It turns out that Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) wasn’t completely dead. You knew that, following her sensational self-sacrifice to save her fellow X-Men at the end of X2, and yet, the X-Men are still surprised when she reappears for X-Men: The Last Stand. They’re right to be, for even in the comic-booky lives they lead, some logic is defied by her newish, dual-self incarnation: Rising from a dark and turbulent whirlpool in an otherwise gorgeous mountain lake, Jean comes back as sometimes-Jean and sometimes-Phoenix, all-powerful, red-caped, and veiny-faced.
Much of the grand, bland action of this likely-not-last installment of the franchise has to do with Jean Grey and the Phoenix, as her split reflects that in the increasingly agitated mutant population. Ominously designated a “Class Five” mutant capable of all kinds of annihilation, not to mention a complete lack of self-control, Phoenix worries Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), always a great advocate of self-control, who calls her “a purely instinctual creature, all desire, joy, and rage.” When she is discovered, unconscious, by the lake where Cyclops (James Marsden) has called her up (or has she called him?), Professor X has her immediately trussed up to a lab table where she can be sedated and monitored until he figures out quite what to do with her.
In fact, Phoenix’s emotional excesses seem an outsized extension of Jean Grey’s longstanding and very earnest melodrama, namely, her indecision concerning her mutant lovers, Cyclops and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). As they incarnate the good and sorta-bad girl “sides” of Jean Grey, the guys inspire in her very different kinds of passion, commitments to community and order or to adventure and self-expression. Indeed, their very different first/last kisses with Jean Grey/Phoenix display the possibilities of these commitments: too much order (a pretty, camera-swirling smooch with Cyclops) leads to life-sucking oppression, while too much self-expression (here, a full body embrace with Logan) leads to life-exploding hyperbole.
Her seeming choice is complicated when a genetic “cure” is devised by the ferociously mutant-phobic Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), inspired by the fact that his son is the magnificently bewinged Angel (Ben Foster). Introduced in a heartwrenching flashback that has a child-Angel (Cayden Boyd) cutting off his wings in the bathroom, only to be discovered as a bloody mess by his horrified father, Angel feels pressured to take the injection that will make him fit in. “It’s a better life,” cajoles his father, “The life we all want.” Angel resists, in a gigantic whoop of soaring music and white feathers, and so the battle lines seem drawn. (And that’s about it for Angel’s part — his next appearances are negligible, as are many of those by a whole new cadre of mutants, each on screen just long enough to set up the “next generation” movie series.)
These lines, along the mutant axis anyway, divide the X-Men from the Other Mutants, led by the now fully fabulous Magneto (Ian McKellan). Now walking around in a swirling purple cape and bewildering helmet, Magneto has made his own choice, to reject any sort of compromise with the human community. Magneto gathers an angry company, many members solicited from a crowd of protestors outside a clinic where the cure is disseminated and mutants seeking it line up looking ashamed and afraid, a scene recalling abortion clinic protests. These include the dazzlingly pin-bodied Kid Omega (Ken Leung) and punky speed-demon Callisto (Dania Ramirez), who agree to fight not only against the U.S. government, but also the X-Men, who now number but six. (The always-brilliant Mystique [Rebecca Romijn] is granted a scant few minutes of rambunctiousness.)
As the regulars back at the academy — including Logan and Storm (Halle Berry) — decide to take their “stand” against the cure as well as Magneto’s war-on-all-humans means of dealing with it, some mutants, including oft-troubled X-Men member Rogue (Anna Paquin), are less committed to either cause. She must decide whether she wants to take the cure in order to be able, at long last, to touch her boyfriend Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). The fact that he’s starting to notice the charming, coming-into-her-own Kitty Pryde (played this third time by Ellen Page), worries the increasingly fixated Rogue. Maybe being human isn’t so bad, if it means she can have sex.
Such a Lifetimey dilemma doesn’t much impress the cigar-chomping Logan (who can have sex, flesh-ripping and painfully pleasuring), who observes, witheringly, “I hope you’re not doing this for some boy.” Of course she is, but she can’t admit it, having spent too much time crushing on Logan himself, and so Rogue remains silent on her plans, and leaves the rest of the X-Men to do battle in her absence. Still, as the film underlines repeatedly, her decision, like that of Jean Grey/Phoenix, is not entirely her own, much as she might like to think it is. Forces wider and meaner impose on the X-Men, Magneto’s crew and even humans, such that their efforts to control their own destinies are ever fraught.
Such underlining in The Last Stand extends to the current de rigueur allusion, to the U.S. war on terror. Both Professor X and Magneto understand that access to Phoenix is tantamount to access to a weapon of mighty destruction, and so the film includes references to the Department of Homeland Security (expressing concern about the mutants’ threat, and establishing “new prisons” for keeping them) and a new Department of Mutant Affairs, with Beast (Kelsey Grammer) as the figurehead cabinet secretary. And as no terrorism-alluding movie can get by without terrorist videotapes (see also: V for Vendetta), this one includes a transmission from Magneto, warning humans they “will not be safe,” and telling fellow mutants, “Join us or stay out of our way.”
The showdown now assured, the only question is where. It turns out that the humans are keeping the source of their cure, yet another mutant named Jimmy (Cameron Bright, playing much the same part he played in Ultraviolet), on Alcatraz Island (reached by a spectacular CGIed stunt, whereby Magneto lifts the Golden Gate Bridge from its foundations and rejiggers it to lead to the island, leaving puny human drivers to deal with the catastrophic fallout). No mutant powers work in his vicinity (except when necessary for the plot), and so the various sides have various interests in him: the X-men want to bring him into their fold, the humans (including a too-briefly seen doctor played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) want to use him as a model for their synthetic cure, and Magneto wants to destroy him.
None of these options is actually about a choice for the boy, much as the X-Men credo tends to celebrate this idea. The film circles round and round this notion, as Jean Grey/Phoenix has a choice, Rogue makes a choice, and Logan wrestles a choice out of air. It’s a superhero movie, so all these choices involve massive destruction — buildings disintegrating, fireballs flying, bodies detonating. But all the wreckage doesn’t make the choices seem more informed or more resonant. They just seem louder.