The third X-Men movie was an early summer 2006 success, topping the box office take of its two prequels while garnering decent reviews from the public (if not die-hard series fans). The film saw a change in directors, as Bryan Singer departed the series to helm the disastrous Superman Returns, taking composer/editor John Ottman with him. With Michael Kamen’s untimely 2003 death ruling out his return to the franchise, Brett Ratner, Singer’s replacement, chose former Media Ventures composer John Powell to score the film.
Powell seemed an unlikely choice at the time, and many feared that X-Men: The Last Stand would be saddled with an overly electronic Remote Control/Media Ventures dial-a-score. He would go on to prove his doubters wrong in a spectacular fashion, building on strong previous efforts like The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Ice Age 2 to produce a powerhouse action/adventure score for the X-Men. Michael Kamen’s score for the first X-Men was serviceable but disappointing, with little thematic material to speak of. John Ottman’s X2 score provided the mutants with a strong main theme and subthemes, but was unable to develop them effectively in the underscore. Powell united the two approaches, combining Kamen’s robust action scoring with Ottman’s thematic approach.
The score is anchored with a brassy and heroic main theme that retains structural similarities to Kaman’s X-Men and Ottman’s X2 material and is first heard in “Bathroom Titles.” Powell is able to effectively integrate the theme into the underscore, using it in a more subdued form as counterpart throughout the album’s quieter cues while returning to the brassy march when necessary. Magneto and his underlings get a pounding, percussive theme that again has echoes of Ottman’s Magneto material but develops the basic soundscape in a far more aggressive and menacing way. Powell, unlike Ottman, is able to develop this theme in the album’s many large-scale action cues as well.
However, the real highlight of the score is the music for the Dark Phoenix character. First introduced as a swirling love theme of sorts in “Whirlpool of Love,” the darkly choral music builds to a frenzy in the “Dark Phoenix’s Tragedy” and “Phoenix Rises” cues. Powell’s orchestration of the theme is spectacular, offsetting the choral fireworks with robust action music; these building blocks intertwine and build off one another as the songs reach their climax, often subtly incorporating fragments of the title theme and the Magneto material.
X-Men: The Last Stand develops several other outstanding motifs, and its latter half is packed with impressive action cues. Powell wisely doesn’t seek to invent the wheel, and several of his cues contain hints of the distinctive Elfman superhero flair; though this is subtly done, it is a welcome decision in an era where the anonymous grinding of Batman Begins is increasingly the superhero scoring standard. The pounding metal-on-metal hits prevalent in the action material also owe something to Horner’s early 80’s style, but again the musical voice is strictly Powell’s.
In addition to being one of Powell’s highest-grossing films, X-Men: The Last Stand served as an impressive resume-builder for John Powell, giving notice that he was someone to watch in the soundtrack community. Powell was able to parley this success into other assignments, like the gritty superhero flick Hancock and the Oscar-nominated orchestral score for How to Train Your Dragon. Sadly, he would not be asked back for a repeat performance with the X-Men franchise, which would continue to rotate through composers in its increasingly disappointing further entries. Powell’s ex-collaborator Harry Gregson-Williams (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), fellow Remote Control/Media Ventures alumnus Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class), and even Marco Beltrami (The Wolverine) were all unable to match Powell’s exhilarating music.
The superior material and development on display in The Last Stand make it the best superhero score of the decade, and it comes highly recommended for anyone looking for a fully developed, thematic score for the X-Men that remains true to the series’ musical roots while maintaining John Powell’s distinct musical voice. Like many Varése Sarabande releases from the mid-2000s, X-Men: The Last Stand was part of the “Family Dollar Housecleaning” in which large numbers of unsold CDs were written off and sold to the retailer; it can therefore easily be had new for as little as $3 to $4.