"Oh my stars and garters!"
I must start this week's piece with a little bit of an apology as you may feel 'marveling at the past' has been losing its focus over the last few weeks. The whole point of the series has been to consider the alternate routes the Marvel movies could have taken and dream of better things. What I have realised is that the film, as we got it, has to inspire me to conjure those things. If you give me 'Elektra', I cannot give you anything back. I certainly cannot imagine a better film. I can only will it into non-existence.
But if you give me 'X-Men: The Last Stand', I can get inspired. I can conjure not just one film but the entire remaining series that should have rolled out of 20th Century Fox at three yearly intervals following on from the strong foundation laid by Bryan Singer.
It has been said before but bears repeating that I cannot comprehend how Fox let such a strong franchise as the X-Men series go down the drain. I'm not talking about handing the keys to Brett Ratner. I'm talking about purposely making X-Men 3 as 'the last stand' and killing or curing not just beloved mutant characters but the ones we expected to play the biggest parts in what we thought was to come.
So the Phoenix Saga, one of Marvel Comics greatest storylines, is told without Cyclops. An epic and tragic story full of pathos, high emotion and sacrifice is squeezed into a 90 minute runtime. To add insult to injury, the Phoenix Saga is not even the main storyline but acts as a 'B' plot companion piece to the main 'mutant cure' story. Professor Xavier is atomised half way through the film. Characters like Angel are introduced in the opening, seemingly indicating that they will have some major bearing on the plot, only to on screen for about ten minutes. Fan favourite characters like Juggernaut and Psylocke are reduced to wallpaper. Rogue and Mystique, the two strongest female characters, are relieved of their mutant powers and booted out of the series. Wolverine becomes the team leader going completely against the lone warrior persona that defines him (and even delivering a motivational speech just to really rub it in). And Halle Berry is finally allowed to hijack the series for her own selfish needs.
Yet 'X-Men: The Last Stand' contains a fair few brilliant moments. If the film has one overiding flaw its that it is nothing more than a smorgasboard of scenes which are strung together without any theme or strong plotting holding them together. Beast visits Leech (the cure child) for no apparent reason. Cyclops travels back to Alkali Lake for a bit of an angry yell (which he could have done in his bedroom) and Jean shows up on shore at the exact same time. Jean lies unconciouss solely so Logan and Storm can find and bring her back to the mansion. Magneto is able to pinpoint the exact location of a prison convoy. Day turns to pitch black evening in the space of one shot. The list goes on and on.
What the third film needed was breathing room to tell its story properly. The fans wanted the Phoenix Saga. The studio wanted an 'X-Men vs. Magneto' movie. There is plenty of room for compromise but not in a 90 minute film. They should have shot X3 and X4 back to back and told the Phoenix Saga over the course of those two films, still allowing space for the epic action movie the studio wanted. That is what we are going to pitch tonight. All I need you to do is close your eyes, go back in time to the year 2003 when you were still buzzing with excitement over the logical next installments of the X-Men motion picture saga and how glorious it was going to be. Now imagine it is three years later and it actually happened.
X3 needed, more than anything, a unifying theme to tie it all together. Our version of X3 would be a far more intimate and personal story than the first two films, which played to the larger themes of tolerance and persecution. Relying deeply on the relationships and dynamics between the characters we have now grown to love, X3 would have been about the surrogate parents of lost, lonely and frightened children, the responsibilities that come with their upbringing, and the consequences of the paths they are sent on.
This would reverberate through many of the major relationships in the film; Xavier, Magneto and Jean, Xavier and Cyclops, Xavier and Emma Frost, Frost and Jean, Frost and Sebastian Shaw, Storm and Cyclops, Magneto and Pyro, Nightcrawler and Mystique, and Mystique and Rogue.
The finished film gets off to a fantastic start by showing us the first meeting between Xavier, Magneto and Jean Grey as a little girl, seemingly setting the stage for the Phoenix Saga to come and assuring us that the film's focus will be firmly on her character. Alas, not only does this turn out not to be the case but the scene itself goes nowhere. Showing Jean lifting a block cars with her telekinesis is not enough to visually convince the audience that she possesses planet destroying powers beyond her control and that she must be protected from herself before she does any lasting damage. We need Xavier to tell us this later on the film. It would have made much more sense for the scene to end in tragedy. With just the smallest emotional outburst or loss of temper, Jean either atomises her parents or destroys her entire neighbourhood.
Either way, this event marks a turning point in the friendship and partnership between Xavier and Magneto. Xavier makes the choice there and then to protect Jean as best he can by taking her under his wing and blocking the terrible memory of what she has done from her. Magneto sees for the first time in this little girl the potential destructive power of homosuperior and how the mere threat of its use could save them from persecution from humanity. Why even waste time being hiding from humanity or being diplomatic when you have that power? For those not familiar with the story as established in the first two films, this gets them up to speed on these two ideologies which will continue to build and finally come to a head at the climax of X4.
For the record, both the character of Angel and the mutant cure storyline would both be exorcised from our revised outline. They are both wonderful ideas with a lot of potential on film (some of which was seen in the finished product), but not this one. I never saw any synergy between the Phoenix and mutant cure storylines. They just don't gel for me.
This still leaves the issue of how humanity deals with the mutant problem in the film. The thrilling cliffhanger of X2 for me was not the reveal of the Phoenix but the image of the President of the United States about to deliver a key speech to the nation, written presumably with the intent of passing the Mutant Registration Act, but after an intimidating visit by the X-Men unsure what he was actually going to say. It was interesting in 'X-Men: The Last Stand' to see Beast brought in as secretary for mutant affairs but really disappointing to see the president being played by a completely different actor (and a bad one at that) who appears to have no issues with homosuperiors save for terrorists like Magneto.
In our X3 we would learn that the most unsettling kind of reaction is that of silence. The registration act is not passed. In fact no comments are publicly made by the president about the mutant issue, preferring to use Beast as a puppet to deliver false hope. In reality, the government is in collusion with Sebastian Shaw, closet mutant and powerful businessman who instigates the creation of a mutant penal island called Genosha and a certain army of robotic sentries who will be responsible for getting the world's mutants to go there. I have always loved the concept of Genosha. You often hear intolerant retards in the real world explaining that the best way to eliminate problems with minorities is to just deport and dump them on their own isolated patch of land, completely cut off from normal people. Genosha on screen could be a wonderfully satirical response to that line of thinking. I suppose the film 'District 9' has explored that concept now. Then again, 'District 9' didn't have Sentinels (more on them later).
Shaw also has his sights set on Jean Grey and the X-Men. The Hellfire Club, the secret society of elite mutants of which Shaw is the head, have located Jean and intend to manipulate her for their own ends. Key to making this work is Hellfire member Emma Frost whom, we learn, was one of Xavier's first students along like Jean. She also possessed amazing powers far beyond her years. Unlike Jean, she got wise to the professor's keen talent for control and manipulation and grew resentful. Now as she manipulates Jean to unleash the Phoenix, we cannot be sure exactly what angle she is coming from. Is she trying to break down the mental blocks that Xavier has imprinted in Jean's mind in order to free her, or so she can see the professor for what he is and enact a terrible revenge?
Throughout the film, a key relationship would be that between Cyclops and Storm. There would be a definite need to repair the damage that has been done by the underdevelopment of these important characters. Both of them are the leaders of the X-Men but neither have been presented strongly as such in the films. Cyclops is a pussy whipped moping bitch and Storm is Halle Berry and nobody wants her in the movies. As X3 opens, Cyclops is a broken man and the film takes him on a journey of personal growth. Storm takes it upon herself to act, not only as the leader of the team during this period, but to pull Cyclops back from the brink and instill those leadership qualities in him. By the end of the film, due largely to a tragedy in the team, Cyclops will be the leader we know and love from the comics and Storm will have been given a clear function to perform.
A good portion of the film would take place, just as in the comics, at the New York headquarters of the Hellfire Club as the X-Men confront both evil mutants more powerful than anything they have faced before but also reunite with a Jean Grey who has transformed into something they barely recognise. By the third act, the Hellfire Club have been defeated but Shaw has escaped to Genosha to continue his plans there and Jean has slipped away having, as Xavier has surmised, returned home.
All the while, Magneto's apparent lack of activity has been unsettling Xavier. Rather than another plot for mutant domination with a technical doohickey, the Brotherhood (in particular Pyro) have been trying to seduce and recruit Xavier's students to join Magneto's cause, just as Pyro himself was roped in. Catching them at their teenage years when they are most emotionally vulnerable, the Brotherhood are actually able to recruit some followers and the younger generation of X-Men take it upon themselves to split up from the rest of the team and do something about it.
Iceman, Rogue, Colossus and Nightcrawler confront the Brotherhood at Magneto's base of operations; not a row of tents like in the finished film but his isolated island lair from the first movie (which as far as I was concerned was still floating out there completely untouched). Doing this is really just an excuse to accomplish three distinct goals. Firstly, the little kid in me always wanted to see the X-Men fly off to confront Magneto at his island lair. That's something which takes me right back to the nostalgia of the arcade beat em' up game. Just like in the game, our heroes find that Magneto isn't even home but have their hands full enough with Mystique, Juggernaut and Pyro.
Secondly, reuniting Rogue and Nightcrawler with Mystique provides the opportunity for the latter to reveal what the fans have been waiting for her to say since the subtle groundwork laid in X2; that she is the genuine mother of Nightcrawler and surrogate mother to Rogue, having abandoned both of them and setting all three on their paths. Maybe it is a little too much (and a little too neat) to have Mystique be mother to both characters in the films but it would work because it ties in to the theme of the piece. While most abandoned mutant children are forsaken by homosapiens, Mystique is proof positive that mutant parents can be just as cruel. The main reason to bring that element in though would be to give Rebecca Romijn something more substantial to play in the part she truly owns.
Thirdly and most importantly, this set piece would provide our introduction to the mutant hunting robot Sentinels. Given that every X-Men fan worth their salt has been waiting for their arrival (and in the real world, still are), this sequence would be milked for all its worth, played out with the suspense and grandeur of the reveal of the creature in a monster movie. As the X-Men confront the Brotherhood, they are surrounded by ominous mechanical sounds bearing down on the walls just outside, right before those walls are ripped apart by gigantic robotic arms providing our first glimpse. The second comes as the mutants desperately scramble to escape, stopping only for the distracting and vague sight of what they can only describe as 'tin men' viewed in the distance through the walls that have already been ripped out. Finally, as Magneto's lair completely collapses around them, the mutants are trapped on what remains of a barren lump of rock, surrounded by the ultimate physical representation of humanity's hatred of mutants; the awe inspiring image of six or seven Sentinels bearing down on them. The very concept of how far humanity has gone to exterminate them brings the entire group of mutants to paralysis, though they find themselves united together by that very fear. As each one of our characters is taken prisoner by the Sentinels, Mystique can only think of the master of magnetism and how much they need him right now.
But Magneto has far more pressing matters to attend to, namely recruiting the Phoenix and her incredible powers for the Brotherhood. I think even people who didn't enjoy the finished film would agree that the sequence where Xavier and Magneto reunite with Jean at the house where they first met her two decades earlier is a very effective one. In fact it works so well that the film never again seems to be able to match it, which brings me to feel that the scene, albeit in a reworked fashion, would make the perfect climax for X3. It only makes sense dramatically that the ending of the film provides some symmetry with its beginning.
This symmetry between the first and last scene is an element that was present in both of Singer's films which also exposes the theme of each. X1 begins and ends with Xavier and Magneto, the ultimate clash of unshakable, opposing ideologies and the first film is very much about that conflict. X2 begins and ends in the oval office, the ultimate symbol of human authority now heavily involved in the shaping of mutant affairs, and the film is very much about the human/mutant conflict. In our X3, both at the start and end of the film, Xavier and Magneto confront a scared and lost child with powers far beyond her control and attempt to, in blunt terms, manipulate her. Just as it did when they first met her, the Phoenix is unleashed.
There are two problems I did have with the sequence as presented in the finished product. The first being that when the X-Men face off against the Brotherhood outside Jean's house, the neighbourhood looks exactly the same as it did in the opening scene. The idea of super powered mutants fighting each other in a cozy suburban hamlet in broad daylight with all of Jean's neighbours watching through the windows doesn't exactly sit well with me. You've probably noticed in the film that the place is completely deserted which makes it all the more weird. By the time Jean's house actually flies off into the air I think someone would have called the cops. If our X3 established Jean's original home as a place of tragedy then it would only make sense for her neighbourhood to be condemmed and shut off from the rest of the world; a physical memory of Jean's past mutated into the dark and desolate place her soul has become. Such a move satisfies the logic of the plot and makes for a pretty cool stage to play the finale out on.
The second issue of course is the premature death of Xavier. I have no issue with the idea of Jean killing one of the X-Men. Such an event is the perfect clincher for our heroes to realise that the woman they knew and love has transformed into something else and may be lost forever. The filmmakers just picked the wrong team member to kill. If they wanted to shock the audience as well as get them on their feet cheering, they should have killed Storm. As mentioned earlier, our version of X3 would do its best to repair the damage done by both the miscasting of Halle Berry and the undervelopment of the character. Once she is killed, Cyclops finally snaps out his self induced apathy, utilises the skills he has learned from Storm and takes charge of the X-Men, emerging as the leader comic fans have always known him to be. He also finally accepts the harsh truth that Jean may be beyond saving.
But there is one more harsh truth to come. After witnessing Jean's power first hand, the X-Men are still befuddled as to where exactly it has come from. Xavier is forced to confess that he is partially responsible. The filmmakers (whether Singer, Ratner or otherwise) were in a better position than some comic book adaptations when coming to tackle the Phoenix Saga. Having accepted the more grounded tone established by the first film, the audience was well aware that a literal translation involving the intergalactic Shi'ar Empire and the Phoenix being an alien lifeform that possesses Jean was unlikely to be on the cards. We were willing and ready to accept a more realistic adaptation and, shock of shocks, 'X-Men: The Last Stand' actually gave us one which worked.
I loved the concept of the Phoenix being a repressed part of Jean's physce and how she possessed so much devestating power at an early age that Xavier felt he had no choice but to contain it in any way he could. At the end of our version of the film, Xavier confesses this to the assembled team members that have not been killed or captured by this point, leaving the explanation of the Phoenix a mystery to keep us engaged for as long as possible. It is Cyclops, the one who would have given his life for Xavier at any time, who feels most betrayed and though he is ready to step up and lead the team, he turns his back on his surrogate father, feeling that everything which has come to pass is as a result of the professor making Jean's choices for her.
So our version of X3 ends on a total downer with the entire planet practically on the brink of destruction. The Sentinels are now actively targeting mutants all over the globe. Magneto, always a dangerous fanatic, now has Jean and the power of the Phoenix at his side. Half of the X-Men are missing in action. The other half have rejected their guiding light in Xavier and are heading into a mission they know they have little to no chance of accomplishing. The most competent member of the team has been killed by one of their own. Cyclops is tasked with killing the woman he loves. And in the final shot of the film, we see the birthplace of the Sentinels themselves and realise that there are more than a few to contend with. The super Sentinel aka Master Mold is now churning them out at such a rate that there will soon be more mutant hunters than mutants in the world.
Keeping with the symmetry between first and last scene, X4 opens in the Danger Room with the X-Men fighting for their lives in a simulation not too dissimilar from the epic final battle coming up. Most of the film would centre around Genosha where the mutants captured at Magneto's lair have been taken and where the Sentinels are launching from. It is actually the perfect excuse to bring in new mutant characters by introducing them as having already been imprisoned there. You wouldn't want to overload the piece with substantial new supporting players but simply provide cameos and easter eggs that the fans can respond to. Specifically though, Genosha is where we would meet Gambit. Through their experiences together, the romantic relationship we know between Rogue and Gambit would begin to take shape.
Meanwhile, having finally seen his worst nightmares come to fruition, Magneto unleashes both his and Jean's full powers against the world's military might as he demands to know the location of Genosha in order to erase it from the globe. Wiping out convoys, ripping out landmark bridges, destroying submarines and stealing their nuclear payloads and holding entire cities hostage; you name it, Magneto does it. At the same time, the X-Men are trying to find Genosha "the traditional way - look", leading to an epic climax on the island itself with the fate of both human and mutant kind in the balance.
The 'last stand', if you will, offers the opportunity to show each X-man pitted mano-a-mano against the Brotherhood member we want to see them fight. Not only would we see Iceman vs. Pyro, but Colossus vs. Juggernaut and Rogue vs. Mystique. Not to mention Wolverine, Gambit and Nightcrawler taking down Sentinels single handedly. Most importantly, the film could deliver the final, physical, confrontation we have been waiting for between Xavier and Magneto. For all his monstrous powers to tear armies and cities apart with a flick of the wrist, Magneto has no defense against the mental powers of his old friend. While their children play out the war they started with brute force, Xavier and Magneto engage in a battle of willpower with the professor finally unleashing powers of manipulation that he dared never to use before. Rather than blocking memories like he did with Jean, Xavier brings Magneto right back to his tragic upbringing and makes him relive it right then and there. Just as Eric Lensherr is brought to paralysis by the horrors he endured all those years ago, just as his head is filled to the brim with reflection on a life which has brought him nothing but violence and pain, Xavier empties it completely. Xavier mindwipes Magneto leaving him as nothing but an empty shell. The Brotherhood is finally defeated.
The battle has left the X-Men barely alive themselves and certainly in no condition to finish off the Sentinel army or destroy Master Mold. Just like in the finished film, Jean is the last standing member of Magneto's crew and is the only one with the power to destroy the Sentinels. The only hope of that happening is for Cyclops to be able to reach the real Jean hidden inside the Phoenix and reason with her to fight back. Wolverine quite rightly reminds Cyke that Jean will atomize anyone who gets close enough to her without a second's thought. After an almost wordless exchange, the two rivals resign themselves to what must be done. With his invincible adamantium body, Wolverine is the only one who can withstand Jean's attacks, but Cyclops is the only one who can actually stop her. Similar to how it plays in the finished film, Wolverine charges at Jean as she uses her psychic powers to tear pounds of flesh away from his body. While lesser beings would instantly be reduced to a bloody pulp, Wolverine's healing factor kicks into overdrive and just about keeps his body together. The difference is that Cyclops is right behind him using that adamantium shield to get close to Jean.
Then, like pages ripped from the final moments of X-Men issue #137, Cyclops manages to reach the real Jean Grey. After all the X-Men have been through, they have managed to save their friend. However, Jean tells her great love in completely rational terms that there is no way to save her, that she must pay for her sins and that Xavier was right to do what he did to her mind all those years ago; that all mutants born with extraordinary powers must take on the responsibility of being able to control those talents and that she never could. As she says her final goodbyes to her friends, and as Cyclops and Wolverine watch helplessly, Jean unleashes the final, ultimate form of the Phoenix. In a sequence both beautiful and terrifying, the Phoenix completely obliterates Master Mould and the entire Sentinel army before soaring into the heavens and exploding in space. She could have lived to be a God but it was more important that she die a human.
As X4 ends, our focus as we wrap up is on the characters most directly affected by Jean's passing; Cyclops, Wolverine, Professor Xavier and Magneto. The audience expects Cyke to be even more despondent than he was at the start of the third film but, of course, he has learned so much from Jean and the rest of the team over the course of their adventure that he is now and forever will be the leader of the X-Men. When he thinks of Jean, he can only remember her courage and sacrifice and how, while being its greatest threat, she saved the entire planet. Having just known her is enough for him to keep fighting. Having been her great love and best friend constantly inspires him to be more than he ever thought he could be. In fact, X4 would be very much about finding that inner strength inside us all, the one thing that inspires and motivates us to keep fighting.
Wolverine meanwhile is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Having his spirit almost totally broken by both Jean's death and the realisation that she never could have been with him, he packs up and leaves the X-Mansion once again. Inspired by a rather brilliant alternate ending which was cut from 'X-Men: The Last Stand', Wolverine returns to the shady Canadian bar where we first met him and even reunites with the crotchety barkeep who pulled a shotgun on him. Saying that he is only stopping for a beer before he moves on, the comic fans are left knowing full well that Wolverine is finally on his way to Japan and into his first solo movie as a character (more on that in a few weeks time).
Finally, we see the poignant sight of the master of magnetism reduced to the appearance of a harmless old man playing chess in the park. Even though I objected to the death of Xavier in the finished film, I cannot deny the haunting power of seeing Eric Lensherr completely alone in the world as a result of the path he has chosen, gazing into the chess board and clearly wishing that he could see his friend again. I think it is a wonderful little scene. Just imagine how cool it would be if Xavier were in that scene, once again playing chess with his old friend but one that does not recognise him due to the mindwipe. Calling their current game to an end, Xavier promises Eric that they will play again tomorrow and leaves. Just as in the finished film, Eric stares back at the board, extends his finger and the chess pieces appear to move of their own accord; cut to credits.
Phew, I think we can call it a night now. I do apologize if any of that was long winded but you have to understand that tonight's article has actually been four years in the making. The whole concept of this series of articles actually started with the idea of re-conceptualising X3 as the film I was expecting it to be all those years ago and sharing that with my fellow geeks. Never forget either that, while things have turned out differently, I still hold out hope that one far off day, we will see a brand new X-Men series of films and we will see the Phoenix Saga done right. It may take a long time to arrive but it is going to happen. X-Men is not going to go away.
Sadly, neither are Ghost Rider or Spider-man and they'll be next on the agenda for 'marveling at the past' so stay tuned every Friday to TMT for the next article. Excelsior!