This review contains some spoilers.
X-Men: The Last Stand isn’t the worst movie of the year. Hell, it’s not even the worst film in the series. The bad news is that it’s also not the best, although the elements seem to be there; what we end up with is a movie that’s a miracle, given its production history, yet is a missed opportunity, given what the filmmakers had to work with.
The film combines two stories that are familiar to comic readers – the resurrection of Jean Grey as a powerful, crazy being known as Phoenix is an arc most X-fans grew up with. The other plot, about a cure for mutants, is of more recent vintage, coming from Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men. Either of these stories could have been a movie, but since they’re lashed together one must suffer. It ends up being the Phoenix.
I understand why Phoenix is in the film – it’s THE X-Men story, the one that in many ways continues to define the aesthetic of that universe. The problem with Phoenix, at least for the X-Men films, is the way that it doesn’t obviously fit into the thematic territory the series has staked for itself. Even losing the sci-fi alien trappings from the original Phoenix saga, that plot doesn’t lend itself immediately to the “beleaguered minority” themes of the films; Phoenix is ultimately an insular story. The mutant cure, on the other hand, is so quintessentially thematically appropriate that it’s hard to believe it took almost forty years for someone to come up with it.
The mutant cure plot is a great one because it throws into stark relief the key question anyone who is different must face – how much is my difference helping or hurting me? And if I could change my skin color, my sexual orientation, my skeleton being visible through my skin, would I? Should I? The X-Men films have been about how outsiders come together to form groups. By the time X2 hit, the X-Men were a mini-army. But the cure returns the spotlight to the individual – suddenly the new community, formed by necessity, may not be so necessary anymore.
To Magneto the cure is a new final solution. To him it’s the realization of his fears – an all-out assault on mutants, but done quietly. It’s a purge, but a polite one. And in many ways it echoes modern issues – how much freedom (of flight) do you want to give up for security (in normalcy)? What makes X-Men: The Last Stand a better movie than it perhaps has a right to be is that it doesn’t make the cure a black and white issue. The cure doesn’t come from the government, looking to eradicate mutants; it comes from billionaire Warren Worthington, who wants a cure for his son’s angelic wings. He really thinks that the cure is helping mutants. And while it’s easy to see where Magneto is coming from, it’s just as easy to see where Rogue, who has not been able to touch another human being since puberty, is coming from when she thinks that maybe this cure isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Where the film stumbles is that it introduces issues like this and then doesn’t follow through with them. Granted, it’s a 97 minute long action movie released over Memorial Day weekend, so you can’t expect lengthy debates on ethics, but there must be ways to have those debates through action. Early in the film the government weaponizes the cure, and a member of Magneto’s Brotherhood gets de-mutated (in a touch that reminds us of what it is that makes Magneto a bad guy – the same rigid adherence to black and white that our current Decider in Chief has – the master of magnetism immediately abandons the depowered, helpless character. “You’re no longer one of us,” he says. Must be against us, huh?) – Henry McCoy, aka the bouncing blue-haired Beast (truly a travesty of make-up, but more on that later) and the Secretary of Mutant Affairs, is outraged. Rightly so, perhaps – what would the Marvel Universe’s Geneva Convention have to say about that? But later in the film, when the only way to save the day seems to be to use the weaponized cure, McCoy has no problem personally delivering it. The film doesn’t give even a moment of thought to the moral aspects of this, and it’s too bad, since it’s so damn obvious. Those are the places where the movie really drops the ball.
The basic truth of the matter is that the film needs another half hour. As it is, X-Men: The Last Stand feels scooped out. There’s barely a second act here. The characters take the loss more often than not – the trend towards making these films Wolverine and His Pals The X-Men is essentially completed, which is a shame because so many characters and subplots have been already built in to the franchise. By spending too much narrative on Wolverine, everyone else gets the shaft. The other problem with focusing on Wolverine (and this is going to be spoilery) is that the entire film becomes imbalanced when it comes to the Phoenix storyline. In the original comics, Phoenix destroys an entire alien planet, killing billions. That’s her “crossing the line” moment, and it’s not one that would fit in the film universe. The movie wisely knows that while it can’t replicate that moment in scale, it can actually trump that moment in emotion – Jean kills Cyclops. The problem here is two-fold: Cyclops’ death is too perfunctory to mean anything, and by removing him from the equation the film has placed all the burden on Wolverine. While the first two movies had Wolverine and Cyclops as dark mirrors of each other and rivals for Jean’s affection, the loss of half of that equation throws everything out of whack. It’s especially annoying as the dichotomy of the two suitors is paralleled in Jean herself, who is suffering from schizophrenia – she is occasionally Jean Grey, but is mostly Phoenix, a beast of the unconscious. The storyline tames Wolverine into a sappy romantic and team-oriented do-gooder, the parts Cyclops needed to play.
Cyclops isn’t the only major death, and characters who have appeared in all three movies end up taking the cure, involuntarily or not. This is one of the great things film can do – provide closure. The X-Men have been having comic adventures for four decades, and look to keep going, but to do so they have to remain in a sort of stasis. Nothing can really change that much in the long haul. But since it seems Fox won’t be going the James Bond/Jack Ryan route with these films, recasting parts to keep the characters eternal, there is the opportunity for some stories to come to an end. It’s satisfying in a way that open-ended serial comic storytelling never will be, and if there’s anger over some of the deaths and depowerings – well, good. That means they matter, and aren’t just fodder thrown out there for faux grittiness.
Last Stand gets a bunch of things sadly wrong – Beast’s makeup makes him look like he’s in Blue Man Group. Is his mutant power that he is covered in a layer of obvious paint? – but one thing it gets very right is the almost ridiculous sense of overkill that marked the comic’s true golden years, when Chris Claremont (who has a cameo in the film) was telling stories so filled with endless subplots and Byzantine character relationships and histories that you needed a score card. For the first time in the series, I felt like this was becoming an X-Men world where Xavier could have a girlfriend who might be the queen of an alien empire. Your mileage is going to vary on this aspect – you may be partial to the thuddingly earthbound adventures in the first film. To me that movie feels like a high school production of The X-Men; not just because of tragic production values but because of the small-minded supervillainry of Magneto and the bland heroics of the good guys. The whole thing felt like one step above foiling a bank robbery. X2 opened the door on the fantastic, and in this movie that door has been flung wide open. The imagery is grand and operatic – you don’t get much more over the top than using a section of the Golden Gate Bridge as your personal flight deck. This stuff doesn’t always work, and the stagebound feel of the first film returns with a vengeance in this movie’s climactic battle, but I liked the bigness of it. The beauty of the X-Men is that they live in a world where a fight sequence could very easily include someone levitating an entire house – we finally have that here. To borrow a modern comics phrase that is in turn borrowed from the movies, Last Stand feels widescreen, while the first film felt panned and scanned.
The question I don’t want to tackle here is that of Brett Ratner. This movie looks and feels mostly in line with Bryan Singer’s efforts. There’s an anonymity to the direction, and I get the impression that most of the decisions were made in various pre-productions before Ratner came on. My guess would be that Ratner served on Last Stand as a director in a very old fashioned way, hearkening back to when a director would come to the production after the film was written and cast and left when shooting was complete. The job was to get things on film. Is that fair? I don’t know, and we won’t know for a number of years, until people are willing to write books about the whole thing. What’s important is that the direction is competent, but not distracting.
What is distracting is some of the clunkers in the script. Can we never again have someone say “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” unless we’re supposed to understand that the person is a fake intellectual dipshit? Too much of the dialogue is expository and perfunctory – it almost feels like the lines came from the second to last draft of the screenplay, before someone came in and punched up the dialogue.
Setting aside fears that this movie was going to be a complete turkey, and taking it just as it is at face value, as the third film in a series, Last Stand offers fans some astonishing pleasures – the relationship between Magneto and Xavier is perfect, a scene of Wolverine having his flesh atomized as he tries to get near Phoenix, the beautiful and sad and unexpected death of a major character. But it also contains many stings of opportunities lost – essentially the whole character of Angel, who is in the movie for truly no discernable reason. I hate mediocre films, and while Last Stand may end up closer to middling than it could have, it never feels like a film that was going for middle of the road. The movie may miss as many as it hits, but it’s there swinging away nonetheless.