How 'X-Men: The Last Stand' Nearly Destroyed the Comic Book Film Franchise
This film was considered such a disaster that X-Men: Days of Future Past was conceived, at least in part, as a way to undo many of the effects of X-Men: The Last Stand.
Besides X-Men: The Last Stand, there were two major comic book films released in 2006. The first was V For Vendetta (McTeigue), released in March, which told the story of a dystopian Britain and a revolution started single-handedly by a masked vigilante. This is perhaps the best Alan Moore adaptation to film, although Moore would disagree. The film, and the comic upon which it was based, never seem to lose relevance, as evidenced by the countless Guy Fawkes masks at any given protest.
The other major comic book film of 2006, and far more relevant to the topic of this article, was Superman Returns (Singer). This is an interesting film, as the filmmakers chose to present it as a direct sequel, 25 years later, to Superman II (Lester, 1981) and heavily reference Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1978), rather than rebooting the entire franchise with a fresh take like Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) had done one year earlier. It's a fun film, and Brandon Routh is an underrated Clark Kent/Superman, but it suffers from its slavish devotion to an old franchise. The filmmakers would have better served the character with a similar tone, but a completely modern take. The filmmakers in question are director Bryan Singer, writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, and editor/composer John Ottman, all of whom formerly worked on X2: X-Men United (2003). In the summer of 2004, while in early development for the third X-Men film, Singer and his team were offered the chance to make a Superman film for Warner Bros. They took the offer, abandoning the X-Men franchise (for the time being), and leaving the fate of the third X-Men film in doubt.
And it really shows. X-Men: The Last Stand is an absolute mess for a number of reasons.
Many of the issues with the film can be understood or explained by the issues behind the scenes. After the departure of Bryan Singer et al., the studio, 20th Century Fox, hired director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriters Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg to continue the project. The initial idea for the third X-Men film revolved around the famous Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics, which had been set-up throughout X2. In the comics story, Jean Grey is possessed by a cosmic entity known as the Phoenix, which initially increases her telepathic and telekinetic abilities considerably. After being manipulated by a malicious secret society known as the Hellfire Club, however, the Phoenix begins to manifest much darker intentions. Ultimately, Jean becomes a threat to the galaxy and a powerful alien empire calls for her execution. The X-Men protest and fight to save her, but Jean takes her own life to end the threat of the Phoenix. This is widely considered to be one of the greatest comic book storylines ever, certainly one of the best X-Men stories.
Fox, however, felt the storyline was a bit too dark for a mainstream summer blockbuster, and ordered it to be removed from the film. Penn and Kinberg protested, and a compromise was ultimately reached wherein the Phoenix storyline would be balanced by another storyline, about a "cure" for mutants, based on a recent comic written by Joss Whedon. The film never recovered from this decision, as the two stories were never combined in a satisfying manner. It feels like there are two distinct stories being told, with each one being put on hold while the other plays out. Neither story is given enough time to develop, making both wholly unsatisfying.
At this point, Fox had developed a reputation for meddling in its larger scale films with mediocre results. In the case of X-Men: The Last Stand, the studio granted it a budget of $210 million, making it the most expensive film ever made to that point. With this kind of budget, it's understandable that Fox would want to ensure the film was as broadly appealing as possible. Thinking that audiences will be turned off by a darker, more mature storyline, however, simply doesn't give the audience enough credit. Fox was also compelled to have the film ready for its May 2006 release date, announced very early in production. This became another major problem with the film, as issues that would have normally caused delays were rushed through.
Vaughn left the project early on, feeling he was being too rushed by the release deadline to make a good film. He was replaced by Brett Ratner, a journeyman filmmaker best known for the Rush Hour films, who was willing to meet the deadline. Unfortunately, schedule shifts meant that several key cast members had conflicts with other films, causing their parts to be cut down. James Marsden was filming Singer's Superman Returns, so his character, Cyclops, is unceremoniously killed off-screen early in X-Men: The Last Stand. Anna Paquin was filming The Squid and the Whale (Baumbach, 2005), so her character, Rogue, leaves the film to take a mutant cure and her boyfriend begins to woo another classmate. Rebecca Romijn was also filming another film, so her character, Mystique, is cured early in the film and abandoned by her compatriots. Any other film may have rearranged the schedule or delayed in order to fully include these key characters, but the release date was more important than good storytelling.
And then there is Ratner himself. Starting in October 2017, amidst a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations against many prominent entertainment figures, women began to come forward against Ratner. In November 2017, Ellen Page revealed that Ratner crudely outed her as gay in front of the cast and crew at a party early in production. Page was newly cast in the franchise, was 18 years old, and had not yet come out to people. She also reports that she was reprimanded later in production for refusing to wear a "Team Ratner" t-shirt on set. Paquin publicly corroborated Page's story. It's difficult to say how, if at all, this type of behaviour from the director manifested itself in the film, but it gives important context into Ratner's mindset and the toxic atmosphere he created on the set.
The final behind the scenes issue that sunk X-Men: The Last Stand was the idea of a trilogy. Perhaps it was the Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) that established the idea that science fiction or fantasy franchises must tell a satisfying story in three films. When The Last Stand was in production, there were numerous examples of film trilogies such as Indiana Jones (1981-1989), The Godfather (1972-1990), The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Back to the Future (1985-1990), Jurassic Park (1993-2001), the list goes on. I could just as easily list counter-examples of longer franchises, but in the early-'00s everyone was focused on trilogies. Actors signed three-film deals for the first film in any potential franchise. With that in mind, Fox viewed X-Men: The Last Stand as the completion of the X-Men Saga.
That mindset led to a certain finality in the film. Big, controversial moves are made, such as killing Cyclops, Xavier and Jean, or depowering Rogue, Mystique and Magneto. The filmmakers were comfortable destroying so much of what was established in the first two X-Men films because this was the end of the story, the "Last Stand". Fox was in the process of developing spin-off origin films for Wolverine and Magneto at the time. Then, after those, they may reboot the X-Men films with a new cast and start fresh. As production progressed, however, the Fox executives reportedly changed their minds and wanted to leave the door open for the series to continue. That is why the film makes big, controversial moves, but does not commit to them. Magneto regains his powers at the end of the film, implying that the mutant cure does not actually work. This, of course, invalidates the entire storyline. In a post-credits scene, it is revealed that Xavier transferred his consciousness into a brain-dead man. So Xavier did not die. I did not appreciate many of the film's big moments, but I would have respected X-Men: The Last Stand much more if it had the conviction to stick with them.
So let's examine the film.
The Cure Storyline
Ben Foster as Warren Worthington (IMDB)
It's hard to tell which of the two mashed-up storylines in X-Men: The Last Stand is the main storyline, but I will go with The Cure. In the film, wealthy industrialist Warren Worthington (Ben Foster) has synthesized a cure for the mutant gene by manipulating the DNA of a young mutant boy nicknamed Leech. Leech is being held at a Worthington Labs on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay. News of the cure spreads fast and is hotly debated amongst mutants. The concept raises an interesting moral quandary for the mutants. Some, such as Storm, feel that the cure is unwarranted, and that it implies mutantcy is a kind of disease. Some, such as Magneto, feel that the cure could be weaponized against mutants, or forcibly administered to the population. But some, such as Rogue, feel that their powers have made them unable to fully participate in society and welcome the cure.
These are interesting ideas that the film either hasn't the time or the inclination to explore. The interesting debate is quickly sidelined, as almost every major character in the film is against the cure. Beast diplomatically equivocates and Rogue praises it, but every other character looks at it negatively. Meanwhile, the creators of the cure are depicted as mutant haters. Worthington, himself, has a mutant son who he insists on curing. Thus, the major conflict between the X-Men and Magneto's Brotherhood becomes less about debating the merits of a mutant cure, and more about stopping Magneto from killing innocent people in his war against it.
The idea of a cure also raises troubling, intriguing issues when one considers how many different minority groups have identified with the X-Men. The idea of feeling different, like an outcast, felt by mutants in X-Men comics has long appealed to fans who have felt oppressed for their race, sexuality, religion, nationality, or disability. The idea of a "cure" has special significance to many of these groups, who have been brutalized by supposed cures or other pseudo-scientific methods for "dealing" with them. If the film is going to raise such an issue, it has a moral obligation to engage in the debate. Instead, Rogue is excited about taking the cure and happy with the results. The X-Men ultimately decide that Magneto is too dangerous, and use the cure on him. So is the film saying that we should embrace differences, but then try to end those differences if they become too problematic? That is a very slippery slope. But the filmmakers clearly have not considered the implications of such a storyline enough to engage with these ideas.
And none of that matters, anyway. In the final shot of the film before the credits, Magneto is shown using his powers to move a chess piece. Despite receiving four needles of the cure in the climax, his powers are returning. This undercuts the main storyline of the film. It means the characters were fighting over nothing. It means that Rogue's decision means nothing.
The Dark Phoenix Storyline
Famke Janssen as Phoenix (IMDB)
The other main story that was not given enough time to develop is the Dark Phoenix. The film alters the storyline from the comics, having the Phoenix be a pre-existing part of Jean Grey's psyche. Concerned with its limitless power, Xavier manipulated Jean's mind when she was young to keep it locked away. Now, it has returned in full force, giving Jean a split personality. The Phoenix saved her from death at the end of X2, and she is found by Wolverine and Storm. At the Mansion, she begins lashing out, angry at Xavier's manipulations. When Xavier confronts her, she kills him and joins Magneto's Brotherhood. She then stands around for the rest of the film until the very end. The major battle between Magneto and the X-Men on Alcatraz Island was the climax to the cure story, then there is an additional climax to the Phoenix story. Jean goes out of control, forcing Wolverine to kill her and end the threat.
A lot is wrong with the handling of this storyline. Xavier, for one, seems completely out of character. I appreciate the desire to give such a saintly character a bit more depth, but his heel turn with Jean is not treated with any subtlety or grace. It seems as if the filmmakers needed to make Xavier just bad enough, quickly enough, to justify killing him off. The storyline also hampers Wolverine. I never bought into his love for Jean in the previous films as anything but a lusty flirtation. In The Last Stand, however, his crush has developed into full-blown love, and becomes the entire basis for his character arc. Like Xavier, Wolverine feels completely out of character as he struggles with trying to save Jean, the one he loves so deeply. Since the romance always seemed so shallow and superficial, however, his torment never seems honest.
Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine (IMDB)
Jean's Phoenix powers are also very ill-defined. Characters say again and again that she has unlimited power, but what does that really mean? Whatever her powers, the character is done no favours by being cowed as Magneto's secret weapon for much of the film, and sidelined from the action. By the time she lets loose, it feels like an extra ending, tacked on and anticlimactic. None of the story really resonates, with everyone acting out of character and Jean being so underdeveloped as a threat. Xavier's death and Wolverine killing Jean are good scenes on their own merits, but the film does not earn them. And thus, perhaps the greatest X-Men story ever is wasted on-screen. At least, hopefully, until X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2018).
Magneto and the Brotherhood
Ian McKellen as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto
Magneto and his army are completely underdeveloped in The Last Stand. Magneto, of course, is the figurehead of the group, and the most developed character thanks to previous films. In this film, however, he's a reactionary. He doesn't seem to have a grand scheme or plan besides recruit mutants and rail against the cure. He's yet another character that feels inconsistent from previous films, as he does not seem to do much and keeps making mistakes. The rest of the Brotherhood consists of anonymous characters whose names you can only learn from the credits. X-Men: The Last Stand just parades out a bunch of mutants that fans will recognize from the comics, but have almost no impact. Pyro, Callisto, Quill, Arclight, Multiple Man and Juggernaut are mostly just there. During the climax, Magneto allows many of the faceless "pawns" in his army to fall in the first attack, holding back his just-recruited inner circle. How is it possible that Magneto's long-running movement does not have more senior members than the relatively new Pyro or brand-new Juggernaut?
We are also treated to the sequence in which Magneto transports his army to Alcatraz Island by moving the Golden Gate Bridge with them on board. This concept was left over from an earlier draft of the script where Magneto rescued mutant prisoners from Alcatraz. Not only would that have been more proactive, but it would have justified moving the bridge. How else would hundreds of mutants escape the island? But why does Magneto transport his army ONTO the island via the bridge? They could have travelled on any large piece of metal. The bridge gives the Island access to mainland San Francisco, and could be used by military reinforcements to stop him. The plan does not make sense, and the Bridge sequence seems to exist solely for the interesting visual effect. Many studio blockbusters in the mid-'00s featured similarly shallow sequences with no purpose other than looking cool, so that I cannot fault The Last Stand completely for following the trend. But looking back, it's just so unnecessary.
Shockingly, the X-Men end up being as underdeveloped as the Brotherhood. With Xavier and Cyclops killed, Rogue getting the cure, and Jean joining Magneto, there were a lot of spots on the team. Two spots are filled by Iceman, who earns a promotion after two films, and newcomer Beast, a perfectly cast Kelsey Grammer. Two other spots are filled by Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde, who we barely meet as a student before she is upgraded to X-Man, and Colossus, who I do not think has a line of dialogue in the film. As for leader, it is ostensibly Storm, in a nice nod to her status in the comics. And yet, Wolverine gives the pep talks and battle plans, undermining Storm and making him the real leader of the team. Is it any surprise that Brett Ratner could not allow a woman to have a leadership role in his film?
Poor James Marsden, and poor Cyclops. Cyclops was relegated to a supporting role in X-Men (2000) to make room for Wolverine. In X2 (2003), the character disappears in the first act and does not reappear until the climax. In X-Men: The Last Stand, he appears for about four minutes. He mourns the death of Jean, goes to the spot where she dies, encounters the Phoenix and is killed off-screen. Cyclops is one of the most important characters in all of X-Men comics, and he was never given his due in the films.
The five original X-Men in the comics were Cyclops, Iceman, Jean Grey, Beast and Angel. In a film where Beast finally appears, it is fitting that Angel appears as well. The character is hilariously underused, however. He appears in a pre-credits sequence as a boy, tragically cutting off his wings so as not to disappoint his father. He then refuses his father's cure as an adult and flies away. Next he is spotted arriving at Xavier's school briefly. Then he appears in the climax only to save his father's life. It feels like there is a separate film happening parallel to The Last Stand starring Angel, and we only see glimpses of it when the two films intersect. I have already discussed the character too much, given his zero impact, but I find it really funny how wasted he was in The Last Stand.
After developing her character so nicely in the first two X-Men films, this film destroys Rogue. In X-Men (2000), she learns to open herself up to society again even though direct contact with her can hurt people. In X2 (2003), she struggles to build a romantic relationship with Iceman despite her limitations. In The Last Stand, she grows angry with Iceman because she believes he is unhappy and wants to be with Kitty. This becomes her motivation for taking the cure. She returns to the Mansion at the end, no longer a mutant, and embraces Iceman. The lesson is, of course, do not be happy with who you are or embrace your differences. And girls, change any fundamental parts of yourself to please a boy. Even if he does not ask you to, do it anyway. He's worth it. Anna Paquin was reportedly one of many members of the cast who disagreed with Rogue's decision to take the cure, yet it happened anyway.
Superficial Fan Service
X-Men: The Last Stand is also chock full of elements or moments that are clearly meant to elicit positive reactions from X-Men fans, despite seeming perfunctory or out of place. The X-Men are introduced in an apocalyptic action scene featuring a sentinel robot with Wolverine disables using a Fastball Special (a maneuver where Colossus throws Wolverine at an enemy), but the sequence is shown to be a Danger Room training simulation. It's a huge sequence that turns out to be meaningless, which, in a way, foreshadows the rest of the film. As I said, characters like Callisto, Multiple Man and Juggernaut are trotted out and their powers are explained, then they fade into the background. Beast says his trademark line "oh my stars and garters!" Storm flies, in violation of Bryan Singer's attempts to ground the X-Men in more realistic powers. Iceman turns into his fully iced form. All of these moment are pure fan service and are not organic to the plot in any way. My favourite gag in the film has Kitty Pryde using her powers to "phase" through walls while being chased by the Juggernaut, who simply bursts through the walls. This great sequence is hampered by such lines as "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!" and Kitty calling him a dick, which are a preteen's idea of being edgy.
I enjoy John Powell's score to The Last Stand. I was ready to criticize it for being generic and unmemorable, but it's fine. The trouble is that after Michael Kamen's lacklustre X-Men score, John Ottman wrote terrific music for X2. It was based around a main theme that I simply adore. Unfortunately, Powell started from scratch with The Last Stand, and I resented the loss of Ottman's theme.
Cameron Bright as Jimmy/Leach
And finally, it's important to point to the Golden Gate Bridge sequence and climax at Alcatraz Island as precursors to the mass destruction seen in comic book films in later years. Comic book films are often criticized these days for being so-called "destruction porn", destroying whole cities in an effort to continually up the stakes, and giving little thought to the innocent lives that would be lost in superhero battles. In an effort to go bigger than previous films, X-Men: The Last Stand certainly began that trend, but it cannot be blamed for the most egregious offenders in the years to come.
Ultimately, the first X-Men trilogy ended on a creative low-note. The X-Men films and Fox comic book films were going through a rough patch in 2006. Despite that, X-Men: The Last Stand remains the highest-grossing X-Men film in North America, adjusted for inflation, to date. It was a pretty substantial hit, but it weakened the franchise and the genre. Many of the filmmakers have subsequently distanced themselves from it or apologized for it. It was considered such a disaster that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014) was conceived, at least in part, as a way to undo many of the effects of The Last Stand, removing it from the continuity of the X-Men Cinematic Universe. But its impact was still felt in Hollywood. Studios still meddled to protect their enormous investments and valued release dates and mainstream appeal over satisfying creative decisions. In a way, the success of comic book films had caused this, and it would still be several years until they would escape this trend.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan appears as one of Jean Grey's childhood neighbours, along with Dark Phoenix Saga writer Chris Claremont, at the opening of the film. That is 7 Stan Lee cameos in 13 films.
After the credits, Xavier awakens in the body of a formerly brain-dead man, in the care of Dr. Moira McTaggart. Apparently the plan was for the man to be Xavier's identical twin brother, brain-dead since birth. I am so glad that this was never explained, as it would have made an already gutless decision to immediately undo Xavier's death devolve into soap opera ridiculousness.
First Appearances:Well-cast newcomers Ellen Page and Kelsey Grammer would both survive into the continuity reset of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Next Time: Not even Nicholas Cage saves Ghost Rider from being a complete bore.