Monday, May 13, 2024

Cinemutants - X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

At a time when superhero movies are starting to lose their stranglehold on pop culture, there are really only two options: go back and watch old movies, or kill off an entire cinematic universe in spectacular fashion. This July, Marvel’s taking the latter approach with Deadpool & Wolverine, which seems primed to seal off the 20th Century Fox film universe. And while director Shawn Levy promises, “This movie is built [...] with no obligation to come prepared with prior research,” skipping the research has never really been my strong suit when it comes to franchises. It’s a perfect excuse, then, to go through the last 24 years (and 13 movies) with everyone’s favorite mutants, the X-Men.

This week, from 2006, it’s X-Men: The Last Stand. The mutant world faces its greatest threat when a cure for mutation is developed. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have their hands – and claws – full when Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) returns from the dead and allies herself with Magneto (Ian McKellen), who is leading the mutant resistance against the cure.
  1. An age of darkness. It’s generally been agreed that The Last Stand is where the X-Men franchise begins to drop the ball, and in some ways you might say it never fully recovers. At least three of the subsequent films reckon with the legacy of this one, with a snide joke in Apocalypse acknowledging that third films in trilogies don’t always work. After nearly twenty years, this one is strikingly grim, killing off [SPOILERS!] both Cyclops and Professor X before spinning its wheels until a third act that looks staggeringly like a television soundstage. Meanwhile, amid a host of dark plotlines, the film is littered with jokes of an astonishingly dated sensibility, giving one the distinct impression that The Last Stand is a cartoon brought to life by an edgy teenager.
  2. Dark Phoenix rising. Last week I called the Dark Phoenix Saga “the franchise’s Everest summit,” and The Last Stand is a spectacular failure of an adaptation. Where the comics were a sober meditation on absolute power and the ethics of mutantkind’s response to genocide, this film recasts the Phoenix as Jean Grey’s uncontrollable power… only for her to stand around not doing very much with that power. It’s a classic “show, don’t tell” failure, compounded by the confusing decision to subordinate her abilities to Magneto’s will. We’ll see the franchise take one more swing at Dark Phoenix in the film of the same name, which finds entirely new ways to drop the ball, while Jean’s ultimate fate will haunt Hugh Jackman’s Logan for much of the rest of his tenure.
  3. Pyro mania. I was pretty surprised that the Deadpool & Wolverine trailer announced that Aaron Stanford would be returning as Pyro, but that’s because I’d forgotten how the Pyro/Iceman rivalry became weirdly central to this trilogy. After Pyro threw his lot in with Magneto in X2, The Last Stand spends a not-insignificant amount of time teasing his inevitable showdown with Iceman, whose pure ice form is reserved for the pinnacle moment of their big fight sequence. The movie even clears Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) from the deck to make room for Pyro. While I’m sure that there will be no shortage of recognizable faces in the new Deadpool trailer, using Pyro feels like leaning into the idiosyncrasies of dead continuity – which, to be fair, is on brand for Deadpool.
  4. Too much of a good thing. At an hour and forty-four minutes (the exact length of X-Men, mind you), The Last Stand has way too much going on for a coherent story. Its three antagonists – Magneto, Phoenix, and the cure – feel packed together, bulging with superglue to hide the storytelling seams, while new characters like Angel, Beast, Juggernaut, and Kid Omega (in name only) barely get anything to do because almost the entire cast has returned from the last two films. It’s a critical mass of screenplay elements, compounded by the fact that almost nothing interesting happens with any of these new toys (with one exception, below); Kitty Pryde does more running but gets hardly any plot action, while The Juggernaut quotes YouTube videos from the mid-2000s. It almost feels as though director Brett Ratner cut ten minutes from each of 10 different X-Men movies and tried to frankenstein them together here; your mileage may vary on which of the ten you’d have rather seen.
  5. Oh, my stars and garters. The one thing The Last Stand did unequivocally right was casting Kelsey Grammer as a note-perfect Hank “Beast” McCoy. Grammar leans fully into the role, spot-on casting for a mutant of above average intelligence with a supercilious command over the English language. Kudos to Grammer, too, for submitting to the full-body makeup required for his beastly transformation. And in a film that tries to its detriment to cram everything into its abbreviated runtime, there’s a certain thrill in hearing Grammer deliver Beast’s ostensible catchphrase just before leaping into battle. It’s little wonder that, after Patrick Stewart in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Grammer was the second Fox-era mutant retained for the MCU, in a post-credits cameo from The Marvels. We all know what they say about broken clocks.
Sound off in the comments, true believers: has The Last Stand aged like cheese or wine? Was it ever either? Join us next week for a blast from the past with another exceptional casting choice, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

1 comment:

collectededitions said...

Though far from the best of the trilogy, it did shock me (perhaps in my less cynical fandom days) that they killed Cyclops and let Rogue erase her powers, without reversing those items by the end of the movie. What seemed at the time a powerfully dour and daring conclusion.