By Nick Maylor
Superheroes are defined by far more than their costumes or powers. Each character has an identity that is defined by a code of ethics, a worldview, or a set of principles that make them who they are. It’s not enough to be faster than a speeding bullet. Being the world’s greatest detective isn’t sufficient when it comes to making a legend of modern folklore. Beyond the capes and spandex, these characters have stood the test of time because of their recognizable motivations and actions. In the cavalcade of superhero films, many of these elements have been portrayed successfully. Part of that is due to the moments that define the character by encapsulating who they are. This has often been accomplished in individual scenes. Here are 20 examples of when superhero films gave us moments that perfectly defined the characters we love and cherish.
In no particular order…
I NEVER SAID THANK YOU
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
If you’re completely fed up with reboots, you have this movie to thank. Christopher Nolan’s Batman origin story set the bar for many things that would follow. Followed a year later with Casino Royale (2006), Batman Begins set the standard for what (and why) a good reboot should be. Nailing the character of Bruce Wayne like never before, the film saw the tortured billionaire through his isolation, growing pains and eventual arrival as the Batman. In the closing moments of the film, the Bat meets Lieutenant James Gordon on the rooftop of the Gotham City Police Department. In the presence of the newly installed Bat signal, the two solidify their joint mission to clean up their City using both sides of the law. Standing confident as Gotham’s silent guardian, Batman tells Gordon that he will remain ever present in their war on crime. After a marvellous tease of a certain clownish-villain to be encountered in the future, The Dark Knight steps towards the edge of the building to depart. Gordon gratefully recognizes that in the midst of the chaos, he never “said thank you.” The Caped Crusader turns back to deliver a retort so perfect that writing the words cannot do it justice. Enjoy.
THE AVENGERS (2012)
The Hulk has never really worked as the star of his own film. Ask Eric Bana or Edward Norton. It wasn’t until The Avengers assembled that he found his footing. Mark Ruffalo is the only actor to reprise the role on the big screen and is the most favoured and loved incarnation, by far. Whether it’s punching Thor out of frame or saving Iron Man from his interstellar free fall, Joss Whedon finally got it right. Each time I saw The Avengers in the theatre, this moment got an uproarious response of pure joy for the entire audience. Hulk is there to smash; and here, he smashes GREAT!
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
In the director’s roundtable included on the digital release of Avengers: Infinity War, Joss Whedon summarized the two leading Avengers in a manner that was so perfect I felt like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. Tony Stark is the head; Steve Rogers is the heart. Before he became a super soldier, Steve Rogers was just a kid from Brooklyn. Abraham Erskine created the super soldier serum knowing that it needed to be used on someone of great character and courage. Trying to explain this to the military didn’t get the message across. Colonel Phillips was shut down when trying to put the scrawny cadet to the test, never expecting him to pass with flying colours. The kid had guts.
IF SHE FINDS OUT….
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeded in many ways but none more significantly than the way it explored Peter Parker’s life as a teenager and high school student. This was always what made the character so compelling and it is played here perfectly. After Pete’s friend Ned discovers his web-slinging alter ego, he asks Peter if his Aunt May is aware of his heroic antics. Peter responds with a statement so sincere and on-point that it successfully sums up exactly what Spider-Man is all about.
WE NEED TO GO
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)
The Vision is an amalgamation of JARVIS, Ultron and the mind stone. How he works is pretty debatable but we know that he is awesomely powerful. Omnipresent and yet naive. How can the Avengers be sure he is trustworthy? Well, maybe it’s not about being trustworthy…. if you are simply worthy.
BECAUSE I CHOOSE TO
THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (2003)
Neo and Smith are each other’s equal and opposite number. Neo is human. Smith is a program from the machine world. Their intertwined journeys lead to this moment when they have come full circle. The program Smith has become wrought with human emotion and frustration while Neo has resigned himself to calm and calculated resolve. Why does he persist? The problem has always been choice.
BLACK PANTHER (2018)
The loving son thrust into fulfilling his father’s legacy has been seen countless times. Michael Corleone served as a reference for director Ryan Coogler’s approach to the family dynamic of Black Panther. T’Challa goes through many rights of passage that take him beyond mere combat. Knowing he must fill the role of King and statesman, he knows he must strive for the highest ideals. When he has M’Baku, he chooses to spare a life rather than take one. I loved this moment and the resulting brotherhood that T’Challa and M’Baku come to have; one that carries on into Avengers: Infinity War.
I AM TIRED
Immortality would create a distinctive personality disorder because of fractions of time. A 60-year marriage is like a one night stand of you’re 7700 years old. Basically, you become a detached prick who can’t connect with anyone else. While not immortal, Dr Manhattan experiences time in a way that provides the same quirky attitude. His narration here sums it up perfectly as he teleports to Mars to get away from all the earthlings he no longer has any connection to.
DESTINED TO DO THIS FOREVER
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The relationship between Batman and the Joker surpasses every other hero/villain dynamic. Order vs. Chaos. Yin and Yang. During the climax of The Dark Knight, the clown prince of crime describes his relationship with Batman perfectly. Do you know why he’s laughing on the way down? He thought he was going to die. For the Joker, there is no greater victory than to die at the hands of Batman. That’s a win for him. And yet, when Batman saves him, the Joker still loves Batman for being what he is. The clown sees the Bat’s mission as the ultimate joke. Even though Heath Ledger died and we never got to see the sequels that might have been, rest assured he was right. They are destined to do it forever. That’s exactly what it has always been between these two.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Walter Kovacs aka Rorschach has been described as the most conservative comic book antihero. He abhors compromise and adherence to his principles is paramount. After discovering that Adrian Veidt has masterminded the series of genocides that have been unleashed across the earth, he vows to expose the conspiracy to the world even though it will inevitably cause massive fallout. The facade created by Veidt has paved the way for peace between the United States and the Soviet Union, preventing a total nuclear war. Knowing the Dr Manhattan will not allow the truth to be revealed, Roarshach accepts what is to come. Never compromise; even if the face of Armageddon.
NO MAN’S LAND
WONDER WOMAN (2017)
This long overdue cinematic treatment of Wonder Woman is full of defining moments but none can touch this iconic sequence. “No man’s land” is fit for no man but when this woman ventures into the abyss, no man’s land never knew what hit it.
WHO’S GOT YOU?
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)
I haven’t been shy about my assertions that putting (and keeping) Christopher Reeve’s Superman on a pedestal is misguided. Man of Steel (2013) is (by far) the best Superman movie yet made. Leave your outrage in the comments section. However, I do not dislike the classic Donner film. It was great for its time. This moment is iconic for good reason, even if the effects and tone are dated. A great scene.
WHY DO WE FALL, SIR?
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
One of the many things Christopher Nolan’s reboot got right was the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth. The trusted family butler is thrust into the role of caregiver to Bruce after his parents are murdered. Becoming a surrogate father, Alfred’s love for Bruce is portrayed brilliantly in the film by Michael Caine and the tender moments and frustrations integral to any father-son dynamic add a quality not seen in previous incarnations. As Wayne manor burns, Alfred saves Bruce’s life and restores his peace of mind as only a loving father could.
WHERE WERE YOU, CHARLES?
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)
Chess. There’s always a game of chess with these two!
The way that James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender redefined these characters is truly remarkable. Fassbender stole the show in X-Men: First Class (2011) as the Holocaust survivor fueled by vengeance. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) managed to combined all the greatest aspects of the series as a whole and is by far the best instalment of the franchise (This does not include the Deadpool films for consideration, nor the solo Wolverine movies). James McAvoy gets to shine in this instalment as the antithesis of what everyone expects from Charles Xavier: A long-haired jerk who walks fine and has no superpowers. These two characters took inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when they were created. Despite their love and respect for one another, Erik and Charles are strongly divided by their opposing moral compasses. Ever the fear-monger, Magneto never hesitates to display his tremendous strength as he believes might is right; war? Inevitable.
AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO DID THE READING?
THE AVENGERS (2012)
Tony Stark walks into a room with a God, a WWII hero, a man with breathtaking anger management issues and a couple of master assassins. As he enters the bridge of the S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier, he immediately gets in everyone’s personal space (while secretly planting JARVIS onto S.H.I.E.L.D’s network in order to get all of their data), Mark’s his territory and drops some interesting nicknames for his new friends. After having a “science-bro” moment with his soon-to-be bff, Dr Bruce Banner, Maria Hill asks him when he became an expert in thermo-nuclear astrophysics. Here we learn that while he is a playboy billionaire, that whole “genius” thing motivates him to always do his homework.
BREAK THE BAD NEWS
BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)
I like Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor (comments section below). It’s also a damned shame that the 3-hour “Ultimate Cut” (Snyder’s original) was not released in theatres and has been seen by basically no one. The theatrical version of this movie (the one everyone knows and hates) is substantially flawed. Snyder’s cut is a vastly superior film and the only version that should exist. After having their “Martha” bromance moment, Batman and Superman team up to stop Luthor’s scheme. All three characters have some great dialogue here. Luthor’s ranting is juxtaposed by two great one-liners from the world’s finest heroes. Over the speakerphone, Luthor is surprised to hear the voice of the Bat issuing a very Batman style warning. When Luthor claims he doesn’t know how to lose, Superman drops his very different but very appropriate retort. I dig it. Sue me.
I’M SORRY, LITTLE ONE
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)
To say that Gamora might have some “daddy issues” is a bit of an understatement. When she realizes what the soul stone requires, she grabs the dagger Thanos gave her as a child and thrusts it into her abdomen, without hesitation. Alas…. bubbles.
Bubbles? That’s just rubbing salt in the wound, Thanos! Gamora is doing the right thing. However, she also seems like someone so used to dishing out death to others that she had certainly longed for it substantially by the time she arrived here. The moment is followed by Thanos living up to his moniker of “Mad Titan”. He kills the only thing he ever loved to fulfil his destiny; a cosmos-wide separating of the sheep and the goats predicated on a coin toss. Mad. Insane. Deranged…
A bold move for Marvel, in a film crammed with plenty of them.
I’VE COME TO BARGAIN
DR. STRANGE (2016)
Steven Strange is a charming jerk much like Tony Stark. Ever the sceptic, he goes on a Batman Begins style journey to become a wizard (initially for selfish reasons). During the film’s climax, he ventured into the dark dimension and decided to break all the rules to save the world. He proceeds to save the day by arrogantly defeating an interdimensional super demon in a staring contest on acid.
YOU PICKED THE WRONG HOUSE, BUB
X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)
James Howlett/Logan/Wolverine is the quintessential lone wolf badass who plays by his own rules. In a tradition going back to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Logan has no qualms about getting nasty in the pursuit of justice (or anything else). In X2: X-Men United (2003), Charles Xavier s school for gifted youngsters is raising by the foot-soldiers of William Stryker. Logan goes into his trademark berserker rage and proceeds to clean house. It’s perfectly acceptable to punch/stab some sucker right in the chest. He’s protecting kids after all.
STOP HIM BEFORE HE STARTS SINGING
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)
The Lego Batman Movie is just plain awesome. It manages to lampoon the character and superhero genre brilliantly, while simultaneously providing a rich character study of this particular version of the Caped Crusader. Portraying the Dark Knight as a petulant, spoiled, man-child began with a promo video for the film in the style of MTV cribs showed Batman and Bruce Wayne taking the audience on a personal tour of the lavish Wayne Manor. Aside from the pseudo-romantic “it’s complicated” style romance between Batman and the Joker, the film provides endless laughs through its self-deprecating style. The coolest, most fun and paramount example of who this Batman is, comes to us in the form of an action-fight sequence where Batman busts into the action like a boss and proceeds to deliver swift and violent justice to his Rogues gallery whilst singing his own bad-ass theme song in the process. He even manages to incorporate some break dancing and a guitar solo of the “shredding” variety. I dare you to watch this and not laugh when he jumps inside the Bat-wing and then (in the style of so many self-glorifying pop stars) proudly screams about how super rich he is.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor