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This Week in Genre History: X-Men: The Last Stand was the last time a Brett Ratner-type would direct a superhero film
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
What's perhaps most fascinating about any X-Men movie — and there have now been 13, if you count the two Deadpool movies — is that while they have different tones, different directors, and different casts, they all seem to exist as their own ongoing storyline. Not a canonical, fictional storyline (the timeline is impossible to reconcile). No, the storyline of the X-Men movies themselves. When you make 13 different movies in the same franchise over a 20-year timeline, they end up telling you more about the context of the world in which they were made than the X-Men universe itself. Every blockbuster tells you a little about the environment in which they were made. They probably tell you more than they want to.
In no instance is this more true than with X-Men: Last Stand, which came out Memorial Day weekend of 2006. After two films that were both commercial successes and artistically ambitious — Bryan Singer, who would end up dragging the franchise into his own personal gutter, was widely praised for maximizing the rich metaphor of mutants-as-outsiders — the franchise, and comic book movies in general, went full Hollywood in the ugliest way possible: With Brett Ratner directing. That Ratner would direct an X-Men movie said much more about Hollywood in 2006 than it did about X-Men movies. The franchise was strong enough to recover. But it's best to think about the film that resulted, and Ratner, as little as possible.
Why was it a big deal at the time? For all the acclaim and success he garnered for the first two films, it's noteworthy that Bryan Singer left the franchise (temporarily, as it would turn out) to make a Superman sequel after the second X-Men film: It was as if he saw this franchise as the minors and the red cape as the big leagues. Surprisingly enough, the next director had to be approved by Hugh Jackman, who initially approached Darren Aronofsky and Joss Whedon, both of whom said no. (They even asked Zack Snyder!) Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn eventually took the gig and did some casting — including the inspired choice of Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut — but didn't think he'd have enough time to do the movie in the limited window the studio gave him. Fox wanted someone who could make the movie fast, efficiently, cheaply, and in a studio-friendly manner.
Enter Ratner. Fresh off the hits that were the Rush Hour films, along with Red Dragon, Ratner was appealing to Fox, mostly because he'd make the straightforward, on-time, no-muss no-fuss blockbuster that, for all the success the first two X-Men films had, had eluded the studio. (The first movies were just so... metaphorical. Ratner doesn't do metaphor.) Ratner's dude-bro mindset — one, we'd learn years later, was more sinister and destructive than we'd even known at the time — was a sharp contrast to Singer's approach, and if anything, Ratner was the answer to the question, "What if a Xerox'd Michael Bay directed an X-Men movie?" Though, no one could answer why anyone would ask such a terrible question.
What was the impact? The contrast with Singer's films was obvious from the first scenes, in which Famke Janssen's Jean Grey and Halle Berry's Storm were suddenly, dramatically, sexpot-ed up. Think about how differently Zack Snyder shot and costumed Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman compared to how Patty Jenkins did it, and multiply it by 100. The subtext to the film was eliminated entirely, and it basically just became "Generic, Professional, Weightless Superhero Movie." Ratner did what he promised: He turned the movie in on time. He did little more.
This, of course… led to a smashing success. X-Men: The Last Stand would end up being the highest-grossing X-Men movie up to that point, much more muscular and in keeping with the bro-tastic mindset of the time. (The movie is very much like Juggernaut, actually: Just mindlessly smashing forward.) It ended up being the biggest Memorial Day weekend grosser in box office history up to that point. Fans of the franchise might have grumbled. But Fox got what they paid for in Ratner.
Has it held up? Ratner, rather famously, announced when taking over the franchise that he didn't really know the X-Men very well and would rely on the writers to stay true to the characters historically. But Ratner's disinterest in the franchise and what many of the outsider characters mean to their fans was obvious. And it was particularly obvious when — and we'll be careful of spoilers for a film that's 15 years old — so many of the most beloved characters end up perishing. It's one thing to kill off [spoiler]. It's another to do it so flippantly. You needed to earn the right to pull such a maneuver off in a way that Ratner hadn't.
This was far from the worst thing that Ratner would do while making X-Men: Last Stand. (His alleged cruelty to Elliot Page on set was horrific and ultimately led to his downfall when the #MeToo movement gained a stronger foothold in Hollywood.) That Ratner would be handed a franchise like X-Men seems absurd today, and would have seemed absurd in 2000, when you'd want a fan's hand on the wheel — somebody like Singer. But in 2006, Ratner was the careful studio hand. It is telling that, even though the film was a hit, Ratner never directed another X-Men movie. Vaughn and Singer would end up returning to try to get the franchise back on familiar footing, for better or worse. Looking back now, it's wild that Brett Ratner directed an X-Men movie. But in 2006, it was the most logical thing in the world.
Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.