Sunday, July 09, 2006

From the Ashes (X-Men: The Last Stand)

At the risk of destroying my comic book cred, I'm going to point out all the triumphs tucked away in the most recent X-Men movie. First, though, a nod to the critics, with whom I agree on a number of fronts:

1 - Strange pacing: this movie couldn't really settle on a conflict, so it jumped around between internal and external confrontations without ever really distinguishing between them. I mean, maybe there's merit in this... who really knows where the line is between themselves and their adversaries? Where does Prof. X end and Magneto being? Even so, this film had serious pacing problems... we got a good climax, but we never really got a sense of build-up.

2 - No respect for characters: I'm pulling out the comic book nerd card on this one. Hollywood really had NO respect for certain characters, like Cyclops, Wolverine, and Rogue. In particular, Wolverine does NOT take on a responsible leaderly role. That's Cyclops' job (sadly unfulfilled in this series of films), and Wolvie's lone-wolfiness is always what separated him from the team. And Rogue as a wilty teenager? Sad.

But I'm not here to complain. Even with these faults, this movie had moments that really glittered through, and these happened to be profoundly well-rendered characterizations, strongly contrasting with the problematic ones sketched above. I need another tangent, though... I want to mention the interesting recycling of politics in X-Men 3.

The adaptation of a "cure for mutants" was thoughtful, I must admit. There were at least three real-world references tied in here. First, a line of mutants being harassed by their own kind is strongly reminiscent of abortion clinic lines, as two social fronts clash on decisions of responsibility and morality. Second, the idea of a "cure" for something that's not a disease reflects the homosexuality debate, and through it, the issue of self-acceptance and social approaches to normalization. Third, Magneto's video is obviously a terrorism reference... and just enough sympathy leaks out of this film that it doesn't come across as a flat demonization of the terroristic intent. If anything, this film weighs Magneto's approach against Professor X's, and Prof. X comes out on top.

These were just details, though. The meat of the film's merit was in the portrayal of certain pivotal characters.

First, Dark Phoenix. The worst thing this director could have done was to water down Dark Phoenix so that she was just a powerful mutant that could hurt people. Instead, her explosive scenes successfully cast her as inhuman, as a force of nature that could annihilate whole crowds of people without a second thought. Both her physical rendering and the portrayal of her power were compelling and frightening, and the capricious killings of hundreds of mutants in the final scene was sufficiently disturbing for my taste.

Second, Professor X and Magneto: This film centered annoyingly around Wolverine and Storm, and the only thing that made up for this was that Professor X came across as a true patriarch, a spirit that pervaded the pathology of the film. His calm slow-motion glance before his sudden death was the touch that made his final scene really worthwhile, and I would argue that this scene is one of the best in the series, and perhaps one of the best in superhero movies. The death was jarring and surreal, just as a father's violent death would be in real life, and this nuance was one of the diamonds in this movie's rough.

Finally, against the powerful spirit of Professor X, Magneto's character as a misguided idealist really came into relief. His quote in the face of Dark Phoenix ("What have I done?") was a little limpid, but the scenes dedicated to him... his rejection of Mystique, and his final scene of pathos before the chess board... were perfect to bring his personality out of his plastic helmet. Even in his cruelest moments (with Mystique, in particular), I had a strange sympathy for him, and this was especially true in the last scene of the film. Sympathy for the devil is a surprisingly common sentiment in comic books, and it's rare that comic book movies manage to capture it.

This film doesn't stand on its total structure, and if you look at it disinterestedly, as a whole, you probably just see a bit of a mess of writing and acting. It's only when you get into the film at its pivotal moments that its merit shines through, and if you missed out on these moments, it's probably worth watching a second time.

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