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X-Men 3: The Last Stand

There's been a trend in movie franchises to film sequels back-to-back or even simultaneously -- Back to the Future 2 and 3, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, all three Lord of the Rings films -- to save on various costs and to keep actors from aging out of their roles prematurely. But X-Men 3: The Last Stand is a rare instance of two sequels appearing on the screen at the same time.

You'll notice they didn't use the claws image for "X1."There are two distinct "last stands" going on. Either could have made a rich, exciting film. You have the battle over the "mutant cure" and how the mutant community is divided over it (not to mention how the government and the non-mutants feel about it), and you have the Dark Phoenix storyline (somewhat bowdlerized and garbled from the comic arc, I'm told, but as a non-reader, I don't particularly mind).

Jean's struggle with her Phoenix personality is the action blockbuster. Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, somehow resurrects Jean from the bottom of the lake where she apparently died at the end of X2. (Which makes me wonder: even provided that her abilities kept her from drowning, how long has she been Davy Jones's roommate? Was she in stasis? Did Cyclops's blast give her a boost to get out? Wake her up? How much time has elapsed between the movies? That part made no sense.) They proceed to suck face, and she then seems to go all Taresian on him. Professor X explains (the part of the cabbagehead in tonight's performance will be played by Wolverine) that when he first brought Jean into the fold, her powers so far outstripped her ability to control them that he had to put up modified Azrael blocks to bottleneck her until she could get a handle on things. The Jeannie in the bottleneck became its own personality of 99.44% id, and called herself Phoenix. This is the dominant personality for most of her dealings in the movie, heralded by the appearance of Evil No-Iris Eyes™ (popularized by Scary Veiny Dark Willow). For fun, Phoenix unzips Wolvie twice, and when she's pissed, she unzips people like Tony Shaloub's shadow. Phoenix is understandably grouchy about Professor X keeping her hemmed in, which leaves her open to Magneto's blandishments.

Having two and three incredibly powerful mutants all going at each other is already pretty exciting, plus middle managers like Wolverine and Storm struggling with their mixed loyalties to Jean and to Xavier's orders. Jean (or rather, Phoenix) kills her lover Cyclops and her mentor Professor X, and tries to seduce Wolverine like a freight train. Magneto wants to use her for what he always wants to do, Pinky: take over the world. But this sci-fi popcorn flick gets tangled up in the social commentary of the other movie.

The head researcher of a biolab has come up with a "cure" for mutants. Seems one mutant boy, "Leech," has the ability to neutralize the mutant-ness of any mutant who comes within 15 feet or so of him. (Beast, who looks like a Muppet child actor grown up and gone into politics, put out his hand to shake and gets a temporary blast of depilatory and melatonin bleach. I sort of wish he'd stuck his head into the Leech Field so we could see Kelsey Grammer make a brief startled cameo.) The researcher, whose son is Angel (blond kid with forty-foot white wings, not the sulky boring vampire), finds a way to bottle this so that the X gene in any mutant is suppressed.

Some of the mutants find this very appealing. Rogue just wants to be able to touch people without killing them, hardly an extraordinary wish. Magneto, on the other hand, has already been down this poison path of genocide -- when one face-tattooed mutant demands "where's your mark?" he coolly shows her the blue numbers on his arm and informs her that "no ink shall ever touch my body again" -- and proclaims that the humans want to wipe out the mutants. Considering that this was a significant part of the plot for X2, that's hardly an extraordinary conclusion.

This is a powerful statement, more in line with X2's undercurrents of whether being different is bad or something unique to be treasured, and the ongoing allegory between mutants and gays. If there were a gene-based "cure" for homosexuality, who would take it? Who would be dragged to the clinic against their will? Who would be blackmailed into it? Who would proudly, defiantly refuse it? Would politicians mandate it? Would it be made available to new parents as a choice in the hospital? In utero? Unfortunately, we don't get much of this exploration. The sides are broadly sketched -- I should say, Magneto's side is sketched, because other than Rogue just wanting to be "normal" and Storm insisting in clichés that she doesn't need to be fixed because she's not broken, we don't find out too much of how the good guys feel. There's no class discussion, no thoughtful soliloquy by our resident Shakespearean, no teen argument.

But given that, I found myself agreeing more with Magneto's declaration that this "cure" is pretty obviously going to be a tool of the government to eliminate mutants whenever and wherever possible, and fighting it will help more people than letting it wend its way into the population as a mushily-defined choice (and a weapon). If we'd gotten the social commentary movie, this disconnect between heroes and audience and deflected identification with the "bad guys" could have been expanded and really played out in more detail.

There isn't time, though -- we have to rush on to Phoenix's latest telekinetic tantrum. This arc got a bit short-shrifted as well in the character department. We're told that Phoenix is unhappy about being caged, and that Jean couldn't learn enough to overcome the blocks Professor X put up so she could control her own powers. But Phoenix, herself, gets remarkably few lines. She purrs to Cyclops that she can control his eyebeams, she purrs to Wolverine that it's okay to make the beast with two backs, she shrieks that she doesn't want to go back to being locked up in Jean's head. And that's about it. What has she felt all these years? What does she think of Jean? Did Jean have blackouts when Phoenix took over? Is Phoenix really an alter, as MPD facets are called? Under what circumstances did Phoenix come out, or does Xavier only know her telepathically? (In the comics, Dark Phoenix is actually an alien, so a lot of these questions were better answered in the other medium.)

But the parts of the two movies which do make it to screen are still plenty enjoyable. Magneto starts as a reasonable resistor to another genocide, heartlessly abandons Mystique when she's hit with a cure-bullet (that was pretty shocking -- I couldn't believe he turned on her like that, and that she returns the favor) to display his iron-willed bigotry, and slides back into murderous megalomania once he thinks he has the upper hand. There are a few teen arcs: a triangle between Iceman, Rogue, and Kitty Pryde; the rivalry between Iceman and Pyro (who defected to Magneto at the end of X2); and the older students stepping up to full warrior status in the final confrontation with Magneto's forces. The various new characters are fun and interesting, although of necessity none of them get a lot of screen time. Beast in particular was somewhat boring -- a big blue Wolverine with Frasier's accent is no great shakes. Relocating the Golden Gate Bridge was amusing, and a nice change of pace from beating up on New York all the time. Clone Man creating hundreds of copies of himself to fool the infrared sensors was a clever use of his ability. I liked that Rogue did in fact go through with the cure, and didn't wimp out at the end. It's a shame we won't see the consequences of that decision, or whether her cure will in fact wear off as Magneto's did. (And Magneto getting the four cure bullets -- the self-loathing and horror on his face! well done.) Will Mystique slowly fade bluer, able to change one feature at a time as her powers return? (that's a whole movie in itself, frankly.) Storm finally gets something of substance to do, even if her eulogy speech was dumb. She finally behaves like a teacher and partner in this one; I could believe that she was a top-level member of the staff. I really like that Magneto and Professor X, Eric and Charles, still have the deep mutual respect of old friends who are now enemies, and that they don't hate one another, just see each other as greatly misguided. You don't get that much any more.

A few nits to pick: the initial military briefing claims the cure "permanently" suppresses the mutant gene. But it's derived from Leech, and when Beast gets his fur stripped off, it grows back almost immediately. Same with Kitty and Juggernaut at the end -- they're only deprived of their powers when they're in the Leech Field. So why would they claim the cure is permanent? (I know, it makes it easier to accept that poor Magneto, huddled over a chess board in the park like one of the old guys in a Pixar short, can start moving metal pieces around again.) In the flashback to Jean's adolescence, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are digitally cleaned up to appear younger. It was the creepiest CGI I've seen since Phlox's smile. Stewart looked like his face had been render-mapped and then rewrapped around his skull -- he looked less disturbing when Phoenix was ripping him apart in a high wind. When Magneto moves the bridge so it touches Alcatraz, it's daylight; when he orders the "pawns" to attack, it's abruptly full night. One thing which bothered me more about Storm's abilities this round: mucking with weather systems is really dangerous business. The air masses which are being moved, the humidity change, the devastating energies being shoved around -- calling up a breeze to move aside clouds is fine in San Francisco, but it might cause hail in Kansas. When Phoenix is blasting Wolverine at the end, not only does his muscle and skin grow back, so do his pants!

The final scene -- by which I mean the one after the credits; you did stay for that, right? -- was positive, but a bit of a deus ex mutanta. I know, they're leaving the door open for future sequels, but still. Even the more-than-human should have some limits.