Film critic David Thomson once wrote of director Howard Hawks that it is "the principle of [Hawks' films] that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world."
Similarly, it is the principle of the first and, especially, second films in the X-Men franchise that a mutant is more expressive cooling a Coca-Cola than doing battle.
With a new director -- Rush Hour's Brett Ratner replacing Bryan Singer -- at the helm, X-Men: The Last Stand, the third and presumably final installment in the series, loses its grip on that quality. Instead, Ratner has taken the dreamiest, most soulful, and (despite the subject matter) most human of all Hollywood action/sci-fi/fantasy franchises and turned it into something still worthwhile but far more conventional.
It doesn't seem that way at first: The Last Stand opens with a tremendous, tone-setting, pre-credit diptych, a pair of flashbacks that mirrors the best of the earlier films. In the first, set 20 years in the past, then-friends (now rivals) Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen) visit a young Jean Grey to recruit her to Xavier's school for mutants, finding a bored, unimpressed pre-teen with revolutionary powers.
Even better is the second, set 10 years in the past, where a young boy has locked himself in the bathroom, his father pounding on the other side of the door. The boy is desperately trying to saw off wings that have begun to grow from his back. The mix of blood and feathers on the floor perfectly encapsulates the marriage of absurdity and non-blinking/non-winking commitment that makes these movies such ace comic adaptations. And the child's palpable mix of terror and shame at the prospect of being found out by his dad marks the scene as the more pained companion of X2's more sardonic "coming out" showcase. (Where a mother says to her "special" son: "Bobby, have you tried not being a mutant?")
But Ratner fails to live up to that early promise. And despite the boy's torment or the later moment when, now grown, the same character spreads his mighty white wings and flies -- bare-chested and triumphant -- across San Francisco Bay, one of the biggest problems with The Last Stand is that it isn't gay enough. McKellen's marvelously bitchy, queeny performance as "bad guy" Magneto is toned down here and with it much of the series' personality. There are no moments that equal his haughty prison break or gossipy, catty sparring with good-girl Rogue (Anna Paquin) in the second film.
The X-Men saga is an endlessly mutable bundle of narrative and critical possibility, one that can stand in (and apparently has) for any story about minority rights and the persecution of difference. Rooted literally in the Holocaust (McKellen's Magneto is a tattooed concentration-camp survivor), the story also functions perfectly as a civil rights movement allegory, with X-Men leader Xavier a MLK-esque integrationist and Magneto a by-any-means-necessary separatist in the mold of Malcolm X. The current set of films has taken this dynamic and infused it with subtext about more contemporary concerns, most prominently gay rights and the post-9/11 balance of freedom and security.
As we pick up this third installment, Xavier protégé Grey (Famke Janssen) is presumed dead and her beau Scott "Cyclops" Summers (James Marsden) is in mourning, which has transformed him from a good-guy eagle-scout type to a surly, unshaven bad boy. Summers' decline has opened the door for Storm (Halle Berry) to take over as X-Men commander, in which role she and Logan (Hugh Jackman), aka Wolverine, are training a younger generation of X-Men, including returnees Bobby "Iceman" Drake (Shawn Ashmore) and Peter "Colossus" Rasputin (Daniel Cudmore) and newbie Kitty Pryde, who can walk through solid objects (walls, people, whatever) and is played by instant star Ellen Page, the same young actress who tormented a pedophile stalker in this year's indie provocation Hard Candy. Kitty and Bobby (what is this, Father Knows Best?) seem to be getting along a little too well to suit Rogue, Bobby's girlfriend, whose mutation doesn't allow her skin-to-skin contact with other mutants.
Another new character introduced in The Last Stand is Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), aka "Beast," an erudite but furry early student of Xavier's who now sits on the presidential cabinet as the first secretary of mutant affairs.
On the other side of the mutant divide, Magneto is on the run, with new right-hand-man Pyro (Aaron Stanford) helping recruit other mutants to his Brotherhood. Prior lieutenant Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) is in federal custody. As the secretary of homeland security says when asked how the shape-shifting Mystique can be contained, "We've got some new prisons now."
Narratively, The Last Stand is driven by two primary story arcs. One is the rebirth of Grey as Phoenix, a character with greater powers but a darker outlook. The other is the emergence of a mutant anti-gene -- a "cure" -- and, as McCoy puts it, "the impact this will have on the mutant community."
The Phoenix plotline is one of the most famous and well-loved story arcs from the comics. But though it supplies the ostensible emotional climax of The Last Stand, here the Phoenix story feels like more of a distraction from the more interesting questions about community/identity politics inherent in the "cure" plotline. But even when focusing on this part of the film, Ratner exchanges potentially greater emotional and intellectual possibilities for more conventional action-film payoffs.
Two characters struggle with the arrival of the "cure" more than others in the film -- one "cured" against her will early on, another tempted to voluntarily take the vaccine. If the spirit of the prior films drove The Last Stand, these characters would be at the center of the film. Those movies would be more interested in what it means to lose part of yourself (or to give it away) and live in the aftermath than about the next big battle. Alas, Ratner's version is not, and these promising storylines are shunted to the side in favor of setting up a big confrontation between the X-Men and the Brotherhood.
X-Men: The Last Stand is meant to be a big finale but is instead a noisy misstep. There's enough built-up interest in these characters, their problems, and the world they inhabit to make the film more satisfying than most big-budget action flicks, but the spirit that made the earlier films so special is largely dormant. In The Last Stand, three major characters perish, but none of these deaths is as memorable or as moving as the demise of Deathstrike (I looked it up) in X2, a minor character who cries metallic tears when Wolverine takes her life.