Either Die a Hero or See Yourself Become the Villain: Life and Death in the Hands of Movie Superheroes

     July 13, 2013


For better or worse, the final confrontation between Superman and General Zod in this summer’s Man of Steel set off a firestorm of controversy across the web.  Heroes and villains were once black and white but seem to be getting away from those restrictions with every new comic book movie.  Should comic book heroes be held to a higher standard of morality in today’s world of “gritty and realistic” adaptations?  Is it fair to expect filmmakers to portray movie heroes and villains as paragons of good and evil, or is it time they dabble in the gray areas?  Or is it as simple as looking at a particular character’s origins and tough decisions (made by writers) over the years to decide whether or not the killing of their adversaries makes sense?

We’ve taken a look at comic book movies made over the years and put together a list of combatants, conflicts and resolutions to see if the line made famous by Aaron Eckhart in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight holds true: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  Hit the jump to see how other heroes have dealt with their villains over the years.

Spoiler alert:  We’ll be talking about final confrontations in superhero movies, so it goes without saying that if you haven’t seen them and don’t want to be spoiled, steer clear.  We’ll also be focusing on major comic book adaptations (Marvel, DC, Image, etc) that have a long standing, so original screen creations wont’ be in the mix.  We’ll also be avoiding animated features, even though I happen to think they handle the material better than many live-action adaptations.  Sorry, Toxic Avenger, Darkman, Blankman and, though it pains me, The Incredibles.


  • Batman (1966) – Batman and Robin lead a fist fight aboard a surfaced submarine, rescue the council members and rehydrate them more or less to their pre-shrunken states. Only one shark was exploded in the process.
  • Batman (1989) – Though Batman defeats the Joker initially by knocking him off the roof of a cathedral, the Joker nearly escapes by grabbing onto a ladder dropped from a helicopter.  Batman fires a cable that tethers the Joker to a gargoyle on the rooftop, causing him to fall to his death with the gargoyle breaks free.
  • Batman Returns (1992) – Bruce Wayne exposes the Penguin’s plan to the citizens of Gotham, causing Penguin to flee to the sewers. Batman defeats him and the Penguin plunges into toxic water, hauled off to his resting place by his penguins.  Catwoman electrocutes Shreck – who was responsible for her death and rebirth as a costumed criminal – and disappears into the night.
  • Batman Forever (1995) – Robin manages to get the upper hand over Two-Face but doesn’t have it in him to kill the maniac, even as revenge for the murder of his parents.  Two-Face uses this moment of weakness to capture Robin.  Batman manages to save Robin and another hostage, destroying the Riddler’s device in the process.  Two-Face falls to his death and the Riddler is carted off to Arkham Asylum after suffering a mental breakdown, thinking himself to be Batman.
  • Batman & Robin (1997) – Batgirl defeats Poison Ivy, who is then carted off to Arkham. Batman, Robin and Batgirl defeat Freeze (and Bane) and thaw Gotham.  They also manage to get Freeze to produce medicine that will help cure Alfred before they lock Freeze up alongside Ivy.
  • Batman Begins (2005) – Batman apprehends a number of Falcone’s men and turns them over to the authorities, including Scarecrow who is subdued by a dose of his own toxin. Batman defeats Ra’s on a train and allows him to die as it crashes.
  • The Dark Knight (2008) – Despite murdering his love interest, kidnapping and killing multiple citizens and blowing up hospitals, Batman captures the Joker and leaves him dangling, presumably until the authorities can lock him up.  He kills Two-Face in a sacrificial dive that saves the son of Commissioner James Gordon.
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Catwoman kills Bane with a rocket fired from the Batpod.  Batman pursues Talia al Ghul from the air, leading Talia to crash her truck.  She dies, but not before triggering the bomb.  Apparently having survived the blast, Batman then marries Catwoman and moves to Italy.


  • Superman (1978) – Lex Luthor’s girlfriend rescues Superman, who keeps his word and disables a New Jersey-bound missile first and allows the westward missile to detonate and set off an earthquake. Lois dies in a car crash due to aftershocks. Superman, in his distress,  goes against his father’s wishes to refrain from interfering with human history and flies around the Earth to reverse time, thus preventing the earthquake and Lois’s death.
  • Superman II (1980) – Since Zod recognizes Superman’s weakness (protecting innocent bystanders), he takes advantage of this by threatening citizens of Metropolis. Superman lures them away by flying to his Fortress of Solitude. Superman uses Luthor’s penchant for treachery in order to trick the Kryptonians into giving up their powers and leaving himself unharmed.  Superman tosses Zod into the icy abyss beneath his Fortress, Lois knocks Ursa in after him and Non tries to fly and falls into the abyss of his own accord.  Luthor is then escorted back to prison.
  • Superman III (1983) – Evil drunk Superman battles his good alter ego Clark Kent in the middle of a junkyard.  Against the odds, Clark wins and strangles his depressed self to a metaphorical death.  A restored Superman then battles through rockets, missiles, and a Kryptonite beam produced by a supercomputer before Gus gains a conscience and attempts to destroy the computer.  Self-aware, the computer transforms Vera into a cyborg, who then immobilizes her former partners. Superman then destroys the computer and rescues Gus, leaving the evil-doers to the authorities.
  • Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) – Superman lures his clone Nuclear Man into a variety of situations in which the villain will be deprived of sunlight and thus, his powers (including an elevator deposited on the dark side of the moon, pushing the moon out of its orbit to cast an eclipse on Earth and finally depositing him in the core of a nuclear power plant).  Having defeated the anthropomorphic nuclear weapon, Superman then campaigns for nuclear disarmament the world over.  Luthor and his nephew are also rounded up and taken back to prison.
  • Superman Returns (2006) – Superman challenges Luthor on the newly-created landmass, only to find it’s imbued with Kryptonite. Luthor stabs him with a shard of Kryptonite and Superman falls into the ocean. Saved by Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) and her fiance (James Marsden), Superman lifts the landmass and hurls it into space, but crashes back to Earth and falls into a coma. Luthor escapes but is stranded on a desert island.
  • Man of Steel (2013) – After sending most of the Kryptonians back into the Phantom Zone and then destroying the technology that would revive their race, Superman engages Zod in an all-out aerial battle that decimates Metropolis.  In the end, Superman kills Zod by breaking his neck.

the-punisher-posterThe Punisher

  • The Punisher (1989) – The Punisher rescues all of the children except for the Mafia leader’s son. After Franco frees the Punisher from the police, the two work together to raid the Yakuza headquarters, killing all of their members including Lady Tanaka.  Franco betrays the Punisher, but the vigilante wins the duel, killing Franco.
  • The Punisher (2004) – Punisher takes out Saint’s assassins – Harry Heck and the Russian – as well as a number of faceless goons.  He then sows discord among Saint and his closest associates, leading Saint to kill his own wife and right-hand man.  Punisher then personally kills Saint’s son and wounds Howard long enough to tie him to a slow-moving car that drags him through a parking lot full of explosives.

The Fantastic Four

  • The Fantastic Four (1994) – The Fantastic Four take on Doom’s military at his castle stronghold that ended with Doom intentionally falling to his death, apparently committing suicide.
  • Fantastic Four (2005) – The Fantastic Four combine their powers to subdue Doctor Doom, freezing him into a statue. Doom is transported back to Latveria but is very much alive.
  • Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) – The Fantastic Four rescue the Silver Surfer and track down Doom, with Johnny absorbing the team’s combined powers to confront the super-powered villain. With the Surfer reunited with his board, he chooses to defend the Earth and flies through the heart of Galactus, destroying the entity and presumably sacrificing himself.

Judge Dredd

  • Judge Dredd (1995) – Dredd, Hershey and a hacker named Herman Ferguson (Rob Schneider) take on Rico, his half-baked clones and a combat robot.  Dredd defeats Rico by throwing him off the top of the Statue of Liberty.
  • Dredd (2012) – Dredd and his new recruit Anderson tear through dozens of thugs and crooked Judges, culminating in throwing their leader, Ma-Ma, from the top floor of the tower down to her death.


  • X-Men (2000) – In a confrontation on Liberty Island, Storm fries Toad with a bolt of lightning and Mystique is incapacitated, but Magneto and Sabertooth temporarily subdue to the X-Men.  Wolverine overcomes his paralysis, saves Rogue, defeats Magneto and destroys his machine.  Mystique manages to escape and continues to impersonate Senator Kelly, while Magneto is locked up in a plastic prison cell.
  • x-men-posterX2: X-Men United (2003) – The X-Men team up with Magneto and Mystique to take down Stryker and his minions.  Wolverine kills Lady Deathstrike by weighing her down with an adamantium injection so she ultimately drowns.  Magneto and Mystique kill Stryker’s men by detonating their own grenades.  The evil duo then attempt to use Professor X to kill all the humans in the world and flee the facility, but the X-Men prevent this.  Stryker is killed when a dam bursts. Jean Grey holds back the water in order to let the X-jet escape, presumably sacrificing herself.
  • X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) – The X-Men battle Phoenix and Magneto’s soldiers, ending in Wolverine overcoming Phoenix’s abilities and mercy killing Jean Grey.
  • X-Men: First Class (2011) A young Magneto is overwhelmed by his own powers, killing two guards after they kill his mother. Sebastian Shaw’s allies run amok, killing numerous humans in their recruitment process, also killing the mutant named Darwin.  Magneto kills Shaw as revenge for his mother’s death, although Xavier protests this. Xavier then prevents Magneto from using Soviet and American missiles to destroy the humans, but takes a deflected bullet in his spine in the process, sacrificing his ability to walk from then on.


  • Spider-Man (2002) – Spider-Man battles the Green Goblin to the death, ultimately caused by Osborn’s own attempt to impale Spider-Man with his remote-controlled glider.
  • Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Doc Ock delivers Spider-Man to Harry, who refuses to kill him after he discovers his true identity as Peter.  Spider-Man then battles Doc Ock in order to rescue a kidnapped Mary Jane.  Spider-Man defeats Octavius and convinces him to drown his fusion reactor in the river.  Octavius sacrifices himself in the process.
  • Spider-Man 3 (2007) – Harry Osborn helps Spider-Man take on Venom and Sandman, eventually sacrificing himself to prevent his own glider from impaling Spider-Man.  Spider-Man saves Brock from the symbiote and attempts to destroy it with a bomb, but Brock tries to reunite with the alien force and both are killed in the explosion.  Peter forgives Marko for his Uncle Ben’s death before the villain dissipates and floats away.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – Spider-Man saves numerous cops and civilians during the Lizard’s rampage, but can’t prevent Captain Stacy from dying at the hands of the transformed Curt Connors.


  • Hulk (2003) – The Hulk and the Absorbing Man battle until Bruce is able to overwhelm his father, causing him to become unstable. The military detonates a gamma bomb on the two of them, killing David and knocking Bruce unconscious.
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008) – Dr. Banner destroys a lab and injures Betty Ross during his first transformation, but soon learns to control his rage.  The Hulk nearly kills Blonsky in their first confrontation, but a super-serum grants Blonsky super-human abilities.  Their final fight nearly ends with Blonsky/Abomination’s death at the hands of the Hulk, but a plea from Betty saves his life.

iron-man-posterIron Man

  • Iron Man (2008) – A captive named Yinsen sacrifices himself to give Tony Stark time to complete his Mark I armor.  In his memory, Stark puts a stop to his company’s weapons manufacturing.  Obadiah Stane, meanwhile, slaughters members of the Ten Ring and leaves Stark to die after stealing his chest-piece arc reactor.  Stark then knocks Stane unconscious and allows him to die in the reactor’s explosion.
  • Iron Man 2 (2010) – Although Stark and Rhodes nearly kill each other (and their party guests) in a drunken armored brawl, Stark eventually turns his blasters on faceless drones.  Stark and Rhodes manage to team up to defeat Vanko, who activates a self-destruct mechanism in the futile attempt of killing the heroes.
  • Iron Man 3 (2013) – While Stark is experiencing anxiety after the invasion of New York, his rival Alridch Killian has been experimenting with a super-soldier serum that has the unfortunate side-effect of spontaneous combustion.  Most of the damage done occurs between Stark’s drone suits and Killian’s army of faceless (though human) Extremis soldiers.  Stark attempts to kill Killian with a self-destructing suit, but an Extremis-powered Pepper Potts delivers the final killing blow.


  • Thor (2011) – Thor rampages against frost giants, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, the Destroyer armor and coffee cups.  He defeats his villainous brother Loki – who killed Laufey, the leader of the Frost Giants – but grieves when Loki allows himself to fall into an abyss when his father rejects his pleas for mercy.

Captain America

  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Captain America and his team take out a number of HYDRA soldiers – who are even worse than Nazis – though his friend Bucky Barnes apparently falls to his death in the process.  Captain America defeats the Red Skull, who dissolves in a bright light when he touches the Tesseract.  Captain America then sacrifices himself to save American citizens by crashing a plane laden with weapons of mass destruction into the Arctic.

The Avengers

  • The Avengers (2012) – The team of Earth’s mightiest superheroes manage to destroy untold faceless alien Chitauri soldiers, with Iron Man wiping out a vast fleet of them with a thermonuclear explosion. In the end, they manage to subdue and capture the villain behind the invasion: Loki.

dark-knight-rises-imax-poster-baneSo let’s tally up the body count, shall we?

Batman: (8 Movies)

  • Indirect Deaths: Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul, Bane
  • Direct Deaths: Two-Face
  • Captures: Riddler, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Scarecrow, Joker
  • Miscellaneous: One exploded shark, Catwoman escapes, Catwoman marries Batman

Superman: (6 Movies)

  • Indirect Deaths: Lois Lane (reversed), Ursa, Non, Evil Drunk Superman, a self-aware super-computer, numerous citizens of Metropolis, untold Kryptonians
  • Direct Deaths: General Zod (x2)
  • Captures: Lex Luthor (x2), Vera and her crew, Nuclear Man, Lex’s nephew
  • Miscellaneous: Lex Luthor and his girlfriend Kitty escape but are deserted on an island when their helicopter runs out of gas; Faora and the Kryptonians are sucked back into the Phantom Zone

The Punisher: (2 Movies)

  • Indirect Deaths: His extended family.
  • Direct Deaths: Dozens of Mafia and Yakuza members, assassins, the Saint family
  • Captures: None.
  • Miscellaneous: Pain and suffering of his allies at the hands of his enemies.

The Fantastic Four: (3 Movies)

  • Indirect Deaths: Doctor Doom, Galactus, Silver Surfer (sorta)
  • Direct Deaths: None
  • Captures: Doctor Doom
  • Miscellaneous: None

Dredd: (2 Movies)

  • Indirect Deaths: None
  • Direct Deaths: Numerous thugs, crooked Judges and drug dealers, Ma-Ma
  • Captures: None
  • Miscellaneous: None

x-men-first-class-movie-poster-04The X-Men: (4 Movies)

  • Indirect Deaths: Jean Grey (sacrifice)
  • Direct Deaths: Lady Deathstrike, Phoenix, Sebastian Shaw
  • Captures: Magneto, Emma Frost
  • Miscellaneous: Sabertooth is not confirmed dead. Mystique evades capture.

Spider-Man: (4 Movies)

  • Indirect Deaths: Green Goblin/Norman Osborn, Doctor Octavius/Doctor Octopus, Eddie Brock/Venom, Flint Marko/Sandman (sorta), Harry Osborn/New Goblin, Uncle Ben (x2), Captain Stacy
  • Direct Deaths: None
  • Captures: Numerous faceless criminals
  • Miscellaneous: None.

Hulk: (3 Movies – Including The Avengers)

  • Indirect Deaths: David Banner/Absorbing Man
  • Direct Deaths: Mutant dogs.
  • Captures: Emil Blonsky/Abomination, Loki
  • Miscellaneous: Numerous Chitauri creatures

Iron Man: (4 Movies – Including The Avengers)

  • Indirect Deaths: Yinsen, Aldrich Killian, Ivan Vanko, Exremis soldiers
  • Direct Deaths: Obadiah Stane, Extremis soldiers, vast numbers of Chitauri
  • Captures: The Mandarin/Trevor, Loki
  • Miscellaneous: Killian killed Maya Hansen, who attempted to back out of his scheme.

Thor: (2 Movies – Including The Avengers)

  • Indirect Deaths: None
  • Direct Deaths: Numerous Frost Giants, presumably; numerous Chitauri
  • Captures: Loki
  • Miscellaneous: None

Captain America: (2 Movies – Including The Avengers)

  • Indirect Deaths: Red Skull
  • Direct Deaths: Numerous HYDRA agents, numerous Chitauri
  • Captures: Loki, Dr. Arnim Zola
  • Miscellaneous: Bucky Barnes was lost, presumably falling to his death. Everyone Rogers knew in his life is presumed to be dead since he was frozen for 70 years.

man-of-steel-posterIn addition to really holding a grudge against General Zod, Superman racks up a huge body count thanks mostly in part to the latest installment.  Not only does he put the citizens of Metropolis in harm’s way during his fight with Zod, he puts a stop to all hope that the Kryptonian race will continue.  It’s hard to get an accurate count of how many casualties Superman has been responsible for over the years, but with the Avengers blowing up Manhattan and decimating an alien population with a nuclear device, they might be just as bad.

On a more personal note, it’s interesting to see that most of the heroes have been directly responsible for deaths, with the exception of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.  While the fearsome foursome manage to keep their carnage reigned in to prevent as much collateral damage as possible, anyone in the vicinity of Spider-Man apparently ends up dead.  He’s no villain but he’s not all that great at bringing ne’er-do-wells to justice … they all just up and die on him.

The Hulk is surprisingly low on the body count while Iron Man is unexpectedly high.  What’s not surprising is that the Punisher and Judge Dredd have death tolls that are easily in the triple digits with no prisoners to speak of, which makes sense.  Those two entities are spirits of vengeance, not justice.  What strikes us is when a hero’s actions clash with his or her moral foundations.  Seeing Superman savagely snap Zod’s neck – rather than simply throwing him into the abyss where we can’t watch him die – was every bit as shocking as, say, watching Batman use a gun to execute criminals or seeing the Punisher  show restraint.

Was Man of Steel the first time Superman has killed someone in defense of others?  Nope. And he’s not alone.  Heroes do it all the time.  It remains to be seen just how future heroes will deal with their villains in upcoming comic book adaptations, but we’ll certainly have a lot to choose from.  Are villains becoming too bloodthirsty at the expense of morals?  Or are superhero films simply an extension of reality where sometimes the hard decision is the right one, even if it’s final?  Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments below!


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