I didn’t exactly go into this movie with high hopes. The team that brought us the first two entries of the X-Men franchise are bringing us Superman Returns. Now instead of waiting that extra time to let that team deliver the third entry into the franchise, the powers that be decide to rush the vehicle in the hands of director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you X-Men: The Last Stand.

Way to gut a franchise.

(And I apologize in advance for any insider geek language.)

Even in the comic, there came a point when the allegory for what the “mutant dilemma” stood for had been worn out. For the longest time it stood for racial tensions and it was extended with the backdrop of homosexual civil rights as its relevant social backdrop. However, the storylines became exhausted to the point of having te feel of treading the same ground and in need of an infusion of a fresh plot and fresh villains.

On the plus side, this movie finally gave Halle Berry, as Ororo/Storm, something to do. It seemed a waste to have such a high caliber actress reduced to the sidelines and not given enough screen time. The down side is how they reduced the cast of characters in order to make room for her. Maybe it was just me, but the art seemed especially bleak, as if the filmmakers went out of their way to drain the color, the joy, out of the franchise. To say that some of the characters, Kitty (Ellen Page) and Peter/Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), were under-developed implies they were developed at all. Even the latest addition, Angel (Ben Foster), was more symbol than character.

The movie has several nods to X-Men geeks (read: my people). They do a tribute to the Days of Future Past comic book storyline in the Danger Room, where the team practices how to use their powers in combat. They give us flashes of Sentinels, a tease of a story that could have been. They throw in new characters such as Dr. Hank McCoy/The Beast (brilliantly performed by Kelsey Grammar), Callisto (Dania Ramirez), and Cain Marko/the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones, who delivers a line familiar to those with his internet video clip). The movie crams a lot of new mutants into it, but doesn’t take the time to tell any of their stories and allow us to connect to them. In fact, the movie is full of cool moments that don’t quite come together as a compelling story.

“Who will you stand with?” –Magneto

The story is set off by the revelation that a pharmaceutical company has developed a cure for being a mutant. This sets off a debate within the mutant community. Mutants were considered the next stage of evolution. The inherent problem of finding your identity in what you claim is strictly biological is that the natural progression of thought becomes if it is biological, it can be seen as against the natural order, an illness. If it’s a disease, it can be cured. That is, if it’s how they’re born, then it can be tested for, possibly “corrected.” So if mutants had found their identity within their mutation, then the idea of being cured was unthinkable. So for a teenagers, Anna Paquin’s Rogue for example, already struggling with issues of identity and coming to terms with who they are and wanting to fit in, there is a choice they have to make.

Some mutants decide to follow Magneto (Ian McKellen) who adopts a lot of racially militant language, essentially seeing their dilemma as a purity war. Some of the mutants even refer to their birth names as slave names and the president opts to solve the problem “By any means necessary.”

“You know, sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” –Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)

The other half of X-Men: The Last Stand revolves around death and resurrection. Their journey begins with a resurrection. Dr. Jean Grey/Phoenix (Famke Janssen) returns with her alternate personality, The Phoenix – a being of all desire, joy, and rage, battling for control of her. Her return leads to the death of several characters. Again, this points to a problem with this movie. If you are going to do the Dark Phoenix story, commit to that story. Allow Famke to display the emotional range this story would require. Don’t reduce it to a subplot.

This fanboy take on the classic Dark Phoenix storyline represents that internal battle we face as we wrestle with that part of ourselves we believe to be unchecked, our sense of freedom, individuality, and self-sufficiency taken to extreme. Like Jean Grey, it is our other self, the product of fallen creation, living contrary to what we were created to be. The path of The Phoenix, with its subtle Jean Grey possessed by Phoenix imagery, leaves only entropy and death in its wake.

“Don’t let it control you.” –Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart)

We’re all born with this inner beast, this out of control aspect to ourselves. The struggle is one that Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) especially identifies with. We all have a choice to make, to choose to be what you are. The choice of how to live, of what to be about, is represented in deciding between the way of Professor Xavier (the path of control/help, ultimately leading to peace and reconciliation) and that of and Magneto (unbridled freedom ultimately leading to chaos and death).

“Be what you are, what nature intended.” –Magneto

We are looking for a story to define us, a community to belong to, be it punk (the anarchist story), militia (the story of ”patriotism”), gang (the story of street families), or being a mutant (the story of how they were born). When institutions fail to do what the were created to do, be what they were supposed to be about, other places–not often looking like one expects–will spring up to do their job. Professor Xavier preaches a gospel message of peace and reconciliation. He believes that the best way to spread this message is by providing a safe place for people to work out their questions all the while teaching them ways to discipline themselves so that they can control themselves. Such safe havens involve first being a community, allowing people to have a sense of belonging before believing. People need to find a place to call home, a place to belong, and people to call family. As Storm put it, “we work as a team.”

Phoenix: You would die for them.
Wolverine: Not for them. For you.

Freedom to live as you were meant to live comes at a cost. “If you want freedom, you have to fight for it,” Magneto says. To be formed into the people we were meant to be requires discipline. A choice, community, formation, the path of discipleship is a long and difficult one. As Robert Webber put it “discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction,” but it is a journey worth taking in order to fulfill the vision of a world united.

X-Men: The Last Stand is sadly predictable with an inescapable sense of forced pathos. There is no emotional development to any of the characters. During the course of the movie we lose a lot of beloved characters (no matter what the clip after the credits hints at), the heart of the franchise; but the movie doesn’t
move us with their loss, it only plays out the expected cues and tells us we’re to feel moved now. The movie raises a lot of questions and issues, but chooses to not engage or meditate on them. What we are left with is this bleak vehicle-by-numbers that distracts us with cool scenes and action (that can’t even keep the time of day straight). File this in the cabinet with third installments to a franchise that didn’t quite live up to the first two (Alien 3, Blade: Trinity). We can hold out hope for the rumored Wolverine movie.