The initial idea for this piece was to write about my favorite action scenes in Marvel movies and how they advanced or altered our understanding of the characters. While compiling that list, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, even though I’m an action junkie, the unsung strength of these movies is in the quieter and more dramatic scenes. One of the reasons that Marvel properties continue to make billions of dollars is because the filmmakers understand how to balance spectacle and heart. As a writer, why do I keep coming back to these superhero films for inspiration? Because even the flawed entries have defining scenes of raw emotion that represent storytelling at its finest.
Without further delay, I present to you my top ten favorite dramatic moments in the Marvel films and its properties outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Deadpool here! Be warned, SPOILERS abound…
10) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – The Death of Gwen Stacy
Of all the iconic moments recreated from page to screen in the Spider-Man films, this is the most brutally accurate. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have undeniable chemistry as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. Their natural interactions are so honest that the pair quickly became the best part of the rebooted franchise. After their relationship struggles throughout the sequel, Peter makes it clear that he loves Gwen and is willing to give up everything to be with her. Of course she then gets placed in mortal danger, but Spider-Man always save the girl…right?
In a truly harrowing fail, Spider-Man tries to save Gwen from a deadly freefall only to have his webbing break her back from the sudden stop. Peter cradles Gwen’s body weeping–-begging––her to “stay with me, stay with me” while a single drop of blood leaks from her nose. It’s the classic Joss Whedon-esque dick move of heartbreak to reconciliation to terrible tragedy.
Say whatever about the film as a whole, but an emotional gut punch like that stays with you.
9) Guardians of the Galaxy – We Are Groot
Guardians introduced audiences to a ragtag team of misfits who couldn’t be more different, each with their own agenda and little desire to work together. On paper, the film was a huge risk, and yet the stars aligned for one of Marvel’s most enjoyable films. The breakout star was definitely Groot. He can only speak three words but is more expressive and defined with that one line than many characters in the MCU.
One particular scene brings the Guardians’ evolution from selfish to team full circle: Groot’s sacrifice. Drax is down. Rocket is exhausted in Quill’s arms. They are all beaten down. Ronin’s ship is crashing to the planet and about to crush them when Groot creates a protective shield around his friends using his own body. Inside this cocoon, lit up by beautiful fireflies, Rocket knows Groot will die and asks: “why are you doing this? Why?” Groot wipes Rocket’s tears and answers––
“We are Groot.”
Two hours earlier, not one of the Guardians would’ve considered sacrificing themselves for the others. The simple change of one word from “I” to “We” speakes volumes.
8) The Avengers – Coulson Falls
Throughout The Avengers the various heroes struggle to function as a team due to their strong personalities and varying moral codes. But with the whole world at risk, their failures cost lives. No discussion is enough to bring them together. Despite their differences, one tether binds them even more than Nick Fury: Agent Phil Coulson, the man who helped or recruited nearly every would-be Avenger over multiple films.
With the helicarrier crashing, Hulk rampaging out of control, and Loki loose, the heroes have run out of time to become the Avengers. Coulson knows this and accepts his fate. Sometimes a shared loss is all that can provide the perspective to move forward.
“It’s OK, Boss. This was never gonna work if they didn’t have something…”
Yes, the impact of Phil’s “death” was lessened in hindsight because he came back for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it is still a vital shift in the film.
7) X2: X-Men United – The Death of Jean Grey
The love triangle of Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Wolverine established over the first two X-Men films is the dramatic core of their characters. The conclusion of X2 finds the team trying to escape in their jet before the torrent of water from a broken dam consumes them. Jean is the only one strong enough to repel the flood. She knows it will likely kill her, and the team tries to stop her, but there’s no other choice. Jean uses her telepathic powers to split the oncoming flood and provide the jet time to take off before the water crushes her.
What makes this scene so impactful is how Wolverine and Cyclops respond. These two men who don’t even like each other are shredded by grief of a magnitude that only each other can understand. I dare you not to tear up as Cyclops falls into Wolverine’s arms while he repeats, “she’s gone” over and over.
6) Avengers: Age of Ultron – Clint’s Farmhouse
This is probably my most controversial pick. Director Joss Whedon fought to keep this sequence that many people felt hurt the pacing of the otherwise action-heavy affair. For me, the farmhouse is vital for many reasons but none more so than the fact that it redeems Clint aka Hawkeye after his one-note turn in the original film.
In their worst defeat to date, Ultron outplays the Avengers while Scarlet Witch exposes all their fears/doubts about themselves and each other…all except Clint. They have to retreat and regroup, but where? The only place most Avengers never thought they could have: a home. Clint has a wife and kids. He’s more than a superhero. He’s a father, a husband, and that grounded nature is exactly why he’s so important to the team.
“You don’t think they need me?”
“I think they do, and that’s a lot scarier. They’re gods, and they need someone to keep them down to Earth.”
In Civil War, Clint even says how quickly the team went to hell after he retired.
5) X2: X-Men United – Mystique and Nightcrawler
This is one of my favorite scenes ever in a superhero movie and is an example of how simple understatement can drive home a theme. Mystique explains to Nightcrawler that she can mimic anyone, even his or her voice. Having been ostracized his entire life for his own appearance, Nightcrawler asks why she doesn’t stay disguised all the time and look normal like everyone else. Her reponse before walking away is classic:
“Because we shouldn’t have to.”
The X-Men films have always been about the oppression of minorities, and simple scenes like this nail that theme without being overloaded by melodrama. Plus, there’s the fun fact that Mystique is Nightcrawler’s mom in the comics.
4) Captain America: Civil War – Peggy’s Funeral
Civil War has no shortage of feels, but I found the single most important scene of the film to be Peggy Carter’s funeral. It was devastating to see Steve get the phone call. Theirs was a love for the ages that began when he was still scrawny, and it was never completely realized. Truly star-crossed lovers who couldn’t even get their damn dance! Peggy’s death, while not a shock due to her age, came at a time when Steve is struggling. He can’t decide whether or not to sign the Sokovia Accords and become restricted by government oversight. Steve knows in his heart that it’s wrong, but his closest friends are telling him to sign.
Sharon, Peggy’s grandniece, gives a poignant eulogy quoting Peggy that reminds Steve how she was his strength, his heart, his will. Peggy was the moral compass for a man that is the moral compass for everyone else. The impact of the eulogy is such that it drives Steve’s actions for the rest of the film.
“Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No. You move.’”
Even in death, Peggy helps Steve to be the best man possible.
3) X-Men: Days of Future Past – Xaviers Young and Old
Days of Future Past finds James McAvoy’s young Charles Xavier in a very dark place. He uses a drug that negates his mutant powers in order to walk, lives in isolation, and has abandoned his mutant brethren. Despite a time-traveling Wolverine’s reveal of an impending apocalyptic future unless he changes, it’s not enough to resurrect Xavier. Only the man himself can do that, which gives us an iconic scene featuring both McAvoy and Patrick Stewart.
The caliber of acting is such that these men could read the dictionary and it’d be exhilarating. Stewart’s older Xavier, a man from a terrible future, should be the one who has lost hope…but he’s not. He shows his younger self the good that he can accomplish, all the mutants he can help, and the chance to create a better world. But young Xavier is scared. Scared to allow his powers back in. Scared of “all those voices, so much…pain.”
“It’s the greatest gift we have, to bear their pain without breaking, and it’s born from a most human power – hope. Please, Charles, we need you to hope again.”
Nothing like having an older, wiser, and balder version of yourself deliver a much-needed kick in the ass.
2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Steve Visits Peggy
You already know that any scene involving Steve and Peggy’s relationship pulls at my heartstrings, but this one tops them all. It was a welcome surprise to discover Peggy was still alive, albeit over 90 years old. Steve visits her in the hospital, still feeling displaced from time while Peggy has had an entire life. A family. Everything Steve wanted to have with her. Peggy is all that’s left of his old life, his foundation, while Steve’s current life is anything but solid. He’s feeling lost and no longer able to blindly trust Nick Fury or S.H.I.E.L.D.
“For as long as I can remember, I just wanted to do what’s right. Guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore.”
Even at her advanced age, Peggy still knows just what to say. She tells Steve not to look back anymore but to do his best to move forward. To start over. That interaction alone would’ve made for a helluva scene, but then Peggy’s mind fails. We see dementia rob her of the moment, taking her back as if she hasn’t seen Steve since World War II.
“You came back. It’s been so long.”
“Well, I couldn’t leave my best girl.”
1) X-Men: First Class – Rage and Serenity
Here it is, what very well may be my favorite moment in any Marvel film. Young Charles Xavier (McAvoy) has recruited a number of mutants and is helping them hone their powers, including Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) who would eventually become his nemesis Magneto. He wants Erik to use his power over magnetism to move a giant satellite dish, but Erik fails because he’s only tapping into his rage. Charles’ advice?
“I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.”
Charles enters Erik’s mind and uncovers a beautiful memory of his dead mother, a memory Erik had forgotten. As Erik tries again to move the dish, you see his pain, his heartbreak, and his elation as he transcends into a new person, one who could be a leader for mutantkind…or its downfall.
This is a benchmark moment for both characters and their friends/enemies relationship that will span decades. The acting is as good as anything I’ve seen in a film, superhero or otherwise, and proof that the genre deserves more recognition for its storytelling.
*Note – as of writing this, I’ve not yet seen X-Men: Apocalypse. I anticipate loving it and will update the list should any scenes similarly resonate with me.