Cinema’s superheroes may easily be able to defy the laws of physics, but they have far more trouble breaking the adamantine conventions of their genre. Inevitably, the origins of their own (and their opponents’) unnatural powers will be revealed, a grave threat to the world order will emerge, and then everything will be resolved in a cataclysmic confrontation between the forces of good and evil – until, just as inevitably, a sequel presents all new super challenges.
If this is a narrative type which has become woefully clich-bound, then the X-Men trilogy, more than any other superhero franchise, has milked it for every possible variant mutation. Here, it is not just one empowered outsider on a journey to find him/herself and save the world, but a whole ensemble of them, with an army of supervillains to match, and many new characters added to the cast in each instalment.
The group approach to superheroes can go terribly wrong – just think of the god-awful Fantastic Four (2005), with its one-note characterisation and no-note plotting – but the X-Men franchise has consistently managed to keep its multiple character arcs in the air, finding just the right balance between economically sketched personal drama and spectacular SFX-driven heroics. X-Men: The Last Stand is no exception, although novices would be well advised that this (theoretically) final chapter of the series will probably prove impenetrable to anyone who has not seen its two predecessors.
Sure, some effort has been taken here to let the viewer play catch-up with the story, but the evolving X-Men universe is by now so overcrowded that those who have not already invested in its cast of mutants are unlikely to engage with their personal struggles, or to care much when several really central characters are neutralised or even killed – and in any case, it is made quite clear that the loss of both one’s powers and one’s life itself can be reversed, and so need not cause anyone, whether newcomer or hardened fan, too much concern. Death, you see, is not the end, and there is always room for another sequel…
Take, for example, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Killed off at the end of X2 (2003) just as the rivalry for her affections between Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Scott/Cyclops (James Marsden) was really hotting up, this time round she has risen from the dead as Phoenix, and the immense powers of her unconscious, previously kept in check by her telepathic mentor Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), are now raging out of control. She is recruited by Xavier’s one-time friend and Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) as his own weapon of mass destruction, to counter a new chemical medicine/weapon which he perceives as the humans’ Final Solution for his fellow mutants – a drug that returns them to ‘normal’.
Xavier struggles to keep the peace, assisted by his school of X-Men and by the blue-skinned Beast (Kelsey Grammer), whose diplomatic skills have won him unparallelled influence in high office. Yet as the mutants face devastating conflict with both humans and themselves, the fate of the entire world rests on the choice of one individual – or of a whole bunch of them.
This franchise has always been about the assimilation, or exclusion, of difference, with the misfit mutants’ special powers serving to underline their more general marginal status (as well as coming in handy to save the world). Xavier is not just a telepath, but also a wheelchair-bound cripple, Wolverine is a loner, Magneto is a Jew who has survived Nazi persecution, Beast is marked out by the (blue) colour of his skin, as is Mystique ( Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) who covers her appearance by mimicking that of others, while characters like Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman (Shaun Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Shadowcat (Ellen Page) belong to that most alienated of species, the adolescent.
Their superheroic struggles either to fit in or to lash out are allegories of more grounded varieties of otherness (racial, religious, physical or otherwise). What X-Men: The Last Stand adds to these thematic underpinnings is the possibility of a ‘cure’ for the characters’ mutations, reflecting and dramatising current ethical debates about medical screening for genetic predispositions to disability and disease (or programmes, presently popular amonsgt the religious right, to ‘straighten’ gays).
On top of all this, there is Ian McKellen wearing a ridiculous hat; Vinnie Jones (as the unstoppable Juggernaut) being hilarious just for being Vinnie Jones (especially when he shouts “do you know who I am?”); a superabundance of busy storylines that necessitate, but also at least in part distract from, the superficiality of the characters; and an Alcatraz-set climax whose explosive CGI-assisted melt-down reaches Akira-like proportions of destruction. It may be just another superhero movie (or several of them, all frantically playing out at the same time), but it delivers everything you could want from the genre several times over.