Bad Superhero Movie Showdown 2006: X-Men: The Last Stand vs. Superman Returns

After helming two successful X-Men films, director Bryan Singer departed from the franchise to work on smaller, more personal projects. But we’re dealing with Bryan Singer here, which means that he left to do a $200 million Superman film that’s almost entirely made of frowns. The X-Men series was deposited into the questionable hands of Brett Ratner, who was most famous for directing the first two Rush Hour movies at that point. Thus was the state of major superhero films in 2006.

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Would X-Men: The Last Stand present a satisfying conclusion to what had been a pretty solid trilogy so far? Would Superman Returns provide us with a return to form for a character that had been written off as the lamest thing ever? Would 2006 surprise us with two outings that would redeem a genre that had seemingly fallen into self-parody?

No! Not even a little bit!

Round 1: Worse Hero

I wish I could say that X-Men: The Last Stand was a movie where every protagonist got their fair share of the spotlight. And on the surface, it sure seems that way. Kitty Pryde gets to display some…emotions, I guess. Iceman says some lines. Professor X dramatically dies for the first time. But despite the huge cast, this is the Wolverine show. And that’s not a bad thing. As X2 and Days of Future Past and The Wolverine and Logan have shown us, there are worse options than to focus on Hugh Jackman’s throbbing facial muscles. It’s just that, unlike those movies, Wolverine is not the main character here because he’s especially important, but just because he’s in every scene. He’s the main character out of sheer addition.

“Help me, Logan! I’ve entirely forgotten if I’m supposed to have an accent or not!”

Superman, on the other hand, mopes around, feels all tragic and stuff because of his stance as a lonely god, and is generally disappointing. It’s not a bad performance, but the balance between “heroic character moments” and “moments where Superman internally sobs about the state of his sad, sad life” is amazingly lopsided.

In fairness, Superman’s character arc does progress all the way from “feeling isolated and morose” to “resigned to feeling isolated and morose” by the end of the movie.

Loser: Superman Returns

Even in his most unnecessary moments, Hugh Jackman is delightful to watch. I’m convinced that he’s one of the only actors in the world that could be in nine superhero films as the same character and never once acknowledge that at least some of it is pretty stupid. On the other hand, Superman is so misused here that this movie should have dropped the “Returns” and been retitled Superman Stands Around.

Round 2: Worse Plot

X-Men: The Last Stand doesn’t so much have a plot as much as it has a list of things that it wants to get done: These are the characters we want to kill off, these are the characters that we want to introduce, these are the emotional beats that we want to hit, and these are the things that we want our characters to contend with. Sadly, rather than arrange these in any kind of narrative structure, they are hastily taped together, as if the screenwriting process was an executive quickly shouting random X-Men clichés and the writer making the script out of the ones that he managed to jot down, in the order he received them.

Fact: not only is James Marsden the first actor to appear in both movies of a Bad Superhero Movie Showdown, but he was killed off in one specifically for appearing in the other.

Superman Returns fixes any potential problems by not really having a plot. Or at least any plot that would fill a two-and-a-half-hour Superman film. Superman Returns feels like someone had an idea that would reasonably fit a thirty-minute episode of something, and then never bothered to come up with a second idea.

Still standing. Still frowning.

Loser: X-Men: The Last Stand

Superman Returns attempts to give you something to think about. X-Men: The Last Stand throws scenes at you, hoping that you won’t ask “Hey! Ummm…why?”

Round 3: Worse Action Scenes

For a movie called “The Last Stand”, you’d expect some kind of memorable last stand, or stand of any kind. But all we get are X-Men fight scene B-sides. Wolverine runs and cuts people, people that do lasers throw lasers at other laser people, and the hand-to-hand fight scenes are all remarkably brief. You do know that we’ve seen the last two X-Men movies, right, makers of X-Men: The Last Stand? Not to sound like a filthy elitist here, but maybe some effort would be nice.

Also, casting Kelsey Grammer as a super-strong, ultra-acrobatic action hero was a bit of a middle finger to the audience.

Superman Returns, on the other hand, has a few action scenes, and one is outstanding. The scene where Superman rescues the plummeting airplane is the closest the film gets to putting us in a state of awe due to how great Superman is. Unfortunately, this scene is surrounded by the rest of the movie.

“There’s a man on the wing of the plane!”

Loser: X-Men: The Last Stand

I will take one exemplary action scene over a thousand ones that I’m having trouble remembering, even though I watched the movie yesterday.

Round 4: Worse Villain

Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor is a performance out of the Jack Nicholson’s Joker playbook. I can’t call it good, and I can’t call it bad. I can only call it HUGE. I’m enraptured by it. It’s a performance that’s as big as the sun. It literally eclipses the movie at times, and that’s for the best, honestly.

“My real estate scheme to replace North America with a desolate, infertile, crystalline wasteland is genius, I tell you!”

On the other hand, Ian McKellen’s Magneto is both grandiose and subtle at the same time. He’s adept at delivering both magnificent Shakespearean declarations and displaying hints at his inner fury. He’s the best actor that’s ever appeared in multiple superhero sequels.

There are technically 73 other villains in this movie and the only thing you can remember about a single one of them is, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”

Loser: None

They’re both incredible. I’m sorry.

Definitive Answer:

X-Men: The Last Stand

Superman Returns isn’t a good movie. It’s 154 minutes and it feels like four days, a lot of the emotional notes don’t really land, and compared to other superhero movies that actually feel like fun adventures, Superman Returns is basically a meandering experimental film. But it’s way better than X-Men: The Last Stand, which is 20 ccs of pure forgettable.

Tag: Bad Superhero Movie Showdown

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  • maarvarq

    If X-Men: The Last Stand had stuck to one story line, particularly if they’d stuck to the Phoenix story line teased at the end of X2, and not killed off Cyclops, and given Phoenix a decent costume and allowed Famke Janssen to act (that’s a lot of ‘if’s now that I come to write them all down; add “if they’d had a decent director” while I’m here) then it could have been a good movie. I still liked it more than I liked Superman Returns, which was just dull.

    • If they made a different movie that built on the ideas of the predecessor it might have been a good movie.

  • Wizkamridr

    Superman 3: failure
    Superman 4: failure
    Superman Returns: failure
    Man of Steel: failure
    I’m seeing a pattern. And no, I don’t hate the blue boy scout.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Perhaps you need to watch Superman 3 again from a different perspective. I never get tired of schilling Rick Bush’s take on the film:

      At the very least it’s a fun video to watch.

      • Superman III feels to me like a “Silver Age” movie: there’s a hapless creative genius who isn’t really a villain who builds a computer that gets out of his control; there’s a magic chemical that resolves the final conflict; there’s a fair amount of Superdickery; and, heck, there’s even Red Kryptonite, sorta.

        So it’s really a matter of whether you like that sort of corniness, especially after getting two more Bronze Age plots.

        • PorterJustPorter

          Silver Age? The movie literally begins with a man being denied payment at the Unemployment Office.

          • Exactly! I mean, a Silver Age story probably wouldn’t involve the Unemployment Office, it would just start with the hapless creative genius getting fired from his job, but still.

      • Wizkamridr

        I enjoy superman 3 over 4, I was just referring to the fact that superman films don’t seem to do that well. I liked Returns when I first watched it, but now not so much. And I have mixed feelings about MOS. There are parts of MOS that I really enjoy, and others parts that I don’t.

  • I take almost a flip perspective. I find X3 actively bad not forgettable, as nearly every scene just flops. While SR has a clear thru line to the plot, it is not exciting (most of the time) but each scene works for me, I am more likely to forget the lulls, but find that the big good things hit harder and leave a bigger impact.

  • Deneb T. Hall

    Here’s my perspective on all this. First, I seem to be one of the few people who actually enjoyed Superman Returns; though I certainly wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, it entertained me and got me to cheer for the hero once or twice, something I cannot say for the recent Supes films. (I mean, you want “made of frowns”, check out Man of Steel. That makes SR seem like a Marx Brothers flick by comparison.) As for Last Stand – well, it gave me a headache. I mean, a whopping big, three-aspirin-at-once-go-lie-in-the-dark-until-the-pain-goes-away sort of headache. I didn’t think it was terrible, mind you, but I have to give a thumbs down to any movie that damn near makes my skull explode.

  • Toby Clark

    I quite liked both of these. Not great, but at least they didn’t piss me off the way Days of Future Past did with its retcons (both Cosmic and the other kind).

  • Sean Tadsen

    “Also, casting Kelsey Grammer as a super-strong, ultra-acrobatic action hero was a bit of a middle finger to the audience.”

    I disagree. I think casting Kelsey Grammer as Beast was one of the few really good moves Last Stand made. No, he doesn’t meet the physical requirements of the role, but he’s great at giving off that vibe of being smart and cultured.

    Aside from that, though, I’d add one more failure of Last Stand – it was a bad film in a franchise that, up to that point, had been good, if not great. Superman Returns, on the other hand, came after decades of the film franchise being dead, and had the less-than-stellar performances of Superman III and IV.

  • William Wehrs

    I don’t know I felt that X men 3 has Superman Returns beat when it comes to action scenes at least when it comes to spectacle. Magneto lifting the Golden Gate Bridge, and any of the scenes with Phoenix are quite grandiose and hold up better than the CGI in Superman Returns, which on a recent rewatch looked quite dated. I confess that I am one of the few who actually likes X men 3. Yes, there were way too many plots, but I enjoyed each of the plots and they were all acted well.

  • Steven Birkner

    I think that X-Men 3 is a much better movie. It may have stupid moments but Superman Returns is just a chore to watch. SR is slow, boring, and a waste of a lot of talent. After a 19 year gap in the series they return with a story that mostly just copies the first Superman movie. The character deserved a lot better.

  • Anthony Eldridge

    I’m sorry, but SR is worse because it does more damage to the character than X3 did to any of the X…People?

    At least with X3, you’re reminded that this is part of a superhero universe in which the X-Men play a major part.

    In Superman Returns, you’re reminded that if Lex had just been strapped to Ol’ Sparky after he was seen being buddy buddy with the alien invader (Zod. It’s Zod. I’m talking about General Zod, if you’re curious.) who made the President roll over and say, “Please,” the world might not need Superman. Seriously, Batman has a whole Asylum full of homicidal nutjobs ready to reduce Gotham to a crater if Batman calls it quits.

    In Superman Returns, we see the world got along fairly well without Big Blue. What’s one of the worst things to do when re-introducing the world to a major superhero? Remind us why he’s not all that necessary.

    There’s always gonna be a need for X-Men as long as all it takes for the world to end is one uber-powerful mutant flipping his/her lid as well as the fact that normal humans are going to be mysteriously afraid of the possibility of some uber-powerful mutant flipping his/her lid. Well, not so mysterious, since it’s all about hateful intolerance.

    But in Singer’s Super-Verse*, Metropolis spent the last five years in danger of excessive sepia-tones. And it’s only because Superman Returned (hey! I just got that!) on the SAME DAY that Lex kickstarted his “Illegal AF Real Estate Scheme, Take Two!” that hero and villain are in contention.

    Well, “contention” is a strong word. I mean, Supes and Lex have a grand total of one scene together and if Lex had just tried to build his island off the coast of California, Superman might not have noticed. He didn’t notice that his house had been broken into until it was waaaaaaaaay too late. He didn’t notice that his worst enemy, the man who tried to murder him, tried half-murder California and tried to make friends with General Zod is out of jail. Of course, apparently law enforcement in Metropolis can’t be bothered to keep tabs on a dangerous literal supervillain who skipped out of jail on a technicality.

    I know it sounds like I’m beating this horse long past the point it galloped into Horse Heaven, but this universe is so loopy that Lex Mother-Frakking (in this case literally) Luthor managed to get out of jail because Superman wasn’t there to testify to Lex and Zod talking in the Daily Planet building. It’s not like there’s a whole building full of people who’d happily testify to keep Lex in jail until the Legion Of Super Heroes gets started.

    Superman Returns reminded us how lame Superman apparently is and hey, I could be watching a cool Batman movie right now.

    *OK, I’m trade-marking this!