It’s widely believed that 2006′s X-Men: The Last Stand was a poor ending to the original X-Men trilogy. The film and 2009′s X-Men Origins: Wolverine seem to be regarded as the weak links in the X-Men movie franchise. I think it’s long time for a critical reassessment.
First, the caveats. I certainly think there are plenty of problems with The Last Stand. I think the “cure” plot is weak. The deaths of Cyclops and Professor X are both quick and awkwardly placed within the film’s structure, and they both can leave the viewer wondering if they were real or are going to be rapidly reversed — which isn’t a good thing. Dark Phoenix is a lot less powerful, has a weird special effect that looks more creepy than scary, and her noble sacrifice is transferred onto Wolverine, subordinating her death to his character arc. Also, its sucks that Cyclops and Professor X don’t have to deal with the ramifications of her death, due to their early removal from the film, and that the “cure” plot gets in the way of exploring Phoenix. Once you get started, there’s certainly a lot to gripe about — including how this or that character is presented — and plenty of fans have done so.
Also, the movie wasn’t directed by Bryan Singer, to whom lots of fans are loyal. A lot of fans were pretty much against the movie from the start — and against Brett Ratner, specifically, at least as an appropriate replacement for Singer. That the movie failed in key respects only seemed to support this narrative.
I’m not really going to defend the movie on any of these points. I can see arguments, or at least explanations, for all of these complaints, but I’m willing to largely concede them. (Thomas J. McLean’s Mutant Cinema does a brilliant job of helping you to understand not only the behind-the-scenes reasons for why choices were made but also how these choices altered the original comics stories.)
I do think it’s useful to remember, however, that the first two films have plenty of similar problems. While X2 is often glorified by fans, its plot feels as clunky to me as any of the problems with the “cure” plot. There are pacing and logic issues in the first two films, as well as character problems. But they’re largely ignored, because those movies are fun, and they have lots of good elements that make up for weaker elements and plot holes.
For me, The Last Stand‘s greatest failure is that it largely lacks that “movie magic.” You can do just about everything right — have a good script, get good performances, etc. — and still have a movie not quite gel, once it’s all edited and special effects and music have been added. The reverse is also true: Gladiator is in many ways a really stupid movie (totally over-the-top villain, sentimental plot, a cliched tough-guy hero, some pretty bad dialogue, great historical fuzziness), but man does it work on screen. It somehow becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and it sells all that shaky dialogue. The first two X-Men films have plenty of questionable choices, but they largely have that movie magic that makes you forgive the problems and see the whole. The Last Stand largely doesn’t, so all its flaws stick out.
You might say that the premise of the X-Men is that mutants exist, and they have really cool super-powers instead of mutating in ways that render the organism dead, as is far more common in nature. You might say that the central dynamic of the X-Men, beyond the obvious conflict of super-powered mutants versus other super-powered mutants, is about acceptance — whether there’s a place for mutants to be tolerated in society, and disagreements about what to do in response to discrimination against mutants.
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But it’s wrong. Or at least, it’s very limited.
I’m not saying you can’t tell great stories organized around this premise. But it’s a very limited one. It’s good for a story or two, or as a starting dynamic. But if the story’s going to continue, this central premise has to shift.
Beneath this nice premise about tolerance and rights is the constant threat of war. We’re told that mutants represent the future — they’re really a new branch of human evolution. And it so happens that they have immense power. Normal humans are right to be scared of this power. In the movies, we see how mutants mean that the president can never be safe. The government can be mind-controlled. All of human life has literally almost died. In their sleep, a mutant could unconsciously kill thousands — even millions. The threat is very real.
See, this isn’t a case of persecuting people for whom they love or choose to marry. This isn’t a case of mutant segregation and systematic deprivation of mutants’ basic civil liberties. This is more about what you do with people who are in possession of weapons that threaten the survival of the government or even of the human species. True, those people are largely born weapons — although there’s plenty of tech and gadgetry on hand in X-Men stories too. This does add a layer of discrimination and civil rights parallels. But that’s not really the central dynamic. And in the long run, it’s at least as relevant that more of these scary, planet-changing weapons are being born every day.
Of course, you can tell X-Men stories about civil rights — although X-Men stories largely focus on the action of a mutant threat, with this civil rights backdrop merely as a theme that makes the action-packed threat feel like it’s about something greater. And you can pay lip service to the fact that more and more mutants are being born, and society’s going to have to change to accommodate these people somehow. You can pay lip service to how the emergence of a new branch of human evolution usually isn’t good for the old branches, at least not when those branches are living in the same space. All of this adds drama to the mutant battles that inevitably drive the plots.
But at some point, you’ve got to follow through on all these ideas, or you’re just spinning your wheels.
If the government is threatened by the presence of mutants — and the X-Men movies make this abundantly clear — how can the government not move for registration? If mutants can be used as weapons, how is there not a mutant soldier arms race? You can bet China and Russia and North Korea and every petty dictator around the world aren’t going to be so sensitive about civil rights. They’re going to test their population for mutant powers, and they’re going to assemble a mutant army, and they’re going to use fear of this mutant army to intimidate their own populations and other nations. As mutants proliferate, there’s going to be some accident, costing lives in great number. Not every mutant is going to be as nice as Professor X is; someone’s going to take over a government, either covertly or overtly. The entire system of nations is going to be rocked, desperately holding onto its power by trying to control mutants. However things wind up, you can bet this process is going to be tremendously disruptive — and that there will be casualties, both in terms of people killed and in terms of civil liberties. Even if humanity and their nations survive, they’re going to have to rethink what both those terms mean.
All of this isn’t simply how I wish X-Men writers would proceed. It’s completely implicit, in how the premise of the X-Men is presented. There’s are conflicts with humanity coming, and you can’t control every mutant, and there are more mutants born all the time. You can kick this can down the road. You can have Magneto talk about all of this, only to be defeated once again. But the longer the story runs forward, the more it can’t credibly be held in suspension.
That’s how you get Marvel eliminating the vast bulk of all mutants more than once. It’s a convenient reset, a way of winding back the clock in order to restore that original premise. When there are a few mutants, you can retain that premise and the theme of discrimination. But you can’t sustain this state of affairs.
To some extent, this is a problem with all super-hero stories. Mr. Fantastic’s technology could save countless lives and provide limitless pollution-free power, if he would let it get out of his ivory tower. (This was a conventional complaint of revisionism, but one Planetary gets great narrative juice out of.) At some point, all the excuses in the world can’t explain why Mr. Fantastic isn’t just being evil.
Similarly, it’s one thing to set up Superman as the Last Son of Krypton, masquerading as a human. But run that story forward, and cities are going to get destroyed in super-powered fights, while super-technology’s going to get out and transform human civilization. Not to mention that Superman’s going to look like a dick if he doesn’t stop 9/11, hurricane after hurricane, tsunami after tsunami, genocide after genocide, famine after famine. Just as God can’t be both all-powerful and benevolent, Superman can’t stay a good guy without disrupting human society in pretty huge ways.
But this is a special problem for the X-Men. Because it’s not central to the Superman premise that someday he’s got to irrigate deserts and depose tyrants and save so many people that the population of the planet spirals upwards, and humans are distributed around the globe in ways we as readers wouldn’t recognize. That’s implicit in the idea of Superman, but Superman stories don’t constantly refer to how this is going to happen some day. Also, there aren’t more Supermen being born all the time, while the stories keep referring to the inevitability of one of them shifting the Earth on its axis — metaphorically or literally. But X-Men stories get a lot of their narrative power by playing with these very ideas, yet they can never follow through because it would change the central premise.
How many times can Magneto threaten to disrupt society in a big way before you start to see him more as a joke, unwilling to follow through on his convictions?
This problem of being trapped in the original premise isn’t limited to super-heroes, of course. The clearest example of this, to my mind, was the introduction of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The premise of the Borg wasn’t simply that they were a collective, or a whole level of technological development ahead of the Federation. It was that the Borg were unstoppable and never give up. You meet them once, and the next time Earth is almost destroyed. But they’ll send more ships. Follow this through, and the Federation’s going to be fighting for its survival, compromising its principles to do so. It’s going to look a lot more like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica than Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision. So the show kept kicking the can down the road and ignoring the problem, before deciding to retroactively change the Borg radically and rely on easy plot developments so that they weren’t such a threat, and the original premise never had to be delivered upon.
And this is what I love about The Last Stand. It at least tries to deliver upon this promise.
The first movie gives us a threat to New York City, and lots of talk about humanity’s future, but it basically introduces the X-Men premise. In the next movie, all of humanity is almost wiped out, and we see that no government is safe from mutant assassins and psychic control. But the main plot’s a lot more conservative than these ideas, and it ends with Magneto defeated for a second time.
In The Last Stand, we see Jean Grey resurrected. Okay, so she’s not as powerful as Dark Phoenix was in the comics. That would’ve taken a huge budget to pull off in 2006. But Phoenix is still hugely powerful. She’s also not in control of herself. She represents everything the movies have been saying about mutants all along: that their immense powers are a threat, and that these powers aren’t safe in the hands of individuals, who might not make choices — or in Jean’s case, be fully capable of making choices — that we approve of. Jean embodies these aspects of the X-Men premise. We’re finally getting to see them.
Magneto’s response to this is interesting. He wasn’t present in the original Dark Phoenix Saga. But because he’s got to be in every X-Men movie — a weakness of those films, to be sure — he gets a role in this new version. He manipulates Phoenix, using her as a weapon. But he’s obviously aware that she’s more powerful than him and that, because of her mental state, he can’t fully control her. The future Magneto’s predicted has arrived. He was right: mutants can’t be controlled. Including by him. The changes he’s said were inevitable have arrived, but the new world they create won’t necessarily be one he’ll like either. He’s left struggling to keep all the plates spinning, and his titanic ego’s on the line. And then, of course, the plates fall.
One of the implications of mutants is that their powers inevitably mean that things are going to go wrong. People are going to die. Cities are going to get trashed and destroyed. We’ve seen this hinted at before, including in the attack on New York City in the first film. But that weapon was destroyed and its energy wave instantly dispersed itself. All of humanity might have been threatened in the second film, but it escaped. When the third film begins, the world’s cities all look the same as they do in the real world, very few people have died, and any mutant threats have been resolved without so much as altering a skyline.
And then Magneto moves the Golden Gate Bridge.
There’s been some criticism of that sequence, and it’s true that an iconic bridge is an easy target, an easy way of showing some damage or change without having to computer-animate the destruction of a city, or deal with the moral and story implications of showing that. But that’s what the Golden Gate Bridge is a stand-in for. Sure, it’s a low-budget solution. But it’s at least an attempt to show that a world with mutants as powerful as Magneto’s going to see these kinds of transformative incidents — incidents the first two films largely avoided.
And while you can fault the resolution in many ways, there’s a real sense of things coming unglued. Lots of people are disintegrated, and they aren’t all bad guys. And at their center is Phoenix, the representative of the fact that mutants are going to disrupt the world in unpredictable ways.
Of course, the X-Men — well, Wolverine — puts the genie back in the bottle. Sadly, we’re not treated in the end to shows of San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge still sitting out of place, changing the city in unpredictable ways. The movie puts a bow on things with a mutant-friendly president, and the movie’s more concerned with giving us another glimpse of Magneto and Professor X than dramatizing any of the long-term disruption, mental and physical, that’s been caused.
But the movie at least made an attempt to follow through on its premise. People died. One city’s not the same. Order has been disrupted in a pretty severe way, in a way that represented the grave threat to the status quo that mutants represent.
And you know what? There’s going to be another Phoenix — another powerful mutant, who isn’t in control, or who isn’t as friendly to the status quo, nor as homicidal as Magneto. And it’s not just going to be the Golden Gate Bridge next time.
The “last stand” of the title suggests the final, promised conflict between humanity and mutants. But what really gets its “last stand” isn’t Cyclops, nor Professor X, nor Phoenix, nor Magneto — and certainly not the X-Men. No, what’s killed is the idea that the presence of mutants won’t be terribly disruptive — and that you can keep kicking the can forever down the road with inconsequential little stories that only pay lip service to these ideas. It’s the status quo that dies in The Last Stand.
The first two X-Men flicks might be better movies. But they play with ideas, hinting at disruption they don’t wish to show. And that’s fine; they’re early outings. But it’s cowardly to keep kicking the can. The Last Stand at least tries to advance the story. It at least starts to follow through on these powerful but hard-to-write ideas.
Sure, the final product was limited by all kinds of restraints and contains any number of misjudgments. And there was no need for anything to play out like it did. But that’s the nature of disruption. I tend to prefer a sense of inevitability to plots, as well as clear narrative arcs. But in a world with mutants like Phoenix, characters are going to die too soon, or without heroic fanfare. Even the rules of narrative get disrupted. And while I’m glad to cede plenty of points about the film, I think I’d prefer something daring but flawed, something committed to carrying the X-Men story into this long-promised disruptive future, than yet another action-packed story trafficking in the promise of inevitable narrative developments it refuses to allow to happen.