The purpose of this list is to examine when character deaths were used to advance a story and teach us something about the human condition. It isn’t necessarily about the shock factor. Rather, it’s to look at characters, whether the protagonist or a supporting character, and see what their death meant to a story. Any movie, TV show, video game, comic book or novel was fair game. But I purposefully stayed away from superheroes who lose their parent early on, motivating them to take up the hero’s quest. It’s a good story beat but not tremendously unique. These are not ranked. Just some of the most powerful deaths.
Just an FYI, there are spoilers below but none of it is very recent. We discuss Alien, Terminator, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Star Trek, Watchmen, Cowboy Bebop, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Night of the Living Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Men, Blade Runner and V for Vendetta.
Officer Kane – Alien
This death really exemplifies body horror. We all have moments where we don’t trust our bodies. Cancer, STDs, behavioral and mental issues. Why would our body betray us? This is pretty fantastically (in every sense of the word) exemplified when Kane suddenly gives birth in the most violent way possible.
Kyle Reese – The Terminator
Kyle Reese’s death is something that helps us comprehend the bizarre paradox of the very concept of time travel. His death betrays our very understanding of cause and effect. His commanding officer sent him back in time to protect Sarah Connor and in so doing, Kyle fathered that leader. Crazy.
Eddard “Ned Stark” – A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series features all sorts of surprising deaths but the one to rival is the first major protagonist’s death at the end of the first book. The chapters are each told from a character’s point of view and Ned appears to be the protagonist. Until he dies and you realize the story is about something a lot bigger than any one person. In real life, we’re all the protagonist of our own story. But that story continues past our death.
Biggs Darklighter – Star Wars
Star Wars is epic fantasy following the classical hero’s journey. And that means the hero HAS to lose his mentor before he can truly become a hero. So Obi-Wan’s death was a certainty, at least in retrospect. Plus, he knowingly becomes a martyr. But Luke’s childhood friend, Biggs, dies in a huge battle and there’s really no time to mourn him in the moment. That’s the nature of war. An individual life is hard to notice but the personal connection to Luke helps us realize how many people are dying. War is hell, man.
Spock – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Spock’s death in the second Star Trek movie is kind of the opposite of those in Star Wars. Spock sacrifices himself, but it isn’t really in the name of a cause and certainly not a war. Ultimately, he sacrificed his life to save his friends. He may argue with his logic that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, but his half-human side shines through when he tells Kirk: “I have been and always shall be… your friend.”
Rorschach – Watchmen
Rorschach is really not a hero, despite the framing of Watchmen telling the story of “what if superheroes existed in the real world?” He’s a brilliant detective and an amazing fighter, but he’s also pretty much a sociopath. Which makes his ultimate death a little confusing. He could walk away at the end, because the villain has accomplished his goals. The rest of the “heroes” reluctantly decide that since it is done, it’s better not to let the world know what really happened. But Rorschach’s overriding quality is an inability to compromise. He knows Dr. Manhattan will kill him but he refuses to go along with their silence. Is it noble, though? The world is united against an (imagined) threat. Is it better to be united by a lie or in conflict with the truth? It’s up to the reader to decide but Rorschach’s death represents a refusal to ever compromise your own ideals.
Spike Spiegel – Cowboy Bebop
Spike Spiegel was once left for dead but survived. He lost an eye and said that ever since that day, his prosthetic eye can only see the present but his real eye can only see the past. He was in love and lost his love and consequently really is just going through the motions of life. He ultimately dies taking down the criminal empire he once worked for and who killed the love of his life. It’s a very existential, if not nihilistic, view of the world. Spike seems to joke around but he never significantly connects with the world around him. Or at least he didn’t feel like he did. So is existing really living?
Frank Poole – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Frank Poole is one of the astronauts killed by HAL, an artificial intelligence who cannot reconcile conflicting commands. It shows us how an overreliance on tools instead of on ourselves is dangerous, lethal even. It’s not just HAL that’s the danger, though. It’s space itself. Life cannot exist in the vacuum of space. There, we can only survive thanks to our tools. It’s an interesting dichotomy. Needing to use tools but not becoming dependent on them.
Primrose Everdeen – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Katniss Everdeen has basically won the war, a type of slave revolt against the incredibly powerful Capitol that controlled the working class Districts. The war is over. And then her sister, Prim, along with innocent District children and nurses, are blown up. But it isn’t the Capitol this time. It’s the president of the Rebels, trying to create propaganda to win over the citizens of the Capitol, framing their corrupt leadership. The war may be over, but you just can’t trust a politician.
Ben – Night of the Living Dead
Pure tragedy because it should have been so easily avoided. Ben survives the night against a seemingly unending army of zombies as well as the paranoid people he holes up with in a farmhouse. And then when he steps outside, he’s shot dead by a police officer. Not only does it show us that the ultimate horror is humanity itself, not only does it show that death comes for us all when we’re not careful, but it seems especially relevant in today’s world where a lot of police seem to be shooting first and asking questions later.
Tara – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I could have just as easily listed Buffy’s mother because the point is the same: death is arbitrary. It’s just something that happens and we’re rarely prepared for it. Tara’s death wasn’t intentional or supernatural. She just got shot by a stray bullet.
Jean Grey – X-Men
Forget the retcons – in the Dark Phoenix storyline, Jean Grey went dark. She let her power corrupt her and destroyed an entire planet. It doesn’t matter if she was a hero for years prior or that she wasn’t in her right mind. A price needs to be paid for such actions. In real life, that’d be jail. In the heightened world of mutant superheroes, it had to be intentional self-sacrifice.
Roy Batty – Blade Runner
Roy Batty’s last words could almost have been the Kansas song’s refrain: “All we are is dust in the wind.” His final speech is one of the most moving death soliloquy’s in film, period. Largely improvised by actor Rutger Hauer, it revealed that the Replicants are capable of the same deep emotions as humans. It really displayed how sometimes those we think of as inhuman are the most human of all.
V – V for Vendetta
In Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s fascist future, V is an anarchist and a terrorist that we can actually identify with because the world is so flawed. When he is shot to death, he claims he cannot die because he is an idea and ideas are bulletproof. It’s one of the best examples of intentional martyrdom.