While we marvel at all the incredible explosions and breathtaking battles, there's one simple reason we keep coming back to the theater for MCU flicks: the characters.
Kevin Feige and company have done a fantastic job at building larger-than-life heroes, but perhaps the most impressive accomplishment is their ability to make their characters feel human. Even the mightiest of Avengers experience emotional breakdowns, psychological setbacks, and irreparable arguments. Sure, some have Asgardian blood or super soldier serum pumping in their veins, but at the end of the day they are just as human as you and I.
Without further adieu, here are 14 of the best and most compelling character-driven scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
14. But I Knew Him - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
When James Buchanan Barnes resurfaced in the 21st Century, he was not the Bucky who Steve Rogers once knew. Despite sporting longer hair, he bore the same visage, but the man behind the goggles was clearly off. Identified now as The Winter Soldier, Bucky carried out assassination missions for the parasitical HYDRA.
In a subtle yet heartbreaking moment, we get our first glimpse at Bucky's transformation into the vigilantic mercenary. After a confrontation with his former best friend, Bucky questions his higher-ups: "That man on the bridge.. who was he?" Alexander Pierce berates him, slapping the super soldier for failing to give a mission report. He then compliments Bucky's work, hoping to get a report out of him. With despair in his eyes, Bucky responds with four simple words: "But I knew him."
Being the cold-blooded leader he is, Pierce orders the Winter Soldier's mind to be wiped. Bucky, being the complicit soldier he is, begrudgingly takes the mouth-guard and screams in terror as his memories are zapped.
13. Chopping Wood - Avengers: Age of Ultron
"Isn't that the mission? Isn't that why we fight? So we can end the fight? So we can go home?"
Age of Ultron may be regarded as a forgettable MCU flick, but man oh man did it do a stellar job of setting up Phase 3. After a one-sided defeat to the evil artificial intelligence, the Avengers find sanctuary at Hawkeye's farm. One year before the two would square off in a Civil War, Cap and Tony take to outside to chop some firewood and have a friendly discourse.
Friendly may not be the best word.
Steve's tone throughout is clearly angry, as he is understandably frustrated with Tony for going behind his back and creating a peace-keeping initiative that threatened the human existence. The tension escalates to a fever pitch, with Tony shouting at Cap only for the star-spangled man to retaliate by rip open a log with his bare hands.
Diehard MCU fans will recognize this scene as the initial teaser clip Feige used at 2014's Phase 3 Announcement, revealing Captain America: Serpent Society to actually be Captain America: Civil War.
In just 73 seconds, Age of Ultron was able to drive anticipation for Civil War through the roof.
12. Death was Better Than Bondage - Black Panther
The best villains are those who see themselves as the hero of their story. Erik Killmonger exemplified that to the max.
Seeing Wakanda's technological advancements as an opportunity to liberate the entire world, Killmonger took exception to T'Challa's reign. After assuming the throne and preparing a mass export of resources, the Golden Jaguar ultimately lost his one-on-one rematch with the Black Panther.
T'Challa hoped Killmonger would accept an olive branch, but the former mercenary refused.
"Why? So you can just lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage."
Talk about powerful last words. Killmonger may have died, but his message lived on, as Black Panther's post credits scene revealed T'Challa's intention to open up Wakandan resources to the outside world.
11. Anxiety Attack - Iron Man 3
One of the biggest misconceptions about superhero flicks is the aftermath. The most destructive battles in human history happen every few years in the MCU, and it would be extremely ignorant to think that just because the good guys won, there are no consequences. From entire plots like Civil War to contained one-shots like Item 47, the MCU does a terrific job of addressing exactly what happens next.
Iron Man 3 gets a ton of flack for its Mandarin twist, but it does an exceptional job of character work with Tony Stark. After being confronted by Pepper Potts for never being around anymore, Tony opens up.
"Nothing's been the same since New York. I love you, I'm lucky. But honey, I can't sleep. You go to bed, I come down here, I tinker. I do what I know."
Tony's PTSD is a real thing. His entire world was turned upside down when he caught a glimpse of the threat in the wormhole. He has nightmares. He nearly collapses when an innocent child asks how he survived New York.
While not many of us have experiences fighting a Chitauri army, we all go through things that cause anxiety, stress, sadness. Tony's struggle with PTSD, while hard to watch at times, shows us that even genius billionaire playboy philanthropists go through the same mental struggles that we do.
10. Loki Finds Out His Icy Origins - Thor
Remember how sad it was to watch Bucky get a glimpse of his origins? Turn that up to 11, and that's Loki's revelation about his pedigree.
Starting to question why he always played second-fiddle to Thor, even after his brother was excommunicated from Asgard, Loki discovers he's actually a descendant of Frost Giants. The God of Mischief confronts his adopted father, Odin, in an emotional fury, demanding to know why. Odin reveals he took the infant Loki from Jotunheim, hoping his existence on Asgard could bring a peace between their people.
In an outburst appropriately set in Odin's trophy vault, Loki delivers an impassioned speech, citing his existence as "no more than another stolen relic," locked up Odin had use for him. Throughout it all, Tom Hiddleston gives one of his strongest performances of his career, shaking with emotion as he berates his father, eventually sending him into a sleep.
Later in the film, Loki opens Asgard for a Frost Giant invasion, just to kill them when they get close to Odin. This moment showcases Loki's true motives, as through all the frustrations and rage, all he wanted was to make his father proud.
9. Father and Son - Avengers: Endgame
There's no bond like the one between a father and son.
Admittedly, Tony never thought too highly of his Pops. From feelings of jealousy of Howard's obsession with Captain America to being neglected most of his teenage years, Tony always seemed to take issue with his dad.
Sure, Howard's video journal reveal of how much he cared for Tony was great and all, but it came a few decades too late. After years of father frustration, Tony finally got the opportunity to have one last face-to-face with his Dad in Avengers: Endgame. While Howard Stark thought he was conversing with a Howard Potts, the dialogue still held tremendous weight for our beloved Iron Man.
In a quick burst, Tony interrupts Howard, sharing he has a daughter. Morgan Stark would never know her grandfather, but Tony gets a little victory in his dad knowing she exists (even if he doesn't know they're related).
Before a can't-help-but-smile embrace, Tony leaves Howard with one last piece of advice:
"No amount of money ever bought a second of time."
I think we can all cherish a sentiment like that.
8. We Lost... And You Weren't There - Avengers: Endgame
Man, Tony Stark does not handle losses well.
After drifting aimlessly in outer space for nearly a month, an uncomfortably frail Tony reunites with the Avengers to discuss next steps after the Galaxy-wide genocide. Tony's frustrations boil over fast, and he gets face-to-face with the man that stood opposite him during the Sokovia Accords. Steve Rogers tries to be as calm as possible with his former friend, but Tony has no interest in reconciliation.
Tony cites that he tried to warn them, as far back as Age of Ultron. He saw the threat before anyone else, and it shook him to his core. Anxiety attacks, PTSD, and impulsive peace-keeping initiatives all haunted Tony after the Battle of New York.
"I said we'd lose, you said we'd do that together too. Well guess what Cap? We lost. And you weren't there."
Cap and Tony have had their fair share of verbal spars, but there is no back and forth here. Tony delivers an inconvenient truth to a speechless Cap, who recognizes his faults. Sure, Cap had a confrontation with the Mad Titan, but his brief experience doesn't hold a candle to what Thanos put Tony through.
While they made amends in the end, it took Tony and Cap five years to shake hands after this outburst.
7. Thor Opens Up to Rocket - Avengers: Infinity War
It's easy to gloss over the emotional trauma that the Mighty One has experienced.
The most ambitious crossover of all-time left little room for dialogues, but this short scene between Thor and Rocket is incredibly important to understanding the God of Thunder's psyche ahead of his battle with Thanos.
In an attempt to get to know his new Asgardian comrade better, Rocket questions Thor about his family. Thor solemnly reveals his brother, sister, mother, father, and best friend have all died. Realizing he's in a state of vulnerability, Thor reassures Rocket that all his losses are just tremendous motivators, and that Thanos will be no different from the thousands he's slain before.
“And what if you’re wrong?”
“Well, if I’m wrong, then… What more could I lose?”
In a blink and you’ll miss it moment, the mighty God of Thunder sheds a single tear. While numerous other heroes have no problem wearing their heart on their sleeve, Thor has always been one to suppress his emotions. Despite Rocket clearly detecting the quiver in his voice, Thor is hesitant to let down his guard.
For centuries, emotions have been viewed at as weakness. Being a god, Thor evidently wants to remain as strong as possible in the eyes of all. His opening up, while brief, shows us that even the mightiest of heroes suffer the same emotional struggles as us mortals. Acknowledging and embracing those struggles is what makes a true hero.
6. He Wasn't Your Daddy - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
"He may have been your father boy, but he wasn't your daddy."
Peter Quill has been through a lot. From losing his mother to getting abducted immediately after, time has not been kind to the legendary outlaw. Regardless of his stumbles, he maintains a smile and a strong sense of humor. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter is finally reunited with his Celestial father, Ego. After discovering the living planet planted the tumor in his mother, Star-Lord rages out and attacks him.
Quill and the Guardians destroy Ego, but not before the aftermath claims the life of Mary Poppins's Number 1 fan. Yondu flies Quill to outer space, reassuring that while he may not have had the biological dad he wanted, he did have a father figure in Yondu.
Sure, the Ravagers took Quill against his will, but Yondu and company taught him everything he knows. The whistling crook provided him a family when Star-Lord had nothing left. Yondu met his untimely death moments after, but his final words gave Quill the consolation he needed.
5. Cap Argues with Tony - Captain America: Civil War
Honestly, I'm just glad these two were able to get along in their final film together.
Standing on opposite sides of the controversial Sokovia Accords, Cap and Tony are unable to compromise on anything. Seeing how agendas change with the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap hesitates to let the Avengers work under outside jurisdiction. On the other hand, Tony knows the destruction they (and more specifically, he) caused with the Ultron disaster, and understands the super-team needs to be put in check.
The tension in this scene is so palpable that the Russos kept it exclusively dialogue. No score or soundtrack was necessary for this escalating verbal joust.
In this conversation, Tony reveals a lot. He is taking a break with Pepper, he feels enormous guilt for New York and Sokovia, and he used to even hate Cap for his father's frequent boasts about their past relationship. For about 15 seconds, Cap considers compromising, going as far as to pick up the pen and discuss potential safeguards. Tony's unveiling of Wanda Maximoff's "protection" at the Avengers facility turns Cap away, leading to one of the best back-and-forth arguments in MCU history.
"Protection? It's internment Tony."
"She's not a US citizen and they don't grant Visas to weapons of mass destruction-"
"She's a kid!"
"Give me a break!"
Cap levels Tony with a few more choice words before putting the pen back on the table and walking out. No matter how many times I re-watch this scene, it is impossible to see exactly who's in the right. Both Cap and Tony stay true to their morals, and while they flirt with a compromise, they never reach one.
4. Big Man in a Suit of Armor... - The Avengers
And speaking of Cap and Tony arguments...
Before they became teammates, co-workers, friends, enemies, and friends again, Captain America had a clear distaste for Tony Stark. Frustrated with Tony's lack of care about the looming threat, Cap lays into Tony.
He criticizes his character, citing that he knows men with zero of the resources worth ten of Stark. Cap calls Tony selfish, narcissistic, and egotistical, claiming that when it comes down to it, he is not the one to make the sacrifice play. Ironic, isn't it?
After demanding he stops pretending to be a hero, Tony dunks on Cap so hard it should have ended his career.
"A hero? Like you? You're a laboratory experiment Rogers, everything special about you came out of a bottle."
To this day, I'm still surprised Cap didn't retire right then and there.
The two eventually learned to work together (even tag-teaming a sweet repulsor blast/vibranium shield combo) but the seeds for an eventual physical confrontation had been planted.
3. Peter in the Rubble - Spider-Man: Homecoming
It's easy to forget just how young Spider-Man is.
Throughout his first solo story in the MCU, every adult in his life tells Peter to stay out of the big boy conflicts. Being a teenager, Peter obviously defies every person that tells him to sit it out.
Once he fought alongside the Avengers and started sporting a very professional Stark-designed suit, Peter Parker bought into the idea that he could handle Avengers-level threats. Adrian Toomes did his best to squash that idea.
After getting trapped under a ton of concrete rubble and being left him for dead, Peter tries to muscle his way out to no avail. In sheer desperation and with pain in his adolescent voice, Peter screams for help. It's uncomfortable, it's heartbreaking, but most of all, it's real.
This is Peter's fight or flight moment. He could stay trapped and come to terms with the reality that he's in over his head, or he could dig down and find that strength, find that will-power, and emerge as the hero he's told himself he is for the past year.
Tony Stark's important line (which we'll touch on very soon) is the motivator here, as Peter knows he needs to prove he is worth more than the suit. Appropriately, Peter dons no mask as he forces the rubble off himself, shouting "Come on Spider-Man!" as he miraculously lifts the rubble over his head.
The score swells only once Peter succeeds in escaping, as director Jon Watts expertly omits any sound while Peter struggles. Hearing nothing but Peter panting and screaming is uncomfortable, but it makes viewers realize he is in a real do or die scenario. Without a heroic score, audiences are left unsure as to whether Peter will actually make it out without outside help.
2. Tony Lectures Peter - Spider-Man: Homecoming
While fighting crime and getting chased by bad guys is scary, is there anything more terrifying than getting lectured by a mentor?
For over a year, Peter Parker looked at Tony Stark as a larger-than-life superhero than stumbled into his life by a stroke of luck. Despite there being numerous times our young webslinger was frustrated with his lack of hours at the Fighting Bad Guys store, he always kept his cool.
After doing what he truly thought was right and confronting Toomes's henchmen on the ferry, Peter's solo act needed Iron Man to swoop in and save the day. While Peter knew he messed up, his frustrations boiled over.
The teenage hero ripped into the tech mogul, chastising him for never listening to Peter. Above all else, he criticized Tony for sending an empty Iron Man suit to deliver his message, as he had done numerous times before.
The definition of gasp has an image of a very much real life Tony Stark emerging from his Mark 47 armor.
Peter immediately regrets confronting Tony, apologizing numerous times, and even makes one last mistake in correcting Tony about his age.
"No, this is where you zip it! Alright? The adult is talking. What if someone had died tonight? Different story right, 'cause that's on you. And if you died, well I feel like that's on me."
Tony and Peter have always had a father/son relationship, but this scene is what solidifies it. No one wants to talk about the tough love moments, but they are very much real. Parents show how much they care about their kids in moments that they find their loved ones at a real risk. Sure, Tony is happy he's alive, but in order to ensure Peter is never in that situation again, he does what any good parent must: he confiscates the toy.
Peter begs and pleads for Tony to change his mind, going as far to say he's nothing without the Spidey suit. In the MCU's version of Uncle Ben's famous "with great power..." speech, Tony states that if that's the case, he shouldn't have it. While Peter doesn't exactly stay out of trouble, this speech is what drives him to become a better hero.
1. The Dad Talk - Spider-Man: Homecoming
There's nothing quite like watching a human mind work in real time.
Peter Parker's world is shellshocked after his homecoming date's dad answers the door, and turns out to be none other than the Vulture. As Adrian Toomes drives a vulnerable Peter to the dance, he unknowingly interrogates him. While many have criticized Vulture's discovery of Spider-Man's identity for being too far-fetched, after re-watching the scene it is blatantly obvious that Toomes would figure it out.
Jon Watts expertly lights the scene, as the moment Michael Keaton's Vulture realizes Peter's secret, the traffic light illuminates his face an emerald shade, the preferred color choice of the Toomes's evil alter-ego.
Toomes gives Peter the most intimidating dad talk in the history of mankind, threatening to kill Peter and everyone he loves if he ever interferes in his business again. And the worst of all? He makes Peter say thank you at the end.