It’s rare that cinema provides an iconic actor or character with a great exit. For example, most Superman fans feel Christopher Reeve’s turn is unbeatable, but even he felt Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was a bad way to end his run. The reduced budget and horrendous script robbed the character of his dignity, and Reeve looks faintly miserable throughout the film.
Commercial demands often make it difficult to give a character or a franchise a meaningful send-off, with the door always needing to be left open in case another sequel is demanded. It's far too rare to see memorable heroes and villains of the big screen going out on a high note. It’s not impossible, however, for an actor or actress to give their version of a character a good exit, even knowing the role will be recast down the road.
The entries on this list include some of the best examples of a performer leaving a classic character with some grace, delivering what the fans wanted while wrapping up the story in a way that makes sense. With that in mind, here are the 15 Best Final Movie Appearances From Iconic Superheroes – with a few villains thrown in for good measure – and what made their exits special.
15 Michael Keaton's Batman - Batman Returns
It’s hard to believe looking back, but Michael Keaton’s casting as the Dark Knight wasn’t met with warmth back in the eighties, where he was seen as a comic actor. Fans of Batman were afraid Tim Burton would be playing homage to the campy 1960s TV series instead of the comics, a fear which Keaton’s casting appeared to confirm.
Keaton sure proved everyone wrong, managing to provide a dark and intense take on Batman, which was balanced out with his socially awkward, slightly bumbling version of Bruce Wayne. Keaton continued this with the sequel, where the character is a little more self-assured after the events of the original, and has to deal with The Penguin trying to destroy Gotham and his burgeoning love for Catwoman.
Keaton was also smart enough to know when to quit, deciding to leave when Tim Burton did and not have to suffer the indignity of Joel Schumacher’s nipples and neon era. His take on the character ends on a melancholy but hopeful note, which was note-perfect for the Burton era.
14 Patrick Stewart's Professor X - Logan
It seems Patrick Stewart didn’t turn up on the set of Logan necessarily thinking it would be his last time playing Professor X, but he was so pleased with the outcome that he decided the time was right to leave. Just like Jackman’s Wolverine, it’s hard to imagine a better exit, where the sage teacher who once brought Wolverine into his home is now the one who needs to be looked after.
Stewart’s work is affecting for its humanity, and he clearly relished the chance to dig into the vulnerable, less distinguished side of Charles Xavier. The character is haunted for reasons he can’t quite comprehend throughout the story, until he regains his memory and realizes that he was responsible for the incident that destroyed the X-Men.
It’s sterling work from the veteran star, and Charles' death is suitably heartbreaking, even if it felt inevitable. Hopefully, Stewart will stick to his word, because short of receiving a top-notch script that somehow surpasses Logan's, it’s hard to imagine him topping his work here.
13 Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow - The Dark Knight Rises
Poor Cillian Murphy was put into an awkward situation during a BBC radio interview prior to the release of The Dark Knight Rises when the host asked him point blank if he was in the movie. Unwilling to lie but unable to spoil the surprise, he simply stated he’s signed a form making him unable to talk about it, which pretty much confirmed he was going to appear.
Murphy’s Scarecrow made for a creepy addition to the two previous movies, and he finds himself appointed a judge of the new society in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a small role, but it makes sense that if the inmates were to literally take over the asylum, Crane would be placed in charge.
However brief it was, it marked a great final appearance for the character, since, in a way, he always was the darker side of Bruce Wayne, as they both use fear as a weapon. It only made sense that their final chapters were told at the same time. Plus, Murphy looked like he was having a blast filming it, which always helps.
12 Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno's Hulk - The Death Of The Incredible Hulk
Stan Lee always intended The Hulk to be a huge beast that couldn’t possibly be played by a man in a live-action version, but the makers of the classic TV series had no choice but to paint Lou Ferrigno green to portray the Green Goliath. It was actor Bill Bixby who took on the heavy lifting in the drama department as David Banner, a scientist forced to go on the run while constantly keeping his anger in check.
The series ended in 1982, but it was revived for a trilogy of TV movies towards the end of the decade. Despite featuring low-budget versions of Daredevil and Thor, these movies were well received, with the final installment – The Death Of The Incredible Hulk – serving as a moving finale to Banner’s story.
This entry – which Bixby himself directed - sees Banner trying to find a cure for his condition and meeting a new love interest, but in the finale, he’s caught in a plane explosion that fatally wounds him, with his last words proclaiming himself to be “free”. While there was talk of another movie reviving the character, the project was eventually canceled, which let the Bixby/Ferrigno era end on a touching note.
11 Chloe Moretz's Hit-Girl - Kick-Ass 2
Kick-Ass managed to be a fresh, funny take on the superhero genre that introduced the world to Chloe Moretz's Hit-Girl, a teen assassin capable of insane levels of violence. While there was controversy over this, the cartoonish tone and Moretz's winning performance helped overshadow most of the complaints.
Kick-Ass 2 wasn’t nearly as well received en route to becoming a box-office disappointment, and it's best remembered now for Jim Carrey's refusal to promote it. While the story is routine, Moretz is still great, easily stealing the film from the titular lead character. Hit-Girl finds herself out of her element in the sequel, trying to become a regular teenager after a life spent killing bad guys.
Moretz is able to get across the vulnerable side of the character while having a blast with the action scenes, and she ends the film riding off into the sunset. While another movie with the character isn’t out of the question, it feels very unlikely at this stage, and if nothing else, Kick-Ass 2 provided her with a respectable exit.
10 Tom Jane's Punisher - The Punisher: Dirty Laundry
Tom Jane is considered a great Frank Castle/Punisher, and was afforded the opportunity to play the family man side of Castle before his transformation into an unfeeling killing machine. Sadly, the movie around him wasn’t great, with a jarring tone that mixed uncomfortable violence with comedy scenes worthy of a bad sitcom.
Jane himself recognized its shortcomings, feeling there was much to be improved upon. He walked away from the sequel after feeling unsatisfied with the various scripts, and it was then rebooted with Ray Stevenson for Punisher: War Zone. Jane had unfinished business with the character, though, and in 2012, he starred in an unauthorized short film called Dirty Laundry, where he portrayed a grittier version of The Punisher who encounters a nasty street gang while, well, doing some laundry.
It’s a dark, brutal take on the character with none of the annoying humor that plagued Jane’s first attempt, and it was met with acclaim by fans. Jon Bernthal – the actor currently playing the role over on Netflix – claimed the short was a big inspiration for his take on Frank Castle.
9 Famke Janssen's Jean Grey - X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Famke Janssen might be one of the most underrated performers in the X-Men series, where her love triangle with Cyclops and Wolverine in the first three movies provided most of the dramatic tension. While The Last Stand isn’t anyone’s favorite entry in the franchise, she was still able to effectively convey the tragedy of the role as Jean succumbed to her darker impulses.
Wolverine is forced to kill her to save the day, and his dreams are literally haunted by her in The Wolverine. Jean got a happy ending of sorts with X-Men: Days Of Future Past, when it’s revealed that Logan’s actions in the past had altered the timeline, meaning Jean, Professor X, and the rest of the X-Men are still very much alive. It’s a small cameo, but given the amount of heartache surrounding the character, it's nice that Janssen got to end her run in the series on a hopeful note.
Of course, they all probably perished soon after when Professor X lost control of his powers, but given the messiness of the continuity, it could have been another timeline that suffered that fate.
8 Doug Jones' Abe Sapien - Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Doug Jones has proven himself to be a master at working through creature make-up, as seen by his astounding work in Pan’s Labyrinth as both Faun and the Pale Man. Perhaps his most popular role is Abe Sapien in Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies, an intellectual fish man with psychic powers.
Although Jones played the role in the original, his voice was replaced by actor David Hyde Pierce, who felt so bad about overshadowing Jones' excellent work that he refused to take a credit. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is where Jones was allowed to shine, with Abe getting a love interest and a chance to be more of a hero.
While there was supposed to be a third installment to wrap up the series, and there were even whispers of a solo film for Abe Sapien at one point, the upcoming Hellboy reboot seems to have shot those hopes down entirely. Given the quality of his performance in The Golden Army, Jones has nothing to regret about his time as the character.
7 Ben Kingsley's "Mandarin" - All Hail The King
It’s fair to say that not everybody was happy with the revelation surrounding Ben Kingsley’s version of The Mandarin from Iron Man 3, where it’s revealed that the shadowy, all-powerful terrorist is really a drunken actor employed by the real villain, Killian.
Fans of the character felt this twist was a betrayal, and there was a healthy amount of backlash aimed at Marvel. In an effort to mend some fences, a short film was commissioned called All Hail The King, which centered around Trevor Slattery in prison following the events of Iron Man 3. He’s being interviewed by a documentary crew, only for it to become clear something that shady is going on.
It’s soon revealed that the crew is breaking Trevor out of prison so that he can meet the real Mandarin, who apparently is about as pleased with Trevor’s impression as moviegoers were. It’s a nice twist that assured fans that the Mandarin is still out there somewhere, while giving the dimwitted Trevor the send off he deserved.
6 Terrence Stamp's Zod - Superman II
The opening of Superman introduced viewers to Terrence Stamp’s General Zod and his band of Kryptonian supervillains, with their imprisonment setting up the sequel. In Superman II, they break free and create all sorts of chaos, leading to the first super powered battle ever depicted on the big screen.
Stamp is a commanding presence as a Zod, and he gives it just the right level of hamminess without directly winking at viewers. He made a real impression in the role, and despite Michael Shannon’s impressive turn as Zod decades later in Man Of Steel, Stamp is still considered the one to beat.
Superman II was the last we saw of his take on Zod, with the theatrical cut ending with the odd implication that Superman straight up killed him. The extended edits show Zod and his crew were arrested instead, but either way, Zod remains one of the most iconic villains in superhero movie history.
5 Ian McKellen's Magneto - X-Men: Days Of Future Past
Ian McKellen was drawn to the X-Men movies for the potent subtext of outsiders being prosecuted by society, and he went on to play the part of Magneto five different times. The character was hardly physically imposing – especially standing next to utter beefcakes Hugh Jackman – but McKellen’s icy calm and intelligence managed to get the power of the character across.
Magneto was “cured” in the finale of The Last Stand, and it looked like Michael Fassbender would take over the role for good starting with First Class. The era spanning Days Of Future Past, however, allowed the old band to get back together one last time, reuniting the original cast as they work to prevent a dire future.
Future Magneto is sidelined while the time-travelling adventures consume most of the screentime, but there is something heartening about seeing him working alongside the X-Men to save the world. There’s also his speech expressing regret over the amount of conflict he’s caused over the years to Professor X, which was a nice, human moment for a character who doesn’t like to express his humanity all that much.
4 Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker - The Amazing Spider-Man 2
When it was first announced, it was apparent to many that Sony’s reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was being made solely so that the company could hold onto the film rights to a valuable character, and not because they had any groundbreaking story ideas in mind.
It was clear from the two movies they produced that they didn’t have much of an idea what they were doing either, and they decided to overstuff them with subplots and side characters in the hopes that something would stick. One thing about the rebooted series that definitely did work was Andrew Garfield, who was able to bring a fresh, light-hearted take on Peter Parker to the table.
Maybe he was a little too cool to pass for a dork, but Garfield’s turn was otherwise spot-on, and his chemistry with Emma Stone made Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacy truly affecting, especially in the second movie. The actor has since spoken of his frustrations working on the films, but even if fans didn’t like the movies themselves, they often praise Garfield’s work.
3 Ron Perlman's Hellboy - Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Any hopes of a Hellboy III were well and truly crushed near the beginning of 2017 when Del Toro confirmed it would definitely never happen, and news of the upcoming reboot just nailed the coffin shut entirely. This means we’ll never get to see Ron Perlman reprise the role of the wise-cracking, immature demon with a large revolver and a stone fist.
Del Toro fought for the actor to take the role when the studio wanted a bigger name like Vin Diesel, and it was clear that he made the right choice. Perlman’s got the deadpan humor down, and his underrated dramatic chops allowed him to project the emotion of the character to impressive effect -- even under all that makeup.
The second movie set up a third entry where Hellboy would fulfill his destiny and destroy the world, and while it’s sad to think that that's no longer in the cards, The Golden Army at least gives Red a happy exit. He retires from the BPRD and learns Liz is pregnant with twins, and it was a surprisingly sweet note for Perlman to exit on all around.
2 Christian Bale's Batman - The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan gave superhero movies a shot in the arm with Batman Begins, which came along at a time when comic book efforts like Daredevil and Catwoman were testing audiences' patience. Begins showed it was possible to attract a top notch cast and deliver a character driven story while still having the setpieces and gadgets you’d expect from a superhero flick.
Nolan also made it clear that his version of the character would have a limited run; he almost didn't even go through with the third movie, in fact. While The Dark Knight Rises is generally considered the lesser of the three films, it’s still a thematically rich entry that puts the focus squarely on Bruce Wayne.
The character is broken and alone at the beginning of the tale, and he needs to revive the Batman just to feel alive again. He also goes through literal back-breaking labor to save Gotham City, and he's even able to successfully escape his alter ego for a twist happy ending. It was exactly the right note to end The Dark Knight Trilogy on; unless it’s all a dream Alfred is having, that is.
1 Hugh Jackman's Wolverine - Logan
Hugh Jackman holds a record for the amount of times he’s played a superhero onscreen, having portrayed Wolverine in a staggering nine films over the course of 17 years. Of course, a few of these appearance were cameos, and it’s not like each one was a classic, but it still an impressive record to hold.
While the actor clearly loves the role, he decided that it was time to hang up the claws and go out on a dignified note, and Logan is about as perfect a goodbye as anyone could have hoped for. It’s emotional and character driven, and it mroe than delivered on the bloody violence promised by the R-rating.
The movie was clearly a labor of love for the actor, who was in a rare position of power to craft the movie he truly wanted to make. The result is something of a landmark in the genre; a more intimate character study that still fulfills the bombastic demands of a comic book movie. Let’s hope Jackman isn’t somehow tempted back in the future, because Logan definitely won’t be topped easily.
Did we miss any of the great superheroic final performances? Let us know in the comments.