When the mighty band who made X-Men: The Last Stand strode into Cannes recently to promote the third and avowed final chapter of the Marvel Comics franchise, Hugh Jackman fluttered the hearts of Logan/Wolverine groupies everywhere by mentioning a spin-off for his rebel with adamantium claws. Clever move, that: With one throwaway comment, the star generated headlines with little more than a wink. More graceful still, he drew attention away from the diminished artistic returns of X-Men: The Last Stand, a brute-force enterprise that doesn’t distinguish between cramming entertainment down our gullets like fast food (i.e., undifferentiated action, humor aimed at crotch level) and offering a good meal. And I report this both as a fan of the first two and a staunch supporter of mutant rights, especially when applied to Hugh Jackman.
Certainly something dismaying has happened in the three years since Wolverine, Storm, Rogue, Cyclops, et al. fought back so heroically against discrimination, governmental invasion of privacy, and the hated Mutant Registration Act in X2: X-Men United. Because while filmmaker Bryan Singer’s exciting 2003 follow-up to his own notable 2000 launch of the comic-book saga demonstrated the surprising power of a sequel when an artist is at work, The Last Stand, directed by Rush Hour industrialist Brett Ratner, exemplifies what can happen when movies are confused with sandwich shops as franchise opportunities: More items on the menu — or in this case, an even greater variety of superheroes with specialty-act powers — is not the same thing as originality of recipe.
To be sure, there’s a lot on the shared plate of Jackman’s Wolverine, Halle Berry’s Storm, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier, Anna Paquin’s Rogue, and the rest of the irregular regulars at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. For one thing, at the end of X2, Jean was supposedly quite dead. But it spills no secrets to note that she’s insistently alive in X3 in the form of her alter ego, the voraciously destructive Phoenix, a woman even more dangerous in her out-of-control telekinetic (and, as the good doctor Freud would point out, sexual) powers than Jean was before. (In anticipation of Phoenix’s rise from the ashes, writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn offer a charming flashback to an earlier time when the Class 5 mutant was a frightened suburban girl, and Xavier and Magneto were dapper, well-moisturized friends.)
An even bigger headline for the differently abled community, though, is the discovery of an antibody that can ”cure” mutants and restore them to ”normalcy.” But what is normal? ”You can’t cure being a mutant — there’s nothing to cure,” insists Storm, making the allegorical connections to homosexuality about as vivid as a fictional character with the power to control the weather can, short of taping a PSA. Rogue, meanwhile, who complains bitterly that she ”can’t touch [her] boyfriend without killing him,” is an interested potential client; through her, the deaf-community debate about the implications of cochlear implants finds a voice. And as for Magneto the radical separatist (and Holocaust survivor), the government interest in such a homogenizing serum signals nothing less than a coming pogrom. ”They want to exterminate us!” he declares to his followers, rallying his revolutionary forces to subdue all who would advocate tolerance and multi-culturalism, including Professor Xavier, as well as Henry McCoy — a.k.a. Beast — the charming, rational geneticist with the big head of blue fur, played with modesty, panache, and much peacock- colored prosthetic assistance by Kelsey Grammer.
This is interesting stuff. So why does The Last Stand feel driven to dumb itself down, as if embarrassed by its own ideas? There is no time for reflection in this overstuffed sequel — civil war, special effects involving the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, volcanic emotions between Jean Grey and Logan, volcanic enmity between Magneto and, well, everyone. And there’s no time for character charm in a production that simultaneously X-es out the old and brings on a baby-faced potential ensemble cast for X-Men: The Next Generation, including Hard Candy’s compelling Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde (who can phase through solid matter) and a super-buff Ben Foster from Six Feet Under as the winged hunk Angel. There is, though, time for a kick-to-the-groin visual joke, following which Wolverine taunts a foe with ”Grow a pair of those.” If The Last Stand were more confident, the movie wouldn’t need to constantly grab ‘em.