Comic book movies have come a long way in recent years, managing to mix a healthy amount of character development and emotion alongside the CGI alien battles. Now viewers are just as invested in a character’s internal struggle as they are in watching them punch bad guys, which is a nice development.
If there is one area superhero movies are constantly criticized for – and fairly, in some cases – is that audiences know the heroes won't die. Sure, they can take a mighty beating and someone they care about can perish, but since fans know the actor or actress have signed a 3 or 4 picture deal, the odds of their character dying permanently are remote.
This can rob the movie of tension, and few franchises are brave enough to kill off an important character and keep them buried. Thankfully, not every comic book movie marches to the same beat, and there are numerous examples of perma-death in superhero films.
It can be a major supporting character who's been with the franchise from the beginning or an important villain. In special circumstances, even the hero themselves will meet a tearful end. So, let’s look at the 15 Most Shocking (And Permanent) Comic Book Movie Deaths, and see how they affected the franchise.
15 Rachel Dawes - The Dark Knight
While it was disappointing to some that Katie Holmes chose not to reprise her role as Rachel from Batman Begins, most would agree the switch to Maggie Gyllenhaal was for the best. Her take on the character was more self-assured, and her chemistry with Christian Bale felt a little more natural.
Rachel found herself having to choose between two heroes in The Dark Knight, ultimately opting for Harvey Dent. On the flipside, Bruce Wayne’s arc is him coming to realize he’ll have to pay a personal price for his crusade, and The Joker is determined to make sure he pays up.
He targets Rachel to prove this, and the love of our hero's life is shockingly killed in a warehouse explosion to cap off the second act. The consequences of her death are far ranging; it drives Harvey to seek revenge and become a killer, and it haunts Bruce to the point of retiring Batman for years afterwards. It was a turning point for the character and the trilogy, however, proving the story had real stakes.
14 Quicksilver - Avengers: Age Of Ultron
There was rejoicing in the streets the day Joss Whedon was announced as the director of The Avengers, because if any helmer could balance that many iconic characters and give them snappy banter to deliver, it was him.
Fans also knew it likely meant someone had to die, but it could hardly be any of the main cast. Poor Agent Coulson drew the short straw there, even if his end was somewhat short-lived. Whedon was determined to give Age Of Ultron a harsher edge, since it was conceived as a war movie. A hero had to die, with newbie Quicksilver being chosen for the honor.
He meets his end shielding Hawkeye and a child from gunfire, and – so far, at least – he hasn’t come back from the dead. An alternate ending was shot where he’s saved by his rapid healing factor and appears in the final line-up with a nifty new outfit, but Marvel stuck to the original plan and went with the tragic outcome.
13 Microchip - Punisher: War Zone
Microchip isn’t a favorite of many Punisher fans, since he was introduced to provide the character with a buddy and make him more high-tech. He was eventually killed off by The Punisher himself, who then returned to his lone wolf roots.
The character finally appeared onscreen in the second Punisher reboot War Zone, played by reliable character actor Wayne Knight. Due to Knight’s comic timing, he’s a lot less irritating than his comic counterpart, and he actually provides some moments of lightness.
War Zone was presumably designed to set up a series of Punisher movies, and it felt like Micro would become his version of Q from the Bond movies. The finale proved this wasn’t the case, when main villain Jigsaw forces Castle to chose between Micro and a pair of innocent hostages. Microchip gets a bullet to the brain, but The Punisher quickly – and gruesomely – extracts his vengeance. The sheer bluntness of his execution is what makes it so startling, and even if a sequel happened, the character definitely wasn’t returning.
12 The Shredder - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze
The Shredder already escaped certain death in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, when Casey Jones “accidentally” tries to crush him to death in the back of a trash compactor. The villain survived this fate - somehow - and returned for the sequel
He learns the secret of the mutation that created the turtles in the first place, and in the finale, he drinks a vial of the ooze and becomes Super Shredder. After rampaging around for a little bit, a dock lands right on top of him, and while there’s a fake-out scare of his possible survival, he eventually succumbs to his wounds.
This version of the character stayed dead too, failing to appear in the next entry, which is probably a good thing. If the film was made nowadays, it’s likely the character's survival would have been teased in a post-credit scene, and it would probably be considered too dark to kill a villain in such a light-hearted kids movie.
11 The Joker - Batman
Jack Nicholson really was perfectly cast as The Joker in Batman, and he had the time of his life playing a character where it was near impossible to go over the top. He also earned a sweet payday from the deal, and is said to have made over $60 million from various merchandising agreements; nice work if you can get it.
While Warners had the option of bringing him back for a sequel, they never used it, so when The Joker falls to his death at the end of Batman, that’s curtains for his version of the character. It was somewhat shocking to fans to see Batman killing people back then, and while the Clown Prince of Crime was hardly innocent, it was jarring to see the hero straight up murder his most iconic villain.
The series would eventually tone down Batman’s murderous side as time went on, but this scene sent a very clear message that Burton's version wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty.
10 Professor Broom - Hellboy
The late, great John Hurt brought a lot of gravitas to the role of Professor Broom in Hellboy, who was the title character’s mentor and father figure. It can’t be easy raising a demon with the personality of a teenage boy, but Hurt manages to invest Broom with a lot of heart.
The audience learns early on that Broom is suffering from a terminal illness, so his eventual death isn’t a major surprise, but the way it happens still tugs at the heartstrings. He has a conversation with the sorcerer who summoned Hellboy into the world – his other father, really – and they have a tug of war over his soul.
Broom eventually accepts his fate, and a henchman drives a sword into the professor’s heart. Hurt is so damn good in the movie that it would have been great to see him continue on until the end, but Broom’s death marks an important turning point for the story and Hellboy himself.
9 Big Daddy - Kick-Ass
Nicolas Cage regularly appears in so many turkeys nowadays that it’s hard to keep track, so when he delivers a great performance in a worthy film, it’s worth celebrating. He’s also a well-known comic fan, and while the Ghost Rider movies are hardly the best tribute to that character, his scene-stealing work in Kick-Ass really hit the spot.
Big Daddy is an ex-cop who teams up with his young daughter Hit-Girl to take revenge on a crime boss, and they dress in superhero outfits to protect their identities. Cage also speaks in a pitch similar to Adam West’s Batman, which is just delightful. Big Daddy and Kick-Ass are eventually captured, and evil goons set him on fire in an attempt to lure out his lethal daughter.
While most of the violence in the film is played for laughs, this sequence is a harrowing watch, complete with Cage’s agonized screams as his character slowly burns. This scene is shocking both for the level of violence and the emotional goodbye before the character passes on.
8 Harvey Dent - The Dark Knight
While there was a hint of darkness in Harvey during his interrogation of a Joker minion, it’s a little heartbreaking to see him become a full-blown killer. How he manages to sneak around Gotham City undetected with half his face missing is a question for another day, because the character's fall from grace takes all the attention in the film's final act.
Of course, Chris Nolan's mission with The Dark Knight trilogy was to create a grounded take on the series, which is why Mr Freeze or Poison Ivy never turned up. It also means nobody is superhuman, so when Harvey falls from a great height and breaks his neck, that means no sequel for Two-Face.
While fans still assumed Harvey would reappear in some form in the next movie, Rises makes it clear that the fallen hero is quite dead. Just like Rachel, his death has a profound effect on both Bruce Wayne and Gotham.
7 Whistler - Blade: Trinity
Kris Kristofferson’s Whistler was a character invented for the first Blade movie, and he was so cool that he’s now part of the canon. Whistler is like a badass Alfred, a crusty old vampire hunter supplying Blade with his weapons and equipment, and occasional tactical support.
It looked like the first movie would be his only appearance, since he commits suicide after being attacked by vampires. The character was way too popular, though, so a quick retcon saw him coming back for the next two chapters after all.
Screenwriter David Goyer seemed determined to kill the character, so when he took the director's chair for Blade: Trinity, he had Whistler perform a heroic sacrifice in the first act. His previously unmentioned daughter Abigail then takes his place alongside the titular slayer of the undead. Whistler’s death is irritating because his final scene is actually inferior to his first “death”, and while Jessica Biel might be better looking than Kris Kristofferson, she’s nowhere near as cool. Trinity killed the franchise too, so don't expect to see his return anytime soon.
6 The Penguin - Batman Returns
Batman Returns is arguably the weirdest comic book movie of all time, where Warner Bros essentially let Tim Burton do whatever the hell he wanted. The result is a gloriously weird, creepy, and gothic Christmas movie, full of damaged characters and kinky sexuality. It’s easy to see why parents weren’t digging that whole vibe, which led to the neon delights of Batman Forever a few years later.
Danny DeVito’s Penguin is one of the most memorable villains of the series too, being a freakish mutant abandoned by his parents and determined to take his revenge on Gotham. His plans eventually come undone before the finale, and after a weak attempt to kill Batman, he plummets from a large height into some icy water.
He returns later, foaming inky black blood from the mouth and nose, and after another weak attempt to off the Bat, he falls dead. Just like The Joker death in the original, Tim Burton proved he wasn’t kidding around and was willing to kill off major villains if it served the story.
5 Harry Osborn - Spider-Man 3
Spider-Man 3 is a classic story of too many cooks, with director Sam Raimi and the studio wrestling over their differing concepts for the sequel. They decided to jam everything in there, resulting in too many characters and subplots fighting for air. Eventually (and inevitably), the movie just suffocates.
One of the few standouts was James Franco, who appeared to be having a great time bringing the darker side of Harry Osborn to life. The character tries his best to rip apart his former best friend’s life, only to have a change of heart when he realizes Spider-Man wasn't responsible for his father's death.
Harry helps Spider-Man fight Venom in the finale, only to get staked in the heart during the battle. He and Peter make peace, and his demise makes for one of the few genuinely emotional moments in the movie. It’s hard to see where his arc could have gone after the third movie too, so his ending felt right.
4 Bane - The Dark Knight Rises
Tom Hardy had a tough act to follow in Heath Ledger's legendary take on The Joker, but his version of Bane proved to be both a physical and intellectual match for Batman. Sure, the voice was a little silly, but Hardy’s imposing presence gave the character genuine menace in The Dark Knight Rises.
He proved this with his first fight with Batman, where he ignores all of the Bat’s lame tricks and breaks his back. Bane was set up as a larger than life opponent who is borderline unstoppable, which makes his eventual demise somewhat underwhelming.
In his final scene, he prepares to execute the wounded Batman, only to get blown across the room by a Batpod cannon shot courtesy of Catwoman. His death is intended to hand Catwoman an awesomely glib one-liner, but having spent the last two and half hours threatened by this unkillable beast, the sheer lameness of his exit was both shocking and disappointing to fans.
3 Gwen Stacy - The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield brought a lot of heart to the relationship between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, and while The Amazing Spider-Man movies had their shortcomings, the two actors worked hard to make up for them. Many feel that their onscreen chemisty was the best thing the Spidey reboot had going for it.
The two movies spent a lot of time focusing on their romance, and while Gwen's death was a big part of the comics, The Amazing Spider-Man 2's marketing played up the tension of her possible survival. The movie ultimately went the tragic route, where she plunges to her death following Spider-Man’s battle with Green Goblin.
Gwen’s death would shatter Peter, and he while he tried to quit the superhero business, he makes a comeback at the end of the movie. Presumably, Gwen’s death would have continued to drive him in future movies, but events took a different course following the second installment.
2 Zod - Man Of Steel
Superman is seen as something of a goodie two-shoes, a superpowered boy scout who will always do the right thing, and while he’ll bust a nose or two, he’ll never kill. DC decided to give him a grittier makeover with Man Of Steel, grounding the character in a more realistic world where the public is fearful of his God-like status -- and where it’s not always possible to resolve a conflict by locking a bad guy in jail.
Zack Snyder decided to give Superman’s no kill rule an origin story too, where the character is forced into a no-win decision by General Zod; either he kills him, or innocent people will die. This leads to Supes snapping Zod’s neck, which is the last thing audiences expected to see him doing.
It also meant Superman killed the last of his own kind, giving it an even more tragic dimension. This battle and Zod’s body played a major part in the story of Batman V Superman also, but it seemed that in the case of the African warlord threatening Lois Lane in that movie, Superman was willing to bend his no killing rule a little.
1 Wolverine - Logan
When Hugh Jackman called Logan the end for his version of Wolverine, he wasn’t kidding. His last swing of the claws was arguably his finest, if critical and audience response is anything to go by. The movie also gave the R-rated comic book movie a shot in the arm, showing there’s an appetite for comic movies with a harsher edge.
While it was known that Logan would be the final hurrah for Jackman, even fans probably weren’t expecting just how final that last chapter was. The finale sees Wolverine facing off against his feral clone X-24 and getting himself fatally wounded in the process. Sadly, not even his healing factor can do much to help him, and he dies while holding the hand of his cloned daughter.
It’s a tragic but touching end for a great character, paying homage to both Old Man Logan and The Death Of Wolverine comics. While Wolverine will undoubtedly return with a younger, equally ripped actor in a few years time, Logan proved to be the perfect swansong for Jackman’s take on the character.
Which of these deaths shocked you the most? Did we leave out any of your favorite out-of-nowhere demises? Let us know in the comments.