Since its inception in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has woven a tapestry of epic superhero tales in service of a huge, overarching narrative (with the trembling dread of a certain purple titan). From Tony Stark’s messiah-like weapons presentation in Iron Man, and the ultimate shot of the assembled team in The Avengers, to Thor’s all-time iconic landing in Avengers: Infinity War, there’s been no shortage of goosebump-inducing delights.
But, crucially, the franchise has tugged on our heartstrings on more than one occasion. Through 21 movies, audiences have not just cheered on the heroes; they have fallen in love with them, got to know them, believed in them. As such, their trials and tribulations have only become harder to bear as the years have passed. Whether it’s sacrifices, unexpected deaths or fallouts, these are the most emotional moments in the franchise so far (before Avengers: Endgame comes along with a list of its own).
Warning: this list contains spoilers.
12 ODIN CONDEMNS LOKI
The Thor franchise has always been crafted with a touch of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare (not just because the poet-obsessed Kenneth Branagh helmed the first entry). The Dark World particularly deals with themes of sibling rivalry; childhoods formed by hubris.
Loki suffers most of all, constantly in the shadow of his older brother, who so happens to be the God of Thunder. That resentment comes to a head in a clash of words with his father, Odin, as he is about to face a lifelong sentence after his crimes in The Avengers. He believes he is entitled to a throne, but Odin replies: “Your birthright was to die! As a child, cast out on a frozen rock. If I had not taken you in, you would not be here now, to hate me.” Powerful words to stomach, but blisteringly performed.
11 THE HULK TAKES OFF
He may not have had much chance to smash in Infinity War, but ask anyone about their favorite moments from the first two Avengers movies, and they’ll probably mention The Hulk. But Age of Ultron hones in on the hardship of his monster alter-ego, as his relationship with Black Widow develops.
As the battle of Sokovia comes to a close, the green hero boards a jet flying off into the distance. Black Widow pleads with him to let her know his location, but in a moment of pure heart-wrenching acceptance, he hangs up the call; knowing that their romance was doomed. Until this point, we assumed The Hulk lacks clarity or even basic awareness in rage mode, but the agony in his eyes tell a different story.
10 KILLMONGER'S DEATH
This moment is an ode to the power of great screenwriting. Black Panther is a stunning balancing act of world-building effects, superhero entertainment, and real-world commentary; looking at the effects of globalization, racism and in the end, slavery.
As the titular hero and Killmonger’s CGI-boosted tussle ends with a stab to the chest, they sit in view of the sundown. T’Challa offers to heal his cousin (with some of the extraordinary tech on offer, no doubt), but he refuses, saying: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” Fitting that one of the MCU’s top villains gets one of the best lines.
9 CAP'S SACRIFICE
Tiny Steve Rodgers was a soul we could all believe in. Someone so hopelessly devoted to being a hero, to lay down his life for his country if required, but constantly rejected because of his health. His transformation into Captain America made him buff and taller; but he remained noble.
That kind spirit attracted the smile of Peggy Carter before becoming a superhero. In The First Avenger, he’s thrown into an impossible situation; controlling a bomb-saddled, broken aircraft. “I’ve gotta put her in the water,” Cap says to Peggy on the phone. The pair chat about rescheduling their date, before the signal is bluntly cut. We knew he’d make it out, but the cutesy chemistry really hits this moment home.
8 QUICKSILVER'S DEATH
The Maximoff twins were introduced in Age of Ultron in the form of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. The former, a wise-cracking speedster, the latter, a telekinetic force of nature. Starting off as villainous accomplices to the titular antagonist, they soon realise the error of their ways, and join the Avengers in Sokovia.
As Hawkeye bounds over to save a child from an incoming reign of bullets, a flash flies past the screen; it was Quicksilver, heroically but fatally taking a slew of firepower. It’s not that part that hurts; it’s the reaction of Scarlet Witch. The camera cuts to her agonizing scream, piercing your heart with the sense of pure pain. As she points out, it was as if someone ripped her heart out, and boy do you believe it.
7 TONY TAKES THE NUKE
As the de-facto lead of the MCU, Tony Stark has been a pivotal character. In his superb introduction in Iron Man, through even more cheekiness in Iron Man 2, you can see glimpses of honest, open humanity beneath the sarcastic façade – that was, until The Avengers.
The Chitauri fleet is decimating New York City, but Earth’s mightiest defense is dealing with it. However, the World Security Council isn’t convinced; they vote to nuke the metropolis. As the missile rockets towards the city, Iron Man intercepts it, carrying it all the way around the city and through a wormhole in the sky. It’s a moment of triumph, yes, punctuated by significant moments of character; the hesitant phone call to Pepper, the acceptance of probable death, and the restrained celebration of Nick Fury. Indeed, the act of a hero.
6 GAMORA'S DEATH
This was when you knew Infinity War was going to be a rug-pulling rollercoaster. We’ve always known Gamora was a daughter of Thanos, with a burning hatred for her tyrant father. But there’s also a low-lying affection there, after years of brutal, but definitively paternal, care.
After giving in and revealing the location of the soul stone in Vormir (and the return of the Red Skull), it becomes apparent that to acquire it, you must exchange the soul of someone you love. Gamora laughs, exclaiming that Thanos has never loved anyone. But as a tear streams down his face, their dynamic completely changes. You believe his inner conflict; keep his favorite daughter, or complete his life’s goal. Layered with Alan Silvestri’s stirringly epic score, it was a real shock.
5 GROOT'S SACRIFICE
Who knew in 2014 that the world would be crying over the heroic actions of a talking tree? Well, no one expected Guardians of the Galaxy to be such a galactic success; so all bets were off as the film hurdled towards its emotional climax.
The now famous catchphrase, “I am Groot”, was funny, charming and immediately crushing by the end. As the Guardians face imminent death in a surface-bound ship on Xandar, Groot extends his arms and roots, creating a spherical shield to protect them all. His companion, Rocket, pleads: “No, you’ll die.” Groot replies: “We… are… Groot.” It’s a testament to James Gunn’s innate grasp of these outlandish characters that he managed to evoke such a powerful response from three unlikely words.
4 VISION'S DEATH
The evolution of Tony Stark’s former A.I. supreme, Jarvis, to uber-powered, caped Vision, is one of the continuous high points of the MCU. Performed with charming, eloquent gusto by Paul Bettany, he’s a consistently cool character – particularly when he picks up Mjolnir like a plaything.
All good things come to an end though; in Infinity War, Thanos is after the mind stone embedded in his head. As the great titan demolishes the defending Avengers, Vision asks his partner, Scarlet Witch, do to the unfathomable; to destroy the stone, and thereby kill him. She refuses, refuses, and refuses again, before succumbing with a tear-jerking trembling lip. Again layered with Silvestri’s beautiful score, this harrowing, rousing death is one for the ages.
3 YONDU'S DEATH
Marvel’s idiosyncratic, unlikely group of oddball rebels struck a surprising chord with audiences in James Gunn’s first Guardians of the Galaxy. The sequel was similarly quirky, but much deeper in its themes; specifically, looking at Peter Quill’s father. His biological parent, Ego doesn’t provide the tear-jerking moment though – that comes when his life-long scavenger mentor, Yondu, swoops in to save him from impending death.
However, in order for Peter to live, Yondu has to sacrifice his oxygen mask as they ascend into space. This is punctuated by Yondu’s heart-breaking sentiment: “He may have been your father, boy. But he wasn't your daddy.” Despite his snarling presence, their relationship across the two movies becomes all the more powerful in this pitch-perfect, poignant goodbye.
2 TONY AND STEVE'S FIGHT
The MCU has never shied away from injecting tension between the good guys. The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron particularly showed how their big personalities and outlooks could clash. But Captain America: Civil War opened up a rift in our favorite team, sending them to war with one another over the controversial Sokovia Accords.
However, a tense between Tony and Steve turns into full-scale war when it’s revealed Steve knew that Bucky, aka The Winter Soldier, killed Tony’s parents – and didn’t tell him about it. “I’m sorry Tony… but he’s my friend,” Steve says. “So was I,” Tony replies, and so continues an enraged fistfight, with every kick, punch and blast bursting with resentment, regret and anger.
1 THE SNAP
The culmination of many Infinity Stone related plots and post-credit scenes, Avengers: Infinity War finally pitted Thanos, the gauntlet-wearing mega-villain, against the universe’s mightiest heroes. He showcases his unprecedented powers throughout the film, but none more so than in the closing minutes; when he snaps his fingers and wipes out half of all living things. It’s an earth-shattering moment, and a real struggle to comprehend.
That is, until our favorite characters begin turning to dust. Groot, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and most distressing of all, Spider-Man, are among those killed off. As the remaining Avengers try to grasp what just happened, two words from Steve feel painfully apt: “Oh God.” When the screen mercifully turns to black on Thanos’ accomplished smile, the tears continue to stream. Some people moved on from this ending, but not us.