Movies are a whole experience: two hours I can spend living in someone else’s world, caring about fictional people with problems I’ll never have. And the quality of a movie depends on that whole But sometimes there’s a short moment that stands out from the rest, a moment I will remember long after the credits have rolled.
That happens in the comic book movies more often than the regular kind. So here’s my list – not quite a top 10 – of my favourite “moments” in superhero movies.
7. Deadshot shoots Harley (not)
Suicide Squad was more an anthology of moments than it was a real movie. Its hard to choose a favourite because that was the bulk of the movie: Deadshot’s “audition”, Diablo letting loose his full power, the bar scene and several others might have made this list. But I chose this one because its a true character moment for both Harley Quinn and Deadshot, and it is, I think, the moment they truly became friends.
Up to this point, Harley has been tagging along being her crazy self, but she’s focussed on her upcoming reunion with the Joker. When his message comes through, she hesitates for maybe a nanosecond – just long enough for us, the audience, to realise she knows what she’s leaving behind. And then she plunges ahead, grabbing the rope left for her to escape. Amanda Waller, of course, immediately orders her death, and when the implanted explosive fails she turns to Deadshot. He has already made it clear to her that he has a price, and Waller offers it. Deadshot, characteristically, immediately turns his gun on Harley.
He fires, Harley goes limp. When, an instant later, we realise that Deadshot – who famously never misses – has missed. But what makes the moment, for me, is what happens next. After giving the watchers a moment to believe she is dead Harley springs back to life, waving cheekily as the helicopter carries her away.
Why did Deadshot miss? It had to be deliberate. He had been offered everything he wanted. Perhaps he knew Waller would never deliver. But more likely, I think he felt some empathy for Harley. Her story has some similarities with his both are separated from someone they love, both imprisoned for valid reasons yet neither quite convinced they really deserve it. And both are being forced to do Waller’s bidding. They are comrades, and perhaps this was an opportunity for both of them. After all, Waller could not have confirmed Harley’s death. All Harley had to do was keep up the act and both she and Deadshot got what they wanted.
So, why didn’t she? Because Harley Quinn is Harley Quinn. She couldn’t possibly resist getting the last laugh. You can hear in Deadshot’s nonchalant “I missed,” that he doesn’t really mind. It’s a great character moment for both of them.
6. Dance-off, Bro!
Guardians of the Galaxy was a breath of fresh air with its wacky humour and outlandish characters and plot. But nothing was so refreshing as this moment. The villain is so over the top it’s impossible to take him seriously, yet this is a scene that appears in many movies: the moment when the villain is on the ascendant, triumphant. We know – or we think we know – that he will be stopped before the unthinkable happens. In this case the unthinkable is the imminent genocide of a whole planet. Roman has the power in his hands. As OTT as it is, it’s also a very serious moment. Our heroes are literally on the ground, not only unable to stop him but about to be incinerated with the rest.
And into this moment of peak tension – or peak melodrama, it works either way – comes the voice of Peter Quill. Not begging for mercy. Not with some brilliant oratory to change our villain’s heart. Not even with a last, desperate attack. No, he is singing. Singing a love song! He is the voice of every critic who was rolling their eyes at Ronan’s villain-speech. He refuses to take Ronan seriously and, in doing so, takes all the power away from him. (Can we please clone him and get him to follow Trump around everywhere?)
Everyone – Ronan included – thinks Quill is insane. Even Gamora flinches away from him. Well, it is a completely crazy move but its crazy-like-a-fox. Because it buys the seconds the others needed to regroup and launch an effective attack.
It’s that irreverence, that refusal to do the expected, that really made Guardians of the Galaxy great.
5. Thor takes the Tube
Even poor movies can have great moments. For pure comedy, this was one of my favourites in Thor: The Dark World. Thor is doing battle surrounded by these invisible portals, with no idea where he will end up when he is tossed into one. He could have landed in China, but it turns out to be Charing Cross station.
I don’t live in London, but I’ve been there often enough to get the joke. It’s a short scene, less than 30 seconds, but it packs a lot in. The way you can get just about anywhere by Tube, though Thor is lucky he landed on the right line! Londoners’ complete unconcern about seeing a god in full costume board the train – they have seen weirder costumes than that, believe me. And that jolt of the train giving the girl an excuse to touch him – yeah, that was totally her copping a feel of those pecs – just perfect. (And no, I don’t think sexual assault is okay when its gender-swapped, but you can see Thor knows exactly what she’s up to and doesn’t mind one bit.)
4. Avengers Assemble: Black Widow interrogates Loki
Oh, boy, but she’s awesome. Natasha fights alongside men with super powers and holds her own but it’s here that she truly shines, masterfully manipulating Loki until he lets his plan slip. Look at how she does it. She knows he has Barton and therefore her own secrets are compromised. So she plays to Loki’s expectations: just like a girl, she comes to beg for her man’s life.
Natasha never lies to Loki, but there is one question she evades: after she says, “I’m Russian…or, I was,” Loki responds, “What are you now?” It’s here that she diverts him with “There’s red in my ledger.”
That’s the master stroke. Natasha is referring to a debt she owes to Barton but Loki, primed for it, instantly hears “red” as “blood”. He senses weakness, goes for it, but it’s not Natasha’s weakness, it’s his own. She is reconciled with her past, and he can’t manipulate her with it, but Natasha lets him talk, her face reflecting the emotion he wants to see instead of what she really feels. And in his arrogance, Loki reveals too much. And the instant she has what she needs, she drops the act. She even thanks him, a nice twist of the knife to repay him, just a little, for what he has done to her friend.
What makes the scene wonderful, to me, is that none of the men could have pulled that off. It’s not just that she’s good at interrogation, she can use Loki’s sexist assumptions against him. And, yes, it is sexism on display when he threatens her with rape.
Oh, and also, I think it’s brilliant how the script slipped a major obscenity past the censors. I guess whoever reviewed it for certification didn’t know the word. *Evil laugh*
3. Captain America rescues soldiers from Hydra
Captain America: The First Avenger was the movie that had me buying in to the whole MCU thing. I expected to dislike the film; instead I fell in love. This moment exemplifies why. Steve really is the first superhero: when he doesn’t return from his rescue mission when expected it makes sense for them to assume he is dead. It’s also a measure of the toll the war is taking on everyone: so many good men have died that – at this point – Steve Rogers is just another statistic to Col. Phillips, another letter home, another report to write. Yet it affects him: you can see in the way he lashes out at Peggy that he is in his way, grieving. And then everything turns around.
Not only has Steve survived, against all the odds, but he returns accompanied by all the men he has saved. And there’s no moment of gloating, no “I told you so”, as much as Steve would be justified. Instead he faces the Colonel who belittled him and simply acknowledges that he disobeyed orders and is prepared to take the consequences. That strength of character is what defines Steve Rogers. For me, this was the moment he became my hero. I also love that the Colonel admits that he was wrong – but to Peggy, not to Steve. He won’t take back anything he’s said to Rogers. But Peggy rates his gruff, indirect, apology.
2. Amazing Spider Man: cranes save the day
Amazing Spider Man gets a bad rap. But while I agree the origin story didn’t need retelling, and the sequel was a hot mess, I will defend this movie on its own merits to the death. This scene is a big part of why. Earlier in the movie, Peter rescues a little boy from plunging to certain death in a car falling off a bridge. He returns the boy to his father’s arms and it’s really in that moment that Peter truly becomes Spider Man. And it all goes downhill from there.
He is alone in this fight, vilified by the police, misunderstood by almost everyone and very much outmatched: in the end he is just a schoolboy, struggling to fix something he thinks is his fault. He is at his lowest point: injured, knowing Gwen is in danger and that he can’t get there in time. And it’s in that moment when his earlier good deed pays off. The father of the boy he saved sees he needs help and, unasked, figures out how to give it. But more: look at how many others turn and help. The helicopter pilot light the way. A traffic cop stops the cars so he can swing by. And seeing that, realising he isn’t alone, gives Peter the strength to get it done.
It’s a beautiful, perfect moment.
1. Wonder Woman: Crossing No Man’s Land
It’s not the action, perfect though it is. And it’s not just that this is the moment Diana truly becomes Wonder Woman. It’s why she does it, and what happens around her when she does.
Context matters. Maybe not everyone who saw this film knows what the trenches were like. Just prior to the clip, Steve explains it, but his words don’t come close. Thousands of men, living in horrific conditions, any moment might bring the unlucky shell or gas bomb. Battle was suicude because leaving the trench meant making yourself a target. And so it went on for months, neither side gaining and everyone losing.
Diana knows nothing of how exhausted all the men around her are, but she can see the conditions. She understands Steve when he tells her it’s impossible to cross. And it’s not her mission. But she cannot turn away from the plea of another woman. She sets aside her mission, for a time, and simply does what she sees as necessary.
And, yes, Steve tries to stop her, briefly. But up to that moment she has followed his lead. Now, almost instantly, he follows her: he knows she can do this alone, but when he realises she is taking all the enemy’s fire he goes to her aid. And others follow. And then the hole opens in the enemy trench, the allied soldiers, stuck and exhausted a moment before, seize the moment to follow Diana’s example. And they win.
Diana does it simply by being who she is, the warrior Antiope shaped. She does it without killing a single person – notice she takes out the guns, not the men. She leads, men follow.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Wonder Woman and this scene still brings tears to my eyes. It’s not just the best superhero moment; for me it’s the best movie moment, bar none.
That’s my list. What’s yours?