I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
A comic book shop housing the original source material of these films.
Which is the more important part of the word superhero: the “super” or the “hero”? It's one thing to be super powered, but these heroes are nothing without the moral compass that guides their actions. Their powers can make it easier to carry out these acts of heroism, but superhero movies show how these characters wrestle with these huge decisions despite their physical advantages.
In their history on the big screen, superheroes have lost loved ones, battled with their own identities, been weakened mentally and physically by their enemies, and typically have to deal with the daily struggles of an average person on top of it all. These are the scenes that stay with me after the movie ends, and these are the moments which demonstrate that it takes more than just powers to be a superhero. Below are 10 scenes that stand out as truly heroic movie moments in the superhero genre.
Superman returns to save the day.
Superman Returns (2006) – Lifting The Kryptonite Continent
Synopsis: Lex Luthor grows a new continent using one of Superman's alien crystals laced with kryptonite so that he can charge those who survive the inevitable flooding premium rates for a piece of his alien land. Superman is powerless on this expanding island, especially after Luthor stabs him with a shard of kryptonite, and he is thrown into the water. After he is saved by Lois and her family, he recharges in the sun for a few moments before plowing into the earth and hoisting the deadly rock into space, potentially saving billions of people before succumbing to kryptonite poisoning and falling back to Earth, seemingly dead.
Why it’s Great: Superman isn’t as popular today as he has been in the past because it’s hard to find a flaw in him. He will always have the upper hand over his opponents because he is superior in both physical strength and morality, and in this world, he always wins. His boy scout attitude can make him seem smug and unattainable even in character. People would rather see a character wrestle with their personal flaws, but he doesn't seem to have any. There is no risk because you know that he will come out of any situation unscathed.
What this scene proves is that Superman’s powers are not what make him great. Like most heroes, he will do whatever it takes to save the day at any cost. Rendered powerless by the kryptonite rock, he finds the strength to lift it out of the earth's atmosphere, fully aware that for every second he holds on, he is that much closer to death. This vulnerability makes him relatable and worthy of his heroics. Here, he shows audiences that he is willing to put his life on the line to save the day, and he does. For a moment, it seems that we have witnessed the death of Superman, and that sacrifice gives him the respect that he deserves. Maybe it's not so bad to be a boy scout if that morality leads to making decisions that save lives, even if it's not your own.
Iron Man's attack on his house.
Iron Man 3 (2013) – Tony saves Pepper by Protecting Her in the Suit
Synposis: At the beginning of the film, Tony had just developed a suit that will attach to him like a magnet at his command. After he gives the Mandarin his home address and challenges him to come after him, the Mandarin does just that. A trio of helicopters attack Tony’s house, starting with a rocket that explodes while he, Pepper, and Maya Hansen are in the house. In this slow motion shot, the three are thrown backwards, and without a thought, Tony orders the suit to latch on to Pepper, protecting her from the blast.
Why it’s Great: Tony Stark is not the kind of hero to go around looking for people to save in his free time. His superhero duties are restricted to large missions. Still, this does not make him invulnerable to enemies, and for the first time, he has something in his life that needs to be protected. Despite his ego causing a lapse in judgement that leads to the ambush, Tony is instantly redeeming in his decision to throw the suit onto Pepper as the first missiles hit. He could have easily suited up himself and then saved the girls, but his first priority was making sure that Pepper was fully protected from the blast. This action shows how much Tony has grown as a character without feeling like he is a completely different person, especially when, after Pepper saves him and declares, "I've got you," he response with, "I got you first."
Spider-Man's sadistic choice.
Spider-Man (2002) – Saving M.J. and the Cable Car Full of Children
Synposis: The Green Goblin Kidnaps Mary Jane and holds her hostage on a bridge in one hand and a cable car full of children in the other. He then releases them both in front of Spidey. Spider-man runs for M.J., catches her, and then uses his webbing to secure the cable car, holding them all beneath the bridge. The Goblin charges at Spidey again and again until he is stalled by some angry bystanders, giving Spidey enough time to get M.J. and the cable car to safety with the help of a passing barge from below.
Why it’s Great: When forced with this ultimatum, Spider-Man is not content to sacrifice one life for another. That is the type of decision that superheroes are typically faced with, and he does all he can to hold on to all of the victims as The Goblin charges at him. Watching him take a hit and continue to reach for the cable car rope shows how determined he is not to fail anyone. His uncle’s advice is always in the back of his mind, and he is able to hold on until everyone is safe. The help from the innocent bystanders is a reward for his inability to trade lives. This scene captures the essence of what Spider-Man represents and how he sets an example for others to do the right thing and to use that morality to save everyone despite overwhelming odds.
Yondu Saves Peter.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (2017) – Yondu's Sacrifice
Synopsis: Yondu stays behind on Ego's planet to save Peter using the only spare space suit and aero-rig available to him. Once he swoops up his adopted son, he attaches the space suit to Peter and suffocates as they leave the planet's atmosphere but not before telling him of how lucky he was to have been his dad.
Why it’s Great: It is always satisfying when a corrupt character does the right thing, especially when that thing is sacrificial. Yondu spends much of this movie contemplating his life's choices, and this final scene shows that he is willing to give up his life to make up for these choices and die for the man that he raised. It is never too late to do the right thing, and the ending sets up his actions to make them both necessary and admirable.
The Dark Knight sacrifices his reputation.
The Dark Knight (2008) - Ending
Synopsis: A vengeful Harvey Dent kidnaps Jim Gordon’s family and holds them hostage in the ruins of the building where his girlfriend, Rachel Dawes, was murdered by the Joker. When Gordon and Batman discover this, they individually rush to the scene, and Batman saves Gordon’s son from a fatal coin flip. Dent falls to his death, and his heroic reputation dies with him. So, Batman convinces Gordon to let him take the blame for Dent’s murders. He flees the scene, having been shot by Dent himself, and is deemed a villain by everyone but Gordon and the bewildered audience.
Why it’s Great: In this Batman universe, everything is very black and white. Harvey’s tarnished reputation will certainly cause the city to “lose hope” as Jim Gordon puts it. Gordon and Batman are cornered. Their small progress has been destroyed by Harvey’s actions over the past 24 hours. Batman's heroics come not from foiling a villain's over-the-top plan like dismantling a bomb or stopping a runaway train but in the quiet, selfless destruction of his already shaky reputation. Heroism isn't always about grand gestures and receiving the credit and praise for those actions. Requiring recognition for your heroism is not heroic. Preserving the reputation of others at a cost to your own is true heroism. It means recognizing that what you're fighting for is bigger than you and your ego.
Mystique's history-changing decision.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) - Raven's Decision
Synopsis: In the film’s finale, Raven is out to murder Bolivar Trask to keep him from experimenting on and killing mutants for his research. Wolverine goes back in time to recruit Charles and Eric to stop her from killing him as her actions trigger a dystopian future for both humans and mutants. Just as Eric pulls the panic room that hides Trask, the President, and numerous Secret Service agents out from the safety of The White House, Raven points her gun at Trask, and Charles freezes the humans around them. Instead of using his powers to will her to put down the gun, he convinces her that killing isn’t the answer. Of her own free will, she puts down the gun, changing history and saving the day.
Why it’s Great: For a film that features so many characters with super powers, this final battle is an internal one. Charles is determined to use words and not his abilities to stop Raven. He realizes that forcing her to make a choice against her will will never permanently solve the problem, and his inability to allow her to make her own choices have led her down this path. The muscle, like Wolverine and Beast, are incapacitated, and Charles is pinned to the ground by fallen debris, forcing him to confront her with a projection of himself blocking Trask until he clears a path to her decision. The best in both characters comes out in this scene, and the story wraps up in an unexpectedly perfect conclusion as a result of doing the right thing.
Train sequence in Spider-Man 2.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Spider-Man Stops the Train
Synopsis: Unmasked, Peter Parker must use every ounce of his strength to stop a runaway train full of passengers that Doc Ock has disabled in order to make his getaway during a fight with Spider-man. Spidey is successful, though it takes a lot out of him, and he collapses forward after stopping the train. The grateful train passengers then catch him and lift him over their heads to safety.
Why it’s Great: The interaction between the hero and those he saves is very important in this scene. Spider-man doesn’t have the greatest reputation in his city, and it would have been just as easy for him to swing off of that train and pursue Doc Ock, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves, but he stays behind to save the innocent victims. Being unmasked, his identity is exposed during the rescue, making him even more vulnerable, but as a reward for saving all of those lives, the passengers who come face-to-face with him promise not to give his identity away. This gratification is the fuel he needs in order to continue his mission, but the important thing to know is that it is a quest that he would have taken on either way. He just has the added bonus of having inspired the best in people, and his heroic nature has rubbed off on others in an otherwise pessimistic city.
Logan Kills Jean.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006): Wolverine Kills Jean Grey
Synopsis: In the film’s finale, an enraged Phoenix unleashes her powers on Alcatraz island, destroying everything in her sight. Everyone else runs for their lives, but Logan stays behind to stop her. Jean relentlessly rips him apart until he stalls her long enough to bring out the old Jean Grey who begs him to kill her. He does just that with a fatal stab to her abdomen using his razor-sharp claws.
Why it’s Great: From the time that The Phoenix emerges in Jean and Logan sees her in this new, evil form, there is an underlying realization that she will have to be killed in order to stop her destruction. Only Logan is able to get close enough to endure her powers long enough to make this happen. Unfortunately, he is the least willing to do the job. It’s a heartbreaking moment to watch him destroy the woman he loves, even out of the necessity that the situation creates. Few of us would be able to do the same to a loved one, even under these extreme circumstances. Logan's body may be able to heal fast, but his mind is just as vulnerable as anyone else's, and that makes his decisions that much more difficult for him to bear. Still, he always does what he needs to do in order to make things right and resolves to live with the guilt for decades past the normal human life span.
Batman flies the bomb out of the city.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – A Hero Can Be Anyone
Synposis: Batman, Selina Kyle, and Jim Gordon are able to get control of the nuclear bomb with under two minutes to spare before it explodes and levels Gotham City. With no other option, Batman kisses Selina goodbye, reveals his identity to Gordon, and flies the bomb out of the city before it explodes, seeming to have sacrificed himself in the process.
Why it’s Great: Beginning at the emotional climax of the sequence when Batman gives his “a hero can be anyone speech,” you know that something big is about to go down. It’s apparent that Bruce does not intend to survive this mission, and the look on Gordon’s face as Batman takes off with the bomb is heartbreaking. This scene sums up the spirit of Batman and his motivations for doing what he does. He is not there to be placed on a pedestal. He is there to set the example that one person can make a big difference.
Batman doesn't question the sacrifice that he is making for one second, despite his newfound will to live that broke him free from the prison from which he spends a good chunk of the movie trying to escape. It feels like an appropriate end to a mission that was started on the night that his parents were murdered. It makes sense to reveal himself to Gordon as the boy whose coat he wrapped around to comfort him in his worst moment. To him, that is where this life began, and he considers himself no different from that small gesture that Gordon made, not as a well thought out action but as a normal response that suited his character. He no longer wants to die but has to die in order to save the city and everyone trapped in it. It's as simple as that. This change in mindset makes his sacrifice more noble and poignant than the death wish he had been pursuing up to this point.
Iron Man detracts the nuke.
The Avengers (2012) – Tony Flies the Missile Out of Range
Synopsis: Out of options, SHIELD decides to launch a nuclear missile at New York City to stop the spread of the aliens who are invading and attacking Earth at Loki’s command. With a warning from Nick Fury, Tony Stark grabs hold of the missile while en route to its destination and flies it up into the alien portal, away from the innocent New Yorkers. It is a sacrificial action that nearly costs him his life, if not for a few miracles that are pulled off at the last second.
Why it’s Great: Tony Stark is not a likely hero to sacrifice himself for the win, but being that he is the only one equipped and free to stop the bomb from hitting the city, he becomes the only chance they’ve got. In his stubborn way, he ignores the orders from SHIELD and concentrates on the task at hand. Steve Rogers questions his heroism earlier in the movie, yet this doesn't appear to be an "I'll show you" response to that but rather a purely instinctual need to undo SHIELD's careless and potentially devastating order. His mission is a sure death sentence that works in his favor at the last minute, not because of his ingenuity but because he fell through the wormhole at the last second and was caught by his teammate, The Hulk, before he hit the ground. This scene is about discovering the heroism in oneself and counting on others to have your back after you put your life on the line to save the day.
Who are your favorite superheroes, and what are your favorite heroic moments in their films? Leave your answers in the comments below!