The conclusion to a second X-Men franchise is upon us. 2011’s X-Men: First Class sent us back to the swinging sixties with Charles Xavier and his groovy mutations and now it comes to a head in X-Men: Apocalypse. The series has come a long way since one of its perceived weaker links, X-Men: The Last Stand, hit the screens in 2006. Derided at the time, Last Stand has subsequently lurked in the shadows. Well, with Apocalypse at our doors, what better time to reappraise this much maligned work?
The Last Stand is not a great film. The end product bears all the hallmarks of a production that was rushed, as indeed it was. In February 2005, and with little over a year until the film’s release, the third instalment of the X-Men franchise still had no director. By the time Brett Ratner was hired, the clock was well and truly ticking.
As a result the film does feel thinner than its predecessors. Major characters in the first two films, such as Cyclops and Storm, drift to the periphery of the narrative. The actions of other characters seem curiously at odds with what we’ve come to expect from them. Charles in particular starts acting very strangely – throwing little tantrums and generally acting very un-Professor-like.
Of all the X-Men films to date, Last Stand is also probably the least fun. Whilst the other entrants in the canon have acknowledged the silly side of the material, Last Stand feels consumed with the seriousness of its core message. Perhaps the studio wanted to strike a different chord for the closing part of the trilogy? Whatever the reason, Last Stand feels a bit like the odd one out.
The Mutant Stuff
These faults notwithstanding, Last Stand is no car crash. Some of the main sequences are genuinely well executed. The scene in which Xavier and Magneto return to Jean Grey’s home in an attempt to win her round to their contrasting agendas takes place on an impressively small scale, and yet packs as much of an emotional punch as any of the action setpieces on show in the rest of the series.
That said, the grand finale, in which a whole bunch of mutants whirl around hitting each other, is a blast. It takes place on Alcatraz Island (of course) in San Francisco, where a mutant whose power is central to the government’s “cure” is being held. In the grand tradition of summer blockbusters, Magneto, in perhaps his most vulgar display of power (Michael Fassbender’s stadium antics in Days of Future Past aside), hoists the Golden Gate Bridge on which he and his band of followers are stood, floats it over the bay and plonks it down on the island, all without breaking a sweat. He even manages a customary quip.
Famke Janssen & Hugh Jackman
The plot of the The Last Stand revolves around two characters – Jean and Wolverine. In this regard, the film bears some favourable comparisons with the original X-Men, which focused on the dynamic between Hugh Jackman’s lovable rogue, and… err… Rogue. The Last Stand sees the culmination of a relationship between two characters who’ve always been closer than friends, but never quite lovers.
When these two first met in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Wolverine was inadvertently awoken by Jean in the bowels of Xavier’s school. In The Last Stand, it is Wolverine who awakens an unconscious Jean in the very same room, only to regret the decision shortly afterwards.
While Hugh Jackman gives his usual charismatic performance, it is Janssen who is really given room to shine in this film. With the Dark Phoenix powers growing in strength, her performance becomes increasingly raw and animalistic, yet still offering the occasional glimpse of the old, vulnerable Jean hidden deep beneath the surface. The final confrontation between the two is the mutant equivalent of Rose letting Jack drift into the depths of the Atlantic after the sinking of the Titanic, only with large retractable adamantium claws instead of a floating plank of wood. For all the visual spectacle which is thrown at the screen in this section of the film, the two leads succeed in making us feel the weight of that moment.
Before all the mutants start hitting each other, the core message of the film actually hangs together rather well. With the public hostility which had built up during the previous two instalments, the notion of a “cure” for genetic mutation makes quite a lot of sense. For years mutants have lived in fear of being shunned and isolated because of their abilities. Now along comes a solution which offers them the chance to emerge from the shadows and return to “normal” life. The X-Men series has always had at its centre the notion of how society treats its outsiders, and Last Stand addresses this tension in a direct way.
The realities of the cure are played out among some of the main characters of the series so far. When Mystique takes a syringe/bullet for Magneto and is injected with the cure, she instantly loses the very thing she has used to define herself all her life. To add insult to considerable injury, Magneto declares that she is “not one of us anymore”: she is labelled as an outsider once more, by the very people she so recently called comrades.
On the flipside we have the unfortunate Rogue, who’s had a very rough time of it in general. While for Magneto et al the cure is a weapon, to Rogue it offers the chance to slip back into her old life. And while it’s true to say that this aspect of the story gets lost towards the end, the fact that the film pitches this moral dilemma and brings the trilogy full circle is an admirable quality and one which is often overlooked.
The Last Stand will never be a fan favourite. It lacks the wit and zest of its predecessors and large sections of its plot have essentially been overturned in subsequent instalments of the franchise. But to dismiss it as a failure would be unfair. While it does have the feel of disparate elements having been pulled together with no real sense of vision, the message at its core is a strong one; the action setpieces are some of the franchise’s best; and Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen do some great work. And who doesn’t love Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart? It’s worth another go for them alone.