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June 2, 2006

X-Men shows not all mutants end up at the U of C

It was not without some concern that I went to see the latest of the X-Men movies. Despite all their other victories, I wasn’t sure if the X-Men could survive a director like Brett Ratner (infamous for the masterpiece known as Rush Hour 2). If you also had these concerns, fear not—it’s safe to come out, and Jackie Chan is nowhere in sight. X-Men: The Last Stand is amazing!

The film surprises you in the best way when it opens with flashbacks to familiar mutants as young teenagers. Young Jean Grey (Haley Ramm) is shown grappling with the extent of her “Level 5” powers, and new addition Angel (played in flashbacks by Cayden Boyd and played by Ben Foster in the rest of the film) painfully tries to saw off his wings to hide them from his father. I’m all for explosions and choreographed fighting (don’t worry, you’ll get plenty), but beginning with these up-close moments pulls you into the emotion of the story and makes everything afterward seem more real.

I will freely admit that I’m not an X-Men scholar. I did not religiously follow the comic book, and I’ve pretty much just loved the movies. I do think it’s fair to say, though, that part of the franchise’s success has been from the bigger issues at stake in the story: the heavy burden of special powers, the constants of discrimination, the failure of extremists, etc. This film further complicates the “mutant problem” when it introduces Jimmy, or Leech (Cameron Bright), a boy whose sole power is to neutralize the ability of any other mutant near him. Trouble begins when scientists isolate his DNA and turn it into an anti-mutant “cure.” Mutants themselves must come to terms with who they are when given the choice to be “normal.”

This gets even hazier when the anti-mutant serum isn’t just offered as a cure—it’s used as a weapon. Oh, and did I mention that Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is resurrected from Alkali Lake as the all-powerful and unhinged Phoenix? Yeah, that happens too.

I can understand how some people will walk away from this movie a little troubled. X-Men: The Last Stand breaks all the rules that we, as conditioned movie-goers, have become accustomed to. Characters switch sides, important people die, and nothing is certain, so prepare yourself. I personally really liked these plot twists; they keep the film fresh and the audience stunned. Don’t worry about complete chaos, though—some things remain the same. Ian McKellen, playing Magneto, is flawless as usual and delivers timeless battle lessons like, “In chess, the pawns go first.” No, not everything is carefully nuanced. It’s a comic book, for Christ’s sake. Some moments are definitely corny, but it’s top-quality corn that will generally make you smile and love the characters all the more. Just let them do their thing.

On to what you really want to know about: Wolverine and Phoenix. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) isn’t the center of attention as he was in X2, and some of his more devoted fans seem to be personally offended by this turn of events. X-Men: The Last Stand is more about the X-Men as a whole, and their transformation from extraordinary individuals into an extraordinary team. Wolverine learns to care for more than himself, but by no means sacrifices that buff body and bad-boy attitude you know you love.

Unfortunately, Phoenix is a different story. In the end, she doesn’t live up to expectations one way or the other. The scene of Phoenix emerging from Alkali Lake should be riveting or at least interesting, but it somehow manages to be anticlimactic. Janssen never pushes beyond existing as an ornament in this film. The fact that Phoenix rarely speaks may be the source of the problem. If she’s not looking horrible while wreaking utter destruction, she’s looking impassive and blank. I would have liked to see a little more struggle between Jean Grey and Phoenix. So much of the movie hinges on her character, and yet all we really see are increasingly ridiculous red outfits that look like they’ve been stolen from a Renaissance fair.

For those itching to find fault in this movie, the easy answer is that there are problems with the pacing. Looking back at the first two films, Bryan Singer shows a gift for tying different story lines together. X-Men: The Last Stand, on the other hand, feels clunky at times. Ten minutes of drama and suspense are followed by a 10-minute lull that breaks the film’s momentum. Certain characters brimming with drama could certainly have been developed more as well. With such an incredible opening, the extent of Angel’s relationship with his father is never quite followed up. I guess there’s never enough time for everything. Overall, X-Men: The Last Stand lacks the streamlined elegance of its predecessors, but it certainly stands on its own and delivers what you’ve been waiting to see.

A friend of mine has a theory that U of C students love X-Men more than any other comic book saga. It has to do with having talents that no one else appreciates, feeling different than everyone else, being picked on in middle school…oh, and we have a Phoenix too. Perhaps this explains why there were a ridiculous number of U of C students at the Friday show downtown. If this theory is even a little bit true, you might be incapable of disliking this film, so give up, give in, and go. Just remember to stay through all the credits.