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Why Do Movie Audiences Love Suicide Bombing?

Written By Gregg Maxwell Parker
Cover Art by


There's something strange about the way Hollywood celebrates explosive martyrdom.

Editors’ Note

We love this essay, but we also recognize that it covers sensitive topics and contains rhetoric that some readers might find offensive – we ask these readers to keep an open mind if they choose to read through the essay’s entirety. Also, be warned that this essay contains tons of movie spoilers! If there are any popular movies you haven’t seen yet, and you don’t want them spoiled, think twice before reading ahead!

A Note From The Editors:
We love this essay, but we also recognize that it covers sensitive topics and contains rhetoric that some readers might find offensive – we ask these readers to keep an open mind if they choose to read through the essay’s entirety. Also, be warned that this essay contains tons of movie spoilers! If there are any popular movies you haven’t seen yet, and you don’t want them spoiled, think twice before reading ahead!

Hollywood’s favorite trope and the ideology of self-sacrifice.

The climax of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame was monumental for superhero fans: facing certain defeat at the hands of Thanos, Tony Stark says, “And I… am… Iron Man,” and snaps his fingers, using the Infinity Stones to erase Thanos and his army from existence.1

The moment is teeming with emotion because we were told earlier in the film that using the Infinity Stones would kill a human being. Tony Stark knew that, and yet chose to do it anyway, sacrificing his life to save the universe.

Fans were stunned. Many viewers cried, as did star Robert Downey, Jr., when he was told about the scene. But no one should have been surprised. In fact, the moment felt familiar – probably because the exact same thing had already happened earlier in the movie.

When Hawkeye and Natasha are told that the only way to get the Soul Stone is to lose what one loves,2 they know one of them has to die. They race toward the edge of a precipice, fighting for the chance to be the one sacrificed. Natasha wins, and dies.

Endgame wasn’t the first time Marvel fans saw someone willing to die for altruistic reasons. In 2018’s Infinity War, both Gamora and Vision instruct their loved ones to kill them rather than allow Thanos to get his hands on the Infinity Stones.

Across two movies, four people eager to offer their lives in service of some greater goal. That’s a lot, though it didn’t seem strange at the time. That’s because this type of suicide is found in many popular films. Just how common is it? You’d be surprised. I know I was.

The prevalence of heroic suicides in blockbuster movies

My wife is Japanese. She loves Sci-Fi and action movies, but a lot of the stuff that was big in America when we were kids wasn’t as popular in Japan. We’ve had fun going back and watching all the action series she missed – Star Wars, James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc. In doing so, I’ve been able to teach her about movie trends that occur often enough to become predictable.

For example, if there’s an old man who’s a father figure to our hero, he’s probably going to die. If there’s a friend or mentor played by a suspiciously famous actor, he’ll probably turn out to be a bad guy. The most common trend of all, though, has been how many movies feature heroic characters committing suicide.

It goes like this: our heroes are outnumbered, and there’s no way out. One of the group decides the only way to win is if one of them dies. As the other characters beg him not to, he charges the enemy, killing himself and saving the day. American movies are bursting with suicide scenes. It’s astonishing how much they do it.

Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples:

  • Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Superman grabs a spear of Kryptonite and suicide bombs Doomsday to save the world.
  • Star Wars: Solo: Thandiwe Newton blows herself up.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Rocket crashes a spaceship in order to kill a bunch of guys. Later, Groot kills himself to save his friends.
  • Kingsman: The Golden Circle: Mark Strong blows himself up.
  • Doctor Sleep: Ewan McGregor blows himself up to destroy the hotel.
  • Star Trek Into Darkness: At the start of the movie, Spock sacrifices himself to save the crew, and later, Kirk does the same thing.
  • Wonder Woman 1984: Steve Trevor tells Wonder Woman to kill him.
  • Man of Steel: Kevin Costner tells his son not to save him, instead willingly getting killed by a tornado.
  • Tenet: Robert Pattinson gleefully walks off to his death.
  • Interstellar: Matthew McConaughey flies into a black hole.
  • Armageddon: Bruce Willis blows himself up so Ben Affleck may live.
  • Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer: Silver Surfer flies into Galactus and kills himself to save Earth.
  • Donnie Darko: Donnie goes back in time and kills himself to prevent the movie from taking place.
  • Stowaway: Anna Kendrick waltzes toward her death to obtain an amount of oxygen that’s conveniently enough for one person and not two.
  • Mars Attacks!: Jim Brown fistfights a bunch of aliens to allow Tom Jones and Annette Bening the time to escape.
  • No Time to Die: Felix begs Bond to let him drown instead of helping him to safety. Later, Bond decides it’s better to blow up than be unable to have sex again.
  • The Tomorrow War: Mike Mitchell, Mary Lynn Rajskub, J.K. Simmons, Science Daughter, Pink Shirt Guy – seriously, everyone in this movie is just begging to commit suicide to save piss-butt science teacher army man Chris Pratt.
  • Loki: Old man Loki laughs while getting eaten.
  • Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson implores Florence Pugh not to explodify herself, but Pugh does it anyway.
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: Instead of using his magic rings to free himself, the dad gives them to Shang-Chi and allows himself to die even though doing so actually makes the bad guy stronger, and then the sister begs for death because she also didn’t listen during the part where they said the bad guy gets stronger when they die.
  • Prometheus: Janek wants to suicide alone, but Ravel and Chance are like, “No way! We want to suicide too!” Then they all crash a spaceship into another spaceship.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi: In Episode 5, the white lady blows herself up with a grenade in order to kill as many stormtroopers as possible.
  • Into the Badlands: In S2E10, Veil kills herself so she can also kill Quinn, allowing Sunny to stay alive and make it to Season 3.
  • A View to a Kill: May Day refuses to jump off the cart even after she’s outside, blowing herself up to save James Bond and the garbage people of Silicon Valley.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Ray Winstone lets go of Indy’s whip and falls to his death because… um… he wants to?
  • Alien 3: Ripley wants to die to protect everyone from the alien, and wants everyone else to die as well. Dillon sacrifices himself to save Ripley. Ripley dies to kill the alien.
  • Alien: Resurrection: Dreadlocks guy unfastens his harness and drops into the water so chair guy can hold onto the ladder, but they’re both human traffickers so don’t feel too bad.
  • Thor: Love and Thunder: Natalie Portman doesn’t get chemo and instead holds the hammer that gives her cancer in order to show Christian Bale what love is.
  • The Mandalorian: S3E7: big boy closes the blast shield and fights all the bad guys himself even though he’s outnumbered so he can save the others.

Keep in mind, this list only contains things I’ve watched since I started keeping track. I’m sure you can think of more I didn’t list here; once it’s been pointed out to you, you’ll start to see it everywhere. It could be my imagination, but this trope seems to be getting more common in recent years. Why is this happening, and why are we okay with it?

The ideology of intentional martyrdom

Wreck-It Ralph has a suicide scene. When things look bleakest, Ralph leaps toward his death,3 making it clear in dialogue he expects this to be “game over” and holding a necklace that declares him a hero as he falls. He’s miraculously saved, but was willing to sacrifice his life.

Minions has a suicide scene! The big Minion eats a rocket, ready to kill himself to save the others,4 and only through movie magic is he okay after it explodes. This is entertainment for children; do we want our kids learning that it’s okay to kill yourself so long as you have a good reason for doing so?

In almost every instance, the characters killing themselves are portrayed as making a heroic choice, being brave as they sacrifice themselves for a noble cause. What’s more, they’re often not just committing suicide, but suicide bombing: blowing themselves up or crashing spaceships, killing others as they go.

Isn’t that what al Qaeda did? Didn’t they kill themselves and many others by crashing aircraft or setting off bombs to kill their enemies? Surely we don’t want to make heroes of terrorists.

And yet, there’s Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman in Oblivion, blowing themselves up to kill as many aliens as they can,5 in the same way suicide bombers try to take as many people with them as possible. In The Gray Man, both Alfre Woodard and Billy Bob Thornton blow themselves up to take out the guys chasing our hero.

I can admit that there is something admirable in the notion of sacrifice, being willing to forego your own wants and needs for the sake of others. The logic then follows that there’s something even more noble (and dramatic, lending itself to cinema) about being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, namely of one’s life. What doesn’t make sense to me is the idea that the best use of an individual’s life is as an instrument of destruction for a cause, that your death is “worth it” so long as it involves killing a lot of people who pose a threat to what you believe in.

I think part of why this trend became more noticeable to me in recent years is that I live in Japan, where suicide in the name of honor was once part of the culture. It has been very difficult to explain to my wife how it is that Americans have come to glorify the methods of Kamikaze pilots. To her, this is beyond illogical: she’s never heard anyone in Japan praise the bravery of suicide bombers, and those who participated in that type of violence during the war are looked upon in the same way we might view cult members who’ve been brainwashed. To position suicide attacks as valiant just isn’t something they would do in Japan.

At least, that’s what we thought until we played a video game called Paper Mario: The Origami King, in which not one, but two characters commit suicide. You cannot finish this game, which is full of cute, cuddly characters, without watching Bobby and Olivia kill themselves after giving speeches where they list their reasons for doing so. It appears this isn’t just an American problem.

Japanese suicides in World War II got the American film treatment in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. For the most part, the film presents men pressured to kill themselves in the name of honor, while the more sensible characters point out the uselessness of this gesture and discourage it. The imagery is disturbing, and the movie at least seems to be anti-suicide… until Nishi, the guy who’d been telling the others not to kill themselves, shoots himself in the face as the music swells.

It’s important to discuss Japan so we don’t waste any time on the idea that art such as movies and video games somehow creates suicide bombers. There were plenty of Kamikaze attacks during WWII, long before these American action movies were popular in Japan, yet there are almost no mass shootings or terror attacks in Japan today. If movies created suicidal killers, then suicide attacks would happen equally everywhere those movies are shown, but they don’t.

It’s also important to remember that suicide bombers are often (though not always) members of restrictive subcultures like extremist sects of Islam, right-wing militant organizations, or other regressive political and religious movements that seek to severely limit what a person can be and what roles one can play in society. It would be improper to ignore these factors and say “Americans watch suicide movies and also commit mass shootings” when in reality the disease is concentrated among male-dominated backward-thinking ideologies.

The question is not whether movies are inspiring people to carry out suicide attacks (because, as noted, there are many other influencing factors and there’s no evidence to suggest movies have any effect), but why we choose to enjoy films that espouse an ideology shared by mass shooters: that it’s honorable, heroic, and desirable to die in service of killing one’s enemies.

Where does this ideology come from, and how are viewers responding to its prevalence in popular culture? How do we really feel about suicide bombing? Do we… like it?

Martyrdom vs. selfishness: suicide in history, literature, and cinema

History has no shortage of famous martyrs, including those who decided their own fates. Socrates, Sir Thomas More, and Joan of Arc are a few who’ve been the subjects of popular works of art. These individuals chose death rather than forsake their convictions, though this isn’t necessarily why they’re revered. After all, Galileo recanted his statement that the Earth revolves around the sun to save his own skin, and he’s still pretty vital to history. Their acts of martyrdom aren’t what make them important or beloved, but do add to their legends.

Looking at literature, one could examine Shakespeare’s use of suicide in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, or the sacrifice of Éponine in Les Miserables, but the best example of the type of martyrdom seen in contemporary films comes in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

The book’s final scene depicts Sydney Carton being taken to his execution after switching places with Charles Darnay, saving the condemned man’s life so as to do something kind for the woman he loves (set up earlier by his explicitly stating that he would really like to do such a thing). Carton’s final thoughts are: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”6 These famous lines are read by Jim Gordon at the end of The Dark Knight Rises after Batman either does or does not commit suicide in order to destroy a bomb.

When Carton tells Lucie of his desire to sacrifice for her, he calls himself a “wasted, drunken, poor creature of misuse.” Carton views himself as unworthy of Lucie’s love, and believes the only way he can be of value is to “give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!”7 

Are Sydney Carton’s feelings of self-hatred the key to understanding why we gravitate toward martyrdom in storytelling? Do we feel that the only way we can be worthy of love and respect is through a grandiose sacrifice, that anything less than laying down one’s life in service of others isn’t good enough? 

It is a bleak and desperate outlook that says one’s only hope for salvation lies in death, but we seem to cherish that idea. Perhaps we’re cherishing the notion that we may one day be in a situation where the noble thing to do will be obvious to us, and we’d trade that simplification for our lives if we could get it. Or perhaps we like the idea of dying in an act of heroism because only by performing that act are we then given permission to die, to unburden ourselves of the constant feelings of inadequacy that plague us, for as we will see later, suicide isn’t an option unless it’s tied to a selfless act. 

It’s clear this isn’t a modern invention, nor limited to American art. If those literary references are too old for you, I’m pretty sure both Harry Potter and Dumbledore offer themselves up to be sacrificed, but I haven’t read those books, so you tell me.8 

Valiant suicide has been a part of some of the most successful movies of all time. Much has been made of the end of Titanic and whether someone actually needed to die, but at any rate, it would seem Jack thought one of them was doomed, and the heroism comes from his decision to let it be him. 

It’s tough to think of a movie more popular than Star Wars, in which Obi-Wan Kenobi closes his eyes and lets Darth Vader kill him.9 These scenes in Titanic and Star Wars may not explicitly be suicides – it’s not like Jack and Obi-Wan shoot themselves – but in both cases, the characters are electing to die for what are seen as unselfish reasons. 

This idea of being “unselfish” is key to understanding our attitudes toward suicide in storytelling. When movies present suicides that aren’t framed as martyrdom, the most important thing for the filmmakers seems to be casting blame. 

In 2018’s A Star is Born, after Jackson’s death, Ally and Bobby discuss how they feel, and Bobby gives this speech: 

“Listen to me: it isn’t your fault. It just isn’t. You know whose fault it was? Jack. That’s it. No one else. Not you, not me, no one but Jack.”10 

Without offering any reasoning or explanation as to the logic behind Bobby’s words, the filmmakers go out of their way to tell us that what we just saw was all Jackson’s fault. There’s almost a desperation to the scene, like they worried they had to absolve Ally as quickly as possible lest someone rush in and call her an enabler before her big song. 

What threw me was how quickly the scene went by, how abbreviated the discussion was. The message that only the person committing suicide is to blame, that it’s all their fault, is so established in our culture that they didn’t feel the need to spend much time on it. 

Television has also found it easy to slip in this idea of judging the suicidal. In an episode of Family Guy,11 Stewie tells Brian that it’s “pretty selfish” to consider suicide. Brian’s reasons for why he may kill himself are empty, with his stating that it’s “all too much” without any details that might show respect for those who deal with suicidal ideation. He’s “tried to find meaning” in his life and “can’t,” but any actual struggle is completely absent. We as viewers can’t believe for a single second that Brian might kill himself, and we’re not meant to sympathize. Brian philosophizes, but he doesn’t feel. He doesn’t ache. He doesn’t suffer. 

There’s an irony in Stewie’s sentiment that Brian is selfish. When told Brian might commit suicide, Stewie’s first thought is of himself. This is a common admonishment of the suicidal, that they should think of everyone they’re hurting, should just tough it out and stop being ridiculous and weak. What those who say this don’t understand is that to the suicidal, they are thinking of others when they consider killing themselves; it seems like the “right” thing to do, even if it only feels that way for the few minutes it takes to go through with it. 

There are people in your life who despise themselves so much that they think the world would be better without them in it, and your first move is to think of how it will affect you? To try and make them feel worse about themselves? To judge them for what they don’t see as a decision but an inevitability? To me, that’s way more selfish than wanting to remove yourself from the world if you genuinely believe you’re without worth. Suicidal ideation is a serious problem that comes with real suffering. Stewie doesn’t respect Brian’s feelings, and neither do the writers. They give Brian a dumb reason for suicide so they can easily chastise him for it. 

We’ve all heard these lines about suicide, that it’s “selfish” or “the coward’s way out.” They’re so common that when we see them on screen, they pass by without notice. In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,12 Buffy calls a girl who’s just committed suicide “an idiot,” “stupid,” and “weak,” while the other characters just stand there tongue-tied. 

Where are the opposing voices in these shows? There never are any, because it’s accepted that suicide is an immature, weak, spiteful, inexcusable act. There are songs about it. It’s even in video games: in Grand Theft Auto V online, there is a “kill yourself” option on the menu. When it’s selected, your character shoots himself in the head (or ingests a lethal pill), and the message “you took the easy way out” appears on screen. 

Our culture has made up its mind about suicide: it’s selfish, cowardly, and wrong, never the right thing to do. So then, one would think critics and viewers would take issue with how often characters in popular films kill themselves, right? But here’s how viewers reacted to this other type of suicide, where a fictional character takes “the easy way out” for an ideological cause: 

Tony Stark’s suicide in Endgame was seen as a heroic sacrifice, with some going so far as to say it made him “saviour to trillions”13 and that the action “mended” the past mistakes of his character.14 Clearly he isn’t viewed as a selfish coward.

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Laura Dern’s character crashes a spaceship into another spaceship, killing herself and countless others. Writers called it the film’s “most breathtaking moment,”15 said it “ruled so hard,”16 and the character was praised as a feminist hero. The movie also contains a scene where Rose risks her life to stop Finn from killing himself, but by then, it’s too late; everyone’s favorite part is when the lady suicide-bombs the enemy.

When valiant suicides happen in children’s movies like Wreck-It-Ralph, Minions, and Inside Out, one might expect some sort of outcry or major cultural discussion, but very little has been written. This is possibly because in Wreck-It-Ralph and Minions, the characters conveniently survive, allowing the filmmakers to have their cake and eat it too. And in Inside Out, the death is seen as a necessary part of growing up rather than an actual person’s death.

There’s a dearth of articles questioning whether suicide should be included in a children’s film, or if, perhaps, the characters were wrong to have attempted suicide. I was as emotionally wrecked by the loss of Bing Bong as everyone else, but am I the only one concerned with what children are being taught about how eager one should be to rush toward death?

Season 2 of Star Trek: Picard includes several heroic suicides17 while also featuring an extended subplot about how Picard’s mother’s suicide scarred him for life, with no discussion of what makes one suicide different from another. The show seems to hate the mentally ill while revering those willing to die for the cause of Starfleet. 

To be clear, I don’t like either of these responses: not how suicide attacks in the name of a cause are considered heroic, nor how suicide absent an ideology is considered cowardly and selfish. How could someone ever get the help they need when merely admitting to having suicidal thoughts opens them up to judgment and scorn? We HATE the suicidal, and it shows in our art – except when a person is committing suicide in battle. Then and only then do we approve of killing oneself. 

We find personal suicide cowardly, but suicide in the name of someone or something else is heroic. This has become so ingrained in our culture that films no longer have to justify it because audiences barely bat an eye anymore. 

In Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, when Wanda tells Dr. Strange that she’s going to kill herself, her explanation takes less than 15 seconds,18 and Strange simply nods without any attempt to talk her out of it. We know these beats so well the filmmakers don’t have to dwell on them. Heck, one of the sorcerers already killed herself to save Wong earlier, and when America thought Dr. Strange was going to kill her, she seemed cool with it. We’ve been prepared for these moments enough that they can be conveyed through a sort of shorthand, no longer requiring discussion among the characters. 

Movies don’t exist free from ideology. As we repeat these tropes, we train ourselves to accept their reasoning. We learn to exhibit disgust for a young woman’s suicide at the beginning of a film, but love a hero’s suicide in the third act. A question I had going into this was: are there commonalities among these films that I’m not seeing? What kinds of characters are doing the suicide bombing, and what kinds of audiences are enjoying it? Are we secretly expressing other desires through our obsession with proactive martyrdom?

The religion thing

In Seven Pounds, Will Smith kills himself with a jellyfish19 to preserve his organs so he can donate seven “pounds of flesh” to atone for the seven people he killed by texting while driving. Before that, he spends the movie meeting the people who are to receive his organs to make sure they’re good folks deserving of his body parts. 

It takes a special kind of ego to martyr oneself while at the same time believing that you (and only you) should get to decide who is worthy of receiving a transplant. The arrogance of this character’s “selfless” act made the movie ripe for mockery, with A.O. Scott of The New York Times saying this about Smith’s penchant for sacrificial moments:

“Who does he think he is? Jesus! That last, by the way, is not an exclamation of shock but rather an answer to the preceding question, posed with reference to Mr. Smith. Lately he has taken so eagerly to roles predicated on heroism and world-saving self-sacrifice (see “I Am Legend” and “Hancock”) that you may wonder if he has a messiah clause in his contract.”20

Is Christianity to blame for the spate of movie suicides? Are these people just “being Jesus?” After all, there are a lot of Christians in America, and they do seem to like these movies. Wreck It Ralph, for example, has been praised by Christian media.

The connection to Christianity is easy to make, as Jesus is one of history’s most famous martyrs. But if it were the case that we love these movies because we love Jesus, you’d think films featuring this story point would be less popular in countries where Christianity is less widespread. Are they?

On the list of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time in India, there is one English-language film: Avengers: Endgame. Of the top 10 all-time grossers in China, Endgame is the only non Chinese movie on the list.21

Clearly people from non-Christian societies (like Japan, where I live) enjoy these films and accept their ideology. The popularity of suicide movies seems to know no religious or political boundaries. Their acceptance is, as far as I can see, more or less equal around the world. 

Is there anything else about these films and their heroes that isn’t equal? Something off-balance that would provide a clue as to how this has become our go-to plot?

Commonalities in films featuring heroic suicides 

To better understand what these movies have in common beyond suicide, I first traced the relationship between the character who commits suicide and the other main characters in each film. How often is this person a parent of the hero? A love interest? A child?22

Here’s a breakdown of the relationship between the sacrificing character and the film’s protagonist (or second lead, as the case may be): 

Love Interest6

While the person who dies is frequently the protagonist’s parent (such as in Armageddon or  Man of Steel), it is rarely a child. Donnie Darko dies while his parents, sister, and girlfriend live (I  chose Other for that one). Chris Pratt’s daughter in The Tomorrow War volunteers for death, but she’s an adult after he’s traveled to the future. In Multiverse of Madness, young girl America is  willing to die, though she isn’t the actual child of Dr. Strange.

This makes sense to me. It’s easier for an audience to take the death of an old man who’s had a  long life than to watch a parent lose a child. We like the idea of a parent sacrificing for their  children, but no one wants their baby to grow up to be a suicide bomber.  I expected to find more parents on the list than I did, because parents are generally played by  older actors, and killing them is an easy way to allow those stars to step away from a franchise.  Same with love interests, whose deaths allow our heroes to continue to sequels without the  burdens of family or romantic attachment.

The concept of friendship is murky, since people on the same team can often be considered  friends, but from my unscientific analysis, it seems the majority of the time, the person being  sacrificed isn’t a parent, lover, or child. Instead, it’s a compatriot killing themselves not for an  individual, but for a cause – sacrificing their life for “your side.” Other also applies when the  person dying is the main character and there isn’t one central relationship that’s most  important (this will matter later when we talk about ego).

What about race? Here are the racial/ethnic backgrounds of the people committing suicide:

Asian/Pacific Islander4

And here are the numbers for gender: 

Other3 (Bing Bong, Groot, and the Big Minion)

We can’t assign too much meaning to this, as most action blockbusters have white male leads regardless of whether they include suicide. That said, it seems audiences really enjoy watching a white man sacrifice himself for what is perceived as the greater good.

What was most notable to me was what didn’t appear in the data. Two categories that got zero hits were Arab and Indian, and it’s not hard to see why: first of all, those actors rarely get parts in big-budget films (Native American also got zero hits). But second (and most importantly), audiences don’t want to watch a Muslim (or anyone Americans might mistake for a Muslim) heroically killing themselves in service of an ideal.

Why do we like to watch white people going out in a blaze of glory, but not Arabs? The answer is simple, though difficult to put into words that don’t make my skin crawl: because they did that to us on 9/11. 

We can’t have them in these roles because they are not us. Islamic extremists from the Middle East committed suicide attacks against America. So when Americans think of the enemies of freedom, they think of Arabs, and when Americans think of America, they think of white men. I imagine movie executives and filmmakers know the difference between, say, a Hindu Indian American and an Islamic terrorist, but they don’t want audiences to even think of 9/11 while watching a hero blow himself up to destroy the enemy.

We don’t want to make heroes out of terrorists, yet we seem to think it’s quite heroic when white movie heroes borrow their tactics. Are these movies incorrectly representing our values, or are they spot on? Do we actually find suicide attacks reprehensible, and are fooling ourselves with films that romanticize them in the way we romanticize organized crime, assassins, etc., or do we actually find suicide attacks heroic, and we’re abhorred by terrorists and school shooters not because we disagree with the act itself, but because those attacks were perpetrated by the other, while movie suicide attacks are done by us?

What if this were real life?

On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and himself in Santa Barbara, California. Before doing so, he uploaded a YouTube video and 137-page manifesto explaining his motives, which involved enacting revenge against women because he was a virgin. 

People were rightly horrified by the emergence of the Incel community and the very real threat of more violence from these men. There was certainly no sympathy, with one of the nicer profiles of this community calling them “self-pitying babies.23 I don’t plan to read this psycho’s manifesto and find his reasoning perverse, but to those in his community of angry virgins, his actions were something to be admired and imitated. He was, to them, a hero. 

In a movie made by and for Incels, Rodger’s strike on his enemies might be portrayed similarly to how Duke Leto Atreides and Liet Kynes are portrayed in 2021’s Dune. Both are overtaken by the enemy and face certain death, so they kill themselves and several others in order to takeout as many people as they can while they go.24 In both the film and Rodger’s real life, the  people perpetrating suicide attacks felt they had “good” reasons for doing so.  

In another profile of Incels, it was revealed that the type of suicides condemned by movies and TV as “cowardly” or “selfish” are also common in this community.25 From my point of view (and I can’t believe I’m typing this), that’s… better? Like, better to just kill yourself than yourself and six other people? I’d prefer it if they didn’t kill themselves at all, but you certainly won’t catch me promoting the idea that if you’ve made up your mind to die, it’s best to take people with you (like Caliban does in Logan.26

I can’t diagnose the psychology of suicide bombers in an essay about film – that’s too big of an ask. But note how frequently real-life suicide bombers are referred to as cowards. Even the Dalai Lama has received criticism for not speaking out against acts of self-immolation on his behalf. In general, we don’t approve of suicide for a political cause – unless it’s our own political cause, that is. Rioters killed on January 6th, 2021, are not considered heroic by most of us, but were treated as martyrs by some who shared their beliefs.

This is where things get difficult: I don’t think Elliot Rodger and Ashli Babbit were heroic in sacrificing their lives for a cause, but I also don’t approve of their causes. The people who do believe in those causes treat them as heroes. Would you consider a person a hero for blowing themselves up in service of a cause you support? Judging by our movies, it appears we think the act itself is okay as long as the cause is just.

School shooters and terrorists don’t get their murder ideas from Minions. However, they certainly agree with that film’s assertion that killing oneself in service of a crusade is brave. If we don’t like it when someone shoots up a nightclub or elementary school before turning the gun on themselves, why do we like it when Laura Dern kills a bunch of stormtroopers, people we’ve been told are slaves born into servitude and suffering under a dictator? 

It’s not because she has a good reason – every asshole thinks they have a good reason. Incels think being virgins is a good reason for killing people; the 9/11 hijackers thought Jihad was a good reason; January 6th protestors thought they were heroic revolutionaries. “Good reasons” are in the eye of the beholder, and shouldn’t affect how we evaluate the ethics of a person’s actions. Why don’t we view movie suicides in the same way we view suicide bombings on the news, as cowardly and wrong?

Simple: because we’re the ones doing it. We don’t imagine ourselves as the aliens in Independence Day; we see ourselves as Randy Quaid, finally doing right in his son’s eyes by Kamikaze-bombing a spaceship. We can’t imagine ourselves in the shoes of Islamic terrorists, but we can easily fantasize about being the only ones who can win the space war by choosing to give up our lives. There’s never a question about whether it’s right or wrong to commit suicide in these situations because there is only one side to the story.

The people committing these acts in movies are always on “our side.” We like them because their suicides are in the name of “our” cause, and not our enemies’. Their deaths serve our ends. When the suicide doesn’t serve you (like when lonely teens slit their wrists), it’s inconvenient, and therefore cowardly. When the suicide serves your purposes, it’s sacrificial, and therefore heroic. This is why we despise “selfish” suicides – they don’t gain us anything. Maybe if we stood to benefit from them, we’d have more sympathy.

In the real world, most people sacrificed for a cause do not choose to be sacrificed – they’re soldiers or civilians who are forced to die in service of what someone else has determined to be the greater good. A “sacrifice is good” ideology allows us to pretend as though if they’d had a choice, maybe they’d be thankful they were murdered for our cause.

How about instead of, “suicide bombing is okay if your cause is just,” we go with, “don’t kill yourself, no matter what?” That seems more sensible to me.

It’s a case of “it’s okay when I do it,” a logic particularly pervasive in America. We act horrified at Putin for invading Ukraine, yet accept our own country’s drone strikes in other nations. We’re mortified by the treatment of Uyghurs in China, but most of us were taught a version of American history that left out the slaughter of babies by US forces. We have a show called Locked Up Abroad about how horrible it would be to be imprisoned in a foreign country while we’ve got more prisoners than any society on Earth.

The list goes on, but we seem perennially capable of viewing ourselves in the hero role, with no question as to whether our actions are justifiable. Movies make this simple: the fight is always brought to our characters, and whether to fight back is never a choice; they didn’t start this war, but damn it, they’re gonna finish it. And if we can’t win, we’ll “take as many of them with us as we can.”27 Gandhi would not make a sexy Marvel hero. 

The suicide bomber or school shooter is often thought of as desperate for attention. They kill because that’s a surefire way to be the most important person in the world on that particular afternoon. In a movie, the guy who blows himself up to save Earth is the most important person, while those they kill are faceless soldiers or cartoonish villains. It’s an ego fantasy: either you get to decide who lives or dies and go out on your own terms, or others are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to save you because you are so important.

In the real world, we aren’t on the side of desperate people who see no way out. We’re the ones they hate, and that’s why they suicide bomb us. They think it’s justified because they don’t know us personally; to them, we’re just as bereft of humanity as the aliens in Independence Day, and we deserve what’s coming to us. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I deserve to be killed in a suicide attack, or that the perpetrators are heroes. I don’t think it’s okay to murder just because you feel unjustly put in a position where you’re in opposition to society, regardless of how overwhelming your feelings may be. 

But when Duncan Idaho turned and smiled in Dune, rushing off to kill as many bad guys as he could before dying, I couldn’t see myself as those nameless guys getting sliced in half. I saw myself as Paul, whose badass friend loves fighting so much that he wants to die like a man to protect me and my special ability as I go on to unite the universe as its savior. 

That’s the part of this for which we’re all to blame: our movie heroes are people we should have outgrown by now.

So where does this leave us? 

Is this gleeful martyrdom no big deal? Are we fine with teaching ourselves and our children that dying for a cause is good? Does this accurately reflect who we are as a society? It doesn’t seem to: judging by how some lawmakers treat veterans and 9/11 first responders, I’m not sure Americans give two shits about those who make sacrifices for our causes.

We hate violent martyrs in real life when they go after us. We love it when a suicide is performed going after them. The others. The ones we don’t like. Brown people and creepy virgins dying in the name of their fringe groups? Gross. A strong, wealthy, powerful, attractive man killing himself to stop an enemy so simple that there’s no denying its evil? That’s a hero. Never mind that in the minds of these psychos, America is the great evil; their logic doesn’t count because that’s them. This is about us, and our sexy white saviors. 

This trope shows no signs of stopping. Even after years of compiling my list and researching this essay, I still don’t understand it. I doubt I’ll ever understand, and I don’t think it’ll stop because I pointed it out. 

I just ask this: be consistent. If ideological suicide is heroic for one person, it should be heroic for everyone

If you think it’s brave of Tony Stark to kill himself in order to kill Thanos, then you need to think it’s brave of Muslim terrorists to kill themselves in order to kill their enemies; if you think it’s heroic of Joe in Looper to shoot himself to stop bad things from happening, you have to think it’s heroic of all struggling people who shoot themselves because they feel they only bring pain; and if you think it’s okay for children to play a game like Paper Mario: The Origami King where the mission can’t be completed without two of the characters killing themselves (forcing players to sit through lengthy explanations of why they’re doing so), then you need to be okay with kids watching footage of school shootings and reading the manifestos of the shooters. That’s consistency. 

And if that sounds insane, good: it sounds insane to me, too.

1 Endgame, 2:30:00. 

2 1:49:45.

3 Wreck-It Ralph, 2012, 1:25:00.

4 Minions, 2015, 1:13:00.

5 Oblivion, 2013, 1:55:00.

6 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859, Book Three, Ch. 15, p. 288. 

7 Book Two, Chapter 13, p. 119 & 121. 

8 Please do not tell me. I don’t care. 

9 Star Wars, 1977, 1:32:20.

10 A Star is Born, 2:03:30. 

11 Family Guy, “Brian and Stewie,” 2010.

12 Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Get it Done,” 2003, 19:00. 

13 Kshitij Mohan Rawat, “’Iron Man’ director Jon Favreau didn’t want Tony Stark to die in ‘Avengers: Endgame’.  Here’s why,” Wion, Jul 30, 2022. https://www.wionews.com/entertainment/hollywood/news-iron-man-director jon-favreau-didnt-want-tony-stark-to-die-in-avengers-endgame-heres-why-501997 

14 Alyzza Chelsea Avestruz, “How Iron Man’s Endgame Sacrifice Fixed His Past Avenger Mistakes,” ScreenRant,  March 8, 2022. https://screenrant.com/iron-man-endgame-avenger-mistakes-sacrifice-past/

15 Ben Lindbergh, “The Most Breathtaking Moment in ‘The Last Jedi’ Is Also Its Greatest Threat to ‘Star Wars’ Lore,”  The Ringer, December 20, 2017. https://www.theringer.com/2017/12/20/16800970/vice-admiral-holdo-maneuver the-last-jedi 

16 Albert Burneko, “Here Is a short Review Of The Last Jedi,” Deadspin, December 15, 2017.  https://deadspin.com/here-is-a-short-review-of-the-last-jedi-1821340821

17 In S2E1, the crew volunteers to die in order to prevent the Borg from taking over, while in S2E10, Tallinn and Q  both die to restore reality. There is also a suicide bombing in S3E5. 

18 Multiverse of Madness, 2022, 1:50:10. 

19 Seven Pounds, 2008, 1:48:00

20 A.O. Scott, “An I.R.S. Do-Gooder and Other Strangeness,” The New York Times, December 19, 2008.  https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/19/movies/19seve.html 

21 Data on box-office grosses from https://cinereveal.com/news/top-10-highest-box-office-collection-movies-in india/ and https://www.statista.com/statistics/260007/box-office-revenue-of-the-most-successful-movies-of-all time-in-china/ 

22 A note on methodology: This research is based on a list of suicide films that I compiled casually while watching movies with my wife over the last few years. It is by no means comprehensive, and the categories were often a judgment call: is the T-1000 a father figure to John Connor, or a friend? I went with friend. With gender, I usually used the gender of the actor (i.e. Vision is a man), and with race, I went with how the character is represented (Rocket is male because Bradley Cooper is, but isn’t white like Bradley Cooper because Rocket’s a raccoon). Even the number of suicides in a film is open to interpretation, since many times characters volunteer for suicide but don’t have to go through with it (for example, I counted Natasha’s suicide in Endgame, but not Hawkeye’s attempted suicide). This isn’t scientific and isn’t meant to be.

23 Erin Gloria Ryan, “Lessons From a Day Spent With the UCSB Shooter’s Awful Friends,” Jezebel, May 29, 2014.  https://jezebel.com/lessons-from-a-day-spent-with-the-ucsb-shooters-awful-f-1582884301

24 Dune, 1:34:45, 1:55:45. 

25 Elle Reeve, “This is what the life of an incel looks like,” Vice News, August 3, 2018.   https://www.vice.com/en/article/7xqw3g/this-is-what-the-life-of-an-incel-looks-like

26 Logan, 2017, 1:28:15.

27 Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, 2022, 2:14:50.

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