Great movies force their protagonists to make hard choices that help us understand their true character traits and motivations. Sometimes those choices are extremely difficult, messy, and uncomfortable while others only have the appearance of being like that while they are quickly ameliorated or otherwise solved without compromising the hero’s integrity.
Let’s talk about four movies that softened their heroes’ hard choice and four that didn’t offer an easy solution, but hit them head on.
Movies That Soften Their Hard Choice
Superman: The Movie
At the climax of Superman: The Movie, Lex Luthor tells Superman that there are two nuclear missiles traveling toward opposite coasts of the United States, and he only has time to stop one of them from hitting its target. He has to choose between saving the lives of his friends Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen (along with the state of California) and saving the city of Hackensack, New Jersey. He chooses Hackensack to make good on his promise to save Ms. Teschmacher’s mother. Thankfully, the other missile doesn’t hit a populated area, and Superman is able to prevent the San Andreas Fault from destroying western California. He’s even able to save Lois after she dies by turning back time.
Superman II also forces Superman to make a seemingly permanent choice that turns out to be entirely reversable. He decides to give up his superpowers to be with the love of his life. It’s a great scene, but its power is lessened by the fact that it doesn’t have any permanent consequences other than perhaps giving Superman a better perspective on the plight of mere mortals.
In Batman Forever, the Riddler sets a trap for Batman high atop his island lair. He is going to make Batman choose to save either his new crimefighting partner Robin or his lover Chase Meridian as they plunge to their death. For some reason, he sets up this elaborate trap in a way that is simple enough for Batman to save them both. He saves Chase first, and he has plenty of time to save Robin, too.
Of course, Batman is no stranger to coming up with creative solutions to seemingly impossible problems. He’s not just fast and strong, but he’s also smart.
The climax of Spider-Man has a similar setup to the one in Batman Forever. Green Goblin puts Spider-Man into a thorny situation when he makes him choose between saving a bunch of innocent kids or Mary Jane Watson as he drops them off a bridge. Like Batman, Spider-Man first saves the woman he loves and then goes after the kids. The difference in this situation is that Spider-Man has to stay in a vulnerable position for a long time to prevent everyone he’s holding up from dying. But a helpful boat comes to his rescue, as well as a bunch of agitated New Yorkers on the nearby bridge. So Spider-Man doesn’t have to suffer from a guilty conscience for having failed to save even one life in that situation.
Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame
The final two Avengers movies put their protagonists into a number of impossible situations, but there are two scenes in particular that stick out to me. The Soul Stone scenes. Thanos may not be a hero, but he is definitely the main character who acts while everyone else just reacts to him. He has to give up the one thing dearest to his heart in order to obtain the Soul Stone, and so he chooses to kill his favorite adopted daughter Gamora. She does show up again in child form to ask him if it was worth it once he accomplishes his goal of obtaining all of the Infinity Stones and snapping his fingers. It’s a slap in the face, reminding him of what he sacrificed to get there. However, this blow is softened by the fact that Gamora appears in the next movie – and who knows about future Guardians of the Galaxy films.
Avengers: Endgame repeats that scene, but this time Black Widow and Hawkeye fight each other to be the one to die. Black Widow eventually wins the battle and sacrifices herself. It’s an emotional scene, but it’s oddly overshadowed by the fact that they made a Black Widow movie after she died. It must be a prequel, but still, it seems strange to resurrect the dead for one last hurrah. The MCU is famous for its fake-out deaths. I have to give them credit for seemingly killing some characters off for good in these two films, even if these two don’t feel as permanent as some others do.
Movies That Make Their Heroes Pay the Price for Their Choice
The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker ironically isn’t forced to choose between rescuing his friends and staying on Dagobah, but he sees a vision through the Force that inspires him to leave. He suffers both body and spirit as a result of that decision. Darth Vader overpowers him, cuts off his right hand, and reveals the horrible truth about their relationship. Some might argue that Luke doesn’t pay a heavy price because by the end of the film he has a robotic hand that’s as good as new, and he comes to terms with Vader’s revelation by the beginning of the next film. But I’d argue that that recovery is just on the surface level. The loss of his hand and its replacement with an artificial one is a constant reminder to Luke of the fact that he can easily fall to the Dark Side of the Force like his father did. And Luke is a changed man after that experience, no longer a wide-eyed kid. He’s wizened and has to make a lot of mature decisions to redeem his father in Return of the Jedi that he wouldn’t have been able to make if he hadn’t suffered so much in The Empire Strikes Back.
Imagine having to choose which one of your two children will continue to live. If you don’t choose, they both die. That’s the choice Sophie Zawistowski had to make when she and her son and daughter arrived at Auschwitz during World War II. She had to send one of her children away to die, despite her pleas to the guard not to make her choose. In the end, she gave up her daughter to be sent to the ovens. However, she never saw either of her children again, even though she was told that her son would be sent to the children’s camp. She never discovered his final fate after she was released. Everyone lost in that situation. A few years later, she took her own life because she couldn’t live with her decision.
The Matrix Reloaded
One of the few clear-cut choices in The Matrix Reloaded comes near the end when Neo is given two bad choices: save the human race at the cost of everything he holds dear or save his love Trinity at the cost of all humanity. It seems like the movie is going to go the route of finding a way for Neo to accomplish both when he chooses to save Trinity, and he brings her back from the dead inside the Matrix. But no. The final film in the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, relentlessly punishes Neo for his choice. He loses his eyesight as a result of a brutal injury to his face and then he loses Trinity when she dies in the real world. He does manage to save humanity, but only by being absorbed into Agent Smith in the Matrix and dying in the real world. Even though he basically got the opposite of what he chose, he did pay a big price and earned a big reward.
The Dark Knight
The Joker’s modus operandi is putting people into no-win scenarios in The Dark Knight. No matter what they do, he’s always several steps ahead, laughing at their pain. The most devastating of those moments comes when he forces Batman to choose whether to save the soul of Gotham in the form of Harvey Dent or save the woman he loves and the key to his personal happiness, Rachel Dawes. Batman chooses Rachel, but he doesn’t realize that the Joker lied about their locations, switching them. So whomever Batman had chosen, he would have unwittingly arrived at the wrong destination. He is devastated when he bursts into a building to find Dent, not Rachel. He manages to save Dent, but Rachel is killed in a giant explosion, and Dent is scarred physically and psychologically. Dent never recovers from those wounds, and Batman has to trudge on, knowing that he failed to save Gotham and the woman he loved, ignorant of the fact that she didn’t share that love. If she had lived, it would have been a nightmare for both of them because she’d either have to break his heart or live a lie to stay with him.
I’m sure there are many other films that force characters to make awful, life-ruining choices. Like when Dr. Manhattan faces off with Rorschach at the end of Watchmen and when Detective Mills learns what’s in the box at the end of Seven. So many to choose from.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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