Saturday, June 03, 2006

"The Last Stand?" Yeah, Right.

Last evening (and into the first wee hour of the morning) I had the opportunity to view X-Men: The Last Stand in the movie theater. The reviews that I have been reading all week have been all over the place; either it's the best X-Men film, or the worst, or it's just a "popcorn movie" to be enjoyed but not lauded above all other current releases. Reviews of comic book-based films no longer influence me. Some of my favorite reading material for much of the 1970s and 1980s were Marvel and DC superhero comics. I have a pretty good idea of what to look for in a comic book movie, and it's not going to be Shakespeare -- although, in the X-Men films, the presence of venerable British performers Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan adds enough of a touch of culture to raise one's expectations a bit.

The X-Men have always served as allegorical stand-ins for shunned and oppressed groups -- racial and ethnic minorities, the handicapped, homosexuals, nerds, etc. The difference between these and the fictional mutants is that the latter have certain advantages over mainstream members of society via their special powers -- i.e., their "gifts". The allegory worked well in the first film; in X2, as both corny dialogue in the film and interviews in the special features section of the DVD inform us, the allegory was meant to be first and foremost about homosexuality. (Imagine Wolverine and Cyclops resolving their rivalry over Jean Grey by finding contentment in one another arms; you could call it Brokeback Mutation. "I wish I knew how to quit you, Logan!") The third film returns to the deeper meaning of the allegory; the mutant factor could stand for just about anything, and in a way the viewer can relate to. It could represent me belonging to a political minority among my peers. It could represent me belonging to the "wrong" religion around my in-laws. It could represent me having brown hair while my wife and children are all blondes. The allegory thus works on a number of levels, from the all-important to the ridiculous.

The plot of The Last Stand centers around a medicinal "cure" for the mutant gene. One shot of this substance, and your mutant powers are gone forever. (Maybe.) Mutants (as well as, perhaps, those who suspect that they may be mutants) are offered the chance to step forward and receive the vaccine. Long lines of soon-to-be-former mutants willingly line up around city blocks to submit themselves to the cure. Allegorically, this would be equivalent to me changing my part registration, or converting to my in-laws' religion, or dyeing my hair blond. None of those things are an option as far as I am concerned, but someone else in my place might make those changes in order to feel less like an outsider. This is the choice made faced by mutants; either take the cure, or don't. Magneto offers them a sinister third option: Join my brotherhood, and together we can live in superiority over the human race.

The X-Men, under Charles Xavier, prefer to live as a part of human society without setting themselves above or below it. Magneto's underground mutant terrorist movement threatens to shatter Xavier's dream of mutants and humans co-existing peacefully. Naturally, the tensions between the two mutant factions -- with the United States Government loosely aligned with the X-Men -- lead to deadly armed conflict. Yes, the mutant "cure" really does work, and we get to see what happens when several mutants lose their powers. We also see quite a few important characters lose their lives. The final conflict between the X-Men and Magneto ends in tragedy, loss, and...hope.

Hope? Yes, in the wake of much death and destruction, we see hints that neither the dead nor the depowered are through with one another. That's as much detail as I'm going to give. Just keep in mind that comic book deaths have more in common with Snow White than they do with Bambi's mother, and that sequels to comic book movies are considered viable options are long as the money keeps rolling in.

Now for some random observations about the film:

  • "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!" For as much time as I spend surfing the internet, I'm surprised that I missed this popular meme. I only learned of it after seeing a clip of Juggernaut spewing the line from the new film. The nine-minute overdubbed cartoon clip is foul-mouthed, raunchy, and hysterically funny. Just as funny is the stone-faced serious Wikipedia article that earnestly attempts to describe the clip in some detail.
  • Happy Birthday! We finally get to find out once and for all whether Mystique was wearing a costume or if she was completely naked in all that blue. What a lovely suit she was wearing underneath.
  • "Oh my stars and garters!" I loved seeing Kelsey Grammer in this movie. In addition to playing Frasier Crane for more than twenty years, his voice has become well known from animated roles like Sideshow Bob, Stinky Pete, and one of my daughters' favorites, the evil Rothbart in Barbie of Swan Lake. He made an excellent Beast; I just can't believe that the "stars and garters" exclamation made it into the script.
  • The Brute, the Intellectual, the Monster or the Hedonist? The characterization of Hank McCoy, the Beast, has changed in comics over the years. In the first ever issue of X-Men, he is a dull, crude brute who tries to swap spit with Jean Grey the minute she steps through the door. Within a few issues, he has become an intellectual bookworm who rarely uses words of less than four syllables. He retained this personality for several years until some genetic self-testing further mutated him into the hairy blue creature like the one seen in the film. Initially, during this phase, he was an angry monster who felt more like an outcast than ever before. He soon came to accept his new appearance and became, somewhat literally, an oversized fun-loving teddy bear. Eventually the Beast became more professorial in nature, though less pretensiously loquacious than in his early X-Men days, and without losing his sense of fun. Grammer's Beast has much in common with the recent professorial version of the character, though portrayed more like a diplomat than a scientist. As long as they were going to have him refer to his "stars and garters", they might as well have had him bounce into the room, leap onto Wolverine's chest, plant a big kiss on his mouth, and announce, "Hi honey, I'm home!" But they couldn't, because the Beast would immediately die of puncture wounds.
  • Somebody scraped off the Master Mold! You have to wonder what sort of adventures the team might have had in-between films. They certainly seem to be more accepted by society in the third movie than in the second movie. Had they, perhaps, encountered comic book menaces like the mutant-hunting Sentinels? The early scene in Captain Picard's holodeck Professor Xavier's danger room would seem to suggest so. When I recognized a Sentinel head from the trailer, I thought for sure than Sentinels were going to play a major part in the film. Instead, to my disappointment, they were just a danger room simulation -- based, perhaps, on something that the team had encountered in an unseen adventure.
  • Why Jean, the blotches on your skin match your hair! The "Dark Phoenix" subplot turned out rather differently that I had expected. So did her face. I thought that Phoenix had a nice evil look when she went bad in the comics, but she never contracted advanced eczema like she does in this movie. Instead of kissing her and going down on her, Wolverine should have recommended a good dermatologist. With a mutant immunity to Jean's Phoenix powers.
  • "Blew" eyes! One eye blew this way, and one... Hey, what the heck happened to Cyclops? These movies aren't long enough for him to go into long-term exile like he did in the comics. On the other hand, perhaps it is best that he wasn't shown meeting Madeline Pryor, marrying her, moving to Alaska, and then coming back to be reunited with Jean at Alkali Lake. There wouldn't have been time for all of the fanboy-thrilling minor mutant character cameos.
  • "Lady Lightbug? You mean the use real superheroes but they gotta make up the villains?" Magneto must have seen the retro-cartoon special feature on the second disc of The Incredibles DVD set. His trick with the Golden Gate Bridge was copied from what Lady Lightbug did in the cartoon. I half expected to see Iceman replace the Golden Gate with a bridge of ice a la Frozone.
  • The famous thirty-second coda. I admit it! I couldn't wait until the movie. I searched for half an hour yesterday so that I could find out what was so special about the alleged "best part of the movie". It wasn't that big of a deal to me, but like I said above, I'm quite familiar with comic book death.
Overall, not bad. I finally got around to seeing Fantastic Four last week, and I thought it was a very good comic book movie. The same with The Last Stand. Don't set your expectations too high, suspend your disbelief, and remember that it's just a comic book come to life. You'll find it to be much more enjoyable to watch than you might have expected.

1 comment:

Ann Spam said...

Nice, I especially liked the part about the dermatologist. However, I thought it looked more like her skin thinning and stretching while her veins popped out!

I enjoyed the show immensely. Definitely the better of the X movies. At least they killed off Cyclops earlier. His whining was starting to get to me.