With the release of the first X-Men film in 2000, audiences not only witnessed the dawn of the modern day superhero film boom, but also the beginning of a complicated franchise that would span sixteen years and nine films. With X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon, Kayleigh Hearn and a rotating cast of merry mutants are revisiting the X-Men films from the very beginning, and examining the comic book storylines that inspired them. What would you prefer, yellow spandex?
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Directed by Brett Ratner
Kayleigh: Ah, X-Men: The Last Stand, which was supposed to be really, truly, the last X-Men movie, and did its best to salt the earth behind it. If I really wanted to make myself cringe, I could dig up my ten-year-old LiveJournal review of The Last Stand, where I vainly tried to put a positive spin on a movie that had squandered so much promise. After directing two X-Men films, Bryan Singer departed to make the ill-received Superman Returns, and the third film was given to Rush Hour‘s Brett Ratner. But Brett Ratner’s conclusion to the first X-Men trilogy is an incomprehensible mess that not only kills or wastes half the cast of characters, but it also mangles two of the most beloved comic stories in the entire franchise.
Dylan: It’s kind of funny–I rewatched X-Men: The Last Stand a night after seeing Batman v Superman for the first time, and I feel like that put me in the best possible mood to watch the much-maligned third X-Men film. Both films suffer from the same problems: they try to cram too much story into a single film, and the leads behave bizarrely out of character compared to their comics counterparts. BvS is an ambitious failure; X3 is an unambitious one, and yet, I feel like The Last Stand is actually more watchable. I had a much better time watching this bland wafer of a film than I did Zack Snyder’s weird cinematic speedball.
Kayleigh: The Last Stand tries to cram in as much fanservice as possible, but it doesn’t have the ambition or the budget to fully realize them. Fans wanted the Danger Room and the Fastball Special? Here they are, but it’s a generic two-minute sequence where you don’t even see the Sentinel they’re fighting against. You wanted more X-Men? Well in addition to the X-Men and Brotherhood from the previous films, The Last Stand introduces: Beast, Angel, Kavita Rao, Moira MacTaggert, Callisto, Arclight, Psylocke, Juggernaut, Bolivar Trask, Leech, and Multiple Man. Almost all of them are a complete waste of time and potential. The Last Stand should have aimed for the cosmic spectacle BvS did, especially in adapting The Dark Phoenix Saga, but the finished film was like mixing a bunch of disparate flavors (chocolate, horseradish, your childhood tears) into batter and baking a cake of inedible gray mush.
Dylan: Extracting all of the cosmic craziness from the Dark Phoenix Saga may be the film’s biggest flaw. The comics story is colorful, epic, and a really beautiful sendoff to one of comics’ most iconic characters (temporary though it was). In the film, it gets relegated to B-plot, doing a major disservice to Jean and serving only to muddle up what’s actually a pretty solid adaptation of Whedon & Cassaday’s “Gifted” arc. If this film were made today, it definitely would have been two movies, but The Last Stand was made during the period when film trilogies were still a thing. After all, nowadays we still get Too Many X-Men per movie, but since the series is never supposed to end, there’s always the possibility of developing some of the bit characters more later. They’re sort of doing that with Beast, now, for example.
Kayleigh: So, let’s talk about Jean.“The Dark Phoenix Saga” is a story about power and love and loss, but this film has nothing to say on those subjects. The newly resurrected Jean is evil and homicidal (and, I guess, super horny) simply because the plot requires her to be. It’s not a good sign when Professor X suddenly goes on an awkward spiel about “Class 5 mutants” and “split personalities” that have never been mentioned before to try to explain what’s going on. There is one beautiful scene taken directly from the comics where Jean takes off Scott’s glasses and telekinetically holds back his optic blasts–but then the moment is destroyed because Jean kills Cyclops (!!!!) off-screen (????). Any bright spot in this movie is immediately followed by something inexplicably horrible. Jean Grey kills Cyclops off-screen fifteen minutes into an X-Men movie! That fucking happened, folks. Dylan: As I said earlier, I think the War for the Cure storyline actually works fairly well in this film, and would have made for a pretty decent movie if it wasn’t splitting time with the weaksauce version of Dark Phoenix. It progresses naturally from the events of the previous films, Sir Ian gets to make some dramatic speeches, we have cool moments for Iceman and Shadowcat–there are times when it comes so close to being really cool.
Kayleigh: How painfully boring and cheap-looking are the action scenes? The X-Men fight Phoenix and Juggernaut and all that happens is that a suburban house gets trashed. So fucking what, a herd of frat boys could do that! Bryan Singer knew how to make mutant powers dynamic and thrilling–just re-watch Nightcrawler in the White House in X2–but this movie is astoundingly dull to look at it. Jean doesn’t even get her signature Phoenix raptor and flames, just black contact lenses and a bunch of bloodless, pixelated exploding bodies. It looks bad.
Dylan: The weak effects in The Last Stand are most obvious during the Brotherhood’s invasion of Alcatraz, when Magneto orders the charge and his army of mutants all leap, identically, as if all of them have the exact same power and that power is leaping. It looks like a shot out of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake.
Kayleigh: How cool would it have been if the X-Men fought an army of Multiple Men? But alas, we can’t have nice things. The Cure plotline is strange because the movie has so many mixed messages on it. Magneto sees the cure, and the way it’s been weaponized by the government, as a threat to all mutantkind. Storm and Wolverine are also against the cure, but mutants with difficult mutations like Rogue actively seek it out. (Here, of course, is where the mutant metaphor falls apart.) The humans making the cure are also imprisoning a kid to make it, so the X-Men have to rescue him, but then the X-Men actually use the cure to strip Magneto of his powers and Rogue being cured is a happy ending for the character? This movie asks difficult questions but is too inept to answer them. Dylan: The weaponized Cure being the catalyst for the inevitable war between the X-Men and the Brotherhood makes perfect sense. But the device is mishandled, and to top it all off, the cure doesn’t even work! And why? This was going to be the last film, chronologically, anyway! It’s amazing how much of this film’s story is undone even before Days of Future Past wiped it out of the canon. Magneto’s depowered? Actually, no. Xavier’s dead? Well, maybe not. It’s tremendously dumb.
Kayleigh: It’s kind of amazing how bleak this movie is, when you think about how many characters are dead or depowered by the end of it. And yet the movie doesn’t even have the conviction to stand by those decisions–the cure doesn’t work, and Charles lives on in another body. The ultimate fuck you of the movie is the feeling that absolutely none of this matters, and that’s before a movie came along eight years later to wipe the slate clean.
So what did we actually like about this movie? Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde is a standout for me. It’s pitch-perfect casting (her spirited little debate with the Professor in class!) and Kitty gets the one terrific fight scene in the movie against Juggernaut. I wish Kitty was in a better movie, but luckily this isn’t the last we’ll see of her.
Dylan: Page’s performance is the biggest highlight for me, as well. Kitty Pryde is my favorite X-Man, and it rules to get to see her brought to life so vividly. She’s clever, she’s witty, and she never hesitates to speak truth to power. She’s equal parts tough and sweet, and all of that comes through in her precious few minutes of screentime. Her romance with Bobby is weak, but that’s because it’s not really about either of them so much as it is a twist of the knife for the conflicted Rogue, and Page and Shawn Ashmore have enough screen chemistry to sell it as two cute teens being cute teens.
I also really enjoy Sir Ian McKellan’s performance in The Last Stand, but that man can sell anything. His brief exchange with Pyro after Xavier’s death, where he stands up for his late friend’s memory, rings very true, and I even liked him in the prologue, when he’s goofing off with de-aged Patrick Stewart/Egg in the 1980s.
Kayleigh: Ian McKellan, as always, dances circles around the most ridiculous moments of the movie. He gives every scene he’s in a gravity it doesn’t deserve, which is also a feat considering how out of character he is for most of the film. Kelsey Grammer’s Beast is, like Patrick Stewart as Professor X, one of those dream casts that seems too good to be true, but turns out really well. He absolutely sounds like Beast, even if he doesn’t quite nail the physicality.
Dylan: In the comics story, Jean/Phoenix kills billions when she absorbs a star, but still gets to go out like a hero, sacrificing herself of her own free will. In the film, she kills her boyfriend, her surrogate father, and a bunch of no name soldiers, and neither her nor the audience feels a goddamn thing. She’s completely irredeemable, because the movie isn’t about her. She’s either a pawn of Xavier’s, or of Magneto’s. The only choice she makes in the film is to beg for death, and you can’t really mourn her, either, because she’s just awful throughout the whole story.
Kayleigh: By stripping Jean of her agency, a powerful and poignant story is, well, reduced to ashes, one might say. She doesn’t even get to decide her own fate; once again the plot of an X-Men film is so warped around Logan that the friggin’ PHOENIX is so passive it can only beg for him to kill her. The ending of Jean’s story is infuriating. Jean Grey deserved better, Famke Janssen deserved better, we all deserved better.
The next movie couldn’t possibly be worse, right? But before we pass the cinematic gallstone that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this super-sized X-Education will revisit two classic X-Men stories: The Dark Phoenix Saga and Astonishing X-Men!