With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.
We continue with Brett Ratner’s third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand…
If you ever needed proof of the law of diminishing returns, you could look no further than X-Men: The Last Stand.
Over the years, X3 (as it was never officially known but we will call it for expediency) has developed what could be charitably described as a bad reputation amongst fans of comic-book cinema and indeed fans of Marvel’s X-Men comics themselves. There is no question – The Last Stand is a profound step down from the preceding two films, particularly the strong and layered X2. Brett Ratner’s film is emptier while being crammed with more plot, and more mutants, that you can shake a stick at it. The script is unfocused and at times obnoxious, while Ratner’s direction has none of the poise and subtlety Bryan Singer brought to the previous movies. Several of the key, well-developed characters from X1 and X2 are unceremoniously dumped and numerous key journeys and arcs across those two films are ditched or given short shrift. If X2 was X-Men’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is a poor man’s Return of the Jedi, with 2009’s execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Yet… yet… there is something about The Last Stand which prevents it from being a complete and utter failure. It is perhaps the purest invocation of the kitsch pulp Stan Lee & Jack Kirby gave us in the earliest 1960’s X-Men comics, far more so than the updated, modernised take across Singer’s movies. While churning through at times underwhelming material, key actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are comfortable in the skin of their characters and are visibly enjoying playing them. The Last Stand, in how it pits the X-Men against the Brotherhood of Mutants by the climax, is one of the first major comic-book blockbusters to pit a whole team of super-powered heroes and villains against each other, something we would by now come to expect in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films; indeed, The Last Stand introduces the post-credits teaser sequence before Iron Man in 2008 goes on to steal it and make it a staple of the MCU.
Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand is not a good X-Men film, or indeed a good comic-book movie. We have, however, seen much worse.
In many respects, The Last Stand could well go down as one of the biggest missed opportunities in comic-book cinema history.
The X-Men franchise was, at this point, on course to become a trilogy, as was the case for most major ongoing cinematic franchises, although comic-book films had historically ventured into quadrilogies. Ang Lee’s Hulk was too offbeat to trigger any kind of sequel in the interim since 2003, but Spider-Man was going strong with a third film from Sam Raimi set to debut in 2007, while Blade had completed three movies with 2004’s Blade: Trinity (both would end an impressive run of two films with a damp squib of a third). The original Superman and Batman franchises across the 1970’s-1990’s had spawned four films, in both cases with diminishing returns, but X-Men was on course for finally achieving what no comic-book trilogy had succeeded in doing – delivering a well-rounded, critically and commercially successful adaptation of a famous comic-book. When Singer opted to direct Superman Returns instead of return for X3, the writing was on the wall. It would be Christopher Nolan in 2012 who delivered, with his Dark Knight trilogy, the first truly great completed adaptation of a superhero tale.
The film that became known as The Last Stand, with Singer’s departure, immediately loses a sense of narrative, thematic and visual consistency that would only later be regained in the fifth film of the franchise, Days of Future Past in 2014, when Singer finally returns to the fold. Singer wasn’t precisely an auteur in the sense Nolan was with the Dark Knight trilogy, nor did he expressly always have an ultimate plan in mind for X3 during the first two pictures, but there was a clear ebb and flow as to where his trilogy was heading – X2 sows the seeds for the return of Jean Grey and the legendary ‘Phoenix Saga’ from the X-Men comics as the primary thread for presumably a third and final film. The Last Stand does, of course, pay this off, but there is a subtlety and depth lost to the end of Jean’s story in the hands of a far louder, more boisterous director such as Ratner.
Singer took X2 writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris over with him to Superman Returns, both of whom originally planned to introduce Emma Frost (a role intended for Sigourney Weaver) as the villain who would bring out Jean’s Phoenix power (Jessica Chastain’s alien appears to be fulfilling a similar function in Dark Phoenix). Frost would be one of many aspects ditched in the eventual fusion of drafts from X2 co-writer Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, whose involvement in the franchise remains to this day, as writer *and* director of Dark Phoenix.
One thing that I knew going in was that it was going to be the Dark Phoenix story since Bryan had laid the groundwork for that in X2, but what we didn’t know was what the other parallel stories would be. I think everyone felt that one of the strengths of the first two X-Men movies was that they had a number of parallel stories. In many ways the Phoenix story is the emotional ‘A’ plot of the film, but the political ‘A’ plot of the film became about the cure. That was actually a studio executive’s idea. One of them had read Joss Whedon’s gifted run with the mutant cure in it and thought that would be an interesting quandary for the characters. One thing that you’ll find when you look online, is that whether fans do or don’t like this movie (and the opinions are pretty wildly diverse as you can imagine), they certainly acknowledge that there is a lot of the comics represented in this movie. I won’t claim credit for anything good in the movie except Zak and I are the biggest X-Men geeks that were anywhere around this film with the exception of Avi Arad. Zak and I were certainly the ones on set everyday, who were fighting really hard to shoehorn everything into the movie that we loved about the books.
That word, ‘shoehorn’, could well be a fitting epitaph for The Last Stand. It is a film which throws everything but the kitchen sink from the X-Men comics into the brew and yet singularly fails to come up with an enticing concoction.
Consequently, it is harder to find a common unifying theme for The Last Stand than it was the previous two X-Men films. X-Men was anxious about divisions in society at the dawn of the millennium, while X2 dealt with the moral and psychological consequences of a deep American existential trauma. The Last Stand could be read as an expression of how that cultural shock has transformed itself into a deep, broiling anger aimed at the ‘Other’ in the psyche of the West. Mutants in Marvel history have always served as a proxy for minority sub-groups, whether homosexuals or ethnic groups, and here they are expressly targeted and vilified in a natural extension to the fear and hysteria building up in the first two X-Men movies amongst the human population and the US government. Yet at the same time, The Last Stand feels less about the human/mutant conflict and more about the divisions in mutant-kind itself.
Jean Grey is in many senses an expression of that. The Phoenix power is here characterised as the darker ‘id’ of Jean, the Hyde to her Jekyll, just one she can never put back in the box once released. Jean’s internal struggle to combat the Phoenix serves as a parallel to the mutant struggle between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants over how they respond to the ‘patient zero’ that is Jimmy, the power-draining mutant who the Worthington Corporation use to devise a mutant ‘cure’. “They’re calling it a cure” “Since when did we become a disease” is an exchange central to this narrative. Some are prepared to embrace it, others reject it, but it oddly doesn’t place mutantkind against the human forces who have developed this potentially genocidal weapon of reverse-evolution – Hank ‘Beast’ McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) as a government go-between further solidifies that point. The Last Stand chooses instead to foreground the mutant-on-mutant conflict, producing a heightened, more explosive version of the climax to the first X-Men film for the Alcatraz-based denouement.
It again reinforces the idea that The Last Stand more directly wants to adapt the Marvel comic strip on screen than Singer’s previous two pictures did. From the beginning, Ratner is interested in showing off the X-Men and what they can do, with Wolverine leading the charge in the Danger Room training facility in a post-apocalyptic scenario battling the Sentinels (which Days of Future Past will later do for real). “Maybe it’s time for us to move on” he tells an angry, darkened Cyclops in one of the few scenes the character gets before he is unceremoniously killed, half off-screen (James Marsden elected to jump ship and join Singer in Superman Returns). Everything in The Last Stand feels about simultaneously concluding many of the elements introduced in Singer’s film while, jointly, throwing a multitude of new characters and situations into the pot – primarily mutants with a range of powers seen in the comics.
In some respects, The Last Stand predicts how the superhero genre will evolve from this standpoint, even if Ratner’s film lacks a polish and dramatic weight. Ten years into the MCU, Avengers: Endgame will deliver the biggest display of superheroes on screen together battling than we have ever seen, and even in 2016 we had jointly Captain America: Civil War and DC’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice front-load their concepts on a showdown between heroes. It is something Marvel Comics have been doing since the early 1960’s, pitting hero against hero, mutant against mutant, often in the most ludicrous and contrived circumstances. The Last Stand understands that X-Men purists want to see a showdown between Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford), or watch Wolverine and Storm (Halle Berry) cut a swathe through a multitude of mutants with all kinds of abilities. Singer’s films did supply this but placed character development and the emotional journey of the X-Men at the front and centre.
The Last Stand pushes back at those choices quite strongly. Many of the characters Singer developed are either ditched or relegated. Cyclops is dealt with quickly, Jean becomes consumed by the Phoenix for much of the film, Wolverine has much less of a defined and clear central arc until the latter half of the film when the threat of Jean becomes clear, Rogue (Anna Paquin) becomes little more than a jealous girlfriend as Kinberg & Penn’s hybridised script chooses to focus more on the Iceman dynamic with Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Mystique (Rebecca Romijn)—criminally—is sidelined for the majority of the film (First Class and subsequent films will thankfully do her character true justice), Charles Xavier only makes it through half the film – and Nightcrawler, so important to X2 and the mutant accord with the government—is entirely absent. Singer’s vision for this franchise is systematically broken down and stripped away.
Ratner’s film replaces these well-developed, interesting characters with far less nuanced or intriguing comic creations. Warren ‘Angel’ Worthington (Ben Foster) should have received better treatment as a founding member of the X-Men team from the comics, and a character quite central to the idea of the cure, but after a prologue allegorically depicting the difficulty with his angelic power with youthful self-harm, he is largely forgotten for the entirety of the picture. Mystique is replaced as chief sidekick to Magneto by boorish mutants such as Callisto (Dania Ramirez) or Kid Omega (Ken Leung), while lunkheads such as Multiple Man (Eric Dane) and Juggernaut (an embarrassing Vinnie Jones) are characters you sense wouldn’t have gotten ten feet near Singer’s X3. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” is meant to raise a laugh but it is simply crass, cringeworthy, and exposes the differences between The Last Stand and its forebears.
There is just, quite simply, too much going on in The Last Stand for almost any of it to stick. The Phoenix saga didn’t have to be directly adapted but there is more than enough material in the story of Jean Grey to warrant an entire film to be constructed around it (as Dark Phoenix will soon prove), yet Jean ends up simply a component of the broader adaptation of Joss Whedon’s ‘Gifted’ arc, with the mutant cure, which provides the idealogical core of the film. This is, without question, a mistake, and it feels very off-balance with where X2 was quite visibly heading, even if the details had not yet been worked out. Famke Janssen gets little to do with the portrayal of Jean except look demonic, act a bit seductive, and show the occasional flicker of emotion as Jean’s tortured, ‘real’ self emerges – although a question the film poses is whether the Phoenix has always been the real Jean since X and Magneto worked together when she was a child to contain and control her power (let’s not mention the frightening de-ageing technology that facilitates those opening 80’s flashback scenes, shall we?).
It does provide Wolverine quite a tragic, heroic culmination to his romantic feelings for Jean, in that he must kill the woman he loves before her power can destroy the world (you wonder if Game of Thrones recently took a cue from this moment, actually… probably not). The problem is that after X2, the relationship between Wolverine and Jean had not developed enough to reach the point where this sacrifice truly impacts; had Jean returned here and a fourth film dealt with the Phoenix story, with The Last Stand building further the idea that Jean is not the same woman she was, it would have really hit home when she begged Wolverine to kill her. It all just happens too quickly here, even if the display of Jean’s powers does allow for some impressive moments – particularly the scene at her family home where she kills X, which plays like a demonic exorcism gone wrong. Thanks in so small part to John Powell’s fantastic score, the scene works.
Taking Professor X off the board is a mixed bag of a decision. On the one hand, removing an actor as skilled Stewart leaves the film with a gravitas vacuum McKellen does his best to fill, even if much of Magneto’s subtlety is left at the door in The Last Stand, McKellen gamely doing his best with increasingly on the nose, Shakespearian, fascist decrees as the film reaches its climax. On the other, Xavier dying removes the ‘mentor’ figure from the story right at the point when the X-Men are facing their biggest existential threat – extermination. Much as Berry still gets little character work as Storm, it allows the character to take more of a leader position in the story, even if she reinforces the mindset against the idea of the cure “What kind of coward would take it just to fit in?”. Rogue, for one, Storm. The film isn’t too interested in exploring both sides of that argument.
In reality, however, X’s death feels more a mechanism to establish the threat of the Phoenix and provide a shock twist in the middle of a cluttered film trying to balance two massive narratives at the same time. It feels fairly cheap, especially as X’s resurrection is very much telegraphed by his discussing about transferring consciousness early on, and later cemented in the post-credits scene (featuring Olivia Williams as Dr. Moira McTaggart, who she sadly never got to play again in future films). It is strange, indeed, given there was no fourth film particularly on the horizon, to seed in X’s survival. It does help Bryan Singer when he eventually corrects a lot of the choices made in The Last Stand, but it undercuts what Ratner seemingly intended to be the real jaw-dropping choice of the film. It does the same for Magneto, a character much stronger when he has X to bounce off, in a final moment of playing chess alone otherwise filled with pathos, in suggesting his powers may still be lurking deep down.
The Last Stand does at least remember X and Magneto’s ideological conflict is central to the X-Men story, and it channels that through Jean’s descent in darkness. X believes he can help Jean to control her power, but Magneto wants to let it be free, and for her to become her ‘true’ self (mainly so he can manipulate her). Wolverine agrees with him, perhaps impressing his own latent feelings of anger about how Stryker controlled *him*. Magneto believes war and conflict are the only means to overcome humanity, even if it means destroying fellow mutants to do it; indeed the script hammers this point home, and the cure’s allegorical links to genocide and the Holocaust, as Erik Lensherr displays his concentration camp number tattoo. “No one ever talks about it, they just do it” he says about potential mutant extermination via the cure. The first two X-Men films confronted these ideas but The Last Stand sledgehammers them home.
What is frustrating about The Last Stand is that it fizzles with fascinating ideas from some exceptional comic material that it skips over, briefly confronts, and ultimately sacrifices for another explosion, punch up or bombastic set piece. The cure being used as a weapon at one stage, removing Mystique’s powers, sees Beast show his anger to the old, white US President, who admits he fears mutants because “I wonder how democracy survives when one man can move cities with his mind?”. These are fascinating societal, moral and geopolitical questions at the heart of the mutant idea, and the X-Men comics, that deserve a better film to prop them up, and root them at the heart of these character journeys and the conflict between mutants against each other, and against humanity. The Last Stand does at least touch on them but any of the depth needed to truly bring them out is abandoned.
The legacy of X-Men: The Last Stand has long seen the film consigned to lists citing the nadir of comic-book cinema, and in many respects that is hard to argue against. Brett Ratner’s film is often empty and noisy, and does not do justice to the two films that preceded it in any respect, lacking a clarity of theme and focus as it looks for the next moment of spectacle to unload on the audience. In the wake of a film like Batman Begins which was released a year earlier, it looks decidedly old-fashioned – more in step with the overblown bombast of the weaker Batman and Superman films of decades past, even if it lacks some of their campness. It certainly puts an abrupt nail in the creative coffin of the X-Men franchise, even if it will be proven to have a second least of life left in it yet, rising from the ashes much like Jean Grey to far greater returns.
The Last Stand, however, is not quite as terrible as you probably remember. It at least tries, even if more often than not ends up being trying.