The Contrarian Call #1: Revisiting X-Men: The Last Stand

The Contrarian Call #1: Revisiting X-Men: The Last Stand

Producer Lauren Shuler Donner (current Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige’s first Hollywood boss) should get the credit for seeing cinematic value in the X-Men franchise when she secured the film rights for 20th Century Fox in 1994. James Cameron was originally attached (and it should be noted that Brett Ratner, who ended up directing The Last Stand was also approached during this period), however X-Men (2000) ended up with Bryan Singer directing, even though he was not a comic book fan. Being openly bisexual himself, Singer signed on primarily because he was intrigued by the rich analogies of discrimination, alienation, and prejudice that could be explored within the X-Men universe. 

As history would have it, the first two X-Men films helmed by Singer went on to gross over $700 million and set audiences up for what appeared to be The Dark Phoenix Saga. Then Singer abandoned the franchise to work on Superman Returns (2006), leaving the director’s chair wide open for Ratner. Consequently, Ratner’s take on X-Men took a decidedly different direction than Singer – his approach was to introduce new characters and tell a bigger story at a faster pace. There were definitely some missteps (Juggernaut comes to mind) that are utterly indefensible, but some of the other critiques (i.e. Rogue’s decision, or removing the cosmic element from Phoenix) in this writer’s opinion are worth exploring. But first, let’s start with reasons why The Last Stand should be more universally celebrated than it is.

Co-executive produced by Kevin Feige

By now, the name Kevin Feige is well known to anyone who is a major fan of the films by Marvel Studios, aka The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Feige is the President, mastermind, and visionary behind the success of the MCU.  But what most people are not aware of (until now, hopefully), is that Kevin Feige got his start in the movie business working as a personal assistant for X-Men film producer Lauren Shuler Donner, and rose quickly to become an executive producer at Marvel Entertainment due in large part to his extensive knowledge of comic book mythology. Keeping Feige’s involvement in mind, perhaps he had something to do with the fact that X-Men: The Last Stand is likely the first comic-book film to have a post-credits scene that teased future films. Again, Bryan Singer was not a fan of comic books or the X-Men before he was approached to direct the first film. Kevin Feige on the other hand, is a super-fan of the source material, and it shows in the quality of films being produced at Marvel Studios. With its post-credits scene (among other factors), The Last Stand is closer to an MCU-style film than the two X-Men films before it – and for that, we may have the influence of Kevin Feige to thank. Feige went on to unleash Iron Man (2008) to the world only two years later.

Another similarity between The Last Stand and the MCU films is the use of de-aging technology. The Last Stand opens with a memorable scene featuring younger, digitally de-aged versions of Professor X and Magneto meeting a pre-teen Jean Grey for the first time. The MCU of course would go on to feature de-aging technology in Captain America: Civil War, the Ant-Man films, and will feature extensive de-aging footage for 2019’s Captain Marvel. The Last Stand started this movie magic in comic book films, and it should be properly recognized for being a pioneer in this tradition. 

Last but not least, one of the most striking and unprecedented visuals from The Last Stand are the disintegration sequences caused by the wrath of Phoenix. It is jarringly violent and ruthless to witness in this film, and twelve years later, we would see this cinematic technique used to shocking effect *again* in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). But The Last Stand deserves some credit for mining this territory first, and ratcheting things up several notches from the previous two films with this utterly terrifying special effect. 

The Cure – And The Question of Identity 

“Being a mutant isn’t a disease. It’s something you’re born with. It’s as normal as being a traditional Homo sapien.”

– Professor Charles Xavier, X-Men Animated Series (1992)

In Season 1, Episode 8 of the much celebrated ’90s Fox Animated X-Men series, the character Rogue seeks out a doctor to “cure” her of her mutant power to drain the lifeforce of anyone she touches, because she longs to be able to experience the intimacy that is denied her because of her mutation. In the very same episode however, we are also introduced to the character Angel who ashamed of his mutant wings, seeks out the very same doctor and decides to go through with it. The subject of identity is a tricky, controversial, and intensely personal one. In the brave and sociologically groundbreaking tradition of the X-Men comics and animated series, The Last Stand chooses to tackle identity through the lens of these very same characters (Angel and Rogue), and it was very likely a deliberate decision.

The Last Stand  presents multiple sides of the identity issue instead of preaching the standard, “be proud of who you are, otherwise you are a delusional/pathetic self-hater” message. For example, when Storm (played by the beautiful Halle Berry) angrily states, “They can’t cure us. You want to know why? Because there’s nothin’ to cure. Nothing’s wrong with you. Or any of us, for that matter,” Beast (a “beastly-looking” mutant covered in blue fur) replies, “not all of us can fit in so easily – you don’t shed on the furniture.”

Since being born a mutant is not a choice (like race, sexual orientation, or biological sex) to think that all mutants would/should be happy with being a mutant in this writer’s opinion is incredibly naive at best, and sadly closed-minded at worst.

The choice Rogue makes in the film – to strip herself of her mutant powers – is a pragmatic and understandable one, but it offended a lot of viewers (including Anna Paquin, who plays the character in the film) because they saw it as cowardly, “self-hating,” or a betrayal of the character. However, it should be stated that perhaps more than any other mutant in the entire franchise, Rogue is the most isolated.

There is a healing power in touch, and Rogue had been denied that healing power of touch ever since her mutant ability first manifested as a teen. While it may be easy for those who have not had to live with her sense of isolation to dismiss her choice as weak or of being ashamed of who she is, for those with any sense of empathy, it was a more realistic depiction of how some born into bodies they didn’t choose would react if given the choice to “fix” themselves. It was a brave choice for Rogue to make, and it was a brave choice for the filmmakers as well.

Perhaps the best (and most forward-thinking) exchange in the entire film is the one that takes place between the emotional center of the first X-Men film, Wolverine and Rogue:

Wolverine: Where are you going?

Rogue: You don’t know what it’s like to be afraid of your powers… afraid to get close to anybody

Wolverine: Yeah, I do

Rogue: I want to be able to touch, Logan… a hug… a handshake… a kiss

Wolverine: I hope you’re not doing this for some boy. Look, if you want to go, then go… just be sure it’s what you want

Marie: Shouldn’t you be telling me to stay? To go upstairs and unpack?

Wolverine: I’m not you father, I’m your friend. Just think about what I said, Rogue

Rogue: [referring to her real name] Marie

Wolverine: Marie

In that scene, Wolverine actually recognizes and honors Rogue and how she sees herself: he honors her identity instead of chastising her for not being who she is “supposed” to be. While in 2018 that might not seem so revolutionary, for 2006 it was incredibly forward thinking, and it remains vastly misunderstood and under-recognized given the lack of positive recognition the film receives.  

Conversely, Angel chooses to not only accept his mutant status, but to be out and proud of it. This is likely in deliberate contrast to what happens to Angel in the animated series where he goes through with taking the cure (that is, what he thinks is the cure). By depicting both reactions to the cure (Rogue accepting, Angel rejecting), The Last Stand succeeds in treating the subject matter fairly, and ultimately leaves it up to the audience (on an individual level, like in the film) to decide for themselves what the truly “moral” choice is.

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, clockwise from top left: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Shawn Ashmore, Rebecca Romijn, Aaron Stanford, Famke Janssen, Vinnie Jones, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Ian McKellen, Daniel Cudmore, Ben Foster, Dania Ramirez, 2006. TM & ©20th Century Fox

The Last Stand Focuses On More Characters Than The First Two Films (which only focused on Wolverine – especially X2)

Unlike the original comics and mostly ‘true-to-the-comics’ ’90s Fox animated series, the first two X-Men films focus primarily on Wolverine — largely at the expense of other major characters (most notably, team leader Cyclops). While The Last Stand also places a lot of emphasis on Wolverine, it tells a much bigger story than the previous two films. While it is clear that Wolverine remains front and center, and has rightfully emerged since this film as the heart and soul of the Fox version of the X-Men franchise, the following characters are also worth noting for having stood out in the film.

Jean Grey

Perhaps the biggest complaint about The Last Stand surrounds how it dealt with the Phoenix Force, and how it did not follow the mythology established by the comics or animated series at all. The counter-argument is that Bryan Singer had already decided to take a more “grounded” approach to the X-Men when he started the franchise, so he was never trying to adhere closely to the pre-existing lore in the first place. So instead of featuring scenes depicting aliens (the Shi’ar Empire) or Jean Grey in phoenix form draining the energy of an entire sun (please try to picture the ridiculousness that would have ensued if they had attempted this after X2 – remember, special effects were not as good as they are now), The Last Stand wisely foregoes this in favor of the direction it did – a more “grounded,” split personality disorder version of the Phoenix entity. 

Jean stays true to the pre-established self-sacrificial nature of her character in The Last Stand. Like she did in X2 when she placed the safety of her teammates ahead of her own, in this film her first true words to Wolverine are “kill me” because she is fully aware of what her alter-ego is capable of – which again, is precisely what she did in the comics – except she requested this of Cyclops (which can easily lead into a whole new conversation about just how badly that character was handled in the first two films). 

Beast (Hank McCoy)

The addition of Dr. Hank McCoy, aka Beast – one of the original X-Men from the comic books (and very well depicted in the animated series) was in this writer’s opinion, one of the best aspects of The Last Stand. Skillfully delivered by Kelsey Grammar (genius casting), Dr. McCoy depicts a character who is trying to build a bridge between humanity and the mutants during a highly divisive period. Like the very real former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass before him (who advised President Abraham Lincoln on the treatment of black soldiers in the Civil War, and advised President Andrew Johnson on black voting rights), Dr. McCoy advises the fictional president in The Last Stand on mutant affairs. And like anyone trying to build bridges between two volatile sides, Dr. McCoy is conflicted throughout the film, but once open conflict breaks out between mutants and the U.S. government, he follows his conscience, leaves the White House, and joins the battle … making a very tough (yet realistic) moral decision that decisively impacts the outcome in the process. 

Magneto (Erik Lensherr)

The stakes are extremely high in The Last Stand.  Now that a “cure” with the power to suppress the mutant gene has been developed, Magneto is convinced that it will be weaponized by humanity and used to wipe out mutantkind. So he takes it upon himself to invite disaffected and alienated mutants to join his cause – and they do.

Magneto shines in this film for three primary reasons: 1) the government does indeed weaponize the cure – proving him right, 2) we see Magneto’s greatest display of power (from the original trilogy), and 3) we see that Magneto cares deeply for his adversary and old friend, Charles Xavier.  The first two X-Men films depict clear cut villains – there is nothing redeemable about Magneto from the first film, and Stryker is truly evil in X2. But Magneto in The Last Stand actually cries out in terror and shock for Charles during an especially perilous moment, and after one of his lieutenants insults the memory of Professor X, Magneto sternly rebukes him, saying “Charles Xavier did more for mutants than you’ll ever know.”

Oftentimes, the best villains are the ones you might find yourself understanding (or even rooting for), and Magneto is that kind of villain in this film. The Last Stand also sets us up for the milder, wiser, and repentant Magneto we get to witness in the phenomenal X-Men: Days of Future Past

Professor X (Charles Xavier)

In the X-Men mythology as well as the first two X-Men films, Charles Xavier is very much a wise, all-knowing father figure. In real life however, it is not uncommon while growing up that we come to learn that our heroes/role models/parental figures aren’t free from flaws. And Wolverine (and through him, the viewer) discovers that Professor X is not without flaws either in The Last Stand.

Professor X makes two incredibly morally ambiguous decisions – one involving Jean (when he places mental blocks to contain her Phoenix split personality), and another that secures his ability to appear in subsequent films. When Wolverine challenges Professor X over his decision to tinker with Jean’s mind, the professor responds both defensively and dismissively:

Professor X: You have no idea, you have no idea of what she’s capable of

Wolverine: No, Professor. I had no idea of what *you* were capable of

Professor X: I had a terrible choice to make, I chose the lesser of two evils

Wolverine: Well it sounds to me like Jean had no choice at all

Professor X: I don’t have to explain myself…least of all to you 

The narrative choices made regarding the Professor deepen not only his subsequent appearances in future films of the franchise, but also allowed for Wolverine and especially Storm to step up their roles in the film as essentially, the parental figures of the Xavier mansion. 

Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Colossus

Iceman (Bobby Drake) got his major introduction in X2, however he really comes into his own regarding his mutant power in this film, and face off decisively with his former friend/classmate turned bad, Pyro. Colossus gets his first introduction in this film, and while he doesn’t really get substantial lines, his presence is definitely felt in the danger room scene, as well as during the climactic battle towards the end of the film.

But it’s Kitty Pryde, played memorably by Ellen Page that truly adds a different dimension to the Fox cinematic X-Men universe. As it turns out, Kitty and Iceman develop an onscreen relationship that feels since and natural, especially given that intense experiences (like the tragedy that brings them closer together) tend to foster passionate bonds like the one they establish. 

Perhaps it is the expansion of Iceman’s powers, and the addition of Colossus and especially Kitty Pryde that help firmly establish X-Men: Days of Future Past as a classic. Kitty plays such a pivotal role in Past – without her, the key plot device of the film would be impossible. And seeing an elder, bearded Iceman along with Colossus fighting the Sentinels so valiantly wouldn’t have had quite the same emotional payoff had we not been first introduced to them in The Last Stand. 

Iceman vs Pyro: The Showdown Brewing Since X2

While X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) show audiences high stakes action with real consequences in a comic-book film, X-Men: The Last Stand was arguably the first to do it on a large scale, and there are several pivotal scenes. The first occurs at Jean Grey’s childhood residence, the second involves Wolverine in a forest – which Logan (2017) seems to pay homage to, the third involves the Golden Gate Bridge, and fourth is the final battle at Alcatraz Island. Make no mistake – The Last Stand was supposed to be the final film in the trilogy, and with the deaths of three major characters, the de-powering of three others, and only prequel films (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the soon-to-be-aborted X-Men Origins: Magneto) planned for the future, all the stops were pulled for this film. It should also be noted that with a budget of $210 million, The Last Stand was the most expensive film ever made at the time. 

Miscellaneous Awesomeness (Shoreh Aghdashloo) plus the not-so-awesome

Fans of The Expanse (2015 – present), the critically acclaimed space opera that is so good, it was saved from cancellation after being dropped by the SyFy network when Jeff Bezos and Amazon Studios picked it up, will recognize actress Shohreh Aghdashloo in The Last Stand. In The Expanse, Aghdashloo plays the powerful, no-nonsense (and hilariously foul-mouthed) Chrisjen Avasarala, head of state of the U.N. and planet Earth. In addition to voice-acting in the Destiny and Mass Effect video games series, Aghdashloo also appeared as the high-ranking Commodore Paris in Star Trek Beyond (2016). But again, before all of that, she showed up in X-Men: The Last Stand.  

In terms of the not-so-awesome, I think we can all agree that the film’s version of the Juggernaut left a lot to be desired, and was probably the worst aspect of the film. The absence of Nightcrawler was also rather conspicuous, as it was never explained. Beyond these two arguably major missteps, the rest of the film either stayed consistent with the previous two films, or improved upon them as described above. 

The Best Score of The X-Men Franchise

This last point is perhaps the most subjective of all of them, and so I am going to get personal here.  As a fan of films in general, but especially sci-fi and comic book films, the score of the film plays a huge role in my enjoyment of said film. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has an amazing score, as do all the Star Wars films, especially The Empire Strikes Back. Other films with notable scores (to me) are The Dark Knight Trilogy, Superman: The Movie, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman

What I found especially annoying about Bryan Singer’s first two films was that there didn’t seem to be a cohesive approach to scoring the films. There is no continuity in sound and themes between X-Men and X2, and only the latter has a theme that is remotely iconic and catchy. But the thing that makes a film score *especially* iconic is when that score is used across multiple films in sequence to establish continuity (think: Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, etc) the way that Marvel’s “Avengers Theme” (Alan Silvestri) has *finally* established continuity in that universe. And X-Men: The Last Stand in John Powell finally achieved the level of excitement and emotion that the previous two films failed to deliver. While the entire album is stellar, it is his themes for Jean Grey/Phoenix that are the most emotive and mournfully beautiful. And that’s on top of also containing the catchiest and most heroic sounding of the X-Men main themes as well. 

But don’t just take my word for it – of the three soundtrack/scores of the original X-Men trilogy, it appears that The Last Stand was the only one to appear on the Billboard Top 200, peaking at #14. 

Last but not least, I’ll leave you with a VERY well-done Jean Grey theme suite edited together from various X-Men scores by a YouTube music-lover named Jorah The Andal. Before (and during) the writing of this piece, I listened to this music constantly – and while I was pleased to hear so much of The Last Stand represented in this film, there are substantially beautiful moments in this piece that are NOT from The Last Stand. And so at first I thought to myself, “maybe I’m being too harsh on the score from X2.” But then upon further investigation…well I’ll let you see for yourselves:

0:00 Scott’s Torment – X-Men: The Last Stand
0:30 Young Jean – X-Men: The Last Stand 
1:43 Scott, Logan and Beast – X-Men: The Last Stand
1:56 A Piece of His Past – X-Men: Apocalypse
2:30 Rebuilding/Cuffed/Goodbye Old Friend – X-Men: Apocalypse
2:54 A Piece of His Past – X-Men: Apocalypse
3:44 You’re X-Men/End Titles – X-Men: Apocalypse
4:48 Like a Fire – X-Men: Apocalypse
6:29 Going Grey/Who the F Are You? – X-Men: Apocalypse
6:47 Suite from X-Men 2 (End Credits Original Version) – X2: X-Men United
8:58 Meet Leeche and Lake – X-Men: The Last Stand
10:30 The Death of X – X-Men – The Last Stand
12:37 The Phoenix Arises – X-Men – The Last Stand

What you will notice is that besides The Last Stand (heavily represented), there is only one section featuring a score from the original trilogy (X2) and the remainder is from the most recent film, X-Men Apocalypse (2016). I should note that after the score for The Last Stand actually vastly improved upon its predecessors, Bryan Singer stepped up his game with composer John Ottman for Days of Future Past massively, bringing back the X2 theme (finally establishing thematic continuity), giving Professor X and The Sentinels distinct themes, and continuing the trend with Apocalypse. I maintain that The Last Stand forced Singer/Ottman to step up their game on the music front, and thankfully, they did. 

So kudos to composer John Powell for doing such a fantastic job scoring The Last Stand. Based on a cursory scan of YouTube comments, I highly doubt I am alone in lavishing high praise on his score. Prior to writing this piece, I felt very confident that if nothing else, the music from X-Men: The Last Stand was more or less universally well-received. 

Thank you for reading. On with the music.

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