There is something magical about traditional stories, where a brave and virtuous hero defeats the villain, saves the day, and lives happily ever after. However, not all movies end like this. Sometimes, the hero doesn’t walk out unscathed—And sometimes, they may not even walk out of the ordeal at all.
On the few occasions when the main character dies at some point in the film, the twist often works as a powerful narrative tool to make the story pack more of a punch. In any case, it’s always memorable.
This goes without saying, but there are heavy spoilers ahead!
‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (2016)
The Star Wars franchise is no stranger to big character deaths, but Rogue One was a whole other story. The phenomenal prequel follows the team of rebels that stole the plans of the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon. Things don’t end well for them.
Near the end of the movie, the Empire fires the Death Star on the planet where the rebels stole the plans. The main characters are killed by the very weapon which, in the future, will be destroyed thanks to them. What was a powerful enough ending a few years ago is made even more devastating by Andor, the show that follows one of the rebels killed in this sequence.
‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is often criticized for its tendency to bring every dead character back to life. But in a vacuum, fans still remember the ending of Infinity War as one of the most shocking sequences in superhero movie history.
Without a doubt, this film has the most poignant, ballsy, and impactful ending in the MCU’s vast catalogue. Watching so many of the heroes that fans have grown to love turn to dust, and seeing the villain walk away into calmness… It’s the kind of thing that you don’t often see in big blockbuster of the caliber of Infinity War.
‘Life Is Beautiful’ (1997)
Movies set during the Holocaust are always harrowing, exploring this tragic event with care and sensitivity. Roberto Benigni‘s Life Is Beautiful takes a bold approach and explores the event through the eyes of a little boy whose father gets him to believe that the whole thing is an elaborate game.
The juxtaposition between the heartwarming tone and the real-life horrors of the movie’s subject matter is incredibly powerful. When Guido, the father, eventually dies at the hand of the Nazis, it may not be shocking, but it certainly is heartbreaking.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)
Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan is a hell of a film (according to some, one that was robbed of the Best Picture Oscar back in its time), about eight WWII soldiers tasked with penetrating German-held territory and bringing a trapped American soldier home.
As one might expect, the film comes with many casualties, the most affecting of which is definitely that of the protagonist, Captain John Miller. His sacrifice is a riveting moment, only one iconic scene in a movie full of them.
There is no way of not being entertained by Ridley Scott‘s action period piece Gladiator, where a deceived and betrayed Roman general battles his way to revenge.
Maximus Decimus Meridius’s journey and multiple ordeals are as devastating and brutal as they are emotional and enrapturing. Scott’s direction is beyond phenomenal, helping him craft a sprawling character study with amazing technical qualities, as well as an ending that’s as heartbreaking as it is rousing.
James Cameron‘s colossal blockbuster Titanic is based on the real tragedy of a luxury passenger liner that sank in 1912, putting a pair of star-crossed lovers in an environment that any viewer knows will not end well for them.
Stories of doomed romance have something twistedly riveting about them, and Titanic is no exception. The story before the actual sinking of the ship is fascinating in itself, but once disaster strikes, that’s when the film truly becomes what is today remembered as the most important disaster movie ever.
‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)
The ’90s were a hell of a decade for the action genre; and in such a prolific time for it, Terminator 2 shines as one of its best. In it, a terminator returns to Sarah Connor’s era—This time to protect her and her son from another killing machine.
The first Terminator movie is a phenomenal action thriller. But T2 is simply something else. As well as having exhilarating action scenes, it has outstanding character development and some genuinely emotional moments, chief among which is the T-800’s tragic fate once the villain has been defeated.
‘The Departed’ (2006)
In Martin Scorsese‘s Best Picture Oscar winner The Departed, the police send in a cop to infiltrate the Irish mafia, not realizing that the syndicate has done the same to them, and that both sides have a mole among them.
All crime movies tend to be full of loyalty twists and double crossings, but The Departed brings that several steps forward. The death of the main hero played by Leonardo DiCaprio is shocking enough, but only when Mark Wahlberg‘s character arrives at the end to kill Matt Damon‘s and the credits roll are audiences allowed to take a breath.
‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)
There are very few filmmakers capable of crafting films as enchanting as Guillermo Del Toro‘s. Pan’s Labyrinth, his most highly acclaimed masterpiece, tells the story of a girl who find a terrifying world of magic while living with her pregnant mother and tyrannical stepfather in a new home.
It can’t be easy to effectively juxtapose the chilling horror of fascist regimes with mesmerizing beauty, but with Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro somehow managed. Even in the end, when main character Ofelia dies from bullet wounds, the movie manages to astonish with its shimmering beauty.
Nowadays, the possibility of the movie’s protagonist dying, though rare, is absolutely not unheard of. But back in the early ’60s, when Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho and killed his protagonist halfway through the movie, audiences were beyond shocked.
Today, even if the scene isn’t quite as jaw-dropping as it used to be, it’s still incredibly powerful and well put together. The fact that the story works as well as it does with such a gargantuan twist sandwiched in the middle is impressive. There’s a pretty good reason why Psycho is still considered one of the best horror movies ever made.