Counting to X: X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand is not good. At all. It mashes together the Dark Phoenix Saga and the more recent mutant cure story line, both of which would absolutely be enough to fill a movie on their own and serves neither of them well. It adds profoundly nonsensical twists. It sets up Jean as the ultimate X villain and then literally ignores her for a full act. It features the single worst performance in the entire franchise and an ice skating scene second only to the one in Kong for how profoundly it misses the mark.

it’s also the most interesting, and relevant, X-Men movie for anyone wanting to see Dark Phoenix. Because it’s the first, failed try, to adapt the exact same story.

Written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn and directed by Brett Ratner, who has more in common with Bryan Singer than X-Men movies, The Last Stand actually starts very well. I was surprised to see this was one of the first movies Marvel actually put out under their own banner. I was even more surprised to see the opening sequence use de-aging CGI in a manner that still holds up. In the immediate past, Charles and Erik visit Jean Grey at her family home and persuade her to join the school. This Jean is very different, staggeringly powerful, immensely angry and adrift. It’s a tense, well handled scene that lulls you into a false sense of security. Maybe I was being harsh, I found myself wondering.

That feeling intensified as the movie delivered its one legitimate home run; Kelsey Grammer as Hank McCoy, a former student turned profoundly successful mutant rights diplomat. Hank is my favorite character (Smart, big, kind, kind of gobby. Who knew?!) and Grammer is note perfect in the role. With him in place, we see the announcement of the cure ripple out across the world, see the genuinely fascinating reaction to it from some students and then just as we think the whole thing is going to be about this veritable Pandora’s Box? Back to Alkali Lake we go.

I talked last time about how X-2 is the ghost that haunts this franchise and its rarely more true than here. Cyclops is broken by Jean’s death and when he’s drawn out to Alkali Lake to find her, apparently gives her the strength to reconstitute herself. In doing so, she kills him.

Distant alarm bells ring. They never stop.

The other X-Men follow him out there and find Jean, comatose. They return her to the mansion where Charles admits that in order for Jean to survive he suppressed a murderous, impulsive second personality he called The Phoenix, within her. Logan is disgusted by this for pretty spot on character reasons to be fair. Then, Jean wakes up, breaks out, flees to her parents’ house and a fight ensues with Magneto’s new bargain basement Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. This culminates in Jean telekinetically ripping Xavier apart and being recruited by Magneto.

Who then parks her in a field for the rest of the movie.

Oh also the cure has been developed, released and mutants are lining up to take it including Rogue. This is despite the fact the cure is derived from the abilities and DNA of a mutant child. One that renowned mutant rights activist Hank McCoy visits in captivity and…leaves there. Without mentioning anything to his legions of press contacts about where the cure comes from or the moral and ethical implications of it.

Yeah.

The Last Stand is an overcrowded mess that changes gear in the second act and takes so long to do it you can’t hear the dialogue over the sound of the driveshaft shrieking in protest. It is so endlessly bad, that it encourages the exact worst kind of geek debate. How do mutants suddenly know what ‘level’ everyone is? How do the characters pop up to Canada and across the entire country from New York State to San Francisco in such a short amount of time? Why is Magneto’s astoundingly badly thought out Bridge assault begun in daylight and then suddenly finishes in pitch blackness? Why does Rogue wander off in the second act? Does she go with Jean? Is she still there? Can we come too?

This is the exact sort of cheap points scoring nonsense that burns IQ points off the critical discourse. I hate it. You hate it. But here there’s very little choice but to resort to it. A big part of that is the way that somehow this massive cast of characters are all either acting out of character or given barely enough screen time to register. Grammer’s Hank is perfect but he’s literally the only one and everyone else can be rendered down to a single descriptor. Storm is tense. Wolverine is dutiful. Mystique is still nude. It’s like the characters are wearing T-shirt’s of their own images and that’s the exact depth of performance we get. So much so that when one of the two original protagonists of the series finds the other one almost certainly going off to get the cure that will change her life forever, what should have been a heartfelt moment is brushed aside. There are more things to explode. More hurriedly shot and added in one-on-one forest fights to manage.

The overstuffed nature of the script and nonsensical continuity are the two biggest problems but they are far from alone. Vinnie Jones is capable of good work. He produces none of it here as a Juggernaut covered in bad prosthetic and worse catchphrases. He’s not the only one hit with the idiot stick either; Magneto’s plan is deeply stupid and the moment where he abandons a newly human Mystique because she took a cure bullet for him is, again, brushed aside. It’s like the movie keeps playing these moments of massive emotional import, just in a minor key. You can see where they’re aiming and you can see how far they’re missing by too.

A big part of this is down to the studio blanching at the darkness of the Dark Phoenix plot, facilitating some hurried script re-focusing. It all shows, none of it works and the movie ends up serving both plots equally badly. Worse still, at the exact moment she should be the embodiment of power and agency it has Jean Grey sit on the sidelines and look sad until it’s time for her not quite boyfriend to kill her.

For all that, there are elements of The Last Stand that work. Grammer is perfect. Ellen Page, with the 40 or so lines she gets is an excellent Kitty Pryde. The movie looks good, pretty much, throughout but the script never recovers from the multiple directions it’s dragged in. Worse still the pair of ‘OR IS IT?” Moments that close the show cheapen everything that came before and set Xavier up as a profoundly amoral sociopath. The end result is a film with none of the courage of its convictions that feels like it steals your wallet and then comes back just to punch you in the mouth.

And that’s why Dark Phoenix is happening. Kinberg has talked at length about how he feels the film doesn’t serve its multiple plots well. The fact that he wrote and directed Dark Phoenix suggests that this time he’s got the space to give the story room to breathe. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen and I’ll be writing about it in this week’s newsletter.

What’s certain is that something different was needed after this. And X-Men: First Class delivers exactly that.