Death to X-Men

A sequel only a mutant could love.

Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman in X-Men:The Last Stand 

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s the most gay-friendly blockbuster series of them all? No, not Batman. And not The Lord of the Rings (which is more pre-sexual than anything else). Consider another series, one in which teenagers discover that they are “mutants” and long to run away from home and be with others like them. At a finishing school in the countryside, they learn to wear tight leather suits and follow Hugh Jackman. Plus, if you touch the hottest girl at the school (Anna Paquin), you die. Consider also that the director of X-Men, Bryan Singer, stages scenes in which the word mutant is an obvious stand-in for homosexual—most famously, in X2, when a mother asks her son: “Have you ever tried … not being a mutant?” Now imagine what happens when this beloved franchise is turned over to Brett Ratner, the reigning Mr. Testosterone of Hollywood.

The third installment, X-Men: The Last Stand (Fox), takes what had been a fun mixture of swish, eye candy, and political metaphor and turns it into a thundering lovers’ saga involving Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and a reborn Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Too bad, since the movie’s setup is sharp: A “cure” for the mutant gene has been developed, giving mutants everywhere the chance to become “normal” again. There are scenes outside the cure centers that recall the protests outside abortion clinics. Indeed, the X-Men movies have always played with volatile cultural material. The mutants represent the next stage of human evolution (homo sapiens superior), a fact that brings up all sorts of uncomfortable notions of eugenics and racial superiority. Singer was fond of having his characters speculate on the best use of their superpowers, as if they were the United States. Ratner doesn’t explore any of this. He’s too busy blowing stuff up and trying to please the fan boys.Yes, those superpowerful fan boys. Singer may have accentuated the homoerotic notes of X-Men, but the comic’s enduring appeal is its embrace of all varieties of alienation. In the 1980s, X-Men represented an absorbing alternative to the squareness of Superman and team sports. I speak from experience. A lot of teenagers who, for whatever reason, felt like outsiders, loved the X-Men (especially Wolverine). Now we’ve grown up, and we’ve become a choice audience that Hollywood courts. There’s just one problem: These characters have lived in our minds for months or years, and to see them on-screen is inevitably a minor letdown. My heart leapt up when I saw Kelsey Grammer appear as the old-school mutant Beast, but I also felt pandered to. It was as if Ratner was saying: “Here’s your little furry friend, geek, now excuse me while I take this call from my Polish supermodel girlfriend.”

There’s no artistic motive for X-Men: The Last Stand to exist, and it shows. When Singer (and his initial replacement) walked away from the franchise, 20th Century Fox signed up Ratner only weeks before the start of shooting in the hope of squeezing more juice from the lemon. The cast has the contented air of someone who just found 20 bucks on the sidewalk. The lone exception is Rebecca Romijn, whose character appears in a skin-fitting, blue rubber suit that must take hours to apply. She just looks pissed.

The best parts of comic-book movies are always the back story, the tender moments of teenage solitude when the hero discovers that he or she is special and different. They defeat the bully or save their crush, and everything is still human-scaled and believable. But by the time the characters have mastered their special powers, the movies become a) CGI video games b) overwrought melodrama c) physically ludicrous. (Think of the second half of Spider-man.) In X-Men, Magneto (Ian McKellen) can control metal, whereas Wolverine (Jackman) has a metal skeleton and the ability to heal instantly. You would think that Magneto could defeat Wolverine, but no, in the painful logic of these movies, such an obvious thing never happens. When I saw a Latina mutant (Dania Ramirez) arrive on-screen, however, I knew without fail that she would fight the only other mutant woman of color in the film, Halle Berry.

It won’t spoil anything to say that Ratner ends the movie with a literal kiss of death. Which is fitting, since there’s only one place left for this series to go: a prequel. And even though X-Men: The Last Stand is an uninspired hodgepodge, it’s not as if the movie has no redeeming qualities. I came away impressed with the mutant power of Brett Ratner. We should strategically deploy him to destroy runaway movie franchises that threaten mankind with their continued existence. For starters, is it too much to ask to sic him on Garfield’s A Tale of Two Kitties?