Threes are tricky; for every Return of the Jedi, Last Crusade and Goldfinger, there’s a Porky’s Revenge, Godfather III and Beyond Re-animator. The third X-Men falls somewhere in between, like Search for Spock or Rise of the Machines, it gets the job done, but it feels like something has been lost in the time between films. On the bright side though, Last Stand is no where near the debacle a lot of Internet fans feared it would be; while some of the subtlety and subtext has been lost, Brett Ratner has nonetheless crafted an enjoyable X-Men adventure.
The film opens with two scenes that really get to the heart of the X-Men, and what makes the characters so unique. First, we flashback 20 years where we see Professor Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, de-aged through CGI) arrive at the home of Jean Grey, a young girl who we know becomes a powerful member of the X-Men.
Ten years after that we get what is probably the most disturbing scene in the series when we see young Warren Worthington III in his home bathroom covered in blood and feathers. On his back are two boney ridges where his wings used to be – he’s cut them off.
In two very brief scenes, Ratner sums up the philosophical and social undercurrent of the X-Men. Xavier and Magneto, once friends, but split along the divide of where they see mutants in relation to humanity, Xavier believing in peaceful coexistence and Magneto’s desire to assure mutant supremacy. With young Warren, henceforth to be know as Angel, we see a boy deeply ashamed about a matter of biology he can’t control, fearing what others, paticularly his father, will think of him. This kind of social science has been key to the X-Men’s success since the 60s, and Ratner nails it.
Ultimately the two stories tie together, Angel’s father owns a pharmaceutical company that has developed an enzyme that will permanently suppress the gene that gives mutants their abilities; it becomes known as a ‘cure’. The cure is brought to Xavier’s attention by Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), the Secretary for Human Affairs and a former X-Man called Beast for obvious reasons. While Xavier cautiously weighs the potential options, Magneto begins raising an army, “They think they can cure us,” he tells his followers, “Well I say, we are the cure.”
“McKellen as Magneto is absolutely pitch perfect.”
If Ratner and his screenwriters had left it at that, we really could have had something here. The perfect follow-up to the first two films about the nature of mutants, how they relate to normal humans and where their place is, and can be, in the world. However, the filmmakers added another element that really weighs down the momentum of the cure storyline, and doesn’t add much to the overall film.
As you’ll remember from the last X-Men film, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) sacrificed herself to save her teammates from certain death. We know from the final scene of X-2 though that that wasn’t necessarily the end for Jean. In Last Stand she’s found alive, but she’s definitely not the same. According to Xavier, Jean is so powerful he had to put blocks in her brain to prevent her powers from consuming her. In the process, the blocks created a dormant personality called ‘Phoenix’. It’s this Phoenix that is now at the helm of Jean’s powers, as she joins up with Magneto in his attack on the source of the cure, a young mutant named Leech (Cameron Bright).
What stinks here is that the whole Phoenix development seems like an after thought to everyone involved. They had a really great story with the cure concept, but then they remembered that thread left dangling at the end of part two and I guess they felt that they absolutely had pick that up and squeeze it into the plot somehow.
The Phoenix concept comes from one of the classic X-Men stories from the comics called the Dark Phoenix Saga, where Jean Grey, thought killed in action, miraculously returns from the dead with new powers thus rebranding herself Phoenix. But it turns out that Grey is possessed by some kind of alien entity who drives her to go on a galactic killing spree before a final showdown with the X-Men on the moon’s surface, where Grey kills herself after realizing the damage she’s caused.
“In two very brief scenes, Ratner sums up the philosophical and social undercurrent of the X-Men.”
Epic, right? And while I hardly expect this story to be adapted verbatim, it does imply a kind of grand scope, a Homeric adventure even, enough to fill an entire separate trilogy. At best, the Phoenix plot is a B story, only occasionally do we get a glimmer of the fearsome might of Phoenix, she mostly just takes orders from Magneto, which is a shame when you think of the potential this character holds. She does kill a couple of the X-Men for what is purely shock value, but in one case we don’t see a body and the other is taken away in a post credits epilogue.
There is a lot of good in this movie though don’t get me wrong. Hugh Jackman is once again the Wolverine to beat, he perfectly captures the character’s duality: the angry loner and the reliable teammate. McKellen as Magneto is absolutely pitch perfect; there’s a scene where one of his Brotherhood is depowered, and when they plead for help he simply says, “I’m sorry, but you’re not one of us.” Also worthy of note is Grammer’s Beast, I love the character from the comics and Grammer does him justice despite issues of make-up beyond the actor’s control.
“There is a lot of good in this movie though don’t get me wrong.”
On the other hand, Halle Berry really underplays Storm, it’s just hard to accept her as the defacto leader of the team. I understand that Berry wanted more screentime, but she failed to understand that you have to give more to get more. Also, a lot of characters are really under used; including,surprisingly, Angel (Ben Foster) who just seems to disappear after the first act. The metallic Colossus finally makes the team after a cameo in X-2, but he only shows up for the fights.
It feels like all the characters, save for a couple, get the short end of the stick; there is so much story and so many characters, the only time there seems to be any cohesion is during the fight scenes. (Matters aren’t helped by a brisk 100 minute running time.)
Another thing about the film is the way it teases with fleeting glimpses at other corners of the X-Universe. Like the giant, mutant-hunting robots the Sentinels, we finally get to see one (sort of) but only in the context of a training session in the team’s holographic Danger Room. Last stand also introduces us to Juggernaut, a powerful villain in his own right, but for this story he’s just one of Magneto’s stooges, who spouts cring-worthy lines like, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”
With enough dialogue like that, you come dangerously close to entering camp territory. (For more on camp see every last minute of Batman and Robin.) Like I said earlier a lot of the subtlety and subtext has been lost in this edition, still the film does occasionally surprise with it’s social commentary; but in keeping with the times the metaphors used allude to modern debates about people who claim they can ‘cure’ homosexuality. There’s also a great scene where government agents are interrogating the shape changing Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), calling her by her real name: Raven Darkholme. “I don’t answer to my slave name,” is her response.
“To Ratner’s credit though, he’s made the best out of an awful situation.”
To Ratner’s credit though, he’s made the best out of an awful situation. He was flown in at the eleventh hour to replace Layer Cake’s Matthew Vaughn, handed a script already finished, a cast already joined, and a release date written in stone; yet somehow he managed to put together a relatively successful picture. I think a lot of the sloppiness in the film could have been corrected with further drafts of the script. Part of that blame lies with the corporate bosses at Fox and their single-minded determination to beat former franchise helmer Bryan Singer to the punch by releasing X-Men before Superman.
With some terrific action sequences and enough heart-felt character moments to make the film feel more then a giant special effects driven mess. Kudos to Ratner for proving the pundits wrong, X-Men The Last Stand may not be perfect, but then again, what in life is?