X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
When I saw that Dark Phoenix, the legendarily troubled X-Men flop currently embarrassing itself in theaters, would be based on “The Dark Phoenix saga” comic book arc that inspired 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, I wondered what Fox could possibly be thinking once again taking inspiration from the source material behind one of the least-loved and most maligned X-Men movies.
What made Dark Phoenix writer-director-producer Simon Kinberg think he could succeed where he failed spectacularly as a co-screenwriter just thirteen years earlier? Having just re-watched X-Men: The Last Stand the decision to go back to “The Dark Phoenix saga” makes a little more sense, even if it still feels like a glaring error in judgment.
Despite the shared source material, Dark Phoenix does not feel like a remake of X-Men: The Last Stand. They’re each disappointing and underwhelming in their own way. Dark Phoenix represents an audacious if misguided attempt to create a different kind of X-Men movie, a more intimate, small-scale version rooted in emotions and relationships rather than set-pieces and CGI spectacle.
X-Men: The Last Stand, on the other hand, is very much devoted to being an X-Men movie like all the others, only, you know, worse because Brett Ratner has taken over as director. All of the hallmarks of the franchise are there. The conflict between assimilation and separation is represented by the violently contrasting philosophies of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the Martin Luther King of the genetically gifted, and Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellan), the mutant Malcolm X.
Though Dark Phoenix goes perversely light on social commentary and the mutants’ metaphorical association with immigrants and minorities, particularly considering how central those issues are to our culture right now, The Last Stand is very plugged into the idea of mutants as outsiders whose differences makes them special and uniquely valuable to society but also a singular threat to the status quo on a genetic as well as social level.
In The Last Stand a vaccine has been created that will “cure” mutants of the gene that gives them powers. This causes Magneto to reform the Brotherhood of Mutants to to fight against humans and mutants who would force this “solution” on the differently abled whether they view their powers as a gift or a curse.
In the last few X-Men movies, Michael Fassbender has portrayed Magneto as a tormented, lonely anti-hero who just wants to be left alone but is repeatedly forced into action by fate. McKellan has a much different take on the character.
I wrote in my Street Fighter article that there is a level of over-the-top theatricality that can only be achieved by wearing a cape. Accordingly, the clothes make the man where Magneto 1.0 is concerned. He rocks the fuck out of a scarlet cape and wears a costume as campy as anything in the motion picture The Apple.
Where Fassbender made Magneto a tragic figure, McKellan plays him with a wink and a nod and an invisible handlebar mustache that he never stops twirling malevolently. McKellan is a great actor who clearly realized that he didn’t have to do any real acting in The Last Stand, just shtick.
As a Juggalo, I have some issues with Magneto. To be brutally honest, I don’t know how his powers work. I suppose I could ask a famous scientist like Neil deGrasse Tyson but I have a suspicion that he would be dishonest, and that would only make me angry.
Meanwhile, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen) comes back, seemingly from the grave, but something has irrevocably changed about her. She kills her bae Scott Summers/Cyclops with a kiss and, honestly, does us all a favor. That dude is way too boring to live, whether he’s played by James Marsden or Tye Sheridan.
The first three X-Men movies use Cyclops so ineptly and blandly that I did not realize that I actually really like Marsden as an actor, particularly a comic actor, until many years after The Last Stand.
When Cyclops dies, no one cries. It has zero emotional impact. But when Jean Grey, under the sinister influence of her alter-ego the Phoenix, kills Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier, it has a profound influence on the fate and future of the X-Men.
Halle Berry, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball between 2000’s X-Men and 2006’s The Last Stand delivers Xavier’s eulogy in a lifeless monotone as weather-controlling X-Men Ororo Munroe / Storm in a breathtakingly underwhelming sequence that underlines just how little Berry brings to the franchise.
The eulogy should be a moment of shattering emotional power. The larger-than-life patriarch and leader of the X-Men has died at the hands of one of his favorite students/acolytes. So why does the sequence feel so hopelessly inert?
Storm takes over as leader of the X-Men and fights Magneto’s evil minions alongside the surviving X-Men and newcomer Hank McCoy/Beast.
The makers of what at the time was the single most expensive movie ever made somewhat puzzlingly decided to make a character who is essential Frasier, only a super-powerful blue werewolf man, one of its main characters. Actually, that is not true. Beast isn’t Frasier, only a Smurf blue lycanthrope monster; he’s actually way more continental, cultured and highbrow than Seattle’s favorite radio shrink. Compared to Beast/Hank McCoy, Frasier is downright uncivilized, a beast of a man.
Grammer is incontestably a figure of fun, in no small part because the pompous boob has no sense of humor about himself and fatally and hilariously lacks any sense of self-consciousness or self-awareness. Despite the best efforts of Down Periscope, Grammer will only ever be Frasier or Sideshow Bob.
True, The Last Stand occasionally acknowledges the absurdity of a character who’s half Ivy League professor, half wolfman by having Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine call Beast a fur ball but all of the giggles involving Beast are of the unintentional variety. Furthermore, the presence of Wolverine, a crazy werewolf man the whole world fell in love with and represents the heart, soul and Adamantium claws of the X-Men franchise, only highlights how ridiculous and distractingly comic this deeply misguided iteration of Beast feels.
The Last Stand at least has Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. That goes a long way towards distinguishing it from Dark Phoenix, which featured Charles Xavier much more extensively, albeit in an irritatingly inadequate form. As I wrote in my Dark Phoenix My World of Flops piece, when Stewart does something dark and complicated and alienating, like controlling a young Jean Grey’s mind to keep her from confronting the full force of her own capacity for darkness and destruction it feels brutal but necessary, the lesser of two extraordinary evils. When McAvoy does the same thing, he just seems like a dick.
In classic X-Men tradition, The Last Stand is forever introducing new mutants and crazy new powers, including Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut, a blunt instrument of an evil mutant henchman wearing what appears to be a “Sexy Roided Out Gladiator Stripper” costume, who yells at Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde, in his big moment, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Juggernaut, bitch!”,
That’s a line the fanboys of our great nation desperately wanted Jones to shout menacingly, the same way they angrily demanded that Samuel L. Jackson yell “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!!!!” in Snakes on a Plane.
These fanboys should be punished for such painfully juvenile desires by being denied their moment of glory but Brett Ratner is in the director’s chair and he’s all about fan service and the lowest common denominator so Juggernaut gets to yell his big line and we all get to roll our eyes in annoyance.
Towards the end of X-Men: The Last Stand, Dr. Hank McCoy, the film’s Erudite, Smurf Blue Werewolf Man has been named the United States ambassador to the United Nations. I would forgive everything the film does egregiously wrong, beginning with the casting of television’s Frasier as a Blue Werewolf Man who seems like he probably goes to the operas, if it had closed with McCoy/Beast falling off the stage in reference to the actor’s notorious real-life tumble.
Alas, that was not to be. Though The Last Stand was the top grossing X-Men film at the time of its release, Fox obviously recognized that they had a real stinker on their hands and made some profound changes, including introducing a new, younger cast in X-Men films to come.
Fox chose to keep the erudite blue werewolf man as a main character in the franchise but found an infinitely superior actor to take over the role, an actor that benefits tremendously from not being strongly associated with a signature role in a pair of hit sitcoms.
It’s somehow fitting that after releasing a movie entitled The Last Stand to boffo box-office but withering reviews, Fox went ahead and made a whole bunch more X-Men movies, including one based on the Dark Phoenix saga. So while X-Men: The Last Stand was not quite as painful as its reputation suggests it’s still a thorough botch.
Hopefully the next time they adapt the Dark Phoenix saga for the big screen, twelve or thirteen years from now, they’ll get it right, since they’ve already experimented with two very different approaches that very aggressively did not work. By eliminating all of the wrong takes on the Dark Phoenix epic they are slowly but surely making their way to the right approach. Hopefully the third time will be a charm, but if that doesn’t succeed, they’ll no doubt just keep on trying.
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