Black Sheep is dedicated to re-evaluating the under-appreciated, whether it’s the unloved entry in a popular franchise or the lesser work of a particular director. With X-Men: Apocalypse now laying waste to theaters, let’s look back at the increasingly ironically titled X-Men: The Last Stand.
Midway through X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer’s latest romp through the X-series, a gaggle of teenage mutants leave a screening of Return of the Jedi. A young Jean Grey then boldly declares that the third movie in a trilogy is always the worst. It’s a thinly veiled jab at X-Men: The Last Stand, the trilogy capper that Brett Ratner directed in Singer’s absence a decade ago. It’s also a hilarious case of the pot calling the kettle black, as X-Men: Apocalypse falls flat on its face as often and as hard as anything in Ratner’s film.
But it wasn’t so long ago that The Last Stand was one of those franchise films people talked about in hushed tones. “We don’t talk about that one.” “That movie never happened,” we’d say, as though collective gaslighting is the only way to deal with a terrible movie. (Psst: It isn’t. Stop doing it.) Bryan Singer apparently agreed, which is why The Last Stand is pretty much the only film retconned out of existence in his return to the franchise, Days of Future Past.
So What Happened?
X-Men 3 first ran into trouble in 2005, when Singer ditched the project to direct Superman Returns instead. Fox decided to move on out of spite, and courted nearly a dozen directors before landing on Brett Ratner. Ratner’s name may be anathema to movie nerds (in part for this very film), but he has a reputation for completing films on time and under budget. That’s why Fox gave him the job. It paid off financially, but the final product shows it. For all its outlandish spectacle and expanded mutant rosters, The Last Stand feels like a calculated franchise extension borne out of necessity, spite and laziness.
The screenplay by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg is a noxious mixture, one part mutant cure plot (cribbed from Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men) and one part Dark Phoenix Saga, which Singer teased at the end of X2: X-Men United. After scientists announce the development of a mutant cure, all sides rush to capitalize on it. Magneto (Ian McKellan) mobilizes his beefed-up Brotherhood to attack his perceived human aggressors. News of a cure also sends shockwaves through Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, putting Storm (Halle Berry), Beast (Kelsey Grammer) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in damage control mode.
Meanwhile, a resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) awakens as The Phoenix, a being of pure psychokinetic rage. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) had long ago foreseen Jean’s power, and tried to mentally handicap her to prevent disaster. (“Disaster” here meaning “murdering Cyclops”.) Wolverine objects to this, but that doesn’t last long as a confrontation at Jean’s home ends with her turning Xavier into a pile of ash. Magneto recruits Jean to the Brotherhood and marches on Alcatraz, where the scientists are developing the mutant cure. It should be noted at this point that the cure is extracted from a young mutant named Leech, and that Magneto repeatedly calls on his followers to murder a child.
Forcing these stories together doesn’t make any real thematic sense, as The Phoenix never informs the creation of a mutant cure, nor vice versa. The cure could have been created as a deterrent for Phoenix’s full destructive power, but then that’s leaning into Civil War “Sokovia Accords” territory. I doubt anyone wanted to trot out the old Mutant Registration Act chestnut three films in a row. Still, the Phoenix plot makes up roughly half the film, and I can only figure it’s because of that tease at the end of X2. Otherwise, this film has absolutely no need for it.
And yet, what’s strange is that in a film where everyone is after this magical cure, Jean somehow becomes the McGuffin. Everyone wants Jean on their side, her full power never completely explained. It’s established from the very first scene that she is hugely powerful, but the film does so with a nod and a winking Stan Lee cameo. Later we’re told she’s a Class 5 mutant, more powerful than Magneto, but considering this is the first and last X-film where power rankings are ever discussed, the superlative is meaningless. She can disintegrate whoever she wants in the blink of an eye; that’s all the power ranking we need.
The film doesn’t seem to know that the cure is an inherently political storyline.
The very act of labeling the serum a ‘cure’ codes mutanthood as a disease, but while characters only pay lip service to this notion, The Last Stand manages to paint the whole thing as weirdly apolitical. Where Bryan Singer positioned the mutants’ otherness as a clear allegory for homosexuality, Ratner takes that subtext, makes it bold, underlines it, and then just sort of scratches it out while no one is looking. People talk about genetic mutations as something that can be cured, while others picket and protest, insisting there’s nothing to cure. “Do we look like we need your help,” a mutant asks one of the scientists. Or in Magneto’s case, he insists that he is the cure… the cure to humanity!
The Last Stand’s gay subtext is put in bold relief early on, as scene number two finds Warren Worthington II walking into the bathroom to find his son mutilating himself. He’s cutting his mutant wings off as his father looks on in horror and gasps, “Oh God, not you…” This is the emotional backbone of the film right here. The conflict between the man responsible for the mutant cure and his mutant son (Ben Foster) living in shame is powerful stuff. After all, theirs is the story everyone in the movie is talking about. These characters are then written out of their own movie to make way for more scenes of Wolverine stabbing randos in the woods. (Speaking of gay subtext…)
Angel should have a larger presence in this film, and at one point he probably did. Where the first two X-films featured Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) dealing with the familial fallout of their mutant powers, it only makes sense for the third film to follow suit. Ben Foster is definitely the right actor for that part, but because he has no powers that look cool in a fight, he gets stuck squeezing blood from a two-scene stone. The film offers us a brief moment of wonder as Angel soars high over San Francisco Bay, a sign of the film that might have been. Instead, we get the distinct impression that Ratner didn’t want to spend any more time meditating on the X-Men’s otherness than he absolutely had to.
In fact, that may be the reason The Last Stand feels so… hollow.
We can see the emotional throughlines right there under the surface, but they never seem to bubble up the way they should. Wolverine and Xavier discuss the dangers of hindering mutant powers (Jean’s in particular), but holding back vs. unleashing the beast isn’t on the movie’s agenda. Nor is the half-assed love triangle between Rogue, Iceman and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page). Rogue is jealous of Kitty, so she goes out and takes the cure, but it feels less like a true emotional arc and more like an excuse to keep the movie’s characters busy.
That’s a pretty apt way of describing this whole movie, come to think of it. It’s something to keep the actors and their characters busy while the studio re-ups contracts and extends licensing deals. And when you put it in that light, the film’s shortcomings all take on an air of utter laziness.
Case in point: How does a $200 million movie make such terrible use of wirework? It’s not that it’s obvious characters are flying around on wires; of course they are. All the actors look like they’re leaping onto the set of a high school play instead of a major motion picture. Storm files about as gracefully as a penguin in a hang glider, and while Beast has the benefit of not needing grace to fling himself around poles and shit, it looks hokey nonetheless. Ratner emphasized the need to shoot as many practical effects as he could, which is admirable, but putting half your actors into wire rigs and then launching them all onto the same set at the same time just reeks of apathy. It makes everyone look like they all have the exact same wuxia jumping powers.
The real kick in the balls is that the film can’t even commit to the choices it makes.
By the end of The Last Stand, Xavier is long dead and Magneto has lost his powers thanks to the mutant cure. In the film’s final seconds, though, we find Magneto sitting in the park playing chess. Utterly dejected, he attempts to move a metal chess piece with his mind, and a split second before we cut to credits, the piece moves! Hooray! Magneto is back! The humans didn’t do enough test trials on their serum to determine how long the cure would last!
Then after the credits, Xavier makes his return as well. He’s transferred his consciousness into a vegetated body under the care of Moira McTaggart, which is about as idiotic a twist as I can imagine. (Incidentally, this is almost exactly what Apocalypse tries to do in the new X-film.) It reminds me of this year’s other colossal waste of superheroes, Batman v Superman. Spoiler Alert: Superman dies at the end of that film. Right after his funeral, the last thing we see before the closing credits is the dirt vibrating and shaking loose from Superman’s casket. Superman lives!
Just like The Last Stand, BvS employs a cheap emotional gimmick it has no intention of actually sticking with, because everyone assumes there will be sequels. Ratner wanted to keep the X-Men series open for more installments, and leaving your principals depowered and dead is a pretty crummy way to start off X4. (It’s also a bolder choice than magicking them back to life, but what the hell do I know?) Comics at least explore an idea for a while before resetting everything. These films snap everything back into place like a bad sitcom.
As it turns out, Jean’s eventual death at the end is the only lasting effect The Last Stand had on the X-series at all. In 2013’s The Wolverine, we find Logan living deep in the forests of Canada, crying himself to sleep at night over the fact that he saved the world by murdering Jean. Famke Janssen returned to appear as Jean in Wolverine’s dreams, making that film the only time in any subsequent X-film that anyone acknowledges The Last Stand ever happened.
The current state of the X-Men films can all be blamed on Fox rushing The Last Stand instead of taking the time to develop a proper follow-up. Fox’s resolve to keep making X-films, Marvel be damned, feels like a child stubbornly refusing to give back a shared toy at this point. And now that Bryan Singer is back in the mix, even he’s getting in on the game of borking the series. The longer this thing goes, the more frayed and mind-boggling its choices become, as evidenced by Apocalypse, which throws most of what’s come before into the nearest dumpster. They’re not giving this property up anytime soon, and it seems like they’d rather burn it all to the ground than let Marvel have their toys back.
BLACK SHEEP STATUS: YES, JEAN, THE THIRD ONE IS TOTALLY THE WORSTLiked This? Share It!