Mutant Mayhem

The latest 'X-Men' sequel makes for an entertaining popcorn movie

Bryan Singer's original X-Men was, when it hit the theaters, the best superhero movie in years. Maybe ever. It was perfectly paced, didn't insult its audience and didn't make the self-conscious and embarrassed move of pretending that it really thought that superheroes were kind of funny, and that it was above all that, but ha ha! here's some superheroes anyway, wink wink!

Since then, the genre has produced a few more decent films, and X-Men is arguably no longer the best. But it and X2: X-Men United still deserve credit for being the first superhero movies in a long time to attempt, if not intelligence, at least a refusal of stupidity.

So I was a bit sad when it was announced that not Bryan Singer, but schlockmeister Brett Ratner would be directing the new X-flick. Horrifyingly, when Ratner got the job, Internet rumors had it that he was adding a new character: a female mutant who was supersexyhot and could seduce any man. That's like giving Charles Foster Kane a zany sidekick and a talking car with attitude.

But luckily, this rumored superskank never hit the big screen, and what did was hardly as bad as could have been imagined. While this X-film is much more of a standard, American, high-action popcorn film than the last two, it's at least entertaining, and even has a few interesting and intelligent ideas.

Unsurprisingly, the most interesting and intelligent idea in the film does not come from director Ratner or screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. Instead, it comes from Joss Whedon, who gets no credit for it. Whedon is currently writing one of the X-Men comic books, and one of his story arcs was about the discovery of a cure for mutantism, or mutantosity, or mutantotosis, or whatever the hell being a mutant would be called if we thought of it as a disease.

In the film, this cure sets off a debate about what is and is not a sickness, what it means to tag a part of the population as sick, and whether the government can be trusted with something like a cure for a condition which is more akin to race than to illness. In short, X-Men: The Last Stand puts forward the thesis that being a mutant is like being black and gay: It makes you better than other people, and thus they hate you for it.

So Magneto (Ian McKellen), whom you'll remember as the malevolent mutant master of magnetism, and who has had some experience with efforts at curing differences within a culture when he was imprisoned in one of those government-run social health-care clinics that the Nazis lovingly called "concentration camps," decides that this "cure" is probably the first stage in doing what people in charge do best: wiping out an entire population. Thus, he decides to form around himself a Brotherhood of Mutants (in the old comics, they called themselves the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, which I think is great, because nowadays, even the most evil organizations on Earth refuse to put the word "evil" in their names and instead call themselves something frou-frou like "Enron" or "Diebold" or "al-Qaida" or "The Disney Corporation"), and pretty soon, he has the one thing that I myself have always wanted: a mutant army.

Of course, ultimately, the Brotherhood will fight the X-Men. You can tell them apart, because the Brotherhood dress like Hollywood costumers in the '80s thought punks dressed, and the X-Men dress like gay motocross riders.

But that's not all that happens in X-M:TLS. No, the film is overly jam-packed with subplots and minor characters and romantic parallelograms. Like: Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who died in the last movie, reincarnates in this one, but she might be evil, and though she loves Cyclops (James Marsden), she also loves Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who's trying to convince Rogue (Anna Paquin) that she shouldn't do anything rash just because her boyfriend, Bobby (Shawn Ashmore), has been flirting with Kitty (Ellen Page), who's obsessed with Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who's been mentally manipulating Jean Grey!

There's also a cameo by Cameron Bright, who, just as he did in Ultraviolet and, sort of, in Running Scared and Godsend, plays a living weapon. Actually, it's unfair to call Bright's role a cameo, because in a film with this many characters, everyone's role is a cameo.

Which is fine, really, since this is just a popcorn film. And for a popcorn film, it does OK. It only has a few howlingly bad lines of dialogue, and it has a surprisingly good performance by Rebecca Romijn as the always-naked Mystique. Even more surprisingly, Hugh Jackman, of all people, manages to hold down something like an emotional center to the film with what borders on being an emotionally convincing performance.

X-M:TLS also has great special effects. Nowadays, realism in effects doesn't score any points, because advanced CGI has made anything possible. So special effects have to be judged on their beauty and inventiveness. There are three outstanding moments here: Magneto making like the "I'm crushing your head" guy from Kids in the Hall as he crushes levitating cars, Magneto giving the city of San Francisco a little queer-mutant-eye redesign, and best of all, Jean Grey using her powers to disintegrate human beings.

This effect is particularly striking: Jean Grey does her mojo thing, and people and objects break apart in the most organic manner, dissolving into tiny bits and blowing away in a psychic windstorm. You've never seen someone die so gorgeously.

So, no, this is not Citizen Kane. Guess what? Charles Foster Kane did not have an adamantium skeleton and the ability to control the weather. But it is a fun, kinda dopey, overpacked movie. If you go in with the right expectations (I went in expecting crap and was quite entertained), this is exactly the kind of film that can distract you from the heat and horror of living in a mutant-free world.

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