A film review by Craig J. Koban
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
2006, PG-13, 104 mins.
Logan/Wolverine: Hugh Jackman / Charles Xavier: Patrick Stewart
/ Lensherr/Magneto: Ian McKellen / Ororo Munroe/Storm: Halle Berry
Dr. Jean Grey: Famke Janssen / Beast: Kelsey Grammer
One thing suddenly dawned on me as I watched the apparent “last” film of the X-MEN trilogy. The character of Magneto (played memorably by Sir Ian McKellen in all three films) is one of the more intrinsically fascinating villains of recent memory. I say that because he’s a rigidly atypical antagonist, at least by comic book standards.
He is not out to destroy the heroes (in his case, he actually wants them to join his side; they are – after all – “brothers” by virtue of their mutant abilities). He is actually a friend with what appears to be his nemesis (both of them can meet and have a conversation without yearning to destroy one another). Magneto does not – in any real way – want money and power, nor does he have any grand delusions of grandeur. All he wants is for his “kind” to live out their lives without suppression from those unlike them.
As I left X-MEN: THE LAST STAND I started to have an odd and perplexing level of sympathy for McKellen’s character. Magneto has never been a vile, vicious, and sociopathic criminal in the sense that he has no moral justification for his villainy. He’s not a simple and narrow-minded meglomananic. He has wounds, both personal and physical. As a young boy in Poland he and his family were victims of the Holocaust (this was outlined in the introductory scene of the first X-MEN film, still one of the best moments of the series). Clearly, this man has gone through psychologically trying times and his childhood experiences with ethnic cleansing would – logically – not sit well with any man. The fact that he grew up to be a mutant with incredible powers to control all forms of metal complicated life for him. His upbringing was permeated by an age of racial bigotry and intolerance where a group wanted him and his kind to be exterminated. Later, as a super strong mutant, Magneto and his "brothers" became the further victim of persecution.
That’s the key and overall hook to both Magneto’s character – and the X-MEN franchise as a whole – that successfully separates it beyond the realm of silly and archaic comic book entertainment. Much like the STAR TREK films, X-MEN sets its characters and storylines in futuristic and fantastical settings with otherworldly personas and strange creatures, all while grounding their narratives with familiar themes and motifs that resonate with familiarity. The heroes and villains in the X-MEN series feel foreign and – let’s face it – beyond strange, but we understand their plight and woes. For Magneto – a dastardly rogue that would otherwise command our contempt – he comes across more as someone to be understood, not demonized. In the previous two films – and especially in this one – he truly is willing to do whatever he can to achieve ultimate mutant rights for his brethren. Could you blame him? All he wants to do is avoid another cultural holocaust. He's been there and done that, and would like to not repeat it.
These themes are what I remember most vividly about reading the original X-MEN Marvel comics as a child in the late 70’s through until the early 90’s. The personas were misunderstood and discredited. Magneto is – as established – not your classically emblematic bad guy (he is far too layered and faceted for broad characterization). Yet, even the heroes themselves – The X-Men – were paradoxical entities. They have super human gifts and have established themselves as being capable of both protecting and saving humanity (or "homo sapiens" as mutants refer to all others without evolutionary “gifts”) yet humanity simply does not trust them or appreciate them. Society in the X-MEN films and comics do not necessarily welcome their help or their kind as a whole. Rarely have I encountered fictional heroes that were disrespected as much as them. They essentially fought to protect the liberties for those that hated them.
That thematic dynamic has always intrigued me, which is why I believe that the X-Men stand a bit apart from other costumed super heroes. The public loved Superman like he was a messiah. Ditto for Spider-Man, although he was less revered as God-like and more appreciated as a colorful costumed vigilante/celebrity. The public feared Batman, but respected his unique enforcement of the law. However, there is a sad melancholy and sadness to both the X-men and Magneto’s stories. The films and comics play with larger issues that either face or have faced modern society, like civil rights, racism, cultural and ethnic cleansing, genocide, and even genetic engineering. The mutants face a society that does not want to live side by side with them. In Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier (played with equal poise by Patrick Stewart) we have two familiar models of resistance to this oppression. Xavier would clearly model Martin Luther King’s ideal of passive resistance (Xavier does not give up on humanity; he wants coexistence). Magneto is more of a Malcolm X figure. He will use whatever means necessary to achieve racial equality. Perhaps that latter comparison is not fair. Last time I checked, Malcolm X did not advocate eradicating all white people on the planet, nor was he a mutant.
Am I reading a bit too much into the X-MEN? Maybe, but there is an undeniable emotional and relevant undercurrent to the material. Some moments in the series have reinforced their themes in satirical ways (the second film had a droll bit where the mother of one mutant asked her son, “Have you ever…tried not being a mutant?” This was an obvious son coming out of the closet moment). Other moments in the series, like one scene in the new film, epitomized their themes in heart-rending ways. Early in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND we see a flashback some ten years in the past with a young boy locked in a bathroom. His father, billionaire Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), is a mutant bigot. He becomes one when he bursts into the bathroom to see that his son has tried to sever the large angelic wings that are attached to his back. Worthington responds as if his son has a virus (“Oh no…not you too!”) and his indignity towards his son helps fuel his lust for “curing” this “mutant disease.” The sadness here is that – depending on the mutant – the disease could be more aptly described as “gifts.”
The first X-MEN film had a Joseph McCarthy-esque figure that used his political power to try to blacklist all mutants. The second film had a high-ranking military man that used his close ties to the President and vast resources to wage a war on the mutants, both evil and good. Now, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND we have the self-righteous Worthington who wants to play an evolutionary, medical God. He has actually been able to create a mutant cure, which has been spawned from a boy who, ironically, is a mutant with gifts as well. His “gift” is that he can create antibodies that can cure any mutant. Actually, his power is so great that all a mutant has to do is stand within a few feet of him and they will be temporarily cured of their own powers. In essence, the boy could be a messiah to homo sapiens, but an anti-Christ figure to mutants. What Worthington does is probably crueler than anything that even Magneto could dream up. He kidnaps the boy and forces him to live in a maximum security facility located on Alcatraz, all while he pokes and prods the ten year old with needles in order to get the mutant virus to create a political campaign to secure society’s okay to stop the mutant plague once and for all.
Of course, Professor X and his squad of X-Men – Logan/ Wolverine (Hugh Jackman); Storm (Halle Berry); Rogue (Anna Pacquin); Iceman (Shawn Ashmore); Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) and newcomer Beast (an intellectual that just happens to look like a cross between a blue haired Wolfman and Chewbacca, perfectly played by Kelsey Grammer) – all hold their collective breaths at the news of this “cure.” The X-Men are cautious, whereas Magneto and his “Brotherhood of Mutants” (comprised of many, some of which include Pyro, Mystique, and newcomers like the Juggernaut and The Multiple Man) all feel that they need to take out humanity before humanity destroys them. Again, I hate to say this, but maybe Magneto is on to something here. Really, can you deal passively with a society that wants your kind eliminated? Sure, Magneto does terrible things to humans in all of these films, but if it’s in the interest of self-preservation, how much of a mutant terrorist is he?
There is a snag that forms an uneasy struggle between the good mutants and bad mutants. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), it appears, was not actually killed at the end of X-MEN II and has now returned as the schizophrenically deranged Phoenix, a telekinetic mutant with arguably stronger powers than both the Professor and Magneto combined. This, of course, causes some problems with her lover Cyclops (James Marsden), not to mention Wolverine, who secretly carries a torch for her. Unfortunately for the X-Men, Phoenix has decided to fully embrace the dark side and join Magneto and it soon becomes apparent that they will not only have to defeat Magneto, but her as well.
The first X-MEN movie was resourceful and successful as an expository film for establishing the series and its characters. X-MEN II was an even better film by further elaborating on the first film’s themes. I was surprised by how well X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is able to continue to nurture and hold up my level of involvement with the underlining material. Kind of like the STAR WARS films, the X-MEN franchise does a fairly exemplary job of marrying hi-tech, special effects laden spectacle with themes and stories that are captivating. The bold sights, larger-than-life characters, and adrenaline pumped actions scenes in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND never seem to dominate the characters and tone of the film. These films are wonderfully entertaining in the way they combine all of these elements so efficiently. The more sincere moments in these films make one think about their overriding issues, but the moments of mayhem - pitting mutant against mutant against humanity in a dangerous three way war- are wonderfully realized as well.
This X-MEN entry does not shy away from action at all. This might be credited to a new man behind the camera, Brett Ratner (he made the two very funny RUSH HOUR films as well as the terribly underrated RED DRAGON, the prequel film to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). The transition from Bryan Singer to Ratner is fairly imperceptible and barely noticeable, but Ratner obviously has a penchant for large special effects set pieces. X-MEN: THE LAST STAND has many memorable moments of chaos, like one awesome (but oddly impractical) scene where Magneto uses his power to rip off a portion of the Golden Gate bridge and moves it in place for a walkway between the mainland and Alcatraz. Why not use boats? Okay...never mind...it looks sensational. Magneto also demonstrates (in one of the film’s more nifty effects scenes) how to break a prisoner out of a moving squad of police cars. A confrontation between Phoenix and Xavier is powerfully handled, and the final “big” battle - which headlines mutants battling mutants - should definitely give fans their money’s worth.
Perhaps the one problem with the X-MEN films (which, I guess, is not so much a criticism as it is a concern) is that they are too dense for their own good. There are simply too many characters to expand upon and develop fully. X-MEN: THE LAST STAND fails on a few levels in this regard. The Iceman/Rogue dynamic of the second film is lacking in exploration here (in that film their love is impeded by the fact that they can never have physical contact due to Rogue’s dangerous power of touch). Their courting offered up a compelling subplot that is sort of all but discarded in this new film.
Instead of this angle, we are given more scenes dealing with Storm (not the most interesting or appealing of the X-Men). Also, with Wolverine discovering his roots in X-MEN II, he is not given much more to do in X-MEN III than look mean, slash his way through enemies, and pine for Phoenix’s love (he had an arc in the first two films, here there's none to be had). The character of the boy with the “healing gift” is never really explored to potential (for such an incredibly powerful and crucially important mutant, he’s more reduced to a near MacGuffin-like character presence and less a fully realized persona). Xavier and Magneto are still enthralling foils to one another and their relationship always walks a fine line of respect first and hatred a distant second. The new arrival of the Beast is welcome and Grammer has a field day with him. He makes up for the absence of Nightcrawler, the second film’s best new character, who is AWOL in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND with no reason given. That's a shame.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, despite some of its modest faults. It was a tenser and more lean and mean picture than the first film in the series, but slightly less involving and well made than X-MEN II. Comic book fans and purists to the original source material may take offense to this film (the “Dark Phoenix” storyline is many miles removed from the comics, but no single film could have adequately appropriated that story for a 105 minute film). Yet, when all is said and done, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is equal parts exciting, action packed, and thoroughly absorbing and it does a commendable job of bringing the series to a close (much like THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, it ends the trilogy’s story, but leaves things open for new tales involving mutants).
More than anything, I will remember the X-MEN trilogy for being what all good entertainments should aspire to be – they thrill and excite on an equal playing field with wrapping the viewer in issue-packed themes with real life repercussions. Very few films about costumed clad super heroes have the time of day to deal with ethics and morality in between million dollar visuals, explosions, and turmoil. I guess that I am a little relieved that the third X-MEN had the time of day to not just show us things, but to also be about something. It’s that one-two punch of being thought-provoking and rousing that will be the X-MEN trilogy's noteworthy legacy.