The Summer of 2014 will see the release of 'X-Men: Days of Future's Past' featuring the strongly anticipated return of Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films. While discussing it he admitted that one of the functions of the film was to “fix a few things” since his departure from the franchise. 'X-Men: The Last Stand' was one of them.
It's usually bad business for movie studios to admit failure, preferring to let box office numbers speak for them and only owning up to bad films when the disdain is so unanimous it might damage the franchise's viability. With all of Singer's compulsive behind-the-scenes Tweeting it's possible that Fox has taken cues from J.J. Abrams and lent their filmmakers some autonomy to promote thier films but it still shows the longevity of 'Last Stand's bitter reputation. Many superhero films have come and gone since, so is it as bad as we remember? Could it possibly be even worse?
When Singer turned down the third X-Men film in favor of his dream project 'Superman Returns' he essentially gutted the creative team by taking many of them with him. The director's chair was filled infamously by 'Rush Hour' filmmaker Brett Ratner, and the shift in the film is noticible. However, not all of the changes were bad.
Gone were the potent LGBT themes of 'X2: X-Men United' in favor of mish-mash of other social issues. Borrowing the mutant cure storyline from Joss Whedon's stellar 'Astonishing X-Men' run from a few years prior, the film tapped themes of social identity and the government's relationship with disenfranchised minorities. Pryo's destruction of a walk-in mutant cure facility seems to intentionally resemble an abortion clinic bombing. None of these themes quite gain the same immediacy or humanity as Singer's mutants as a metaphor for homosexuality but they at least seem to point to an effort on the part of the screenwriters.
The best moments of the film all come in relation to the mutant cure as a way of examining what it means to live with mutation. In one scene Hank McCoy, a fully blue and furry Beast, goes to visit the source of the cure, a boy whose mutation suppresses the abilities of mutants within close proximity to him. To his surprise he sees the blue tufts on his hand slide back into his hand, revealing unmutated flesh below. From the expression on his face as he turns the hand over to look at it we see that even the Government Representative of Mutant Rights sees the painful allure of fitting-in and shedding the heavy burden that comes with being visibly different. The boy tries to apologize, but instead Hank thanks him.
Unfortunately, these few moments of observation are rare as for the most part we are challenged by the writers to care about our characters. For a filmmaker who made his name with movies that are practically just banter paired with action, the dialogue in 'The Last Stand' is dreadful. The witty comedy and intimate moments of 'X2' are swapped for tin-eared cliches that sound like they were written with refrigerator magnets. A paticularly painful scene arrives when Wolverine talks to Rogue before she leaves the Xavier School to receive the cure. The relationship that formed the emotional heart the first two films is reduced to two awkward strangers, seemingly speaking to each other over a massive gulf. Veteran actors Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart summon their spectacular voices and Shakespeare-honed gravitas to bend even the clumsiest lines to their considerable wills, but lesser actors like Halle Berry are reduced to eye-rolling silliness.
This is especially a problem for a film that seeks to introduce a number of new characters from the extensive X-Men canon. Fan-favorite Kitty Pryde is included, featuring the perfect casting of Ellen Page, but Kitty is reduced to being a source of romantic tension. I entirely forgot how much of the film Colossus is in, probably because he has perhaps two or three lines of dialogue, if that much. A perfect example of this problem presents itself when the team is in the X-Jet flying to the big finale. Each of the heroes gets a close up, showing the young teenaged soldiers heading to real battle for the first time. Kitty looks anxious. Bobby Drake looks to Kitty, apparently forgetting like the audience had that Rogue was still somewhere in the movie. Then we get to Peter, his close up revealing a practically comic lack of expression, communicating nothing more complicated than 'I am seated in a chair'. I don't really blame actor Daniel Cudmore for this; he had about as much to work with as an extra in the schoolroom scenes. What did the filmmakers expect that shot to inspire in the audience? There was nothing for him to emote and there was nothing for us to feel.
There's also significant confusion on behalf of the screenwriters on the movie's ethics. Throughout the film Wolverine slices and dices through faceless Brotherhood thugs, at one point barely stopping his forward momentum to casually kill oncomers. Even Storm electrocutes Callisto to conclude their tacked on rivalry. However, when Magneto is last-man-standing, the X-Men spend a few tortured meaningful looks over a last-ditch plan to depower their archenemy with mutant cure darts. Apparently removing the near limitless abilities of a man directly responsible for countless murders in this film alone is an ethical conundrum, but the butchery of angry mutants desperate enough for dignity that they'll follow a madman isn't. At one point Wolverine comicly fights a man who's arms regenerate as soon as he lops them off. This seems funny until one considers that he's been doing that for the last few minutes to people who don't have that ability.
And finally, The Phoenix. Amazing that for a threat that took up about half of the film's screen time it would be dealt with like an afterthought. I could complain about the reduction of a cosmic saga and one of the greatest stories in Marvel history to a schizophrenic superhero playing Regan McNeill, but adapting or converting canon to serve a story's needs aren't a crime in themselves. These changes are only a problem when they devalue meaning.
The film begins, increases conflict, and ends with Jean Grey, yet the film is never about her. The plot of the film is arguably Magneto and his Brotherhood bringing mutant/human relations to the brink with the revelation of the mutant cure, yet Jean Grey's resurrection and subsequent bad hair day are repeatedly referred to as the primary conflict of the film. Magneto's plan is to use Jean Grey as his most powerful weapon but when the climax arrives he never calls on her once to contribute and the All-Powerful Phoenix just stands behind everyone and watches impassively. Why didn't Magneto just send Phoenix in to destroy the island prison and everyone on it instead of moving the Golden Gate bridge and getting his whole mutant army depowered or killed? Because then the X-Men wouldn't have anyone to punch.
The first instinct is to say that the filmmakers felt obligated to do The Phoenix storyline because of the obvious set up the end of 'X2' laid in, but actually the answer is more disappointing than that. Jean Grey was brought back because the writers couldn't imagine an X-Men movie that wasn't all about Wolverine.
The X-Men movies are a pretty good example of why people who aren't a fan of Wolverine can tend to hate him. Of the six X-Men franchise films only one didn't have Wolverine as the focus of the plot. In a franchise populated by unique and compelling characters Wolverine has dominated the attention like a hairy Canadian Marsha Brady. Of all of the films 'The Last Stand' seemed specifically tailored to devalue the other X-Men in relation to the commercially popular Canuck. Cyclops is bumped off with embarrassing abruptness to clear any romantic complications between Jean and Logan. Storm is told by Xavier that she is the new leader of the X-Men and serves that role while Logan is elsewhere. When he returns it's of course Wolverine that gives the inspirational speeches and gives all of the orders in the big climactic battle, shunting Ororo back to second banana. If the X-Men franchise were to ever be rebooted I wonder how readily people who don't read comics would accept a film where Wolverine didn't do everything.
That is what's so offensive about the treatment of the Jean Grey character, because she seems to only be there to drive Wolverine's behavior. Scott dies, Xavier dies, and everyone else on the X-Men doesn't seem to care about her as a person, but rather as a plot device. Magneto never uses her for anything so her presence in the finale seems to be purely to have some fancy special-effecting and so Wolverine will bother to show up. Wolverine never seems to do anything with the school or his fellow X-Men in mind; he leaves to chase Jean and comes back so he can go where Jean is. He talks of unity and defense of Xavier's dream, but only after Storm says the same thing and he bugs out anyway.
“You would die for them?” hisses the Phoenix. Logan replies “No, not for them. For you!”
After he's forced to kill the woman he loved and does his well-rehearsed 'tortured-soul-sky-howl', Wolverine seems pretty fine. He looks wistfully out over the Xavier school grounds, finding a new beginning in the chaos. Of course this peaceful cathartic Logan has to give way to hobo-bearded drunk Logan somehow so another Wolverine movie can come out next month.
Is 'X-Men: The Last Stand' terrible? Parts of it are, and parts of it aren't. It's dreadfully unfair to its female characters, but it also has some decent themes that deserved to be explored more. Additionally, there have been plenty of superhero films much worse than it since, one of them being another X-Men franchise film. If anything it simply disappointed on too many fronts, not having the sensitivity to handle both the beloved Marvel canon and the conclusion of an otherwise excellent trilogy. Maybe it's just hard to be that upset once you've seen 'Ghost Rider'.