On X-Men: The Last Stand

I originally did not intend to do a post on X-Men: The Last Stand, continuing from X-Men and X2: X-Men United, but have since changed my mind, the reason to become clear later. X-Men: The Last Stand is certainly the worst of the first three films, namely for very specific reasons:

  • The deaths of Cyclops, Professor X, and Jean Grey, as these deaths helped end the original X-Men film series given their characters serve as a core of the X-Men;
  • Multiple cameo appearances of other mutants, but they largely remain underdeveloped throughout the film; and,
  • The film remains very reliant upon specific effects.

According to Bad Movie Detective‘s post, “Bad Sequels: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)“:

Launching in summer of 2000, the X-Men film series kick started an entire gauntlet of big-screen superhero movies that show no sign of slowing down even after more than a decade of uncountable superhero-based films.  The Bryan Singer-directed first and second X-Men films were well-written and took a reasonably intelligent approach to the material that placed almost as much emphasis on characterization as action and special effects.  Unfortunately, Singer bowed out of the third film in the series in favor of developing the rival superhero re-boot Superman Returns (2006), and Brett Ratner (of the Rush Hour films) took the directing reins and the screenplay duties fell to Simon Kinberg (who scripted 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith – one of my least favorite movies ever) and Zak Penn (who contributed to the story for X2).  The resulting film was a huge financial smash, grossing nearly $460 million worldwide – the highest grossing film in the franchise, but (with an inflated budget of $210 million) not the most profitable.

Well, despite it’s blockbuster success and fanboy support, The Last Stand is a huge disappointment as the final chapter of the original X-Men trilogy and an ill-plotted, frustratingly underdeveloped mess even when judged on it’s own merits.  Both of the actual story threads used by the film are quite solid – the “mutant cure” vaccination is a great plot device to ratchet up tension between the mutants, while Jean’s reemergence as the destructive Phoenix could have been a gripping tour de force for the cast – but both stories are only partially developed with neither coming into fruition or reaching a decent payoff.  In that sense, the film plays like an extended trailer, as we see lots of interesting characters and potential plot points be introduced with great fanfare, only to be completely dropped and largely forgotten about.  Forget any of the character development, pathos, or even the genuine suspense and action-oriented intensity of the first two films, as mish-mashed ideas, inexplicable character motivations, and not-too-thrilling pop-up CGI effects are all that The Last Stand can offer.

The “mutant cure” could have been a great underlying threat for the characters to contend with, and the film could have effectively explored the benefits and drawbacks of mutants having the choice to be “cure” or not.  This could have been an especially poignant subplot for Rouge (Anna Paquin), who has possibly the most obtrusive mutation, which prevents from basic contact with another human.  Unfortunately, the film is not interesting in exploring any of these potentially fascinating concepts and instead decides to use the “mutant cure” device to simply re-hash the previous two films, as Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy) developing the “cure” out of embarrassment for his mutant son is disarmingly similar to the Stryker subplot in X2, and the X-Men’s disagreement with Magneto on how to stop the cure (logic and patience vs. death and terror) feels photocopied from the depiction of the similar conflicting approaches of Professor X and Magneto in the first film.  The film simply sets up the mutant cure, randomly cures several mutants, and then leads into the special effects-driven confrontation between Magneto, the X-Men, and the US military – and poor Rouge’s dilemma is never given a decent exploration, a flaw further hampered by Anna Paquin’s bland performance.

The Jean Grey/Phoenix saga is even more incompletely handled, as the film fails to offer up a satisfying theory for Jean’s return from the apparent dead and her subsequent turn to the dark side.  Professor X (Patrick Stewart) offers up some mandatory exposition about Jean having some kind of multiple personality disorder or alternate identity or some nonsense, but it just doesn’t wash and feels like the filmmakers didn’t quite understand what they were trying to get across either.  I realize that there was an entirely different set of circumstances in the graphic novels that clearly explained Jean’s transformation, but none of that comes through in the film version – in this film, Jean simply returns from the dead as a telekinetic vixen and wreaks havoc on her former friends, and the film never once makes the effort to probe into her mind or experience these things through her viewpoint.  Only in the final confrontation between Wolverine and Jean does film even bear a faint pulse, largely because Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen are two genuinely solid actors who know how to plug heartstrings, but the scene lacks the ultimate emotional impact it could have had do to the bungled buildup of Jean’s character arc and simply feels too random to score a bullseye.

As always, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Famke Janssen are all professionals and give solid performances here considering what they are given to work with.  Sadly, fan favorites such as James Marsden’s Cyclops and Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique are sidelined far too early, while promising new characters like Kelsey Grammar’s Beast and Ben Foster’s Angel are given little to do after solid introductions (Halle Berry’s Storm is given more screentime this go-around, although she doesn’t seem to ever actually do very much).  The special effects are generally quite good and look convincing (especially the cool-if-pointless Golden Gate Bridge sequence), but they lack the imagination and “Wow” impact of the effects work in similar efforts.  Although the X-Men series has continued with prequel films and such, The Last Stand will most likely be the last outing for the original crew of Mutants – and they deserved a better send off.

According to the IGN review:

Much as they did with Bryan Singer’s first entry in the X-Men film franchise, the fanboy community has spent the last year or so coiled with dread and anticipation over X-Men: The Last Stand, which opens Friday. While it is nowhere near the disaster that the naysayers and axe-grinders would have you think, the third (and, by most accounts, final) X-Men film is not as rewarding or complete an experience as it should have been.

The plot revolves around a cure for mutation that has been developed by Worthington Labs and the U.S. government. This poses a moral quandary for mutantkind: take the cure and erase what makes you unique for the sake of conformity, or resist and face persecution or worse. The Brotherhood, led by Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), decides to finally wage a full-on assault to end this threat; the X-Men, despite their misgivings about the cure, opt to stop them. Meanwhile, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has returned from “the dead” but as the twisted and god-like Phoenix. Tragedy ensues for several of the series’ most important characters. That’sX-Men: The Last Stand in a nutshell.

This is a good example of a film where the parts are greater than the whole. While there are many entertaining segments sprinkled throughout the movie, the set-ups are stronger than the payoffs. Last Stand is certainly the most comic booky of the trilogy. It is colorful, exclamatory, briskly-paced and melodramatic. But for all its attempts at emotional and thematic complexity, the film remains rather simplistic and hurried in its execution. If there were less characters and subplots to contend with then this might not have been the case.

Very little time is spent following through on most of the new characters, with notable actors such as Bill Duke, Olivia Williams, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Josef Sommer playing what are usually bit parts in a Sci Fi Channel telepic. Warren “Angel” Worthington (Ben Foster) is wasted here. He gets a few scenes in the beginning that get you interested in him but then he’s essentially dropped from the story. Angel hardly gets any dialogue and he’s barely a member of the X-Men to boot. His subplot with his father peters out; its resolution during the final showdown doesn’t resonate.

Beast (Kelsey Grammer) fares better than many expected. As someone who has walked the line between homo superior and homo sapiens, Dr. Hank McCoy could be viewed as either a sellout or a thoughtful public servant who works within the system. Grammer brings a dignity and heft to the role despite the hit-and-miss make-up.

Anyone who has seen Hard Candy will attest to Ellen Page’s acting chops but her Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat is not much more than an Anna Paquin substitute here, since Rogue largely sits out the action this time. Page’s small amount of screen time does hint at what she could have done had she been given the chance. Her flirtation with Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) is, like so much of the film, all set-up and no payoff.

The good guys aren’t the only characters glossed over. New Brotherhood members like Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), Callisto (Dania Ramirez) and Multiple Man (Eric Dane) aren’t used to their full effect. Juggernaut desperately cries out to be a CG-enhanced character but instead comes off like a better version of Mr. Hyde in LXG. Callisto has one scene where she gets to mouth off to Magneto as well as a catfight with Storm, but she otherwise left much to be desired. Multiple Man was a nice addition; I wish they had made more use of him.

While Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is still ostensibly the main protagonist, he is not as central to the plot or as dynamic as he was in the first two installments. Ditching the exploration of his past in favor of his unrequited love for Jean, the storytellers overlook much of what made Logan so enigmatic and intriguing. He’s basically the grumpy uncle stuck minding the kids now. Still, the question Wolverine faces – will he have to kill the woman he loves in order to save her and his “family”? – is compelling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well as it did in the comics’ “Dark Phoenix” storyline since one-third of the tale’s love triangle – Cyclops (James Marsden) – is not in the equation for this film.

Jean Grey/Phoenix is the film’s true main character. She is the one that all of the plotlines revolve around. Her past relationships with Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto, Wolverine and Cyclops will affect her choices and actions. But this Phoenix lacks the grandeur and all-powerful menace that she possessed in the comics. This is painfully clear during the finale where Jean/Phoenix could have easily ended the entire fight before it even began but instead stands there impotent and conflicted for the longest time.

Professor X is finally given something more to do than spout little chestnuts of wisdom or use his telepathy to find someone. A cloud of ambiguity hovers over the actions and motives of Charles Xavier this time where there was once moral certainty; Magneto smartly exploits this when trying to recruit Jean into his Brotherhood. Magneto and Xavier remain flip sides of the same coin, like two brothers in a Depression-era melodrama where one grows up to be a gangster and the other a priest.

It may sound as if I hated The Last Stand but I did not. It was often fun, like watching an old serial. If I were 8 years old again, I’d probably adore it. It really was like an episode of the cartoon or an issue of the comic juiced up for the big screen: action-packed, fast-paced, lots of colorful characters and cool set-pieces. But the film also possesses all the same problems as a cartoon or a comic: many characters are all dressed up with nowhere to go; Big Things are brought up but never satisfactorily resolved; and dialogue scenes – you can almost see the dialogue balloons over characters’ heads here – are flipped through in order to get to the next big brawl.

The series’ new director, Brett Ratner, largely adheres to the tone of Bryan Singer’s films, but he and the screenwriters ramp up the melodrama (something which has always been a part of the soap opera-ish X-books) to an incessant, often histrionic degree. Although I never expected this movie to be as slow or cerebral as Singer’s films, more variations in tempo, some narrative peaks and valleys, would have been appreciated. Unlike most films being released nowadays, The Last Stand actually needed to be longer with more time for the audience and the characters to breathe.

As interesting as the cure idea is, this storyline is a variation of the last two films’ plots: a government/corporate entity poses a threat to mutantkind, leading to a fight between the X-Men and the Brotherhood; there is a MacGuffin that will either turn humans into mutants or vice-versa, culminating in a battle royale, usually set at a U.S. landmark. The formula largely works but it’s undeniably familiar by now.

While X-Men: The Last Stand was largely fun and engaging, it never quite came together as a satisfying whole. Like the trilogy itself, the film got more right than it did wrong but grew overwrought and overstuffed, managing to both thrill and vex this X-Men fan.

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