The revolution had begun. Not only had Fox produced two hit movies featuring the X-Men, but by the time the third X-film hit in 2006, Sony had produced two hit Spider-Man films, and several other Marvel characters had hit the big screen with varying degrees of success: Daredevil, Elektra, the Hulk, the Punisher, and the Fantastic Four, not to mention two Blade sequels.
Suddenly, Marvel heroes were all over the big screen, and they were actually faithful to their comics roots and not goofy or ridiculous. They weren’t all good movies, mind you, but at the very least there had been a sea change, and it started with X-Men.
That there would be a third movie in the series was never in doubt, especially since X2 had so aggressively set up Jean Grey coming back as Phoenix, with the climax of the second film being their riff on Uncanny X-Men #102 when Marvel Girl became Phoenix.
What did become in doubt was whether or not Bryan Singer would be involved, as he was given the opportunity to helm a new Superman film, and he jumped on that. We will cover the results of that decision next week. Fox, meanwhile, was left without a director. At first they approached Matthew Vaughn, who wound up pulling out (though he would return in 2011 for the next team film in the sequence, X-Men: First Class). Brett Ratner took over the reins—Ratner had been one of the ones considered for X-Men back in the 1990s before they settled on Singer.
As with the previous film, Zak Penn was hired to write a screenplay, and someone else was also hired, this time Simon Kinberg rather than longtime Singer collaborator David Hayter. They wound up combining their scripts, this time Kinberg and Penn directly collaborating. Kinberg has continued to be associated with the franchise, serving as a producer on each of the next three films as well as Deadpool, Logan, and Deadpool 2, and also co-writing Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, with the upcoming Dark Phoenix being his directorial debut off his script. The final script for The Last Stand was inspired by two particular story arcs from the comics, 1980’s “Dark Phoenix” storyline by Chris Claremont & John Byrne in Uncanny X-Men and 2004’s “The Gifted” storyline by Joss Whedon & John Cassaday in Astonishing X-Men.
After two straight movies that started out with Beast and Angel as part of the team only to have them cut for budgetary reasons, they finally appear in the third film—which had a larger budget than the previous two films combined—played by Kelsey Grammer and Ben Foster. While Alan Cumming does not return as Nightcrawler—his role was too small to be worth all the time Cumming would have to spend in makeup, so the part was cut—all the big actors are back, though some not for very long. (Singer cast James Marsden in Superman Returns, and as a result, Cyclops’s role in this film is minimal.) Kitty Pryde’s role is expanded, re-cast again this time with Ellen Page, and also introduced in this film are Vinnie Jones as the Juggernaut, Dania Ramirez as Callisto, Eric Dane as Madrox the Multiple Man, Ken Leung as Kid Omega, and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Dr. Rao.
The next movies intended were origin stories, with X-Men Origins: Wolverine released in 2009, and X-Men Origins: Magneto planned. But after the lukewarm response to the former, they expanded out the Magneto origin idea instead into what became X-Men: First Class, which kicked off a series of movies featuring the X-Men in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Chronologically, the next movie in the sequence after this one will be The Wolverine, which focuses on Logan dealing with the events of The Last Stand. We’ll circle back around to Wolverine’s solo features later on in this rewatch.
“As Churchill said, ‘There comes a time when every man must—’ Oh, you get the point…”
X-Men: The Last Stand
Written by Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn
Directed by Brett Ratner
Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner & Ralph Winter & Avi Arad
Original release date: May 26, 2006
Twenty years ago, an ambulatory Xavier and Magneto visit the Grey house to recruit the teenaged Jean Grey to Xavier’s School. At one point, Grey uses her telekinesis to raise all the cars on the block, as well as a lawn mower belonging to someone who looks just like Chris Claremont and the water from a hose wielded by someone who looks just like Stan Lee.
Ten years ago, Warren Worthington Jr. walks in on his son, Warren Worthington III, who has just sliced the wings off his back. The elder Worthington is appalled to realize that his son is a mutant.
Present day, Storm and Wolverine lead a session in the Danger Room, a holographic battle against giant robots that includes Colossus, Iceman, Kitty Pryde, and Rogue. Wolverine is filling for Cyclops, who isn’t over Grey’s death yet. Cyclops also hears Grey’s voice telepathically, and abandons the school, going north to Alkali Lake on his motorcycle.
Worthington Labs announces that they have a mutant “cure.” This comes as an annoyed surprise to Dr. Henry P. “Hank” McCoy, a former student of Xavier’s who is the new president’s Secretary of Mutant Affairs. McCoy brings this to Xavier’s attention. Rogue is intrigued by the cure, as it means she could actually touch people. This is of particular interest as Iceman is showing interest in Pryde, someone he can actually make contact with.
The president also reveals to McCoy—who tells Xavier—that Mystique has been captured by U.S. authorities. She was breaking into the FDA to learn more about the cure.
Both Worthington and the president insist that the cure is voluntary, but Magneto commandeers a mutant rally in San Francisco and insists that this alleged cure is a tool of genocide. He and Pyro recruit several new mutants to the Brotherhood, including Callisto (who has super-speed and can sense other mutants), Arclight (who can create shockwaves), Kid Omega (who’s basically a human porcupine), and others. Callisto is able to sense Mystique’s location, and Magneto springs her as well as Juggernaut and Madrox the Multiple Man. However, one of the guards shoots a weapon with the cure in a dart. Mystique takes the dart for Magneto, saving him—but leaving her a regular human. Magneto shows his gratitude by abandoning her naked form in the truck, which is at once yucky, ungrateful, and stupid.
The source of the cure is a mutant named Jimmy. Any mutant who goes near him has their powers negated. (When McCoy is introduced to him by Dr. Rao, the scientist who developed the cure, he reaches out for a handshake and the fur falls off his hand.) Mystique had revealed to Magneto that Jimmy is being kept on Alcatraz, as is the cure.
Cyclops arrives at Alkali Lake to find Grey alive somehow. They kiss and then she kills him. Xavier senses Grey’s presence while in the midst of an ethics lecture. He’s talking about the ethics of a dying telepath inserting their consciousness into a brain-dead comatose patient, showing an actual brain-dead comatose patient in the care of his colleague Moira MacTaggart. This will probably be important later.
Xavier sends Wolverine and Storm to Alkali Lake, where they find many rocks and things floating around, as well as Cyclops’s glasses—and Grey! They bring her comatose body back to the mansion. Xavier reveals that when he and Magneto recruited Grey two decades previous, he had to telepathically repress her powers so she could keep them under control. The treatments and therapy they underwent resulted in a dissociative personality, with her more aggressive nasty side being a personality she called “Phoenix” for no reason that the script bothers to explain.
When Grey wakes from her coma, she comes on to Wolverine, who doesn’t resist at first, but then finally gets enough blood to his other head to recall that he should ask what happened to Cyclops. Unable to face what she’s done—and modulating back and forth between the Grey and Phoenix personalities—she departs the mansion.
Xavier is furious, blaming Wolverine for letting her go, but Wolverine blames Xavier for messing with her head.
Worthington wants the first person to get the cure to be his son, but Warren refuses, breaks out of the harness that keeps his wings in check, and flies away.
Callisto senses Grey and tells Magneto, and both Magneto and Xavier converge on the Grey house, accompanied by the Brotherhood and the X-Men, respectively. While Grey and Xavier engage in a psi-war, Storm and Wolverine take on Juggernaut, Callisto, and Pyro. Grey disintegrates Xavier (though he smiles right before she does it), and goes off with Magneto, while Juggernaut and Callisto have made short work of Storm and Wolverine.
A funeral is held for Xavier at the school. McCoy talks about shutting the school down, but then Warren walks in requesting sanctuary. Storm says that this is, indeed, a safe place for mutants, and the school is officially reopened.
Rogue, longing to be able to actually hold Iceman’s hand, not to mention kissing him, goes to get the cure. Wolverine gives her his blessing, to her surprise—she expected a speech from him about how it’s not a disease and this is messing with who she is—but he says he’s her friend, not her father, and he wants her to do what she thinks is right. When she arrives, there are protestors on both sides at the center where the cure is being distributed.
Wolverine then telepathically hears Grey’s voice, just like Cyclops did, and he goes off on his own to check out Magneto’s stronghold. How he travels the 3000 miles to Magneto’s forest redoubt (it can’t be that far from San Francisco, given what happens next) is left unclear. He fights (and kills) several of the Brotherhood, and also catches Magneto’s speech to the troops. The weaponizing of the cure is his rallying cry, proving that the government’s intention is to wipe them out.
He tries to convince Grey to come home, but is no more successful than Xavier, though Logan at least survives. Magneto casts him far away, but doesn’t kill him out of respect for Xavier’s memory.
The Brotherhood attacks the Worthington centers. Mystique—or, rather, Raven Darkhölme—readily and eagerly gives Magneto up to the authorities, including the location of his headquarters. However, Magneto has left Madrox and hundreds of duplicates as decoys behind while he goes for Alcatraz, where Jimmy is being held. He rips the Golden Gate Bridge apart and uses it to ferry the Brotherhood to the island. The U.S. troops are stuck only with Madrox. The weaponizing of the cure has left McCoy with no choice to but resign his cabinet post.
Wolverine has returned to the mansion. How he travels the 3000 miles back home is also left unclear. Colossus, Kitty, and Iceman suit up along with McCoy—who digs his older X-uniform out of the closet—and Storm and the six of them fly out to San Francisco to face Magneto and his Brotherhood.
The government troops are armed with plastic guns loaded with darts that are filled with the cure. Magneto is impressed with their foresight, but he has hundreds of mutants on his side. He sends in the “pawns” first, the hordes of mutants who get wiped out by the cure darts. He sends Juggernaut in to retrieve Jimmy while Arclight and Kid Omega go after Worthington and Rao.
Kitty goes after Juggernaut, and uses Jimmy’s power-neutralizing abilities against him, as the suddenly-no-longer-super-strong Juggernaut knocks himself out against a wall that, with powers, he would’ve just plowed through.
Kid Omega kills Rao, and Arclight almost kills Worthington, but he’s saved by his son—who somehow managed to fly all the way across the country under his own power at roughly the same speed as a supersonic jet.
Colossus throws Wolverine at Magneto, which sufficiently distracts the master of magnetism so that he doesn’t see McCoy stabbing him with three cure darts until it’s too late.
After Magneto falls, and most of the Brotherhood is captured or cured or dead or incapacitated, only then does Grey—who’s been standing around doing nothing since she left her house with Magneto—decide to actually act. She disintegrates all the troops, half the island, and generally commits mass murder and mayhem. Wolverine is the only one able to approach her, as his healing factor keeps her from tearing him apart the way she does everyone else. After an agonizing exchange of looks and a lot of shouting, he stabs her with his claws.
There are now three headstones behind the school: Charles Xavier, Scott Summers, and Jean Grey. Magneto managed to escape in the confusion, and he sits in Golden Gate Park in front of a chess board, managing to move one of the chess pieces a teeny tiny bit.
McCoy is appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Rogue returns to Xavier’s School, even though she’s no longer a mutant—but now she can hold Iceman’s hand. And MacTaggart checks on her brain-dead patient only to find him speaking with Xavier’s voice and saying, “Hello, Moira.”
“Not everybody heals as fast as you, Logan”
Back in 1961, Akira Kurosawa did a film called Yojimbo. Like many of his films up until 1963, it starred Toshiro Mifune (they had a falling out during the filming of the excellent, underrated Red Beard) as a samurai who hired himself out as a bodyguard. The movie—which was also the basis for the Clint Eastwood film A Fistful of Dollars—was very successful, and spawned a sequel, Sanjuro. They are still considered two great films, among the many gems in Kurosawa’s crown.
There was a third film with Yojimbo, called Incident at Blood Pass, but Kurosawa wasn’t involved, and that film is justifiably the forgotten stepchild of the Yojimbo films. Only the ones by the great director are remembered decades later.
I think you can guess where I’m going with this, especially since Days of Future Past basically erased this film from the timeline and will take a mulligan on the Dark Phoenix saga and try it again later this year.
Just the decision to jointly adapt the “Gifted” and “Dark Phoenix” stories meant The Last Stand was likely to be overstuffed, but that isn’t the half of it. You’ve got the Grey backstory, plus there’s the Worthington family drama (which goes nowhere interesting after a promising beginning), plus there’s Cyclops and Grey’s reuniting and tragedy, plus there’s Logan’s love for Grey, plus there’s the ongoing Xavier-Magneto rivalry/friendship, plus there’s the Iceman-Pyro rivalry/no-longer-a-friendship, plus there’s the Kitty/Rogue/Iceman love triangle, plus there’s the mutant cure, plus there’s, plus there’s, plus there’s. There’s too much, and none of it coheres well at all.
Brett Ratner is a serviceable director, but he has none of Bryan Singer’s subtlety or ability to give you someone’s character in a brief, brilliantly insightful bit. The only person who comes across as complex in this movie is Magneto, and that’s mostly because Sir Ian McKellen can speechify with the best of them. (Also, the moment where he shows his tattoo from Auschwitz to Callisto is very nicely done, but it stands out as one of the few good moments in the film.) Having said that, Magneto just leaving Mystique behind the way he does is idiotic. Yes, he anticipates Mystique giving him up and setting up Madrox to take the fall, but Mystique knows everything about Magneto’s operation; she’s been his right hand. She’s a liability, and one who now has a very specific animus against him because his response to stepping in front of a dart for him was to abandon her.
The acting is, at least, strong. Halle Berry gives by far her best performance as Storm—her eulogy of Xavier is very well delivered—and Kelsey Grammer is the best casting ever as Hank McCoy. Ken Leung is always a delight, and Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut is just hilarious.
But man, is the script a disaster. By putting so much in, nothing gets a proper treatment. And so much of it makes no sense! It starts with the complete lack of understanding of the geography of the United States of America, as this movie acts as if the Bay Area is only two states away from the New York suburbs, not across a continent.
Why does Phoenix just stand there for the entire climax until everyone else is taken out? More to the point, though, why is the solution for Wolverine to kill her when there are two other solutions right there? First of all, why doesn’t Wolverine stab Grey, not with his claws, but with one of the cure darts? The island’s covered in them. Failing that, why not just let Jimmy stand near Grey? We’ve spent the entire movie hearing about (and seeing) Jimmy leech people’s powers, so why not use him to get at Grey?
Instead, we get the maximum-pathos climax that back in 2006 mostly just felt like a rerun of the climax of one of Hugh Jackman’s ‘tween-X films, Van Helsing, and trust me, the last thing anyone wants is to be reminded of that piece of junk.
Ratner tries his best, but aside from lots of pretty ‘splosions, he brings nothing to the table. After two movies that take the conflict and characters seriously, we get an action piece with the most perfunctory characterization. Why even bother having Rao as a character, and why cast the brilliant Aghdashloo in the role, when she doesn’t actually do anything in the movie? Cyclops was already underused in the first two, but the perfunctory off-camera death in this is just pathetic, an awful way to treat the founding X-Man, and it comes across as spiteful because he also was in the movie Singer left this franchise to go do.
Speaking of that, next week, we’ll take a look at Superman Returns, as well as another franchise that attempted a revival with a big-name director, Ang Lee’s take on The Hulk.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is one of the author guests at HELIOsphere 2018 this weekend in Tarrytown, New York (just north of New York City), alongside guests of honor Charles E. Gannon, Eric Flint, Cecilia Tan, Tom Kidd, and Mark Oshiro. Keith’s full schedule is here.