Death is the great equalizer. Even for demigods, mutants and superheroes of the highest order, the Grim Reaper must occasionally pay a visit. From Batman to Jean Grey, and Superman to Peter Parker, our favorite heroes are all written and developed by mere mortals. As such, the hourglass of time etched into our collective DNA will influence even the seemingly immortal characters created by Marvel and DC writers. Though death is rarely final in the world of comics, no one is ever truly safe, either.
There have been countless superhero deaths over the years, but some have proven so influential that even the most clever retcons couldn’t reduce their power. While the significance of each superhero’s passing depends on the audience, certain deaths will long be remembered not only for their emotional power, but for their seismic effect on the universe they left behind.
Ranked in order, here are the 15 Biggest Superhero Deaths Of All Time.
15. Green Arrow (Green Arrow #101, 1995)
It was the end of an era and one of the most confounding moments in superhero history. When Oliver Queen needlessly jammed his hand into a bomb detonator, he effectively ended his life on his own terms. It was a heroic but hellish conclusion to the life of the first Green Arrow.
Here’s how it went down: Queen embarked on a mission to bring down an eco-terrorist group known as the Eden Corps. He penetrated the organization by way of the sultry Hyrax, CEO of the villainous gang. After their fling goes sideways, the pair fight at 30,000 feet aboard a cargo plane where Hyrax intends to ignite a mega-bomb built to level Metropolis. She clearly explains to Queen that the detonator is a “double deadman switch,” which means two individuals insert their hands, pull and release their respective triggers, then get atomized instantly. For reasons unknown, Queen then jams his arm into the double deadman switch and enables the bomb to blow all by himself.
Enter Superman, who then proceeds to list countless ways he could save Queen. The Emerald Archer won’t budge, and though he’s torn between going down with the ship and getting his arm amputated, he elects to go nuclear. In a blaze of glory, Oliver Queen ignites the bomb and dies in the explosion.
14. Supergirl (Crisis on Infinite Earths, 1985)
In Crisis on Infinite Earths, Clark Kent was reduced to the Man of Sorrow when his cousin, Kara Zor-El, died in his arms. Though the editors at DC Comics essentially offed Supergirl to help consolidate their universe, they sent her out in truly grand fashion. This will long be remembered as one of the most significant and somber deaths in comics history.
Indeed, the end of Supergirl sent shock-waves through the comic book world of 1985. After all, Kara was of the same flesh and blood as Superman. Her death dealt a serious blow to his life. While the Man of Steel nursed his wounds from fruitless attacks against the all-powerful Anti-Monitor, Supergirl threw herself into an ill-fated battle. Though quickly enfeebled by the villain’s radioactive energy, she fought with valiance before succumbing to Anti-Monitor’s final coup de grace. Always Christ-like in appearance, Superman clutched his cousin’s dead body in a pietà pose and wailed for all the world to hear.
13. Nightcrawler (X-Men: Second Coming, 2010)
In a true reversal of fortune, Nightcrawler is killed by the very methods that defined his illustrious career. In X-Men: Second Coming, the Super-Sentinel villain, Bastion, wields an increasingly lethal amount of power. When Nightcrawler learns of Hope Summer’s endangerment and that she has become Bastion’s primary target, he teleports to protect her. Knowing the strength of his enemy, however, Bastion predicts Nightcrawler’s imminent arrival and sticks his arm out where he expects him to materialize.
Like a vertical spear, Bastion’s metallic appendage eviscerates Nightcrawler and mortally wounds him. Knowing the end is near, Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler), a devout Catholic, beseeches God to grant him a final teleportation. His prayers are answered, and he takes Hope to Utopia Island where he succumbs to his wounds. Since his death, however, Kurt has continued to play a role in the X-Men universe, even helping Wolverine in battle and helping defend Heaven from his father, Azazel.
12. Green Lantern (Final Night #4, 1996)
As Hal Jordan learned, glorious death is the ultimate way to salvage a lost reputation. In Final Night #4, Jordan atones for his earlier sins by paying the ultimate sacrifice. In this 1996 crossover series, the Sun-Eater is declared an impending threat to Earth by the foreboding alien, Dusk. When her warning comes true, and the Earth’s sun is stripped of its power, our world begins to crumble. The Justice League try to stop Sun-Eater, and even Lex Luthor sets aside his personal ambitions to work alongside them, but the League’s best efforts are ultimately fruitless.
Enter Hal Jordan, erstwhile Green Lantern now in the megalomaniac state of Parallax. Committing to what no other superhero had the gall to do, Parallax destroyed the Sun-Eater, then consumed and transferred its power to help restart the sun. This was the ultimate redemption for Hal Jordan, who had seemingly lost himself in the parasitic power of Parallax.
11. Captain Marvel (The Death of Captain Marvel, 1982)
Not all superheroes shuffle off their mortal coils in the heat of battle. In 1982, Captain Marvel bade farewell via a distinctly human end, dying of cancer while surrounded by his comrades in arms. As one of the first major superhero deaths, the passing of Captain Marvel leveled readers with its depiction of a humble conclusion to an otherwise exceptional life.
While warding off Nitro from acquiring the deadly nerve gas, Compound 13, Mar-Vell soundly defeats his enemy. The Compound 13 containers explode, however, and though our hero successfully contains the damage, he is exposed to malignant toxins. Knocked unconscious by the contagions’ powers, Mar-Vell later develops cancer from Compound 13. While his days of victory were far from over, they were undoubtedly limited. On his death bed, Captain Marvel slipped into the afterlife with all manner of friend and foe by his bedside, including enemy Skrulls who gave him a medal in their people’s honor.
10. Charles Xavier (Avengers vs X-Men, 2012)
As the primary advocate of a pro-mutant world, Charles Xavier was in many ways the father most X-Men never had. He was a refuge for those in hiding and a bastion of strength for those seeking to implement their natural-born gifts. Therefore, as in all forms of tragedy — whether Greek or Marvel — patricide remains one of the hardest forms of murder to stomach.
In Avengers Vs. X-Men, we are reminded of this fact. When Cyclops’s allegiance to the Phoenix Force grows stronger, he resists the paternal commands of Xavier, who urges him to return to his principles of patience and virtue. In a fit of rage, Cyclops balks at Xavier’s requests and submits to the Phoenix, killing Professor X in the most public of settings. Surrounded by X-Men and Avengers alike, Cyclops vaporizes the bald telepath for all to see. In a comic universe with a dearth of substantive deaths, this was a resounding statement that declared the end of an era for the mutant universe.
9. Peter Parker, Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #700, 2012)
In 2004, Spider-Man 2 set the box office ablaze while delivering the (then) best reviewed comic-book movie of all time. While Sam Raimi’s film fired on all cylinders, his Spidey sequel earned critical attention thanks to its multifaceted villain, Doctor Octopus. As the mad scientist, Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), “Doc Ock” was a terrifying and tragic villain whose softer side was overshadowed by his menacing and autonomous claws.
Though Ock had an honorable death at the end of the movie, the tables were turned in Amazing Spider-Man #700. In this fateful issue, Peter Parker dies in battle against Doc Ock, who possesses the web-slinger’s mind and then inhabits his body. As the new Spider-Man, Ock wars with his internal penchant for wrongdoing and strives to uphold the standards of justice Peter Parker so valiantly embodied. As he proclaims, “You may be leaving this world, but you are not leaving it to a villain. I swear. I will be Spider-Man.” It’s a changing of the guard that ends Peter’s life while purportedly maintaining his “Amazing” legacy for a new generation of the “Superior Spider-Man.”
8. Phoenix (Uncanny X-Men #137, 1980)
In classical mythology, the Phoenix lives out its days, immolates itself, then rises anew from the ashes. So it is with Jean Grey’s Phoenix in X-Men lore, as she remains one of Marvel’s characters most readily adjusted to death and resurrection. Though she has been killed in multiple scenarios, the most famous death of Jean Grey was her sacrifice in the 1980 Uncanny X-Men.
Not all iterations of the Phoenix are friendly. After Jean Grey’s Dark Phoenix left an entire solar system destroyed and billions of lives erased, she justly stood trial before the Shi’ar. While the subverting powers of the Phoenix worked to save Jean and overpower her once more, she rejected their influence and sacrificed herself with the advanced weapons of the Shi’ar. Though Jean Grey’s innocence in the extermination of the star system is worth defending (given the Phoenix’s mind control), her sacrifice remains one of the most epic in Marvel history.
7. Rorschach (Watchmen, 1986)
“Who watches the Watchmen?” This has been a central question to governing ethics since the Roman poet Juvenal first posed it in the 2nd Century. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the very heart of the matter finds its voice in Rorschach’s binary view of the world. He only sees the fully capitalized opposites of Right and Wrong, with absolutely nothing in between. Even his black and white prismatic mask embodies this disciplined outlook and shields himself from the grey matter, the realm in which the unscrupulous Ozymandias so comfortably lives.
While repudiating Dr. Manhattan’s choices, who readily defends Ozymandias’ genocidal actions, Rorschach’s adherence to his beliefs ultimately gets him killed. The ends don’t justify the means, not even in the face of Armageddon. “Never compromise,” the motto by which he lived, becomes the fuel of his demise. Dr. Manhattan extinguishes Rorschach’s body in an instant, and though he leaves hardly any trace of his existence behind, the vigilante’s ideals live on.
6. Wolverine (Death of Wolverine, 2014)
Having lived a long life of second chances and regeneration, thanks to his adamantium fusion, Wolverine finally called it quits. He had already been weakened from a virus that rendered his regeneration abilities useless, and his aptitude for vengeance steadily became more precarious. Having survived multiple random attacks in recent weeks, Logan learned that his Weapon X progenitor, Dr. Abraham Cornelius, had ordered his assassination. Logan then set out to rectify the bounty, and while his attacks remained as deadly as ever, he learned that Cornelius intended to fuse even more innocent people with the adamantium. Logan then used his claws to rip open the Adamantium vats and allowed himself to be drenched him in their liquid, sparing the lives of Cornelius’ captors.
Covered in the very serum that once powered his indestructible body, Wolverine was finally footing the bill for a life of blank checks. While coated in the adamantium and slowly suffocating as a result, Logan stabs Cornelius and then turns to face the horizon. With the sun in his eyes, Wolverine breathes his last as the serum ossifies his body.
5. Captain America (Captain America #25, 2007)
Some superhero deaths slip under the radar, while others destroy all sense of reality. The life and times of Captain America fell in the latter category, and his violent death shaped the Marvel Universe like a Roland Emmerich movie levels a city. The assassination of Captain America by Sharon Carter (by way of the Red Skull) was like the murder of Abraham Lincoln, a death that split the country at the seams. How appropriate, then, that the conclusion of Civil War should end with the termination of the most distinctly patriotic symbol in the Marvel universe.
Indeed, the death of Steve Rodgers’ Captain America made headlines as if he were a real individual. Cap may have gotten shot in the back, then executed by a brainwashed Sharon Carter, but he died trying to save the life of a police officer. No bomb plots or intergalactic chases were necessary — Captain America was simply a casualty caught in a firefight between freedom and tyranny.
4. Jason Todd, Robin (Batman #428, 1988)
There was no honor in the death of Jason Todd, only brutality. It was a life cut short by the vicious voters of the DC Universe who elected to eliminate Batman’s most famous sidekick. The final tally was 5,343 in favor of animated execution, just seventy-two votes more than those pleading for Todd’s survival. Though a bomb detonation ultimately claimed his life, Todd first endured the crowbar cruelty of the Clown Prince of Crime. Gotham has long been the home of tremendous crime and violence, but these bloody panels were among the most demoralizing in Batman’s murky history.
Indeed, when the Dark Knight learned of Todd’s death, he entered into a world of self-enforced despondency that drove him to build a shrine of Robin’s costume in the Batcave. Though time has passed since the death of his friend (and he’s even come back to life), Bruce Wayne pays homage to the boy he wished he could’ve protect, and the victim of the villain he’ll never forget.
3. Batman (Final Crisis)
In Final Crisis #6, Superman cradles the broken body of a fried and emaciated Batman. Given the Caped Crusader’s resilience since his debut in 1939, the death of Batman is almost hard to process. Fans who read Final Crisis ironically had the same feeling about the labyrinthine plot, where all manner of metaphysical and moral villainy collided for a truly epic comic book tale. Despite the convoluted story, no one misunderstood that Batman bit the bullet. While Darkseid taunted him about the destruction of Earth, Batman had no qualms about breaking his one rule.
Loading a gun with the very bullet that killed Orion, the Dark Knight rationalizes this impending murder and takes the shot at Darkseid. Just as the bullet clips his shoulder, the Lord of Apokolips unleashes his radioactive Omega Beams and effectively incinerates his opponent. Although the apparent death of Batman lingers for a fleeting moment, the images of his charred corpse will last a lifetime.
2. The Flash (Crisis on Infinite Earths, #8, 1985)
Pheidippides is said to have run himself to death when sprinting from Marathon to Athens. To spread word of victory against the Persians, the Greek sprinter delivered the good news then died immediately after. Perhaps this Greek legend inspired the most gut-wrenching death in comics lore, the sacrifice of Barry Allen.
As the story unfolds, the Flash goes to great lengths to defeat the Anti-Monitor in the anti-matter planet of Qward. While the destructive villain prepares his cannon to subsume the still surviving earths, the Flash recruits the villain’s Thunderer slaves to rebel against their evil master. Though this is merely a ploy, and the Anti-Monitor quickly subdues the insurrection, the Flash uses this distraction to locate the cannon’s anti-matter energy core. Knowing what must be done, he runs faster than ever before. While he successfully causes the cannon to self-destruct, the Flash’s speed is so immense that he steadily loses the unity of his sentient body and disintegrates into nothingness. However thankless his sacrifice may have been, the Flash saved the lives of countless billions on truly infinite earths.
1. Superman, (Superman #75, 1992)
Though he battled Doomsday with valor, Superman truly met his match with the hulking super villain. While wrecking Metropolis Zack Snyder-style, the duo played to kill and left nothing in the tank. With the Daily Planet in the background, they both threw a final haymaker at one another and then called an end to their aggression. Always the placid hero, Superman died quietly in the arms of Lois Lane.
Sparing no spoilers, the death of Superman was telegraphed in the comic book’s title. Indeed, The Death of Superman was the conclusion of Kal-El’s heroic life and arguably the most important event in the DC Universe. Ever since the Man of Steel caved to his mortality, countless resurrections for other key superheroes were then made possible (as many of the heroes on this list can attest). Still, when it was published in 1992, The Death of Superman reverberated within the pages of subsequent issues — and throughout the world of comics.
What other superhero deaths left you in shock? Tell us in the comments section!