She's On Fire!
X-Men: The Last Stand
Going through the movies as they came out, the third film in the X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). had a very big role to play. Not only was it the follow-up to the first two hugely successful films in the series, X-Men and X2: X-Men United, but it was also adapting one of the biggest and most famous storylines from the comics: "The Dark Phoenix Saga". Expectations were, understandably, very high for this movie, but warning signs should have already been ringing out the second fans really heard about the movie in detail.
For starters, the director of the first two films, Bryan Singer (who we now know is the lowest form on human excrement but, at the time, did create two very good superhero movies) left the project over creative differences (instead choosing to go direct the utterly forgettable Superman Returns, so clearly even he couldn't always crank out heroic awesomeness). The it was noted that the film wasn't just adapting "Dark Phoenix" but also the more recent "Mutant Cure" storyline. Why the studio felt like they had to adapt both stories is a question we need to discuss, but suffice it to say the film ended up feeling overstuffed and, at the same time, decidedly shallow.
That said, I'm coming at this movie not just after watching the two good X-films but having started the whole shebang with the worst film in the entire series, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. After seeing that movie anything the series could crank out seems so much better by comparison. Maybe that's why I came out of my watching of X-Men: The Last Stand feeling much better about the movie than I did the last time I watched it, in theaters opening weekend. To be clear, I still don't really like the movie, but I didn't hate it as much as before.
In the film, it's been some time since the events of the previous movie (presumably a couple of years as that's how long we had between the movies). In that time, Scott / Cyclops still hasn't recovered from the death of his love, Jean Grey, and is basically a shattered man. In his place, Aurora / Storm and Logan / Wolverine have basically had to step up as co-leaders of the team. Soon Scott disappears (on a trip to Alkali Lake, the place where Jean died) and then the Professor gets a massive mental blast from the same location. Storm and Wolvie run off to the lake, but while they don't find Scott they do find someone else: Jean, somehow back from the presumed dead.
That's when it's revealed that the Jean we knew was only half the character -- very early in her life she exhibited very strong telekinetic abilities and no desire to self-control. So, thinking he was helping the world, Charles Xavier divided her mind and locked much of her power, and her "evil" personality, away. Now that she's back from the dead her mental blocks have crumbled and Jean has all her power again but no desire to control herself. When she's brought into the fold of the Brotherhood of Mutants -- because there's now a Mutant Cure, developed by the government, and the Brotherhood are against that kind of thing since, "being a mutant isn't something that needs to be cured" -- she gives them a powerful weapon they can use to finally send a message to the rest of the world. And, of course, only the X-Men can stop the Brotherhood and their now-evil friend.
So let's start with the biggest and most obvious change to Jean Grey's character here: the fact that the Phoenix isn't a separate, cosmic entity but just Jean Grey being a crazy woman. Sure, this movie already has a lot of stuff going on in it and trying to fit in details about a cosmic entity somehow coming to answer Jean's prayers right before her death would not only have been a big retcon of the end of the previous movie but also would have needed a ton of explanation to not make it seem silly. But that just leads to the fact that they really shouldn't have tried to fit both the Mutant Cure and Dark Phoenix stories into the same movie. I know this was a studio note, that the higher ups demanded the cure storyline so the writers acquiesced, but that doesn't change the fact that any time we're focused on the cure we're not focused on jean and her vastly more compelling material.
Then there's the fact that Charles is made out to be the bad guy here. He saw a troubled young girl and locked away some of her powers until she was ready to use them (if she ever was). This is a plot detail taken from the actual comics although there he locked away Jean's telepathy until her mind was stronger. And then, when she was older, he unlocked them for her. Here, instead, he acts out of fear, never tells her about it, and basically steals her agency. It completely rewrites their dynamic, for one, and recasts the character of Professor X in a very different light, completely changing everything we knew about him and how he operated. Suddenly the kindly man we knew was never that nice to begin with. When he dies halfway into the movie, it's supposed to be a big moment; the characters mourn, everyone is all weepy, and they feel completely lost. But, in the audience, we don't care because Charles was a villain. Good job, movie.
Not that the movie really knew what to do with Phoenix even if they had gotten her back-story right. Jean basically acts crazy, uses a lot of Force Push powers, and somehow we're supposed to believe she's a force that could destroy the world? We're told she's a "level 5 mutant", but we get no context for what that means, for one, and we also never see her do anything that seems all that cataclysmic. The stakes are missing from her to cast her as a big villain and the movie never gives us one reason to worry about her at all. She's evil, but like annoyingly so, and never to the point that we need to care.
And then the movie devotes a ton of time to the Mutant Cure. On its own this could have been a compelling story. it certainly raises questions about how the world should treat mutants. It also raises questions for the mutants themselves -- is this good or bad and should we be happy for those of us that could really use the cure (like Rogue) or mad that the government developed it? -- and if the movie could have focused on them, their reactions, and they fight against a government that seemingly wanted to rid the world of their kind, that could have made for a very deep movie. Instead, the cure is revealed to be a secretion of a mutant kid called Leech who cancels out any powers around him and, thus, the fight over the cure really boils down to the X-Men defending the life of the kid from a bunch of evil mutants. The movie takes a storyline that could have had real nuances and reduces it down to a single, poorly stages action sequence.
The whole film looks bad, though. It isn't just the big, climactic fight that comes off looking shoddy and cheap; the whole movie looks like a bargain bin version of an X-Men film. Much of the blame here can be laid at new director Brett Ratner because, honestly, every movie he's made has looked shoddy and cheap. I love the Rush Hour films, for example, but not because of Brett Ratner's skills as a director. He's an awful man who, as we learned much more recently, is probably just a detestable as Bryan Singer. What is it with these movies picking scummy people to direct the films? Is it really that hard to find someone decent that's interested in directing a movie about superhero mutants.
Deep within the movie, though, is a thread of a film that could have worked. There are times where the team is gathered together and they get to just banter back and forth, bickering like the family we know the X-Men should be. In those moments the film comes together and becomes pretty enjoyable. It just would have been nice if more of those moments could have happened. If the film could have just focused on the Phoenix and let the character squabble over what to do about Jean Grey, it might have worked. If, instead, if could have devoted itself to the cure storyline, letting us really explore that idea (with Rogue who, instead in this film wants the cure, gets the cure, and then disappears for most of the runtime), that could have made for a compelling story. Instead the film tries to serve both, under-cooks both aspects of the film, and doesn't give enough time to really focus on anything. It's a mess. The worst part is that it's salvageable with a studio not forcing the team to make this movie.
I guess it's a good thing the X-films are moving over to Disney. In order of release, this is the first time we, the audience, started to question if Fox really should be in charge of these movies. And, even after X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it wouldn't be the last.
Continuity and Issues:
The first continuity issue isn't really the fault of this movie so much as the ones to come after. In the opening of this film (set in the 1980s) Professor X is walking around and using his powers at the same time. It's clearly established, two movies later, that if he regains the ability to walk (via drugs of any kind) he can't use his powers. Also, the next movie shows that he gets paralyzed back in the 1960s, so it's not that he's just not yet injured here. Again, when this movie came out those issues weren't a factor, but it does illustrated how bad the continuity is as the movies go on.
Also, this movie takes place in "real time" for when it was released, so around 2006, and the opening sequence is set 20 years earlier, so around 1986. We see Jean and she's probably no older than twelve, but then in X-Men: Apocalypse, set around the same time, Jean is clearly seventeen or eighteen. Again, not the fault of this movie but clearly and issue if you try to align all the events together. An, no, I don't accept that the continuity reboot created by Days of Future Past could somehow age Jean Grey by a few years. There's butterfly effect consequences and then there's just bad continuity, and this falls into the latter.
Speaking of characters aging up for no reason. Angel shows up in this movie as a pre-teen in the mid-1990s and then, in the 1980s-set Apocalypse he's gotta be in his early twenties.
Of course, then we have the case of Moira McTaggert who, in this film is show to be a medical doctor but, from First Class on is a CIA operative instead. Now I supposed it's possible that between First Class and The Last Stand she could have left the CIA and gotten her medical degree only to then setup a research institute in Scotland forty years later. It certainly doesn't seem plausible, though.
We also have Secretary Trask here, who is played by the African American Bill Duke. Later we have Bolivar Trask, who appears in Days of Future Past and is played by the very not African American Peter Dinklage. This one we can forgive if we just assume they're two different people, both of whom have the last name of Trask.
One thing I question is the fact that this movie states mutants have "classes". This is something the comics used, a way to indicate mutant power. The movie using it is fine except they never actually establish the mutant levels before it's just casually tossed off once as a fact ("there are 87 mutants in this building, none of them above Class 3") without any explanation, and then never detailed after that. Everyone just agrees to this ranking system but no one ever questions why. It's silly.
I'm sure there's also continuity issues about how the Phoenix Force is handled in the new movie, Dark Phoenix, and how it was handled here, with Jean being a Class 5 mutant with split personality. We'll discuss that after I've watched that movie and can comment further.