answers the door, the normally jovial turtles all stand silently, only able to whimper the word “Splinter…”
3. BLADE KILLS HIS MOM
When his mother was attacked by a vampire while pregnant, it resulted in Blade being born as a hybrid human / vampire, granting him strength without any weakness from the sun. He devotes his life to hunting down the monsters and finding the monster that killed his mom. When Deacon Frost attempts to awaken an ancient vampire god and take over the world in Blade (1998), this ultimately leads the vampire hunter to making a horrific discovery.
It turns out, his mother didn’t die but was instead turned into a vampire. Not only that, but Deacon Frost was the one who turned her, and is now her master. In order to stop Frost, Blade is forced to kill his mother, who had only just been reunited with. It’s a cold moment, but Blade shows a hint of remorse as he whispers “I release you” to his dying mother.
2. DR. MANHATTAN KILLS RORSCHACH
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) might not have been a perfect adaptation of the original comic book, but there was one moment that it definitely nailed. After discovering that Adrian Veidt had been responsible for destroying several of the world’s major cities and framing Dr Manhattan in order to provide the United States and Russia with a common enemy. This deception brings peace to the world, and the heroes are forced to accept it.
Well, everyone accepts it… except for Rorschach, who can’t compromise his sense of right and wrong. Even when confronted by Dr Manhattan, he refuses to relent. He knows that the only other option is death, which he angrily embraces. It’s a tragic ending to the only character in the movie who truly believes in absolutes, as opposed to letting the ends justify the means.
1. LOGAN FINALLY DIES
After over a decade of watching Wolverine get shot, stabbed and even caught in atomic blasts, Logan (2017) finally killed the character off. After years of unknowingly ingesting a genetic dampener that’s being secretly placed in the world’s food supply, Logan’s healing factor isn’t as strong as it normally is, and he’s become very sick. It doesn’t help that his very adamantium is poisoning him. During the finale of the film, he’s forced to fight a genetic clone of himself (who is at full power), in order to save X-23, a younger female clone of himself.
The evil clone is killed, but not before it fatally wounds Logan. As he sits dying, he shares his final moments with X-23, the closest thing he has to a daughter. He tells her not to be a weapon, which is what they were both designed to be. After burying him, X-23 marks his grave with an X instead of a cross.
Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, will be released on June 2, 2017 and will probably have some sad scenes in it as well.
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