I appreciate X-Men: The Last Stand more than I should, more than it probably deserves, because it’s so clearly thinking. It is, in the final estimation, as clunky and inefficient as it is breezy and enjoyable. Certainly the cold, ruthless elegance of the previous films, both directed by the very talented Bryan Singer, is forgotten, with Singer replaced by Rush Hour‘s Brett Ratner. Ratner had nothing to do with the screenplay, but it goes in the same direction, becoming meandering, episodic, almost soap opera-ish. And yet, not content with being merely a feature-length assault on the senses (look to Mission: Impossible III for that), it continues to draw sneaky parallels between its world and ours, to move its countless allegories along, to give (at least some of) its characters third and fourth dimensions. The series seems a little like a car stalwartly puttering along despite the fact that its fuel gauge is firmly planted on “E”.
Well, all right, not quite. If nothing else, The Last Stand continues to push the cutting edge of seamlessly realistic special effects. Two years ago, I wrote that X2 contained some of the best effects work I had ever seen, at least in the sense of making the fantastic look real. This film isn’t an astronomical leap forward — I have a feeling astronomical leaps are going to be difficult from here on out — but it’s smoother and even more effortless. Again, I liked the little stuff: the Golden Gate Bridge scene is fine, but it’s Beast’s hand turning from blue to normal and back again that might have impressed me more.
So there’s still that. On the other hand, the plotting this time around is an absolute mess. I’m not familiar with the comic book serial that still apparently serves as the inspiration for the films, but I am informed that the screenplay for The Last Stand attempted to combine two entire separate arcs into one 95-minute story. That makes sense to me. Before finally letting loose with a spectacular action climax, the film flails around from character to character, each time taking baby steps with one of about three or four different plot lines. It feels vaguely like a tv series (think Lost), where there is plenty of time for everyone to have his own mini-crisis. But time is an issue here, and the film goes nowhere fast — scores of scenes seem to exist in isolation.
One of the arcs that The Last Stand tries to incorporate involves a newly invented “cure” for the X gene — an injection that turns mutants into “normal” humans. The other focuses on the character of Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), established early on as the most powerful mutant the X-Men universe has ever seen, and her burgeoning dual personality, with the kind, caring Jean occasionally replaced by the destructive force that is Phoenix. The former is riveting and bordering on significant, written with smarts and courage, refusing to pander or simplify. The cure is a firebomb thrown into the mutant community, of course, with hordes of mutants lining up to get the shot across the street from bigger hordes of mutant protesters waving signs like “Say No to the Cure!” Magneto (Ian McKellen), the leader of the militant mutant faction, warns that rather than being a benevolent gift, this is the beginning of an extermination. But at one point, one of the hero mutants voluntarily decides to be “cured” instead of fighting against it, and that’s okay. The movie doesn’t judge, and that is fascinating.
The Jean Grey storyline, meanwhile, is dead in the water despite being crucial to the larger plot. The Dueling Jean Grays concept remains maddeningly vague; there’s a lot of talk, but the movie never explains if we’re dealing with a psychological disorder, a simple case of a mutant’s telepathic power overwhelming her human mental faculties, or something else entirely. Moreover, she isn’t given the chance to develop as a character, as she is mostly forced to stand and look morosely menacing while others stand around trying to figure out what to do with her.
The core of this franchise has always been the central conflict between Magneto and Xavier (Patrick Stewart), with the latter being the Martin Luther King, Jr., to the former’s fiery Malcolm X. This is largely present and accounted for, bolstered by McKellen’s peerlessly confident performance, and undercut somewhat by a plot twist I won’t reveal. On the other hand (there are lots of other hands in this movie), the series’ weakness has been the regrettable fact that Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), perhaps the films’ central protagonist, is simply boring. That’s present and accounted for here, too. The only thing that’s gone, it seems, is Bryan Singer’s sure hand behind the camera. It’s missed, though not as much as one might think.