What X-Men: The Last Stand got wrong - and right

Feature Rob Leane 6 Mar 2014 - 06:45

Rob takes a look back at Brett Ratner's X-Men 3, to see if it's better than it's generally given credit for...

Any regular visitors to the growing universes of superhero films will know that X-Men: The Last Stand is one of the least-loved instalments since the genre came back with a bang in 2000.

It is seen by many as a hugely disappointing end to what could have been a near-perfect movie trilogy after all the expert world-building by Bryan Singer in the first two instalments.

Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus on the film is that new director Brett Ratner had ‘replaced the heart and emotion (and character development) of the previous X-Men films with more action and explosions’, averaging the scores of its ‘Top Critics’ at a measly 41%.

However, it cannot be said that it was in any way ‘the last stand’ for mutancy at the movies. In fact, the film not only topped its predecessors at the box office, it also allowed Fox to cash in on the holy grail of the comic book movie world – successful spin-offs.

Whereas previous side-character-taking-centre-stage stories Catwoman and Elektra had both failed to break the $100 million mark at the box office, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine both did, as did First Class, a completely re-cast prequel. Evidently, cinemagoers weren’t put off by The Last Stand (which remains the most successful X-Men film at the box office) even if the online fandom had tried their best to erase it from their memories.

Now, with the prodigal director returned, X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the most highly-anticipated superhero films in recent memory, which is saying something when you think of all the super-powered box office behemoths we’ve seen since he last took the chair.

All of this has led this writer to a dangerous question: was X-Men: The Last Stand really that bad? Having sent myself back into my younger body to see the film again, I’m back to share the good (and the bad) that I found…

Attempts at a message

If there’s one thing that this film most definitely did right, it was its core story. With hindsight, the idea of putting a mutant ‘cure’ at the centre of its narrative was exactly the right thing to do.

Looking at the context of Singer’s famous ‘coming out’ scene in the original X-Men movie, and William Stryker’s hateful tirade against all things mutated in X-2, seeing the eradication of mutant-kind at the forefront of the public realm is the logical path for concluding the trilogy.

Singer had been developing the idea of humans hating mutants since the off, and with The Last Stand we finally got to see what an all-out public confrontation between the two would look like. Surely if Singer had been in control, we would have seen a similar plot unfold.

At points, this central device of a cure to mutation provides some big emotional moments. On this re-watch, I found that seeing Rogue finally removing her inconvenient power really felt like a cathartic pay-off after two films of set-up. The de-powering of Mystique also gave me a surprising amount of ‘feels’ for a baddie send-off. I might be adding on extra layers of personal attachment though, now that I know her backstory from First Class.

By about two thirds of the way through the movie, I was really beginning to think The Last Stand was much better than I had previously thought. It was on its way to a glowing write up thanks to big emotional moments and a strong ‘being different is OK’ message.

However, the film’s issues really start to show in the final act and this strong message begins to fall by the wayside. After an attention-grabbing introduction, Angel gets hugely under-used. It really stood out on a re-watch that Angel’s inclusion really does only serve the purpose of a blatant indicator of the three stage narrative of the film. At the start he thinks being a mutant is wrong, in the middle he realises humanity isn’t that great either, at the end he pops up to save his dad as a microcosm for the new-found peace between mutants and humans. This character is given nothing else to do other than make the plot extra clear, in case you hadn’t noticed the plot already.

Also falling flat is the de-powering of Magneto, despite some juicy build-up for McKellen where he reminds you of his concentration camp origins. By the point he gets ‘cured’ though, we have seen a shed-load of de-powerings, a myriad of explosions and the action isn’t even over. Magneto’s ‘what have I done?’ moment is rushed passed rapidly to make way for more cool shots of the destruction going on.

The film also attempts another message in the ‘we work as a team’ bookends, which seem really tacked-on under close analysis. Storm mentions it at the beginning and then ignores her own idea by letting Wolverine run off and work it all out on his own. In the climactic battle she then decides that Wolverine probably had the best idea anyway. In a film where fitting in one message was troublesome, the reason for (sloppily) adding another one in is harder to locate than Magneto’s forest hide-out.

Treatment of characters and canon

Over a cheap lager recently, a friend of mine claimed that Professor X behaved like a ‘complete dick’ in X-Men: The Last Stand. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but upon re-watching his wise words rang true.

Aside from the ethics class and a brief heartfelt conversation with Storm, Xavier’s behaviour is quite atrocious in this movie. Gone is the beloved teacher and mentor, instead we have a man limiting people’s powers, continuously shouting at Wolverine and sending two of his best friends into danger. He sends them to recover Jean from Alkali Lake without warning them of her power at all. She can turn people to dust Charles, you might want to mention that.

It isn’t just the Professor who suffers from the sloppy writing either. New characters are introduced then left alone with little or no character development. Upon closer inspection, certain mutants were seemingly included only to provide a later gag (Multiple Man), cool action moment (Colossus) or emotional denouement (Angel). As a kid on first watching, I thought these new characters were all pretty cool. Now though, their involvement and treatment stands out as a symptom of poor writing.

Perhaps worst of all, iconic X-Man Cyclops is killed off abruptly in a moment which provides little emotional effect. Although killing a supporting character like Agent Coulson in Avengers Assemble provided a huge motivation for that film’s central team, Cyclops’ death has about as much impact as if the all-powerful Phoenix had just killed some random bloke. She regrets it briefly, but it does nothing to turn her back to the light and very little to motivate the X-Men who don’t do much until more people are in danger.

New members of Magneto’s brotherhood are treated just as badly. Will there be any redemption for these cool new characters? Will we see any juicy moments of personal revelation to set up for a sequel? No, they all die. Again, these characters are introduced just to have a cool power moment later in the day, and then promptly written out.

However, after hunting desperately for positives like Wolverine fighting his way to Jean through a forest of underdeveloped evil-doers, I can report that it isn’t that bad for all the characters in The Last Stand. A few central players have some genuinely emotional moments. After two films of growing affection, Wolverine being forced to kill Jean stands out as a really heart-wrenching moment.

Although contradictory to continuity (which saw him as fully human-looking in an X-2 background shot), the moment where fully-blue Beast sees his human hand is also emotionally resonant. Additionally, despite his questionable behaviour, Professor X’s death is one of the better moments in the film as his pupils and old friends’ reactions add some much needed heart to a mainly-cold film.

For every successful moment though, there are several severely stupid ones. Fans of the wider X-Men canon must have been thrilled to hear that the beloved Phoenix saga was coming to the screen. Then they must have been highly disappointed to see it sacrifice centre stage to the cure arc and to see Jean relegated to killing her lover off-screen and standing in the background looking grumpy for huge chunks of the movie.

Although the film plucked a story idea and a whole host of characters from the canon of the comics, the treatment of this arc, established protagonists and new blood are some of the worst things about this film.

The film as a whole

Finally, I was drawn to thinking about the film itself as a whole. As already discussed, it has lots that we should enjoy: a strong ‘being different is OK’ moral, a ‘mutants versus the government’ plot which ties in well with the other films and a few decent emotional moments.

That isn’t all we can enjoy either – the effects in the film are generally stunning. Jean’s powers in particular are rather well served, building from her childhood display of potential into a visually brilliant destroying of the Professor and a stunning display of destruction as her sheer rage and anger brings about the film’s conclusion.

The action moments for bit-part characters play out well too including the de-powering of an adhesive mutant mid wall-climb, the man whose limbs grow back, Arclight’s shockwaves and the porcupine guy’s grizzly use for his power. Many moments effectively mix humour, live-action stunts and CGI very well, creating a great visual landscape for the film. Some big characters are served well by the CGI elements of the film too including the jaw-dropping Golden Gate Bridge sequence for Magneto and the opening Sentinel simulation scene for the core cast.

However, even as a massive production by an experienced studio that helped Singer build the first two films, there is still some highly irritating filmmaking and continuity niggles which an already-struggling film could have done without. These include Wolverine’s claws looking faker than before despite looking fine in the previous films and the annoying-on-repeated-viewings instantaneous night-time which occurs as we reach the final battle. Things get even worse in said battle when Wolverine is accidentally flip-turned-upside-down in a spot of poor editing and lights are on in empty cars for no reason other than to get a better shot. These are tiny points yes, and the kind of thing I normally don’t write about, but in the case of The Last Stand they seem worth mentioning as one more issue to add to the growing pile.

These filmmaking niggles are symptomatic of the wider issues surrounding this film - it was a great idea with a shoddy execution. Although there is plenty to like on a re-watch namely some excellent action, a few strong character moments, a movie with a moral and some decent special effects, please don’t expect to find your new favourite film if you decide to re-watch this in preparation for Days of Future Past.

The film’s strong points are overshadowed by a horde of problems which it’s hard not to notice. It might not be the worst film ever, or as bad as we all remember, but it’s still quite bad. Continuity errors are the least of our worries in a film where central characters are killed off without consequences, writing makes a beloved leader a ‘complete dick’, new characters get no development at all and a fan-favourite comic book antagonist gets reduced to standing around and frowning. Suffice to say, Bryan Singer’s return is even more eagerly anticipated by me after this spot of analysis.

In answer to my own question though, no, The Last Stand is not quite as bad as I remembered, but it does still suffer from some sizable flaws. One can only assume it’s the public’s love for all things super-human, the memory of Singer’s superior films , an ace prequel (First Class) and a decent follow-up (The Wolverine) which have provided the healing factor to keep this franchise alive.

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