Having fought atop the Statue of Liberty and inside the White House in the first two “X-Men” movies, it is fitting that the climactic battle scene of “X-Men: The Last Stand” takes place at another American landmark– Alcatraz. The legendary former prison serves not only as another iconic image for the series, but also as a metaphor for what will happen to the mutants of the world, should they take a new “cure” that strips them of their unique powers.
The conflict of this comic book-based franchise has always been the persecution of outcasts, and part three is blessed with a whopper of a dichotomy that carries the film even in its most unremarkable moments. The pharmaceutical “cure” derives from a mutant himself, a young boy whom billionaire Warren Worthington (Michael Murphy) keeps locked up in Alcatraz. The very way in which “normalcy” can be restored to mutantkind comes from a mutant himself. It is also a great science fiction premise: How badly would you want to change or “fix” the one thing that makes you different?
|“Why don’t I ever get to do anything cool?”…|
Some view this as the opportunity of a lifetime, to remove what has caused them so much grief from the majority. Others wear their mutantdom as a badge of honor, something that makes them part of a select super race of beings. One such man is metal-bending madman Magneto (Ian McKellan), whose transformation from childhood Holocaust survivor to racial supremist is now complete.
Convinced that this now-voluntary cure will lead to a government-mandated genocide of all mutants, Magneto brings together a violent uprising to kill the boy and end production of the “cure.” The X-Men, bearing a more moral responsibility, then realize that they must protect the very thing that threatens the extinction of their own powers. This would be enough discord for any other movie, but since the X-Men films have a huge number of main characters, there is still internal strife from the last film to be dealt with.
That comes in the form of the resurrected psychic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). While the explanation of her survival may be completely ridiculous (she was safe underwater in some kind of psychic bubble of her own making!), her story allows us to question the always-virtuous intentions of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) for the first time. Another intruiging duality is that we learn that Xavier had sectioned off the dangerous portions of her mind for her own protection, allowing only one side of her personality to be expressed. The other, more primal side, as comics fans know, is called the Dark Phoenix, and when her eyes turn black and the wind starts gathering around her, she is both more destructive and way more fun.
On one hand, she is all libido and sexual fantasy as she whips the belt buckle off of a stunned Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) with her mind. On the other, her seemingly unlimited and unbridled power could mean destruction for the entire planet. Talk about a femme fatale– this is serious business. Since the narrative revolves around freedom and the responsibilities of its expression, the internal struggle for control of a psychic’s mind is a fitting, if not cinematically limiting, idea.
|…”I mean, even Famke is cool now!”|
While these two major plotlines keep “X-Men: The Last Stand” interesting, there are more melodramatic subplots, like a needless romantic triangle between three younger X-Men, that seem to randomly come and go and are underdeveloped. Dramatic scenes between mutant-hater Worthington and his son Angel (Ben Foster), who is first glimpsed hacking off his budding wings in the bathroom as a child, should have brought more gravitas to the movie, but do not quite have enough screen time to truly sink in.
Director Brett Ratner takes over for Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two installments, and brought just the right balance of darkness and light to the series. That balance is slightly off here, as some of the usual snappy dialogue is sometimes replaced by unfortunate action cliches. They are fleeting, however, as the film speeds from one plot to the next. Ratner does not share Singer’s rare ability to make a short scene speak volumes about a character, and a couple of key moments (no specifics means no spoilers!) should have carried more poignancy. This is the one instance where a longer running time might have actually benefitted the film.
The action is also a little less fast and furious than in “X2: X-Men United,” but the set pieces themselves are no less remarkable, such as Magneto’s symbolic re-assignment of the Golden Gate bridge and a fight within a house that’s levitating just above its foundation.
One advantage that movies have over comic books is that they have the requirement of wrapping up nicely. Whereas a popular comic character needs to have a stream of never-ending conflict to ensure its book’s longevity, closure is actually good for a movie. There are some parts, then , in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” that will infuriate comic purists. There always are. Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg’s screenplay may not do cinematic justice to the story arcs of the X-Men’s comic counterparts, but it is a bold and far-reaching script, filled with bigger-picture concepts that will keep the movie relevant for years to come.
The fact of the matter is that the newset and last (before the inevitable Wolverine spinoff flick, at least) X-Men adventure is a thought-provoking and entertaining venture, even if it is stylistically a little more ordinary and a little less uncanny.