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Sunday, May 28, 2006

X-Men 3: Last Man Standing

This weekend I saw X-Men 3: The Last Stand at the Essex Cinemas. I think I’ve been “special effects-to-death” in the past year and we all know that the ‘X’ in X-Men stands for Special F-X, so I was only going because of my own personal favorite special effect – Hugh Jackman. Yes, it’s true. Even my current husband (and note to the ladies out there: they hate to be called that, especially when introduced) knows that Hugh is destined to be my future ex-husband someday, once I have left him a dried out husk of his present tasty self. But I digress.

So I went to X-Men 3: The Last Stand for Hugh and Hugh alone and came away with a revelation more startling than anything you’ll find in the Summer’s other
early blockbuster The DaVinci Code. I’ve uncovered the true secret origins of these mutants that the X-Men concern themselves with. You see, in this universe, the world is separated into two categories ~ humans and mutants, basically humans who have developed remarkable and unique superpowers that set them apart and seem to frighten or worry many of the “normal” population. Social scientists might say this is an allegory for how society perceives race or homosexuality in today’s world, but this is a movie designed more to make young men get excited by explosions and Halle Berry in leather, so let’s not dwell too much on the deep stuff. As for the secrets… well, be patient.

The movie itself opens with a bit of trickery that anyone over the age of 40 can appreciate immediately. In a scene set twenty years in the past we are introduced to Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart of tv and movies' Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen, the
Lord of the Rings trilogy), better known to followers of the original X-Men and X-Men 2: X-Men United as Professor X and Magneto. The wonders of those dreaded special effects take on a new meaning because both men look miraculously younger, especially McKellen. Whatever technology was used here has lost more bags than US Airways has in the past year.

The flashback beginning is to establish the then-friends’ first meeting with Jean Grey, at that time a
barely pubescent mutant who was born with the powers of telepathy and levitation. This provides an opportunity early on for non-X fans to understand the different philosophies about mutants that drive the conflict between Xavier and Magneto in the present. Xavier is a man of peace, and one who thinks that the mutants of the world should assimilate in a society that basically shuns them or outright hates them. Magneto, on the other hand, is a survivor of the concentration camps of World War II Germany and sees the hatred of mutants as a precursor to a genocide similar to what Hitler attempted with the Jews. As far as he is concerned an out-and-out war against the “normal” human population is the only way to assert mutant superiority and safety.

Cut to the near future, where the X-Men trilogy takes place, and the world that Magneto feared seems to be coming true, but with an odd twist. Instead of exterminating the mutants, a scientist has developed a “cure” for the mutant gene that will instantaneously transform the inoculated into an average, powerless human being. For some mutants this seems like a godsend, a chance to “fit in” while for most it seems an insulting, threatening and deeply personal issue, asking them to acknowledge that their very existence is somehow a mistake, a blight, or a sickness that needs to be fixed rather than accepted.

In this setting the final chapter of the X-Men saga comes to a dramatic and explosive climax. At
Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, the home of the X-Men and their young charges, the atmosphere is already charged as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Van Helsing; Kate & Leopold) and Cyclops (James Marsden, Superman Returns) continue to grieve for the now-deceased Jean, offed at the end of X-Men 2: X-Men United.

I must admit that even though I’d seen the first two films I still found myself distracted when the first shot of the exterior of the school was shown. Here is when I finally got my first clue to the key which would unlock the mutants’ real past. For some reason Xavier’s School always reminded me of Eastland Academy from tv’s The Facts of Life, and I half-expected to see Mrs. Garrett come bouncing into the room and telling Wolverine and Cyclops to cheer up and help her bake some brownies, as only Charlotte Rae could do, but no. Instead, we are faced with real heartache, without that blessed sitcom relief we’ve come to crave.

When news of the cure arrives, Storm (Halle Berry,
Catwoman) is incensed and she more than any of the others is ready to take up the charge in support of rejecting any cure, but she sees this as happening through diplomatic channels, thanks to the Presidential liaison to the Mutant Community, Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammar, tv's Frasier). Voila! I think this is because Storm has had good training at Eastland, before they changed the name to Xavier’s School. Now I am seeing it. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that Storm is really “Tootie” from The Facts of Life all grown up. I mean, think about it. Those girls were the original mutants. You had the spoiled girl, the tough girl, the chubby girl, and the dumb girl. I could totally see them taking aliases later in life and exploiting their special talents, whatever they turned out to be. In Tootie’s case, who else perked up your day more than when she came roller-skating into a room. She practically…turned a rainy day bright. Hmmm.

Speaking of aliases for just a moment (don’t worry, we’ll get back to the movie eventually), wouldn’t you love to sit in on the class at the school where the kids come up with their new “mutant” names? I mean it must be hard enough to be cool when you are accidentally turning your classmate into an icicle by hiccupping during your lunch hour but then to try to appear suave by taking on just the “right” name puts a lot of pressure on a kid. Just think. If Storm had chosen “Sunny” or “Windy” as
her nom de superheroine, she wouldn’t have come off nearly as sexy or as cool. And Mystique (Rebecca Romijn, tv's Pepper Dennis) wouldn’t have been cool at all if she’d called herself something lame like “Madame BlueBoobs” even if it was completely apropos. The first rule of becoming a great a superhero (or villain) is coming up with the perfect moniker. I can definitely see the other “Facts” girls picking out their names. Blair, the spoiled girl would be “Whiner”, Jo, the tough girl would be “Butch”, and, unfortunately, Natalie, being Natalie, would still be calling herself “Self-Deprecating, Self-Hating, Fat Jewish Girl No One Will Ever Truly Love For What's Inside Me.” Not exactly a catchy superhero name. But once again I digress. Sorry.

Anyway, mired in the middle of the movie’s story is the resurrection of Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen,
Hide & Seek), now known as The Phoenix, a rageaholic uber-version of her former self, who is more killer than anything else. Her uncontrollable ability to destroy anything and anybody in her path presents a bit of a problem for everybody concerned, but certainly for none more than her would-be suitor, Wolverine (who, personally, I think is a grown-up Eddie Munster, another sitcom refugee who has stumbled upon the school).

As you can see, there is a huge string of plotlines unraveling at once in X-Men 3: Last Man Standing, and it does at times become a stew of too much all at once. Besides the “cure” storyline and The Phoenix story, director Bret Ratner (
Red Dragon; tv's Prison Break) tries to cap the trilogy with as many jaw-dropping effects as possible and in doing so he introduces a slew of new X-Men characters from the comic books that haven’t been seen on-screen before. Unfortunately, with only 104 minutes, this is bound to disappoint hardcore fans of the comics since there is no way their personal favorites are going to get the attention they might have if the series was to continue indefinitely.

This is undeniably “old school” X-Men, with Storm, Wolverine, Magneto, and Iceman taking center stage. The newbies, while impressive in looks (especially Ben Foster of Six Feet Under fame as Angel in full-on wings) get short shrift. Unless you are a reader of the original material, you probably won’t even know the names of such featured mutants as Arclight, Colossus, Multiple Man, Callisto, and Psylocke. Even returning mutants like Pyro, Kitty Pryde, Mystique, Cyclops and Rogue seem to have been given so little to do that their presence barely makes a ripple.

Still, for me, a novice to the X-Men comic book world, the overall package was extremely enjoyable, if a tad bit overwhelming while trying to keep track of who’s who. The battle scenes rocked and the ethical questions posed about individual rights and societal acceptance if differences played out well without sounding preachy, even though Storm, Professor X and Magneto tend to drift into speeches here and there.

Despite changes to the storyline as it played out originally in pen and ink the climax is extremely satisfying on many levels. It is full of enormous shocks for long-time fans and at the same time it offers some emotional and heartbreaking moments one seldom expects to see in the midst of a movie with blue-skinned shapeshifters, fur-covered politicos, and flame-throwing teenagers.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand is not your typical superhero movie. It got just enough of The Wizard of Oz in it to have a little something for everyone ~it’s got brains, heart, and a whole lot of courage. And a great wardrobe. The second rule of a good mutant is you’ve got to have a cool costume, and a cape never hurts either, but I’d really think long and hard about the helmet thing. Magneto wears a
helmet for no apparent reason, and it just makes him look like he’s left his bicycle somewhere. And besides, who wants Helmet Hair when you are trying to save the world or destroy it?

One last thing: If you want to get the whole story, make sure to stay through the entire credits of the movie. I know, I know, nobody does that, but trust me. You'll be surprised if you do.

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