You know the old rule, superheroes never die. Well, they do, but it’s pretty rare that they actually stay dead — we call this Jean Grey Syndrome, a dynamic actually addressed in a debate between Black Widow and several newspaper staff during Fear Itself (and we’ll get it that later).
But not all superhero deaths are created equal. Here we run down a few of the most tragic events the Marvel Universe has had to offer up over the past decade. Note that this article contains spoilers for Issue 1 of the currently ongoing Civil War II, so we’ve put that one at the bottom if you want to skip past it.
1. Steve Rogers — Captain America (2007)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Captain America, paragon of justice, liberty and the American dream, shot down whilst surrendering his own freedom in order to protect the lives of others.
Following the events of Civil War Steve Rogers is being taken by S.H.I.E.L.D. to the courthouse to face judgement, but he never gets there. Under the orders of Red Skull, he’s shot and seemingly killed by Brock Rumlow/Crossbones and a brainwashed Sharon Carter/Agent 13 in Captain America Vol 5, Issue 25.
Not the first time Captain America has died, but it is perhaps the most tragic. Not only is America’s First Warrior struck down whilst he’s restrained in handcuffs by his own country, he’s also not in the best favor at the time, given that this happens directly after the events of Civil War.
Many people in the country felt betrayed and let down by his refusal to support the Superhuman Registration Act, and the fact that Steve Roger’s paramour Sharon Carter (however unwillingly) had a hand in his death really drives the knife in deeper — especially as she doesn’t remember her part in it until a mental trigger brings the memory flooding back.
Despite the fact that Steve knew she had shot him, he still held onto her as he died, calling her beautiful and expressing his affection for her. And then we have the scene inCivil War: The Confession, where Tony Stark/Iron Man stands over the dead body of one of his best friends, torn from him by the Civil War and his death.
It’s this moment when Tony realises that, despite the fact that he was fighting for what he thought was right, the fact that it cost him Steve means — “it wasn’t worth it.”
2. James “Bucky” Barnes — Captain America (2010)
Poor Bucky can’t catch a break, can he? The death of James “Bucky” Barnes in Avengers Issue 56 back in 1968 was one of the few that seemingly would never get retconned — until Ed Brubaker came along and brought him back as the Winter Soldier nearly 40 years later.
When Steve Rogers is thought dead following the aforementioned events of Civil War, Bucky Barnes takes over as the new Captain America, and continues fighting under that banner when Steve returns. During Fear Itself, Issue 3 Bucky-Cap has his metal arm destroyed and is killed by Sin — the daughter of Cap nemesis Red Skull — and his death rocks the Marvel Universe.
It’s later revealed that he only almost died — brought back by Nick Fury’s Infinity Formula — but we as an audience believed it for a good while. This event is made all the more poignant by the fact that he and Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow were an item at the time, and in The Winter Soldier Issue 1 we see the fearsome Black Widow in floods of tears as she holds her dying lover.
For the stone cold assassin of the Marvel Universe, it’s a heartbreaking scene.
3. Janet Van Dyne — Wasp (2008)
Janet Van Dyne — a.k.a. Wasp — hasn’t yet begun to shine in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but her comic book counterpart has been around for a long time as a founding member and sometime leader of the Avengers. Like Janet’s brief appearance in the MCU, she’s also sacrificed to save the lives of others during the Skrull Invasion of Earth in Secret Invasion.
Secret Invasion sees the revelation that many of the Marvel heroes had been secretly replaced by Skrull counterparts over many years, readying for a full scale invasion of Earth. Wasp isn’t one of these Skrull replicants; instead she fights with the Avengers as they confront the Skrull forces in New York.
Now we cast our mind back to an earlier story — Mighty Avengers Issue 8 — in which Janet’s husband Hank Pym gave her a special serum which made her able to enhance her size, Giant-Man style. But as Secret Invasion revealed, this Hank Pym wasn’t Hank Pym, but a Skrull imposter, and had been for a long time.
During the battle in New York in Secret Invasion, Issue 7, the real effect of the serum is revealed. Following the supposed death of the Queen of the Skrulls — Veranke — the invaders active the serum, causing Janet to begin increasing in size outwith her control whilst radiating a lethally dangerous energy that begins to kill everyone in the area.
Janet realises that the serum has turned her into a living bomb — the Skrull’s last resort to defeat their enemies — and she attempts to escape to spare her friends. With no other option, Thor is forced to use Mjolnir to disintegrate her body and stop the bomb from exploding.
Captain Marvel muses that the Skrulls really didn’t understand humans, as Janet’s death angers her friends to the point where they strike back hard, defeating the aliens almost instantly. But it came at a heavy cost — until Janet returned a few years later, of course.
It’s a rough, if terribly heroic way to go for one of the founding members of the Avengers, made worse by the fact that her long-time team-mate Thor was forced to be the one to kill her. As Captain Marvel points out, by trying to use Janet against her friends, the Skrulls made their final fatal mistake.
4. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes — War Machine (2016)
This is a very recent one, one of the major spark points which caused the rift between Tony Stark and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel in Civil War II. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes is not the only casualty of the new crossover series, but he’s just as important as
If you’re not caught up with the details of Civil War II you can . The core of the story involves an ideological split between Iron Man and Captain Marvel over the appearance of a new Inhuman — Ulysses — who can predict the future.
Taking a cue from Minority Report, Carol wants to use Ulysses’s power to stop crimes and arrest criminals before the crime has been committed, whereas Tony points out that the future Ulysses sees is only a probable one and so cannot be used to hold people accountable.
In Civil War II, Issue 1 and the Free Comic Book Day tie-in, Carol uses a report from Ulysses regarding the appearance of Thanos to ambush the Titan. Her newly formed team — the Ultimates — are joined by She-Hulk and War Machine, whom Carol is in a romantic relationship with at the time.
The Ultimates are a fairly new team, and unaccustomed to fighting together. A slight miscalculation in their coordination sends one of Rhodey’s rockets firing into She-Hulk — nearly killing her.
Whilst Rhodey is momentarily distracted by the accident, Thanos punches him full force in the chest, shattering his armor and ending his life. Rhodey’s death devastated both his best friend, Tony Stark, and his lover, Carol Danvers — and Tony lashes out at Carol, accusing her of causing War Machine’s death.
Believing Ulysses’s visions to be too dangerous to use unchecked, Tony kidnaps the young Inhuman to run some tests, and then the conflict really starts to blow open between Iron Man and Captain Marvel. No more spoilers here though, you’ll have to pick up your own copy to find out what happens next.
Which Marvel superhero death do you think was the most tragic? Tell us in the comments below!
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Thinking too much about comic books since 1992. Tweet me your favorite superheros @katgrngr