Welcome back to my “Good Things About…” feature, where I attempt to find five or more redeeming qualities in some of the worst superhero/sci-fi/fantasy/geek culture movies of all-time. This time I set my sights on one of the most disappointing and frustrating chapters in nerd cinema history: the third entry into the ‘X-Men’ movie franchise, ‘The Last Stand,‘ directed by Hollywood hack Brett Ratner.
Although it’s not the low point of the X-Men movie franchise (that would be the execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine), X-Men: The Last Stand is still a terrible, terrible movie. It’s too short; the whole thing feels sloppy and rushed; the editing is atrocious; beloved characters are unceremoniously killed off and quickly forgotten; the special effects (especially the wire-work) are laughably bad; the screenplay is a mess; the acting performances range from godawful to dull; and it’s shoddily directed. But the most frustrating thing about it is, it never had to be that bad. A little patience and understanding by FOX could have prevented one of the most tragic mistakes in geek culture history…
It all started when director Bryan Singer, who did a spectacular job on the first two X-Men films, wanted to take some time away from the franchise to take a shot at the most iconic superhero of all-time: Superman. Singer wanted to develop and shoot what would eventually become Superman Returns in 2005, for a Summer 2006 release; and he wanted to develop X-Men 3 in 2006, for a Summer 2007 release. FOX, however, wasn’t interested in waiting around. Their number-crunchers wanted a tentpole X-Men movie in the theaters for May 2006, and if Singer couldn’t do it, then they were going to move on to someone who could.
That someone was originally Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), but he soon realized there was no way in the seven hells he could produce a quality X-Men film in the ridiculously small time window he was given, so he exited stage left as fast as he could. That’s when FOX made the decision that still haunts the nerd universe to this day — they hired the Lord of the hacks, Brett Ratner, to crank out the film as fast as humanly possible. He did, and the rest, they say, is history. But does this clunky jalopy of an X-Men vehicle have any parts worth salvaging? I’ve found five:
5.) Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde
A year before she became a mumblecore-cinema icon in Juno, young Ellen Page made splash as Kitty Pryde, the teenage mutant who can make herself intangible and “phase” through walls, floors, and other physical objects. Kitty has a long and storied history in the X-Men comic books, initially appearing as a wide-eyed, inexperienced member of the team who was often watched over and advised by Wolverine (Rogue seemed to fill this role in the first X-Men movie). She went by the codename “Sprite,” but later switched to “Shadowcat” as she got older, and carried on a lengthy romance with her teammate Colossus.
The character appeared briefly in the first two X-Men films (played by two different actresses), but in The Last Stand, her role was expanded and Ellen Page was brought on board to flesh out the character. Page provides a bright, refreshing presence whenever she’s on screen with old stalwarts like Halle Berry or Hugh Jackman, who just look bored and seem as if they are there to cash a giant paycheck in contrast.
And even though her character here basically exists as nothing more than a plot device to disrupt and eventually reconcile the Iceman/Rogue love story, Page manages to rise above that and inject her scenes with Iceman with sweetness and honesty. Her phasing powers are put to good use at the climax of the movie as well. Ellen Page’s casting was simply a solid move, and she did a nice job with a supporting character that turned out to be a shining gemstone in a pile of dull rocks.
4.) The Danger Room Sequence
After two entire X-Men films passed by with nary a mention of the team’s famous virtual-reality training chamber, fans were absolutely frothing at the mouth to see the live-action mutants enter some insane artificial environment and practice using their abilities to dodge missiles, or destroy battle robots – like the giant, mutant-detecting sentinels – just as they did in the comic books. Fans finally got their wish in X-Men: The Last Stand, although budgetary constraints put a bit of a damper on the coolness factor.
The sequence features Storm and Wolverine putting the younger mutants – Kitty, Iceman, Rogue, and Colossus – through their paces in a fiery, post-apocalyptic landscape. The kids pretty much get their asses handed to them, and big trouble rears its head in the form of a giant Sentinel — a 30-foot-tall killer robot represented in the film as nothing more than an ominous clanking noise and a pair of lights in the sky (there’s the budget restrictions I mentioned).
Still, it was pretty badass that Brett Ratner and crew even implied that a Sentinel was out there, and it was even more badass that the screenplay by Zak Penn & Simon Kinberg worked in the famous “fastball special,” a fun maneuver from the comic pages that involved Colossus hurling Wolverine through the air to achieve some high-impact adamantium claw damage to a large approaching target. We get a cool glimpse of the decapitated Senintel head as it crashes to the ground, and a nice moment when Hugh Jackman calmly strides out from behind it, chomping away at his stogie. If only the next 80 or so minutes followed up on the promise – and tone –
3.) The “Multiple Man” Gag
Towards the climax of The Last Stand, the plot builds in intensity as Magneto gathers an army of mutants to his cause, and declares war on humanity for trying to “cure” mutants. Through some reconnaissance, the government thinks they finally have the location of Magneto’s secret forest base of operations locked down. The mutant camp area is represented in the government control room as an overhead map on a video monitor, displaying the “heat signatures” of the mutants as hundreds of lighted figures milling about.
The government sends a team of soldiers, armed with plastic guns loaded with the “mutant cure” serum out to the camp to de-power and capture Magneto and his army, but as they approach the campsite, something strange starts happening to the lighted heat signatures on the map. They begin to disappear one by one, vanishing seemingly into thin air. Finally, the audience is let in on the mystery as the soldiers achieve visual confirmation on what the hell is going down.
The “heat signatures” on the map were all copies of one man: Jamie Madrox, the “Multiple Man,” a mutant with the ability to replicate himself, then “call back’ his clones and absorb them back into his body. The troopers close in on Madrox, who surrenders with a smile, knowing Magneto and his army left the base hours earlier, ready to unleash their master plan. A cool gag in a film that had really lost its way by the time it occurs.
2.) Jean Grey Unleashes “The Phoenix Force”
Many moviegoers were left scratching their heads at the end of X-2: X-Men United, when a giant, fiery bird appeared underneath the surface of the water on Alkali Lake right before the end credits. But comic book geeks were wriggling with excitement in their seats. They knew exactly what that firebird was — a harbinger for some awesome spectacle to come in the next installment of the X-Men franchise. Without going into too much convoluted comic book detail, The Phoenix Force was an all-powerful (and very destructive) alien life-force that possessed Jean Grey, giving her near-unlimited power. She unleashed some epic cosmic destruction in the comic pages, and eventually had to kill herself to prevent the Phoenix force from consuming the galaxy.
Sadly, because of how “grounded” the story in the X-Men films had been up to that point, and the all-too-familiar “budget restraints,” it wasn’t in the cards to tell the full sci-fi story of the Phoenix in The Last Stand. Instead, the Phoenix Force is explained away as a powerful aspect of Jean Grey’s mind that was clamped down by “psychic barriers” Professor Charles Xavier put in place in Jean when she was just a child. It’s a bit of a lame explanation, but Patrick Stewart is such a good actor that he makes the untapped power locked away in Jean’s mind seem like a world-destroying threat that needs to be kept in check. Unfortunately for the audience – and for Famke Janssen – it is kept in check.
Famke Janssen spends most of The Last Stand’s running time looking like she’s about to fall asleep. She doesn’t have much to do, and is basically a living macguffin; an Ace-in-the-hole that Magneto keeps threatening to pull out to take the entire pot home, but never really does. Only at the very end of the film does she fully unleash the “Phoenix” inside her mind, causing some truly fantastic-looking destruction on Alcatraz Island. As Jean telekinetically tears the island and the prison to pieces, Wolverine realizes what must be done. He approaches Jean, fighting through the pain of his flesh getting flayed off his adamantium-laced skeleton (this is a really awesome special effect), and sinks his claws into Jean to save the world and end her suffering. It’s an emotional moment that Janssen and Jackman convincingly bring home.
1.) Ian McKellen as Magneto
Let’s face facts – Ian McKellen could wear the Magneto costume and read from an insurance brochure, and it would still be riveting, menacing, and regal. The man simply owns the role. He is the Master of Magnetism. Magneto is the most consistent character across the three X-Men films, lending tremendous dramatic weight to any scene he’s involved in. His chemistry with fellow classically trained Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart is a joy to watch, and while though they don’t get much screen time together in The Last Stand, it’s enough to convince you that these two were lifelong enemies who were once great friends, and still had a tremendous amount of respect for one another.
Despite all of the terrible shit going on around him in the third X-Men film, McKellen’s commanding presence rises above the muck. The Magneto we see in The Last Stand is enraged by humanity’s attempts to “cure” mutantkind, and will do anything in his power to stop it. In the most impressive sequence of the movie, Magneto marches his mutant army onto the Golden Gate Bridge, breaks it off of its moorings at both ends, and levitates the whole damned thing out to Alcatraz Island.
During the final showdown with the X-Men and the government, McKellen is a dominant and intimidating field commander, spouting out lines like “In chess, the pawns go first,” with cruel confidence. He is unfazed by the unfolding chaos and remains steadfast in his goals to the bitter end, when he is stabbed by The Beast with the mutant cure. The look of horror and hopelessness on Magneto’s face tells us all we need to know about how much value he placed on being “homo superior.” Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Magneto isn’t just the best thing about X-Men: The Last Stand, it’s probably the best thing about the entire trilogy.