May 29, 2023

It’s time to reexamine ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’

Welcome to No Shame November! This week we’re diving into the pop culture we love that society tells us we shouldn’t.

This No Shame November, I would like to drop my hottest of hot takes: X-Men: The Last Stand deserves a second chance. I can quite literally hear your “Oh god“s from thousands of miles away. I can sense some of you Googling “can a movie cause Stockholm Syndrome” and rest assured, I have already done my own research into the matter. This take was so sizzling, so scorching, so scalding, that I have pitched it multiple times before and editors have passed, perhaps in the hopes of sparing me total online evisceration.

But here I am, courting disaster.

Let’s start with full transparency here: X-Men: The Last Stand, directed by Brett Ratner, is the film that got me hooked on superhero movies. I realize that is insane given that by the time it released we already had two excellent Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi, not to mention the X-Men films preceding Last Stand itself.

And yet!

I hadn’t actually seen the first two X-Men movies. My friends and I went to see The Last Stand as something of a bit. We didn’t expect to care, we showed up 15 minutes late, and we cackled at the abundance of cheesy moments. But by the end of the movie, we were hooked. We had somehow, inexplicably, grown to care for characters who we had just met — many of whom died within the film’s run time! We were engrossed in the lives and powers and dynamics of the X-Men and desperate to know what led them to this tragic climax. That night we had a sleepover, and the first two films were on TV. We devoured them.

"X-Men: The Last Stand" did Scott Summers dirty, but didn't all the X-Men films do that?

“X-Men: The Last Stand” did Scott Summers dirty, but didn’t all the X-Men films do that?

Image: Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Now, a quick recap of The Last Stand for those who have forgotten or blocked it out. When a pharmaceutical company starts mass producing a “cure” for the mutant X gene, it divides the mutant population. Some advocate it as an option, especially for those whose daily lives can be inhibited by their mutation, while others view it as not only an insult but an attack — a precursor to extinction. The wild card in all this is Jean Grey, whose Dark Phoenix powers are out of control, making her the most powerful mutant on Earth and a crucial weapon in this battle.

The film premiered to mixed reviews, garnering a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes — the worst critically received X-Men movie at the time, but now squarely in the middle after the mounting disappointments of the recent past. It also happens to be the first X-Men film without Bryan Singer’s involvement, a fact I now cling to like a life raft. I loved the first two X-Men movies, but I refuse to ignore allegations of Singer’s sexual harassment and misconduct as well as unprofessionalism that pervasively made his projects miserable for those involved

The X-Men reunion in June didn’t point to this explicitly, but the franchise’s key players united briefly enough to divert attention to their other projects and just sort of wave at X-Men in passing. We all know what it is and what we owe it, but we are perhaps collectively not equipped to address its fraught history.

Days of Future Past arguably existed only to render The Last Stand moot — and for what? For the underwhelming Dark Phoenix to rehash it all and say nothing new?

The thing people hated most about The Last Stand was seeing our heroes fall — again, and again, in different and catastrophic ways. The first casualty is Scott, destroyed by Dark Phoenix right after his joyful discovery that Jean lives. Mystique gets shot with the cure while protecting Magneto, only for him to be shot with it later on. Phoenix destroys Charles in her childhood home, leaving the X-Men more lost and devastated than ever. This movie effectively wipes out the world’s preeminent mutants, no doubt devastating fans as much as the broken Storm and Wolverine weeping over Charles’s empty chair.

But these dark twists are what made The Last Stand the first superhero movie of the impending era with stakes. Your faves could die, could lose their power, could kill their friends to save the world. For once it wasn’t just Bruce Wayne’s parents and Ben Parker’s lives at risk in the larger-than-life battle of heroes, villains, and their many shades of gray. I regularly think about the backlash to The Last Stand when we hail Game of Thrones for its unexpected bloodshed, even criticized the later seasons for playing it safe. I think about Avengers: Infinity War, which we knew would never really be the endgame but which stung nonetheless as we embraced it as part of the larger story. 

Magneto loses his mutant abilities in one of the most jaw-dropping, gut-punching moments of "X-Men: The Last Stand."

Magneto loses his mutant abilities in one of the most jaw-dropping, gut-punching moments of “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Image: 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Later X-Men films would try to course-correct; First Class rebooted the characters in a prequel and its followup, Days of Future Past arguably existed only to render The Last Stand moot — and for what? For the underwhelming Dark Phoenix to rehash it all and say nothing new? The moral dilemmas posed in Dark Phoenix are all straight from The Last Stand, questions about Jean’s agency and right to her own mind as Charles saw to control it, even for the safety of others. 

The difference is that The Last Stand is ruthless; it offers no redemption for Charles, Mystique, Magneto, or Jean. It cuts off all of their stories instead of coming full circle or tying things up neatly — again, may I point you to a little show about thrones? It was bold and borderline hubristic for writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn to almost conclusively end the franchise with these storylines, but in 2006 three movies was a franchise. We lived in a world of trilogies (2007 marked the releases of Shrek the Third, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Ocean’s 13), not cinematic universes, and many of these third installments were disappointing at best.

In a very real sense, this is the movie Dark Phoenix deserves — intense, emotional, impulsive, and volatile. Everything is turned up to 110, including the performances of franchise vets Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, and Famke Janssen. When not making Revenge of the Sith run for cover, the dialogue hits sharp, high emotional beats: Raven’s hissed “Homo sapien” when she attacks a human captor, Magneto’s dispassionate “You’re not one of us anymore” when she gets cured, Jean’s quiet plea of “Kill me” to Logan when she realizes what she did to Scott (separately, I know this film did Scott Summers dirty, but I’d argue that no X-Men film to date does him justice).

Forgive me this pun, but hindsight is 20-20. The Last Stand was ahead of its time and out of its depth in 2006, but it’s worth revisiting now with an open mind and frankly devastated soul. Many X-Men movies followed, but they were often bloated, disjointed, and lacked The Last Stand‘s fervent, fraught energy. Our world has never been more chaotic, which means it’s time to give The Last Stand the chance it truly deserves.

X-Men: The Last Stand is not streaming anywhere because you all hated it so much. So you can watch it via iTunes,