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“X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” Review (✫✫✫)

How can you “cure” what was intended as a gift?

There’s an obvious danger with the production of second sequels made with planned trilogies: how do you keep things fresh and interesting and make sure none of the material isn’t stretched out or forced? For many trilogies, the third entry is the one filmmakers are usually least concerned about. Why should they be? They’ve already made their biggest impact with the first two films and people will go and see it anyway, so why should they extend any effort? I like to call this “the trilogy curse,” and it explains why so many second sequels end up letting down their entire franchise (*cough* Terminator 3 *cough*).

The best thing that can be said for X-men: The Last Stand is that it does a good job avoiding the trilogy curse. While some may be frustrated by the liberties it took and the deviations it made from the source material, I for one found it to be very liberating. It changes things up a bit, made things different, and did one huge thing that many comic book movies can’t do: it made it unpredictable. Because of this, the stakes were higher, the action was more involving, and it made you invest yourself more in the characters rather than waiting for everyone to hold hands in the end for that “happily ever after” ending many films get trapped into. X-men: The Last Stand accomplished something important: it proved that comic-book movies can deviate from their source material and still be good.

After saving both human and mutantkind at the shrouded site where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gained his metal claws and lost his memory many years ago, X-men: The Last Stand takes place as the X-men still try to cope with the death of their beloved Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save her friends as she became engulfed by a sea of raging waters. Most affected by this is her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), who can still hear her voice in his head as he sits in their bedroom reminiscing about her.

The X-men, however, have a much more pressing issue at hand: a company called Worthington Labs has recently invented a mutation antibody that basically attacks mutant cells and nullifies them. The public dubbed it as a “cure,” and it essentially turns mutants into regular human beings, forever granting themselves the life of normalcy they’ve so long desired. Of course, this new invention stirs up quite a controversy among the mutant community, especially regarding Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his extremist brotherhood of mutants. When mutants come to terms with this cure and what it means for all of them, they must make a decision of whether or not to fight against the cure, or fight for humanity’s survival at all.

The first out of the X-men series not to be directed by Bryan Singer, filmmaker Brett Ratner (The Rush Hour series) steps in to fill in the reigns of Singer’s mostly definitive first two installments. How does he do? Well, the good news is that he holds his own pretty well, and makes a movie that he can call all his own. Ratner poses an important question here that I think the other two films mostly sidesteps: if you have an unwanted gift, should you keep it? For me when I watched the movie, I saw an image deeper than that of a mutant standing in line to take a shot that would take away their powers. I saw a pregnant teenager waiting in line for an abortion for that baby that she never intended to have in the first place, or an image of a man going in for a gender change because he doesn’t feel comfortable in his current body.

Controversial? Yes, but that’s how the film intends for it to be. Much like its predecessors, The Last Stand handles its political side well, and is being more ambitious by taking a different spin from the standard supremacist/racism themes that they explored in the earlier installments.

The cast is good, but that’s standard at this point. We expect Jackman to be good as Wolverine. We expect Patrick Stewart and McKellan to be convincing as the leaders for their own specific causes. We expect Storm (Halle Berry) to be the strong female hero that she is, and we expect Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) to be the kind-hearted, considerate teenager while Rogue (Anna Paquin) remains the estranged and desperately shy mutant who continuously questions keeping her abilities. The one we should notice more than anyone else is Janssen as Jean Grey. Yes, she’s back, and she has a much more villainous spin on her that comic fans may or may not be happy to see. She’s much more versatile in this movie, bouncing brilliantly in between angry and hateful to scared and grief-stricken. Without giving too much away, I really liked her role in this movie as both a protagonist and antagonist, and I think X-men fans will be just as pleased with her performance as well.

The only thing I don’t like with this movie is its climax. The buildup earlier in the film was so much better, with the backstory of Jean Grey, Professor X and Magneto culminating so ingeniously into a plot where all the danger was real and there was no way to predict who lived and who died. Another great scene with excellent buildup was when Wolverine went searching for Jean, fighting a small group of mutants within the confusion of a lush, maze-like forest. The final fight, however, could not have been more standard and one-note if it tried. It plays out exactly as you would predict it to, dragging out into a disarray of violence and loud noises until finally it ends in explosions and agonizing screams. Enough already. The rest of the movie did a good job building up anticipation: did you really have to give in right before the end?

Still, I had fun with this movie. I know “fun” is a very loose term that can be used within the film community, especially when you’re speaking about a potential deal breaker such as this. Still, I’m going to say it: this movie was fun. Why am I saying that? Because I enjoyed it, that’s why. I genuinely liked it. I liked the big, boisterous action scenes orchestrated on a grander scale in which I don’t think would have been possible six years ago. I liked the darker, more thematic moments between characters where they took time to build up the stakes and what was on the line here. Mostly however, I liked how it humanized the mutants, and made them genuine flesh-and-blood human beings that could be killed and harmed. It didn’t immunize them from death because of their fans’ love for them: it made them mortal, and it presented a real, legitimate threat in the film because of that.

I know many people who are going to disagree with me, and that there will be many who love these characters too much to be able to see them get killed off and just be okay with it. Let me set the news down with you easily: if you’re that bothered by seeing a character’s death in a movie, maybe you shouldn’t be watching that movie in the first place. These filmmakers set out to make a convincing movie where the threat was imminent and real: not to please the comic-book die hard who gets frustrated if a comic book character’s hair isn’t the right color. Maybe that was Ratner’s second goal beyond making a good sequel, to see how many changes he could make before the fans starting writing death threats to his home mailbox.

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“X2” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

A social commentary disguised as an action blockbuster.

X2 is science-fiction brilliance, a sequel that is relentlessly exciting, smartly written, intelligently designed, and jam-packed with so many involving action scenes and stunning visual effects that it could potentially work as a stand-alone movie, rather than a direct sequel to its predecessor X-men. Like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, this movie serves as an expansion for the universe that it is in and as an opportunity to provide fan service to its dedicated readers and lovers of the iconic source material. I’m not very much for sequels, and I definitely don’t want this to become a superhero monopoly, but if we have to have sequels packaged with every superhero installment in the near future, more filmmakers should pull inspiration from X2.

X2 picks up just short of a few months after X-men originally left off. After the combined efforts of the X-men defeated Erik Lenshurr, a.k.a. “Magneto” (Ian McKellan), and imprisoned him within a special plastic cell (Countering his ability to manipulate metal), the X-men go about their (ab)normal lives as teachers at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, educating mutants on how to control their powers and not be afraid of who they are. Only Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) sets out to Canada to seek out answers for his long-forgotten past, and even then he comes up empty: the lab where he was supposedly experimented on has long since been abandoned.

Soon, however, a new figure from everyone’s past re-emerges: William Stryker (Brian Cox), a government official who has experimented on mutants for as long as mutants existed. After pitching his program to the President and revealing that Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters is a front to the X-men operation, the X-men and the Brotherhood of Mutants must band together to save each other from Stryker’s plot, and quite potentially the rest of mutant kind with them as well.

Directed and co-written by Bryan Singer, who also directed X2’s predecessor X-men, X2 is a highly involving, irreverently fascinating superhero epic. Functioning just as much as a political thriller as it does a superhero action flick, Singer is careful to deliberate and balance everything effectively in the movie, from its themes of xenophobia and racism to its highly-exciting action sequences where mutants go flying, flipping, and teleporting in every which way and under.

Funny, the first time Singer tried X-men, balance was a problem for him. He put a greater emphasis on the action and the visuals of the mutant’s powers more than what they meant for them individually, quite possibly because that’s more of what the audience wants to see anyway. Here, balance is not an issue. He does a great job at both not only giving us a healthy dose of action-packed sequences of grandeur and excitement: he also does a great job giving us heartfelt, genuine emotion, showing these character’s internal reactions just as much as their external.

Example: After escaping from an attack on themselves and the rest of the X-men earlier in the movie, Wolverine takes himself and a small group of mutants to Bobby “Iceman” Drake’s (Shawn Ashmore) home, where he’s forced to essentially come out to his family that he is, in fact, a mutant. After seeing the emotion and disparity of his family reeling in with the shocking revelation of Bobby’s abilities, the police pull up to the house, and an explosive battle results between these X-men and the officers.

See, this is what I’m talking about: there isn’t a single moment in the movie where the action outweighs the drama, or the drama outweighs the action. For every scene where something emotionally weighty or significant is revealed, there is another scene where something exciting or thrilling happens that jump-starts your interest all over again. Whether it’s a scene involving dialogue between characters, a narrator giving exposition on a conniving plot, or another scene where some sort of grand, explosive battle takes place doesn’t matter. It’s always moving, it’s always doing something different, it always keeps up its interest and it is never boring.

I’m very happy with this movie. In a world where so many sequels make the mistake of replacing genuine emotion with an overdose of action and visual effects, X2 is a clear standout. While not necessarily perfect, and still incapable of escaping from some of the cheesy, ham-fisted moments that I rued in the first movie, it definitely stepped up its game as a far as drama goes, and has deeper contexts to offer regarding the xenophobia/racism issue that inspired the series as a whole since its comic book creation. In that sense, X2 is more than a superhero blockbuster. It’s a social commentary on judging another person for who they are and the destructive consequences that can come from it as a result.

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