Sunday, November 9, 2014

X-Men: The Last Stand (20th Century-Fox, Marvel Entertainment, Donners’ Company, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched X-Men: The Last Stand, third in the X-Men movie sequence — there have been five “group” films as well as two different versions of the origin of the X-Men’s most popular character (at least in the modern era), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), he of the scythe-like claws that emerge between his fingers (not out of the tips of them, by the way) made of a synthetic metal called “adamantium,” which make him a super-powerful fighter. The original X-Men comic books were one series from Marvel I don’t remember reading when they were new — I do remember Spider-Man, The Mighty Thor, The Fantastic Four, Namor: The Sub-Mariner, Captain America and Iron Man from my childhood, but somehow X-Men eluded me even though Marvel’s head honcho, Stan Lee, created them in 1963. At the time the African-American civil rights movement was at its early peak and it was obvious that in creating a fictitious race of mutants living among ordinary people and suffering the effects of discrimination, Lee and his co-writers and artists were creating at least sort of a political parable — but when the Queer-rights movement emerged at the end of the 1960’s the X-Men themselves became an even stronger metaphor for anti-Queer discrimination than anti-Black discrimination. Throughout the original films in this sequence (X-Men from 2000, X2: X-Men United from 2003 and this one from 2006) much is made of the presumption that if the mutants just stay “in the closet” and don’t reveal their super-powers to the world, they will be treated just fine. The films are full of characters asking just why the mutants feel they have to be “out,” and even more worrisome to the bigots in the Marvel universe, why they have to be so open and in-your-face about it.

X-Men: The Last Stand makes the metaphor even more explicit since the story centers around the discovery by Warren Worthington (Michael Murphy), CEO of a major pharmaceutical company that has taken over the island of Alcatraz and turned the former prison into their research lab, of a serum that can “cure” the mutants once and for all and turn them into normal, non-superpowerful humans. Even though the federal government has in the meantime advanced so much in its acceptance of mutants and granting at least formal civil rights to them that there is a Cabinet-level Department of Mutant Affairs whose secretary is a mutant, Hank McCoy a.k.a. “Beast” (Kelsey Grammer) — a mutant whose skin is blue and who therefore would have a hard time staying in the closet in any case — nonetheless the announcement that a “cure” is available and will be offered to any mutant who wants it sends the paranoia of the mutant community into overdrive and has them worried that the so-called “cure” will be forced on them and will lead to the extermination of the mutant race. (By coincidence, the night before Charles and I watched this movie I’d been talking with an old friend about the nature-vs.-nurture theories of what causes sexual orientation, and I had expressed the same point of view as the radical mutants in the movie: that I hope they don’t discover a biological basis for homosexuality because if they can figure out what causes it, they can figure out a way to eliminate it altogether — and they will.)

The secret to the “cure” is a mutant who has been squirreled away in the Worthington compound on Alcatraz and whose mutation is that he can neutralize the powers of any other mutants in the vicinity (more than any other X-Men movie I’ve seen this makes it clear what a strong debt Deprivers author Steven-Eliot Altman owed to the X-Men legend); Worthington’s scientists have drawn his blood and figured out how to replicate his anti-mutant mutant genes but not how to synthesize them, which means they’re dependent on keeping him alive and in their custody to keep making the “cure.” As things turn out — we had an intimation of this in a prologue sequence (one of two) in the beginning of the film in which a 10-year-old boy spends an hour in the bathroom, much to the consternation of his parents (gee, when I spent that much time in the bathroom during my early teen years it meant I was jacking off!), and we cut to the inside of the bathroom and see a lot of cutting implements, heavily bloodied, and a few feathers (which makes us wonder what the kid was doing in there, butchering a chicken?) — and then we see the boy’s back, with two deep scars where his wings (that’s his mutation) used to be. Later there’s a beautiful worm-turning scene in which the same character, now an adult and played by Ben Foster, is revealed to be Worthington’s son, with his wings (they grew back, of course) encased in a heavy, obviously painful harness. Worthington père has Worthington fils strapped to an operating table and is about to inject him with the “cure” — “So much for it being ‘voluntary,’” the son grimly replies — when the son musters the strength to break free from the operating table, push his wings out of the harness and fly, openly and proudly, out of his dad’s redoubt.

Given that the earlier sequence seemed all too reminiscent of the stories I’ve heard of boys in early puberty either trying to cut off their penises or pouring acid or bleach on them when they realized their sexual attractions were going to run to other males, the scene in which Worthington, Jr. breaks free and flies, literally and figuratively, in proud, bold assertion of his mutant status is (at least for me) the most beautiful sequence in the entire movie. Of course, being a comic-book based movie aimed at the summer blockbuster audience, X-Men: The Last Stand also had to have plenty of baroque all-stops-out action scenes, and in order to tie it in to the rest of the X-men mythos it had to have important starring roles for Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Eric “Magneto” Lensherr (Ian McKellen — and yes, I couldn’t help but wonder how someone who’s Gay in real life feels about enacting stories so close to the real-life dilemmas Queer people face about when, where, how and how far to “come out”) as leaders of the good X-men mutant faction and the bad Brotherhood mutant faction, respectively — though they’re still seen together in one of the prologue sequences checking out a young girl who can levitate objects at will and who will turn out to be Jean “Phoenix” Gray (Famke Janssen), girlfriend of Logan a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, top-billed) until she was presumably killed at the end of episode two. Not that that matters because this is a fantasy, and in a fantasy even people you’ve seen die can always be revived by authorial fiat (I’ve joked that the biggest challenge faced by the writers who did the Frankenstein sequelae was how to rescue the Monster from the cataclysm that had apparently killed him at the end of the immediately previous film). It turns out Jean Gray avoided being drowned by creating herself an air bubble with her super-powers, and she’s a “Level Five” mutant — the most powerful one there’s been so far — whose powers threaten the entire existence of humanity. Naturally there’s a great struggle for her loyalties and her soul between Xavier and Magneto — between the mutant who wants to foster mutant-human cooperation and the one who thinks the sooner mutants exterminate non-mutant humanity and take over the world for themselves, the better — and it’s complicated by Jean being a multiple personality, with a “normal” side and a mutant side that are alternating in control of her body. (According to, Janssen did research into dissociative identity disorder — the current name for what used to be called multiple personality disorder — to make sure her performance would be clinically correct.)

These plot lines blend about as well as the strands in a pot of spaghetti and they don’t get sorted out until the very end of the film, in a climactic sequence between the surviving mutants from Xavier’s school (Xavier himself having been killed by Gray in her “Phoenix” identity about an hour into this 108-minute movie — oddly the running time is not listed on — though, once again in line with the principle that in a fantasy even when you see someone die that doesn’t mean you won’t see them again, Xavier comes back to life in a post-credits sequence by inhabiting the body of a comatose patient in a hospital), the mutants of Magneto’s “Brotherhood” and the U.S. Army, which has devised plastic firearms (since Magneto’s big superpower is he can neutralize anything made of metal) that shoot hypodermic needles armed with the “cure.” There’s a spectacular (and somewhat ridiculous) scene in which, in order to get his crew to Alcatraz, Magneto lifts the Golden Gate Bridge off its moorings and sends it to Alcatraz instead, and the final scene delivers the action goods but is an odd ending indeed to a movie that’s as schizoid as Jean Gray’s personality: half shoot-’em-up summer superhero action blockbuster, half film of ideas. Charles and I got the DVD of the most recent X-Men movie, Days of Future Passed (released earlier this year and the much-ballyhooed return of Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two X-Men movies in the cycle — alas, the real-life civil suit against him by two young men who claimed that as teenagers they were invited to parties at Singer’s home, drugged and raped by Singer and his Gay friends led the studio, 20th Century-Fox, to pull Singer from promotional duties for the film and cast a pall on the project) but chose not to watch it until we’d seen this one, the only other X-Men film we hadn’t seen before, first: so many of the Marvel-universe films are dependent for sheer comprehensibility on what’s happened in the previous installments you practically have to watch them in sequence just to make sense of them! At least X-Men: The Last Stand was written by just two people, Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn (any relation to Sean and Michael? His page doesn’t say), and effectively directed by Brett Ratner after Singer bailed on the assignment to direct the mega-flop Superman Returns instead — and though it neither has not should be expected to have a coherent plot, the movie still bolsters my general-field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers.