The Character Deaths That Defined a Generation

Everyone can recall a moment in a film that made them cry.
Titanic Ending
By  · Published on May 5th, 2018

Everyone can recall a moment in a film that made them cry.

Warning: Spoilers for a bunch of stuff.

Since when do superhero movies make people cry? That’s what happened with the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War. Some believe Marvel has toyed with death too often for the ending of Infinity War to be successful, but there are plenty who wept in their chairs. This was a cinematic moment of true despair and whatever you believe the ultimate fate of those characters will be, there is no denying the gravitas of Thanos endgame.

The end of Infinity War isn’t the only moment that has had the power to influence generations. Whether you’re a child of the 80s, 90s, 00s, or even the 10s there have been culture-altering deaths in motion pictures.

Honorable Mentions

There is a few that missed being mentioned on the list. No one can forget when Jack died in Titanic. The movie is still one of the highest grossing films of all-time. We’ll still argue that there was room on that floating door for him to lie on.

Logan showed the end of Wolverine. There are few actors who were as committed to their role as Hugh Jackman, who played Wolverine in countless roles. That Wolverine’s death would come at the end of the most acclaimed superhero movies ever was icing on the cake.

Finally, I was debating on putting Dumbledore on this list due to the popularity of Harry Potter. I had the feeling that some deaths in the series were more poignant to book readers and that when they came in the movies, some of that was lost. Dumbledore was a huge loss for Harry and the world of Harry Potter, but for every reader or movie watcher, there might’ve been a death that meant that little more.

Onto the list.

Optimus Prime — Transformers: The Movie

For children in the 80s, there were few robots as cool as Transformers. The battle between the Decepticons and Autobots was everything. The Decepticons had Megatron; the Autobots had Optimus Prime. Prime was the hope for all the humans and the champion we could count on.

Designed as a cash-grab by Hasbro, Transformers: The Movie had one goal. Riding the success of the first season of the TV show, the idea was to use the movie to introduce new characters to the fold. That meant killing off many of the Generation 1 Autobots. The first fifteen minutes of the movie destroy’s the dreams of every child born in the 80s. That wasn’t enough for Hasbro. They had to take death to the next level.

The death of Optimus Prime was a sea change for the Transformers franchise. Not only was the moment traumatic for many viewers, but it holds up as one of the most lackadaisical character deaths in history. Hasbro was never intending the death of Optimus Prime to hold so much weight. They assumed to move on to the next set of robotic toys. They did eventually learn their lesson and bring Prime back, but the damage was already done.

Mufasa — The Lion King

We get it Disney; you have something against parents. It’s OK. Countless parents in Disney films have lost their lives such as Bambi’s mom, Elsa and Anna’s parents, and Nemo’s mom to name a few. The one everyone remembers to this day is the death of Mufasa in The Lion King.

If you are a child from the 90s, chances are this is your iconic crying moment in the theater. The moment that Mufasa risks his life and body to save his son is devastating. Mufasa reaches up and begs his brother for support, only to be betrayed. A lot of Disney parents are killed with little fanfare, but Mufasa was different. Mufasa was mauled by a wildebeest stampede. I mean his bones are straight up crushed. This wasn’t a quick, painless, death. This was unbearable suffering.

That would’ve been enough for many to start the tears flowing, but no, Disney took it one step further. Simba goes back to the scene to witness the wreckage! Disney kept Mufasa in one piece because his arm should not be connected to his body by this point. Then they give you the swelling music, Simba begging his father to wake up, and then the sinking realization that his father is not in this world anymore. This is the stuff that leaves a mark. It’s fitting then that the villain of this movie is named Scar. This sequence is still devastating for children who watch it today.

Gandalf — The Fellowship of the Ring

The adventure of Lord of the Rings is one part of the story, but the relationships between the characters take the franchise to another level. It was key to making the relationship between Gandalf and Frodo work above all else. I can’t imagine anyone else taking on the role of Gandalf than Sir Ian McKellen.

I’ve been thinking about the loss of Gandalf a lot. How this moment would never work in the social media culture we have today. It was possible to have seen this movie without having read the books and believe Gandalf was dead. There was no one who would shout over the internet that Gandalf was coming back and that your feelings were faulty. Who the hell cares if the character is coming back if the moment still felt real to you.

The scene has Gandalf sacrificing himself for the Fellowship. He knows they cannot defeat the Balrog that lives in the mines. His only hope is to provide time for Frodo and the Fellowship to retreat and move forward without him. There is some added fanfare of the Fellowship mourning their fallen friend which magnifies the significance of the loss.

For some, this isn’t the moment in the film that brings the tear ducts flowing. Instead, some prefer when Samwise is so determined to follow Frodo he almost drowns. They share a moment and vow to be together until the end of the journey. That is well and good, but Gandalf falling is a moment that lives far outside the film and had long-lasting effects.

Han Solo — Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars has had its share of deaths in the franchise, but not even the most recent hero death can match the loss of Han Solo. Star Wars has always been a series enjoyed by families. Han Solo was the epitome of the “cool guy.” Han Solo got the woman, he had the swagger, and he was the most compelling character in the Star Wars universe.

Han Solo’s death was a long time coming. “I think it’s a fitting use of the character. I’ve been arguing for Han Solo to die for about 30 years, not because I was tired of him or because he’s boring, but his sacrifice for the other characters would lend gravitas and emotional weight,” Harrison Ford said in a conversation with EW’s Tumblr. It was important that the death of Han Solo wasn’t just an afterthought, but rather something that pushed the Star Wars universe in a new direction. This was achieved by having Kylo Ren, Solo’s son, be the person who completed the deed.

Not only does Solo’s death affect the young viewers becoming attached to the Star Wars universe for the first time, but it had ramifications that were felt from over thirty years of storytelling and myth. Han Solo had become something more than a character in a movie. He had become an icon for many who enjoyed the Star Wars stories. But his loss opened the door for new characters like Finn, Ray, and Poe to take center stage and shine. Perhaps there is no better way for the old scoundrel to go.

Do you have a character death that defined your childhood?

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.