Ricky Church revisits X-Men: The Last Stand on its 15th anniversary…
Superhero films may be all the rage now, but in the early 2000s they were rarely in development with only two or maybe three produced a year compared to the several we have now. In those early years of of the superhero genre, one franchise which both comic book fans and the general audience loved was Fox’s X-Men. The first two films, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen and James Marsden as the X-Men, were blockbuster successes and are still considered some of the best superhero films made 20 years later.
X-Men: The Last Stand, the third film in Fox’s initial X-Men trilogy, celebrates its 15th anniversary today. However, despite the film’s impressive box office revenue at the time of release, the film is considered to be a disappointment by the vast majority of fans. Looking back on the X-Men film franchise, one can’t help but notice a downward trend in how most of the films were developed by Fox and received by fans starting with The Last Stand. For a franchise with two strong opening installments, what went wrong with The Last Stand?
For starters, Singer didn’t have a full picture for his next X-Men after X2, which ended with the death of Janssen’s Jean Grey while teasing her resurrection as the Phoenix. His story treatment, which wasn’t yet complete, saw Jean return in a loose adaptation of The Dark Phoenix Saga, one of the most epic, ambitious and beloved stories not just of X-Men, but all of comic books. Singer even intended for the legendary Sigourney Weaver to portray the telepathic villain Emma Frost who would try to control Jean Grey’s Phoenix for her own gains. Whatever Singer had in mind would never come to fruition though as he decided to leave the project to focus on Warner Bros’ Superman Returns, something of a soft-reboot and continuation of Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve’s Superman films of the 70s and 80s, which incidentally was met with its own fair share of criticisms from fans and general audience and failed to restart the Superman franchise for a few more years. With him he took his X2 writers Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty as well as Cyclops star James Marsden.
A lot of complaints through the years over the X-Men films have had to do with Fox executives and this is where they really began stepping in on the productions. Fox set Matthew Vaughn to direct the film, but he had to drop out due to some family issues. Funny enough, Vaughn would get his chance to direct an X-Men film years later in the prequel/soft-reboot First Class. To fill his place, they hired Rush Hour and Red Dragon director Brett Ratner, a man who admitted to having little to no knowledge of the long (and often confusing) X-Men mythology. What is more is Fox making all kinds of demands for the film, such as not putting as much focus on The Dark Phoenix storyline because they felt it was too dark for a superhero blockbuster as well as the deaths of both Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier and Marsden’s Cyclops, the latter of whom was only demanded because of Marsden’s commitment to Superman Returns instead of an actual story reason.
The final product, which was written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, was ultimately a mesh of two completely different storylines with The Dark Phoenix Saga and Gifted, the story arc written fairly recently at the time by Joss Whedon in the Astonishing X-Men comic where an apparent ‘cure’ for mutation had been developed. Gifted was used mostly for the story’s political angle as well as the set-up for the X-Men’s conflict with Magneto while Dark Phoenix was used very liberally and brought down to Earth in a literal fashion. Gone was the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force, the trips to space and alien species hunting the Phoenix Force. Instead, the Phoenix was a dual personality in Jean Grey competing for control of her mind and the full scope of her powers which Magneto sought to use in his war against mankind’s cure.
While X-Men: The Last Stand isn’t exactly a bad film, it’s not very good either. The story does little justice to many of the characters. The fact Cyclops dies offscreen and the team barely mentions him afterward is a pretty big dismissal of a character who was the field leader of the X-Men for years, both within the movie and comic continuity, even if Marsden couldn’t play a bigger role due to Superman Returns. Other characters suffer too, like Rogue and Iceman’s relationship which was a fairly big subplot of X2 but now relegated to one or two brief fights between them with Rogue’s decision to take the cure quickly handwaved away as she has nothing to do with either the main story or climax.
Angel is also completely wasted as he was teased in promotional material with him in a full X-Men uniform only to have very brief appearances throughout the film and Juggernaut is mostly used to bring an internet meme of him to life. Even the Phoenix is presented more as a plot device rather than a malevolent villain. Look at how after Last Stand‘s big shocker of Xavier’s death at her hands, Jean/Phoenix does nothing consequential to the plot until the very final moments of the climax where it suddenly remembers she’s there.
The one real redeeming aspect to The Last Stand is the cast as Stewart, Jackman, Janssen and Ian McKellen again give great performances as Xavier, Wolverine, Jean and Magneto. That said, Jackman doesn’t really get to do much either as Logan’s arc feels largely complete after X2 and having found a group to call family, yet is still seemingly reluctant to be part of the team and teach the newer X-Men and spends most of the film pining for Jean. Janssen portrays creepy Jean/Phoenix well, but again doesn’t have anything to do in the second half of the film. Stewart and McKellen shine again as Xavier and Magneto with their back and forth, but the real saving grace is Frasier‘s Kelsey Grammer as Hank McCoy/Beast in a piece of inspired casting. As strong as they are in the film, they weren’t enough to save it from its many flaws.
The fallout from X-Men: The Last Stand‘s reception wasn’t immediate, but had far reaching effects on the franchise. Since it was billed as ‘The Last Stand‘ and the potentially final adventure of the X-Men, there was nowhere else for the heroes or studio to go but backward. While Last Stand was in production, Fox was in active development of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the prequel telling the full backstory to Jackman’s Logan and how he got the adamantium metal through his body and lost his memory – a story which slightly retconned some of the information audiences received in X2.
That movie, which also saw Fox executives interfere to a degree, bombed both critically and at the box office, leading them to scrap X-Men Origins: Magneto and use elements of that script in X-Men: First Class about the formation of the team and Xavier and Magneto’s initial friendship, which also retconned some aspects seen in The Last Stand. It wouldn’t be until that film’s sequel, Days of Future Past, where Fox righted the ship with the return of Bryan Singer and some of the original cast in a time travel story that effectively erased Last Stand and brought back deceased characters like Xavier, Jean and Cyclops. Even then, though, Fox decided to remain in the past instead of another full blown and proper adventure with the adult cast. Even when it did travel to the future with Logan, it only focused on Wolverine in Jackman’s swan song as the character in a bleak future where the X-Men were dead and mutantkind was on the verge of extinction.
The ramifications of X-Men: The Last Stand cannot be denied as its consequences were felt in the franchise for years and began a trend of Fox really meddling with each film’s production, making demands of which characters should appear or how the story should be directed. It is not a bad film and not the worst of the X-Men series, but quite a large disappointment for such a fan-favourite storyline. It’s noteworthy how Fox and Simon Kinberg essentially remade Last Stand with Dark Phoenix, using many of the same plot points and character beats to try and do justice to The Dark Phoenix Saga while still failing. Like it or not, X-Men: The Last Stand holds a very significant place in the X-Men franchise.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.