2021 marks 15 years since the release of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. This movie was the final installment in the original X-Men trilogy and the biggest legacy of this movie is it took five years and a soft reboot to save the franchise. So what didn’t work and why did this movie get such a bad reputation?
The first and biggest issue is that the source material it was trying to adapt isn’t conducive to film. The arc known as the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” came out after five years of build-up and storytelling. So many moving parts were in play prior to this story, and film is not the right medium to capture this. Comic books are an incredibly serialized medium with decades of continuity. A good comparison is something like an old-fashioned soap opera. In both, decades pass and the characters never really deviate too far from their original concept. Characters can die and come back, characters get rapidly aged or de-aged, or they can look completely different.
Television is the only format that comes close to approximating the storytelling in comic books. Films take much longer to produce and they usually need to tell a story in a finite amount of time. Disney has adapted the serialized nature of comics to great success in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every year, 1-3 movies will come out, and plots are raised and resolved much later.
This long-form serialized storytelling method was mastered in the comic book format by none other than longtime Uncanny X-Men writer, Chris Claremont. Claremont wrote the X-Men for sixteen years. During his time, he redefined the genre of superhero fiction and produced some of the most critically acclaimed superhero comics of our lives. In particular, the one from which this movie takes its material…the “Dark Phoenix Saga.”
At face value, the 1980’s “Dark Phoenix Saga” seems like it could be a sexist story about how a woman cannot handle power/agency. Not long before this arc, founding X-Man Jean Grey (AKA Marvel Girl) had been transformed into the immensely powerful Phoenix. However, the reason Jean goes “evil” and becomes the Dark Phoenix has less to do with her inability to cope with her newfound powers, and more to do with the machinations of the men around her. She is implied to have been sexually assaulted by the sleazy villain Mastermind and used by the evil capitalist villains the Hellfire Club. The world around her was just not ready to deal with a woman with such power and proceeded to break her.
This movie version takes the surface-level approach where Jean Grey is a side character in what should be her movie. The original Fox X-Men movies centered around Wolverine above everyone else. The story of the struggles and pain of Jean Grey is meant to motivate the male hero. We see how hard this is for Wolverine, while Jean mostly has to wear black contacts and look tortured.
The other issue this movie has is trying to adapt a second, different, story arc, from 30+ years after “Dark Phoenix.” That arc is Joss Whedon’s “Gifted” arc of Astonishing X-Men. This arc covers the concept of a “cure” for being a mutant. So in addition to taking on a nine-issue arc that had almost five years of serialized build-up, this movie attempts a completely different storyline with a completely different cast. The movie was set up to fail, with only one hour and 44 minutes to handle what should have been a season’s long arc on television.
The movie also attempts to introduce far too many new characters for the third installment of a franchise. Kelsey Grammar’s Beast, who in the comics is a founding member of the team, is finally introduced and given center-stage. Ben Foster’s Warren Worthington III/Angel is also a founding X-Man who comes in to promptly show off the special effects of having large wings. Additionally, the show also continues the tradition of throwing in B and C-List X-Men characters as wordless cameos only to kill them off or recast them in successive movies. With a budget of $210 million dollars, this movie was the most expensive film ever made when it came out. The bloated amount of special effects and characters only goes on to underserve the characters who should be the film’s focus.
Through an odd twist of fate, the same writer, Simon Kinberg, would get a second chance to redo this adaptation years later in 2019’s Dark Phoenix. The penultimate outing for the Fox-owned X-Men franchise before the official Disney takeover, Dark Phoenix, served to mostly...exist. It was the fairly uninspired final outing for this series and everyone realized that maybe, just maybe, this story can’t be done justice in film.
Outside of film, the story has been adapted twice for animation. In X-Men: The Animated Series we get possibly the closest to a comics-accurate adaptation, done in 22-minute installments over the course of a season. Wolverine and the X-Men, the most recent X-Men cartoon, attempts a happy medium between the film version and the comics version. It’s unknown what tactic the Marvel Cinematic Universe will take now that Disney has acquired Fox, but we do know that they have two failed attempts at this iconic story to give them pause on where to proceed next.
But then again, the recent hit show WandaVision stole the idea and copied it to enormous success!
Marco is a comedian, writer, and underemployed New Yorker trying to make it in this damn world. He enjoys fruitlessly pursuing love on dating apps and keeping track of all of the movies he’s seen on Letterboxd.