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X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Director: Brett Ratner

review by J.C. Hartley
Spoiler Alert!
This is where I declare an interest: for a considerable time in the 1980s, Marvel comics were one of my be all and end alls; a staunch defender of popular culture, it annoyed me that comic books were taken seriously in Europe and the 'States and were ignored in the UK. Furthermore, my interest in comics in the 1980s were a second life for me as I had been a big time collector back in the 1970s when I was only a nipper. My daughter reading her way through my comic collection rekindled my own interest albeit in a more critical way.

X-Men and X2 were brilliant adaptations of existing sources in that they followed author Milan Kundera's advice to the adaptors of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, by extracting one bit of a story and going with that. The characters from the comics were shuffled, and in some cases dropped, but there was enough there to win over newcomers and enough little references to the epic history of the original X-Men to satisfy long time fans (although Freddie Prinze Jr was apparently less than enamoured with how the film fed back into the comic). Along with the Spider-Man adaptations X-Men was a wholesale success for the very reasons that the comic-books became popular, action was always tempered by characterisation; for all the outrageous powers and scenarios on display, these were real people following an internal logic.

At the end of X2 Jean Grey the telekinetic 'Marvel Girl' was drowned under a mountain of water at Alkali Lake while saving her teammates, but the film's final image was a bird-like shadow just visible under the surface of the water. This teaser was the source of some excitement to fans of the comic who would recall how, in X-Men #101, Jean sacrificed herself piloting an unshielded Space Shuttle back to Earth, 'died' and was resurrected as 'The Phoenix' with her mutant powers kicked off the scale by solar radiation. Unable to control her new power and manipulated by the evil mutants of The Hellfire Club, Jean became Dark Phoenix and, after wiping out the D'Bari star system, was called to account by the alien Shi'Ar Empire and sacrificed herself again for her team-mates. When it was decided to reunite the original X-Men for the comic X-Factor (someone should sue), in a move that was to see X-titles come to dominate the Marvel output, in a boom and eventually bust period in the fortunes of the company, writers Chris Claremont, and particularly, John Byrne revisited the story of Jean's death and created the Phoenix Force, an entity that had simply used Jean's body to experience life as a human. The Phoenix Force has subsequently casually resurrected Jean Grey over the course of the comic (she is currently dead) and truly taken on a life of its own.

In X-Men: The Last Stand, Jean Grey's boyfriend Scott (James Marsden, Superman Returns) traumatised by Jean's death, has gone off the rails and absconds from his mentor Charles Xavier's (Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: Nemesis) school for mutants to revisit the scene of his lover's death. Jean (Famke Janssen, Hide And Seek) is revealed to be still very much alive, and seizes Scott in a passionate clinch. When Logan, alias Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, The Fountain) and Ororo, alias Storm (Halle Berry, Catwoman) arrive, they find rocks and stones experiencing a post-coital telekinetic floatiness, and Jean spark out by the shores of the lake. Back at the mansion, Xavier reveals that Jean's latent powers have been controlled by psychic blocks to keep an alternate personality she dubbed 'The Phoenix', in check. When Jean tries to get it on with Logan and he rebuffs her 'The Phoenix' emerges and Jean waltzes off.

Meanwhile, arch-villain Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Da Vinci Code) has discovered that a serum, derived from a young mutant 'Leech' with the power to cancel out the effects of the mutant gene, is being rushed into production by Worthington Industries based on Alcatraz, both as a 'cure' for mutants and as a weapon against them. Magneto raises an army to storm Alcatraz and seize Leech, but first of all tracks Jean Grey to her old family home where he encounters Xavier and together they compete for guardianship of the increasingly loopy Phoenix's soul. In the resultant battle of wills Jean vaporises Xavier and goes off with Magneto.

In the world of comic books there is one basic storyline, the super-powered villain threatens the hero or the hero's loved ones, his city or his world, they fight and the hero wins through but often at some cost. Given the looped nature of events in the comic-book universe the creative teams involved practice distraction by introducing new villains or rotating the old ones. X-Men: The Last Stand is the third X-movie to feature Magneto and quite frankly he has become a little passé. In the comics, Magneto is the most powerful mutant on the planet, he flies, he sinks a Russian submarine, he keeps his asteroid home in Earth orbit, he threatens to turn the world upside down, and better than all that he wears a nifty bright red costume. After a promising start the screen Magneto flings automobiles around and moves the Golden Gate Bridge, yawn! Now would have been the ideal opportunity to introduce other villains from the pantheon; the scheming elitists of The Hellfire Club would have been ideal, and it would have provided the opportunity for the Phoenix character to do more than drift around glowering, spoofing outtakes from The Exorcist.

The Last Stand does introduce one old favourite, Dr Hank McCoy alias The Beast, played by Kelsey Grammar (Even Money) with a bobbling blue CGI head, and he does get to say The Beast's old tagline "Oh my stars and garters." McCoy is a former 'pupil' of Xavier's and the President's spokesperson for Mutant Affairs; with such a high-profile mutant in the White House it begs the question what Magneto is bleating about. The film cleverly introduces some of the elements that have appeared in the books over the years, mutant rights and the urban groups or street mutants that Magneto draws his army from, but there is little attempt to show a range of powers and abilities, and at times the mutant army could be just another mob of heavies created to be beaten up by the heroes. A subplot showing Warren Worthington, son of the chemicals millionaire and his father's motivation for creating a 'cure', trying to come to terms with his mutant nature in a 'first shave' crisis that many men will identify with, is squandered in a few heavy-handed scenes that shout rather than convince. There are two 'I can't believe they did that' moments in the movie; when Phoenix finally flips and starts blasting all and sundry, Magneto groans, "What have I done?" (You've signed up for another series Sir Ian, that's what), and when Logan skewers Jean, to release her from the Phoenix power, he looks up and howls and you really expect the camera to do that old dizzying fast pull away into orbit showing him on his knees shaking his fists at the heavens.

Halle Berry was reported to be reluctant to sign up as Storm unless some meat was added to her character, well she has more to say, and Xavier's school will apparently continue under her tutelage but apart from sashaying around looking winsome the character has little of substance to say or do. The biggest disappointment is in the Jean Grey/ Phoenix plotline. Bereft of motivation, Famke Janssen, after creating a witty sexy intelligent character in the previous two movies, is reduced to glowering like a pre-Raphaelite model after a hard day posing in the bath. The idea that a teenage girl would christen her dark side 'The Phoenix' is frankly ludicrous; Phoenix was Phoenix because Jean Grey was reborn as a powerful new entity out of Solar fire; this storyline has paid lip service to the source material without adding anything new or creative.

Possibly the material was just too much for director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour ad nauseum) who swapped with Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2), Singer taking the reins on Superman Returns after Ratner had jumped ship over casting disagreements. If the X-Men movie franchise is to survive into a fourth adventure something, be it writing, casting, or plotting, must be done to save it from a rapid descent into cliché.
X-Men The Last Stand

Wolverine strikes back

Magneto with his thinking cap on

Prof X gets his mind blown

Angel drinks Red Bull?




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