George Lucas, eat your heart out.
With the arrival of X-Men: The Last Stand, we now have a sci-fi trilogy that rivals and, in some ways, surpasses the Star Wars saga. The characters may not have the iconic richness of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. And the movies may not have the epic sweep that finally engulfed Lucas, chewing him up and spitting out that second trilogy. But the emotional connection is there. And the X-Men movies, while going about the business of wildly entertaining us, have managed to play into the zeitgeist in ways we haven't seen, in these comic-book costume parties, since The Matrix. Racial purity, sexual deviance, gender equality Ã?' these are a few of the themes that underlie the series. But they wouldn't mean a thing if the movies didn't keep delivering the goods. X-Men: The Last Stand not only delivers the goods, it achieves pop grandeur, moments of sublime pathos and mystic power. Or has Professor Xavier been infiltrating my thoughts again?
That's been one of the problems with the X-Men movies: Everybody's so powerful, in so many different ways, that it all starts to seem like an elaborate game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors." And X3 plucks yet more mutants from the Marvel Comics gene pool. After sitting out the first two episodes, Beast now makes an appearance, courtesy of Kelsey Grammer, who never lets on for a second that playing an enormous blue furball is any different from playing, say, King Lear. An assimilationist, Beast heads the government's Department of Mutant Affairs, which can't help but remind us of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Gifted or differently abled or however you want to describe them, mutants remain the untouchables of human society, genetic freaks who are reviled for how different they are, even though those differences amount to some of the coolest superpowers ever devised at a drafting table. Who, for instance, wouldn't want to fly around like the angel Gabriel?
That would be Warren Worthington III (Ben Foster), son of Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), who's discovered a cure for what most mutants don't consider a disease. In an early scene, set 10 years in the past, Warren III has locked himself in the bathroom, where he's hacking away at the wings sprouting from his shoulder blades. All we see is the blood and the white feathers scattered about the floor. Where the X-Men movies continue to excel is at putting the "human" back in "superhuman" Ã?' a teenage boy's horror at the changes his body's undergoing, for example. Like the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is a boiling cauldron overflowing with hormones, but it's also where teenage mutant turtles learn how to control their powers, adjust to their shells. Some never do adjust. Anna Paquin's Rogue, still unable to touch her boyfriend without sucking the life right out of him, is more than a little curious about Dr. Worthington's "X gene" antibody.
A major player in X1 and X2, Rogue is shunted off to the side in X3. There simply isn't enough room for everybody to spread their wings, literally or figuratively, but director Brett Ratner does a nice job of directing traffic, giving each character just enough time to leave a lasting impression. Among the newbies, Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) rolls over opponents like a fullback from hell. Among the oldies, Halle Berry's Storm is still a tempest in a teapot, despite a lot more lines, a brand-new hairdo and a skintight black-leather suit that Catwoman would have died for. Is this Academy Award winner incapable of emoting beyond, say, the Channel 15 Weather Girl? Much better, as always, is Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, who looks more like Clint Eastwood circa Dirty Harry every day. So virile that he can get away with muttonchops that would have made Captain Kangaroo blush, Wolverine spends most of X3 pining for Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who, if you recall, died at the end of X2.
But nobody ever really dies in comic books. And Jean, having gone down in flames to save her fellow X-Men, rises from the ashes. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Phoenix, the mutant's mutant, a woman so telekinetically awesome that, like Carrie on prom night, she could bring down the school gymnasium simply by putting her mind to it. Like Berry, Janssen isn't a terribly expressive actress, but if looks could kill, and we know they can, then you have to wonder whether X-Men: The Last Stand shouldn't be called X-Women: The Last Straw. A hydrogen bomb surrounded by slingshots, Phoenix turns out to be what the future of the world depends on. And in the movie's opening scene, we see her as a young girl who's paid a visit by Charles Xavier (the silver-tongued, chrome-domed Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (the silver-tongued, silver-haired Ian McKellen). Still partners, these two go after their prey like a couple of college recruiters. She's the only Class 5 mutant they've ever heard of.
Gently applying their theater backgrounds to comic-book dialogue, Stewart and McKellen are the heart and soul of the X-Men movies, overlapping their acting styles just enough to make us wonder where Professor Xavier ends and Magneto begins. We still don't know what caused their breakup, but they've come to represent the two opposing approaches to civil rights in this country: reform or revolution, nonviolent resistance or violent resistance, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. Yet neither of them has the soulful eloquence of Martin Luther King, the fiery rhetoric of Malcolm X. They're British to the core, maintaining a stiff upper lip as things spin out of control around them. Stewart's so calm and soothing that you almost don't notice how good he is, but try to imagine anybody else in the role. As for McKellen, he has this uncanny ability to take a line or an expression right up to the point of parody, then stop. Any actor who could survive the costumes he's forced to prance around in deserves our full respect.
It's not entirely clear what Professor Xavier thinks about the cure, which could be used as a form of genetic genocide. But Magneto, always itching for a fight, starts raising an army. They hole up in the woods, like some right-wing militia, then head to San Francisco, where Worthington Labs is based (in what used to be Alcatraz). Climactic sequences can be so anticlimactic in these big-budget behemoths, but Ratner keeps his wits about him, his wits and his wit. Many of us groaned when we heard that he was taking over for Bryan Singer, who directed X1 and X2 and is probably putting the finishing touches on the new Superman movie as I write this. But we needn't have worried. Ratner, heretofore best known for the Rush Hour movies, finds the poetry in pulp. Everything's beautifully staged, nothing's too overblown. And that climactic sequence, which involves relocating the Golden Gate Bridge and breaking into Alcatraz, is a masterful use of Hollywood's own secret powers, CGI F/X.
Where do we go from here? That's not a question that tends to get asked after the third movie in a trilogy, especially one called The Last Stand. But there's definitely a sense of "To Be Continued" as the remaining X-Persons head back home to lick their wounds, bury their dead, sharpen their claws. And there's a sense that this comic-book premise Ã?' superheroes as an oppressed minority Ã?' has a lot more to give. Luckily, there are more X-Persons where these came from, enough to start your own circus.u