The 10 Best Deaths in Superhero Movies (10-6)
—by Nathan on September 5, 2017—
Continuing a trend from the previous two blogs, I’m going to cover another theme commonly found in superhero movies: death. Admittedly, the Grim Reaper tends to roam throughout almost every movie, stealing the lives of heroes, villains, love interests, and supporting cast members alike. Comic book movies, however, add another distinct layer on that. Most of these movies have characters based on individuals who first appeared in comics themselves, and some of these comic book counterparts have died in their respective comics. That will definitely play a role in this list; while some may want the merits of the movie deaths to stand on their own (and while that certainly will be the case for some of the entries), I do enjoy it when filmmakers occasionally pay homage to the source material by replicating moments from there, including death scenes.
All that to say, here are my criteria: these deaths largely rank on how they played out, the impact they have on the story or franchise itself, and how the filmmakers crafted the scene around already existing story elements (e.g. if I watched the film again, could I see foreshadowing for these particular deaths?). Admittedly, this is a macabre subject, but considering how important it is in film, why not? Also, I’m carrying over a few rules from my other two-part list, specifically that (1 I have to had seen the movie in order to rank the death and (2 I had to have liked how it was done. For example, Slipknot getting blown away in Suicide Squad seems a bit like a waste of a character, feels too sudden, and was only done to kill off a character to “raise the stakes” for the other members of the team. There was no emotional punch or true storytelling purpose behind this particular demise. The others on this list, while they may vary in impact, hopefully come with some sort of resonance with viewers.
Oh, and I should add this: they had to have stayed dead. So, yes, Phil Coulson’s sacrifice in the Avengers is great, and it unifies the team, but Marvel brought the guy back for Agents of SHIELD, which annuls it. He would certainly be on here otherwise.
NUMBER 10: The Penguin (Batman Returns)
I should make it clear from the start. There are not many villains on this list. A lot of bad guys in these films go out in a flash of light or explosion, so there’s no punch. Also, they’re evil, and we’re kinda happy when the good guys save the day.
Even this one is a bit of a joke, but it’s probably one of the better villain deaths I’ve seen, so that’s one reason it makes the list. The main reason is that it’s hilarious. Near the end of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, is dying, but he has one more opportunity to kill Batman. Grabbing one of his trick umbrellas, he extends it to reveal…a baby mobile. Cursing, he mutters, “I picked the cute one,” before collapsing and being dragged into the water by his penguin henchmen, almost like a macabre burial at sea.
It’s the line that does it for me. It’s just so simple and telling how disappointed Cobblepot is; here’s his last chance to kill Batman, and he screws it up by picking the “cute” umbrella. Why does he even have that option? It’s a line played for laughs, and I love it. The “burial at sea” is also ridiculous, but it’s what we should expect from a 90s Tim Burton Batman film. As mentioned earlier, villains usually go out in a puff of smoke, an explosion, a fall from a great height, or some other unceremonious demise, typically via accident. This one is drawn out and crafted well, and the punchline is spectacular. That’s really the only reason it makes the list, hence why it’s so low on the totem pole.
NUMBER 9: Harry Osborn (Spider-Man 3)
Sam Raimi’s third installment in the Spider-Man film series is often seen as the weakest of the three and the reason why Sony rebooted with the Amazing Spider-Man franchise a few years later. There are too many villains, we get Emo Peter, Venom is shoehorned into the third act…you’ve probably heard the complaints. Harry Osborn’s arc, however, is particularly interesting. He’s a character who developed over the course of all three films, going from hating Spider-Man, to discovering Peter’s secret identity, to coming after him as the new Green Goblin. He gets clonked the head, forgets Peter is Spider-Man, and actually lives a bit of a normal life until he dons the armor once more.
Now, is the amnesia aspect silly? Yes. Does the butler really have to wait years before he tells Harry how Norman really died? No. Yet, despite all that, Harry’s story gets a good finishing touch. His story is similar to the comics in that Harry’s friendship with Peter wavers but that Harry is never truly a “villain.” In both the comics and the film, Harry decides to change at the last moment, saving his family in the comics and saving Peter in the film. Not only does he rescue Peter from the Sandman, he also sacrifices himself by moving in the way of his own glider. Like in the comics, Harry dies rescuing the people he loves.
If I remember correctly, this is one of the film deaths that I regarded as good. I was only twelve at the time, and Spider-Man 3 was really the first movie that I attempted to analyze through a more critical, English-centered lens. Harry’s death is one I hadn’t seen coming and was sad to watch, and those are probably some of the best kinds of deaths in stories: the ones where a character you don’t want to leave dies and creates a void. That’s why I liked it at the time. Since it’s at the end of the film and the movie doesn’t give much time to focus on the impact of the death, it doesn’t score as well, but it’s still a good death.
NUMBER 8: The Waynes (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice)
It should be stated that I do not like Dawn of Justice. There’s a lot that I find wrong with the film, particularly concerning the conflict between its two primary heroes, which is the main point of the film. It’s undeniably weak. Still, the first five minutes of the movie are a-okay.
Audiences have seen the Waynes die a number of times in visual media. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins, the Gotham TV show, and even the Arkham Asylum video game all replicate the scene in some way. It’s an iconic moment from comics, a medium the scene has been reproduced multiple times as well, and it defines who Batman is and what his mission is. Surprisingly, Dawn of Justice does it the best. By this time, of course, I was tired of seeing Batman’s origin, as integral as it is to his story. Yet, Zach Snyder crafts the best Wayne-centric death scene I’ve seen. First, it’s in slow motion. It lingers for a while, focusing on the characters’ faces, the gun, Martha’s pearls. Second, there’s no context. It’s shown in a flashback in Bruce’s memory, so it doesn’t have to treat audiences like kids by rehashing the whole Zorro/Crime Alley bit. It gets straight to the point. Third, and this is probably why it works the best, Thomas Wayne acts. In other versions, he’s seen as passive, maybe stepping in front of his family or trying to talk down their soon-to-be-killer. In this film, he’s different. Writer David S. Goyer also penned Batman Begins, so it’s easy to see how he wanted to do something different. He did. Thomas swings a fist at their assailant, trying to physically stop him. It’s great, probably the most decent part of the whole movie. Thomas Wayne goes from being this brilliant surgeon who was murdered in an alleyway to being a protective father and husband willing to punch this guy’s lights out before he hurts his family. It’s a really good idea.
Sadly, the rest of the film fails to hold up. While Thomas mutters “Martha” as he lies dying, this is a poor use of foreshadowing the whole “Why did you say that name?!?” bit during Superman and Batman’s fight. The whole “Martha” thing between them is stupid. Nevertheless, this scene gave me a spark of hope that, just maybe, this movie was better than critiques said it was. It’s not, but it’s got some of the best first five minutes in a superhero movie. That’s something, right?
NUMBER 7: The Starks (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
This is a death not limited to a single movie. It’s a death that some viewers, including myself, may have thought was not terribly important when it was brought up during Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first film. As you will see, it becomes vital down the line, as I mentioned in my previous blog about plot twists.
In the first Iron Man, we’re told Tony Stark inherited the company after his parent’s death in a car crash. Alright, nothing too odd about that. In the comics, they die the same way. Thus, this is just a way for Tony Stark to come into running the company. Howard Stark is merely an inspiration to Tony and the way he does things. Yet, as the films progress, we learn more. Not only do we learn more about Howard in the first Captain America film, we learn that his “car accident” was not so random in the second. Cap discovers that their death was caused by Hydra. This gives a whole new light to the situation and turns a seemingly random event into something far more sinister, which is a great additional level of storytelling.
Oh, but we’re not done yet! The third Cap film, Civil War, delivers another emotional blow by revealing to audiences and Tony that, specifically, Bucky Barnes the Winter Soldier murdered Tony’s parents in cold blood. Yet another layer is draped over this event, and now the death of the Starks has gone from plot device to being one of the central conflicts in the MCU. It’s a brilliant way to tell a story, peeling back layers at a time to incite discord between Iron Man and Captain America. Of course, this conflict will most likely live on even further, with the release of Infinity War and the idea that heroes will have to once again band together to defeat Thanos. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, even if opening the package is painful.
NUMBER 6: Queen Frigga (Thor: The Dark World)
By now, it may have become apparent that (1 a lot of parents die in this list and (2 not a lot of heroes or major characters have met their end yet. There’s a reason for this: companies are most likely not going to kill off major characters like Batman, or Iron Man, or Spider-Man (and Superman is coming back for Justice League, we know it, don’t deny it) and so resort to crafting conflict around the deaths of other characters, such as members of the supporting cast. While I’m not a huge fan of main characters being killed off, I also don’t see killing off supporting characters as just a plot device or coincidence so “someone” dies. Usually. Quicksilver’s death in Age of Ultron is an exception, because I knew Joss Whedon had teased the death of a character, and he’d introduced three new ones (Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Vision) and I figured one of them would bite the bullet. So there’s little emotion there. Same with Superman in Dawn of Justice. I felt nothing when Doomsday stabbed him, because it was obvious.
Queen Frigga’s demise in Thor: The Dark World, unlike the two previous examples, is a good example of one of those deaths you really don’t see coming (at least, I didn’t). Her character isn’t huge. As queen of Asgard, she does little. But then Malekith and the Dark Elves invade Asgard, and we’re all ready for an epic fight where the good guys beat back the villains and…she’s dead. After a fight with Malekith, she gets killed by Kurse, a hulking warrior under Malekith’s command.
It’s a harsh way to go, stabbed through the back. And it makes Thor mad, really, really mad. So much so he fries half of Malekith’s face. And, interestingly, it makes Loki mad. Loki’s arc in The Dark World is intriguing, and the amount of emotional anguish he shows at hearing about her death shows he actually cared for something outside of himself. He loved Frigga, even if she wasn’t his real mother. It’s interesting that her death is what unifies Thor and Loki, for a moment. Frigga wasn’t just killed to make the audience feel something; she died so the writers could give the two brothers a bond for a short while. And I think it definitely shows another side of Loki, the human, personal side hidden under all the conniving and trickery. It’s a small aspect of him that’s actually real, not fake.
That’s the end of part 1. Part 2, like with other blogs, will go over the top 5 deaths that I have listed. Read on to see if your favorite character had one of my favorite deaths.
That sounds stupid. Ignore that last sentence.