Opinions on X-Men: The Last Stand are fairly mixed, with only a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 5.9/10. Audiences were divided on the movie as well, but from what I’ve seen, people are generally more likely to enjoy it if they don’t read the comics. That’s certainly true for me at least.
I first saw The Last Stand in one of the auditoriums in college, when I probably should have been in class instead. I eventually dropped out of that program (computer programming), but still. Back then I was disappointed by the movie, but I still enjoyed it for what it essentially is – a mindless action movie. Since I got into comics in early 2011 though, I’ve learned to really not like this movie. It’s not quite hate mind you, but it’s a strong dislike.
Before we get into what went wrong, let’s look into The Last Stand’s complex history. Bryan Singer, the director for the first two X-Men movies, started pre-production for the third not long after X2 released. However, he didn’t have a clear picture in his mind for the movie yet, and left the project to work on Superman Returns instead. At the time, he only created a partial story treatment along with the two X2 writers, Dan Harris and Michael Doughery, who also left with him to make Superman Returns. If I ever do a Superman/Batman blogathon, we’ll look at that one too.
The treatment focused mainly on the phoenix force, which X2 strongly hinted at. It would also introduce Emma Frost, which they intended for Sigourney Weaver. The movie would feature a 3-way struggle to get control of the phoenix force between the X-Men, who want to help Jean control it, Magneto, who wants to use it to wage war against the humans, and the Hellfire Club, who intend to use the phoenix in their own personal quest for power. Part of this epic tale would include the complete destruction of San Francisco, Jean’s power overwhelming and killing her, only to fully unleash the phoenix, and … this version of the movie just sounds epic.
The movie passed by a couple directors until Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame took the helm. Ratner, having limited knowledge of the X-Men mythos beforehand, trusted the writers to make a faithful adaptation of all the stories. That’s always a good sign, right? In 2004, they hired writer Simon Kinberg (previous credits include 20th Century Fox’s Daredevil and Fantastic Four) to write The Last Stand. Yet another great sign. Anyway, Kinberg added in touches of Joss Whedon’s recently finished “The Gifted” arc in Astonishing X-Men (a story about a mutant cure).
Kinberg decided to make the cure story arc the main plot focus of the film, while pushing the Phoenix Saga back to the emotional core of the movie. That’s right, they essentially reduced what many people consider the greatest X-Men story of all-time into a sub-plot. For those not familiar with the comics, the Phoenix Saga consists of several major story arcs that were published over the course of several years, ending with The Dark Phoenix Saga. The Dark Phoenix Saga introduced the Hellfire Club (a group of power hungry mutants in a secret society). It introduced Kitty Pryde as a young teenager who only just discovered her power to walk through walls. It’s an epic story that includes the complete destruction of a star, self-sacrifice, arguably Wolverine’s most iconic fight scene in his publication history, and an emotional conclusion that affected the X-Men franchise for years to come.
All that, reduced to a sub-plot in a movie that’s only an hour and a half long. Can you see why X-Men readers hate this movie so much?
So let’s get into the movie itself, and try not to talk about the comics anymore from this point on. Instead of rambling on for pages and pages worth, I’ll narrow the movie down to 5 things that work, and 5 things that don’t.
Things that work in X-Men: The Last Stand
1: The visual effects. The visual effects in the movie are very good for their time, and most of them still look fairly good today. Considering the budget was $210 million, making it the most expensive movie ever made at the time, the effects should be good.
2: Wolverine’s character development. I prefer movie Wolverine over his comic counterpart, partly because he actually changes and learns over time. He started the first movie as an animal, but learned to take on a bit of a father figure role for Rogue. In the second movie, that developed further into someone who both protects and leads a group of teenagers for the first half of the movie, in his own gruff way of course. He even took on a teacher role sometime between X2 and The Last Stand. Even within the movie, he learns to act as a team player instead of just a lone wolf, and that helps the X-Men win in the end. It all feels like a natural development, and he doesn’t completely lose his rough edge.
3: Pyro vs. Iceman. In a movie with way too many characters for its own good, Pyro and Iceman not only get enough screen time, but they both get some good character development. More so in Pyro’s case, but still. The two of them started off as friends in the second movie, but Pyro’s rebellious attitude strained that friendship toward the end. After Pyro left at the end to join Magneto, that former friendship turned into more of a rivalry. That plays out well in this movie, with a stand-off that almost turned into a fight about half-way through, and then a short yet decent duel between the two former friends. Pyro is unfortunately American in this movie while he’s Australian in the comics, but otherwise he’s well done.
4: Storm is given stuff to do. Halley Berry wasn’t the right choice for Storm. She’s a good actress, but Storm is supposed to be a very charismatic character, which Berry has none. That said, she feels wasted in the first two movies. There’s even a comment in X2 by Wolverine complimenting Jean Grey’s show of power for disabling one missile with her telekinesis … after Storm created dozens of tornadoes in the same action scene. But here, Storm not only gets to show off a bit, but she uses her powers in more varied ways. She flies around and spins in the air. She knocks people back with her lightning. She fogs up the battlefield to give others some cover, or reduces fog in the aftermath of an explosion by a lake so the X-Men can see what’s going on. She even uses strategy to take down an opponent who is physically superior. With a more charismatic actress, Storm would have been awesome in this movie.
5: The action. Say what you will about Ratner’s storytelling, but he knows how to direct an action scene. The fight scenes in this movie are high energy, often creative and sometimes intense. Wolverine gets several great fight scenes, my favourite being in the forest against a small team of mutants. As I said earlier, Storm gets some great action moments as well. Magneto and Pyro combine their powers in creative ways in the climax. There’s a quick yet fun chase scene between Kitty Pryde (who walks through walls), and the Juggernaut (who smashes through the same walls). There are a couple stupid moments mind you, like The Juggernaut throwing Wolverine into the very house that Magneto ordered him to keep the X-Men out of. But as a whole the action is good.
And now, it’s time to talk about some of the things that don’t work so well.
1: Wasted potential. There is so much wasted potential in this movie that it’s depressing. The Phoenix Saga could easily be the focus of its own trilogy. Even if it’s in one movie only, it should be the main focus. Both the 90’s X-Men cartoon and the Wolverine and the X-Men TV series adapt the Dark Phoenix Saga in a movie’s worth of time in a very satisfying manner. Wolverine and the X-Men even successfully combines it with another legendary X-Men story, Days of Future Past. Here, it almost feels like an afterthought.
2: Cyclops’s early demise. The way the trilogy as a whole handles Cyclops is a disappointing. He’s boring in the first movie, he’s barely in the second one, and in The Last Stand they kill him off 10 minutes in. He doesn’t even die on-screen. It’s as if they couldn’t figure out a way to make the original field leader of the X-Men interesting. Not one of his hardcore moments, like beating the entire X-Men team when they were brainwashed, getting angry and fully unleashing his eye beams while saying something like “I want these sentinels off my lawn”, or any of the moments where he just relaxes and shows a touch of his playful side. Nope, they just killed him off instead. On that note …
3: Too many character deaths. There are way too many characters killed off in this movie. Sure, for the third movie in a trilogy and with a story as big as The Phoenix Saga, there should be some deaths. Let’s run a partial tally. Cyclops dies. Charles Xavier dies. The Juggernaut dies. Quentin Quire dies. Psylocke dies. Arclight dies. Jean Grey dies. In addition to that, Rogue, Magneto and Mystique are all depowered. Every single one of these names are major characters in the comics by the way. No wonder Bryan Singer ignored some of these deaths and depowered characters in Days of Future Past.
4: The Juggernaut. I could complain about how so many characters are handled in this movie. There are so many cameos shoed in that it’s ridiculous, and some of them even have their powers changed for no apparent reason. But I’m focusing on the Juggernaut specifically for a good reason. The Juggernaut is a major enough character that he could easily be the focus of his own movie. In the comics, he’s Charles Xavier’s brother, and they don’t exactly have a good relationship. His powers make him physically unstoppable. He’s a team buster who requires a coordinated effort with a variety of powers to stop. He’s even capable of holding off The Incredible Hulk. Right there, you’ve got a movie. But nope, let’s just turn him into a one-note character played as a joke more than an actual threat.
5: The cure itself. Another major weakness in this movie is how the cure is handled. Even though it’s the main plot focus of the movie, it still feels like it needed more focus. Rogue’s personal dilemma about taking the cure so that she could safely touch people is a fascinating one in concept. Too bad this major character from the first two movies only gets about 5 minutes of screen time in this one. The movie only glimpses at the general public’s opinion on the cure. It never asks any ethical questions on how the source’s parents feel about their kid being in a small room. We never get the public’s perception on soldiers already using the cure as a weapon, less than a week after the company announced it wouldn’t be forced on anyone. It barely explores the political fallout from Magneto’s attack, nor do we see how he evaded capture after his powers were disabled. How is he able to walk in a public park after pretty much everyone in the world knows his face? Is the cure truly permanent? Will Angel’s father continue searching for a cure after the events of the movie? Does he learn to accept his son’s mutation after his son saved his life? There are so many unanswered questions. And like The Phoenix story, a longer movie that only focused on the one plot could have properly answered all of them. Or a more focused movie with a smaller cast wouldn’t bring up nearly as many questions to begin with.
Again, I don’t hate this movie. Despite all my complaints, there is enough to like that I can’t quite bring myself to hate it. But I also don’t like X-Men: The Last Stand. This could have been an epic finale to an already strong superhero trilogy, culminating with the biggest threat the X-Men could ever face. Instead, it’s a visually impressive yet mindless action movie that clearly tries to have some substance, but it’s too short and overcrowded to truly succeed. Seeing how Days of Future Past erased this movie from the X-Men continuity, I don’t see any real reason to ever see The Last Stand again. Even if you’re not into the comics, I wouldn’t recommend this mess.
Next up is what is almost universally considered the worst X-Men movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. After that, it’s X-Men: First Class, followed by The Wolverine. I’ll be watching the Unleashed cut of The Wolverine because it’s simply better than the theatrical release. My post on that one might just entirely consist of the reasons why it’s the superior version.
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