Released: May 2006
Director: Brett Ratner
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $210 million
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Ian McKellen, Kelsey Grammer, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Aaron Stanford, Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Romijn, Vinnie Jones, Anna Paquin, and James Marsden
The Mutant community is divided when a major pharmaceutical company announces the development of a “cure” that will permanently suppress the Mutant X-Gene. As Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (McKellen) uses the controversy to step up his war against mankind, Jean Grey (Janssen) inexplicably returns from the dead, her powers having grown exponentially and threatening the lives of humans and Mutants alike.
Since Stan Lee and long-time collaborator Jack Kirby created the X-Men in 1963, Mutants have featured prominently in Marvel Comics; unlike most of Marvel’s superheroes, the X-Men (and Mutants in general) are met with near-constant hostility as they stand in for oppressed minorities everywhere. The X-Men grew to greater mainstream prominence thanks to the influential animated series from the nineties, the success of which led to 20th Century Fox purchasing the film rights and producing two well-regarded X-Men films in the early 2000s. The production of X-Men: The Last Stand, however, was far more complex than its predecessors; former director Bryan Singer unexpectedly walked away from the franchise, taking X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003) screenwriters Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty with him in order to make the divisive Superman Returns (ibid, 2006).
Many replacements were considered, including Joss Whedon, and the main cast’s contracts were hastily extended before Fox settled on director Matthew Vaughn, who assembled most of the remaining cast. However, family issues and the pressure of Fox’s tight film schedule led to Vaughn exiting the project and Brett Ratner replacing him at the last minute. With limited knowledge of the source material, Ratner trusted the film’s writers, who drew inspiration from the iconic “Dark Phoenix Saga” (Claremont, et al, 1980) and Whedon’s 2004 “Gifted” arc. The sudden mix-up of directors, writers, and creative minds led to X-Men: The Last Stand being far less universally praised compared to its predecessors; despite being regarded as a financial success, the film received mixed to average reviews and is often regarded as a low point for the franchise.
Unlike the last two X-Men movies, X-Men: The Last Stand opens with two slightly less exciting scenes; the first is an early example of de-aging effects that we are seeing being incorporated, and perfected, more and more these days. To be fair, the effects actually hold up really well here; both Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart) and the future Magneto look a good twenty-or-so years younger and it’s a great little scene that shows a snapshot of their friendship and relationship that has only been hinted at before and finally fleshes out Jean Grey’s character more than we’ve had in the films so far.
The other opening scene introduces us to Warren Worthington III (Cayden Boyd), the Mutant son of corporate mogul Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), who is desperately trying to file down the angel’s wings that are sprouting from his back. This scene does a lot to show the shame and fear and desperation many Mutant children feel when they discover that they are Mutants and these emotions play a vital role in one of the film’s central narratives. You would think that the grown-up Warren (Ben Foster) would thus play just as big a role given his prominence in the film’s opening but…no. Unlike Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (who is inexplicably absent and not mentioned in this film due to actor Alan Cumming disliking the make-up process), Warren (also known as “Angel” in the comics, where he was a founding member of the X-Men) barely factors into the film at all, disappearing for most of it and serving only to inspire the X-Men to continue Xavier’s dream later in the film (and save his Dad, I guess).
After the opening credits (which thrust Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry’s names to the forefront), though, the film kicks things up a notch by introducing us to the new X-Men team in the midst of what is clearly a Sentinel attack heavily inspired by the seminal “Days of Future Past” (Claremont, et al, 1981) storyline. Ororo Munroe/Storm (Berry) is now the team’s field leader, Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) is the reluctant tag-along, and the core X-Men are comprised of the X-Kids from the previous film: Marie D’Ancanto/Rogue (Paquin), Bobby Drake/Iceman (Ashmore), and Peter Rasputin/Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) finally receive their X-suits and are joined by Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat (Page). Sadly, however, as fantastic this scene is, it is quickly revealed to be nothing more than an elaborate Danger Room simulation. The post-apocalyptic, Sentinel-ruled future of this storyline would be realised far better nearly ten years later but this snapshot is sadly about as exciting as X-Men: The Last Stand gets for some time.
Very quickly, we realise that despite the presence of a President (Josef Sommer) who is sympathetic to their cause, and a Mutant, Henry “Hank” McCoy/Beast (Grammer), installed as the Secretary of Mutant Affairs, all is not well at Xavier’s School for the Gifted. Scott Summers/Cyclops (Marsden) is a broken man after the death of his wife, Jean Grey, and no longer fit to lead the X-Men; haunted by memories of Jean and his pain, he abandons the school and returns to Alkali Lake only to discover Jean mysteriously resurrected. Despite a heartfelt reunion, their time together is violently cut short and, thanks to a bloated cast and Marsden choosing to join Singer in Superman Returns, Cyclops is disrespectfully killed off…off screen. Yep, in a movie where one of the central storylines is the famed “Dark Phoenix Saga”, the crux of which heavily involved the relationship and love between Cyclops and Jean, the writers chose to kill Cyclops off. Sadly, it would take numerous X-Men sequels and spin-offs to try and patch together Cyclops’ characterisation and prominence and, even then, his character still feels hollow and shafted compared to other X-characters.
On the plus side, Jean’s character is suddenly massively fleshed out; Xavier reveals that Jean is a “Class Five” Mutant (…yeah, this film randomly introduces power classes for Mutants but doesn’t really explain them very well) and that her powers are so strong that he had to suppress them so that she wouldn’t be consumed by them. This lead to Jean developing a sadistic, purely instinctual, predatory personality known as the “Phoenix”, which is the personality we largely see throughout this film. The Phoenix drives Jean to indulge her lust for Wolverine, abandon Xavier’s school and his teachings, and even fall under the manipulative sway of Magneto but, honestly, she largely spends a good chunk of the film’s third half just standing around moodily until she is cajoled into unleashing her full power.
Jean’s extensive characterisation also changes our perspective of Xavier; up until now, he’s has been seen as this benevolent, kind-hearted teacher but both Phoenix and Magneto reveal that Xavier has a dark side to his methods as well. Wolverine is visibly disgusted that Xavier would seek to control Jean but, ultimately, Xavier sacrifices his life to try and calm Jean’s emotions and keep her from letting her powers overwhelm her. The death of Xavier hits hard and, if Cyclops’ death didn’t raise the stakes, Xavier’s really does; even Wolverine is heartbroken at the loss of his mentor and it shakes the team so much that they consider closing the school for good.
Speaking of Wolverine, this film sees his story arc from the last two movies reach its natural conclusion; originally a loner, he came to reject his past and hedge his bets with the X-Men and, by the end of X-Men: The Last Stand, has become a full-time member of the team, the school, and basically the co-field leader of the team alongside Storm. To get to that point, though, he has to struggle with the knowledge that he will be forced to kill Jean, whom he is in love with, in order to save her and keep her from going nuts. Storm is uncharacteristically quick to jump to this conclusion but Wolverine spends the majority of the film believing that Jean can be redeemed; it is only when the Phoenix starts disintegrating friend and foe alike that he resolves to save her by ending her threat once and for all.
Magneto’s arc in this film is super interesting to me; in the previous films, you could empathise with his motives due to his backstory but, by X-Men: The Last Stand, Magneto has transformed into everything he hates. Gathering an army of angry young Mutants and rallying them against the so-called “cure”, Magneto becomes little more than a xenophobic, hypocritical dictator, delivering speeches clothed in black and red and with disturbingly Nazi-like mannerisms. It’s fascinating to watch him become so consumed by his prejudices that he loses sight of how far into the dark he has fallen; yet, even when he is disagreeing with Xavier’s motives to the point of escalating conflict, he still has immense respect for his former friend and is visibly shaken by his death. Ultimately, Magneto finds himself reduced to a mere human and horrified by the Phoenix’s true powers and left despondent and alone…though
thankfully, conveniently, stupidly luckily the cure is, apparently, not as permanent as Worthington claims despite being harvested from a Mutant whose power is to suppress other Mutants’ powers.
The side plot of the cure feels like it would have been enough of a plot for the entire film as the film seems to struggle a bit with focusing on the cure plot and the Phoenix plot, with both dipping in and out of importance as the scene requires. Rogue, frustrated at not being able to touch others without hurting them, is ultimately driven to take the cure despite the fact that she seemed far more comfortable with her powers in the second film. Other than Rogue, though, no other characters seem even remotely interested in the cure; McCoy is overwhelmed and in awe of Jimmy/Leech’s (Cameron Bright) abilities and Storm is vehemently against the idea of “curing” mutation but the real conflict about the cure is personified through the rabid, faceless masses. Even Magneto explicitly uses the existence of a cure more as a reason to declare war on humanity and it honestly feels like any kind of excuse would have been enough to set him off.
X-Men (Singer, 2000) struggled a bit with balancing its screen time between its large cast and, while X-Men 2 did a decent job of fleshing out Wolverine and the X-Kids, it too struggled a bit with having so many main characters and X-Men: The Last Stand has even more characters to wedge into its limited runtime. As a result, returning characters like John Allerdyce/Pyro (Stanford) and Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Stamos), are largely the same as in the last movie but reduced to angry henchman and angry captive-turned-turncoat, respectively.
Though upgraded to a member of the X-Men, Colossus is painfully underused; he has exactly one line and exists solely to be this big, handsome, muscular guy with the cool ability to turn into metal and throw Wolverine when he demands it. Even though Kitty is given more characterisation, her sub-plot with Iceman really could have been expanded to include Colossus; like, have Kitty and Colossus be in a relationship and have Rogue be jealous of their closeness just as she is of the relationship between Iceman and Kitty in the film. But, no; instead, Colossus is just…there, some guy on the team we know nothing about who looks cool but is basically a blank canvas.
Beast fares slightly better thanks, largely, to Kelsey Grammer’s charisma and dulcet tones; he’s also used far more prominently and, through him, we get a sense of Xavier’s history teaching X-Men we’ve never seen before to help flesh out this world even more. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t know when to stop as Magneto recruits a whole bunch of new acolytes, most of whom boil down to a one-note character and a cool look or power. Cain Marko/Juggernaut (Jones) stands out the most thanks to Jones’ attempts at characterisation and his meme-inspired delivery but he’s not even a shadow of the character from the comics. James Madrox/Multiple Man (Eric Dane) exists for one fake-out scene, Callisto (Dania Ramirez) is little more than a smarmy bitch for Storm to fight, and Psylocke (Meiling Melançon), Arclight (Omahyra Mota), and Kid Omega (Ken Leung) are just there because they look cool, are recognisable characters, and Magneto needs “pawns” to sacrifice but they’re barely given names much less any kind of backstory.
The film does excel at times, though; the score is exceptional, far more memorable than those from the previous films, and the majority of the film’s effects hold up pretty well. Chief amongst these scenes are those involving Magneto’s vast powers; first, he flips cars and armoured trunks around with simple flicks of his hands and a quiet confidence and then, later, he wrenches the Golden Gate Bridge from its moorings and brings it crashing down on Alcatraz Island, the site of the cure’s production.
It’s an impressive scene that is topped only by the explosive and destructive unleashing of the Phoenix’s true powers; enraged, Jean begins destroying and disintegrating everything around her, causing debris, water, and fire to fly into the air and threatening the safety of everyone on the island. Of course, only Wolverine, with his superhuman healing factor, can withstand Jean’s powers long enough to end her threat and, while I disagree that Jean’s peerless power wouldn’t be able to vaporise Wolverine as easily as she does everything and everyone else, it does lead to a few cool shots where we see Wolverine’s Adamantium-coated skeleton beneath his seared flesh.
X-Men: The Last Stand is a loud, confusing mess of a film in many ways. It’s tonally all over the place, being bleak and serious one minute and then comedic at others. The two central plots are both big enough to have films of their own and distilling the entire Dark Phoenix story into one movie, especially one that isn’t even devoted to it, obviously means that this storyline suffers as a result. Yet, to be fair, it does kind of work in the context and world that Singer created in his previous two movies.
Unfortunately, though, there’s just way too much going on at once and far too many characters crammed into the film’s runtime. Behind the scenes issues clearly affected the film’s production, necessitating the killing off of many characters and the hasty introduction of new ones who are given little to do and even less characterisation. It’s not as bad as I remember it being, to be fair, and it does annoy me that subsequent X-Men films went out of their way to erase or undo many/all of its events rather than find ways to build upon or write around them but it is, undeniably, a poor way to end what was, at the time, shaping up to be an otherwise strong trilogy of movies.
Could Be Better
What are your thoughts on X-Men: The Last Stand? Where do you rank it against the other X-Men films? Which of the many, many new characters do you like the most? Were you annoyed at how the film treated Cyclops and the “Dark Phoenix Saga”? How would you have done the film differently? Whatever you think about X-Men: The Last Stand, and X-Men in general, feel free to leave a comment below.