Third in the series, X-Men: The Last Stand opens with two flashbacks that set the narrative and thematic stage. The first rolls the clock back 20 years to Professor Xavier's initial meeting with a young Jean Grey (the powerful telepath who didn't really die at the end of X2). The professor tells her that she has more power than she can imagine. "The question is," he says, "will you control that power or will you let it control you?" And the problem of power—and what to do with it—frames this film just as it did the previous two.
The second flashback introduces a tortured teen named Warren Worthington III, who is desperately—and bloodily—trying to cut off two stubbly white wings emerging from his shoulder blades. Warren's adolescent self-loathing symbolizes the angst and internal conflict virtually every other mutant in the series has felt. And it raises the specter of a question that will consume the remainder of the story: Given the choice—or, alternatively, by force of law—would (and should) mutants relinquish the attributes that alienate them?
Fast-forward 10 years, and the boy's father, Warren Worthington II, has discovered a "cure" for mutants, an antibody that permanently suppresses the mutant gene. The government sees it as a breakthrough that can normalize tense relationships between mutants and non-mutants. Any mutant who wants the cure can receive it, thus rejoining mainstream society.
Professor X, his X-men and the younger mutants at his school receive the news with queasy confliction. For some, such as the weather-wielding Storm, the idea of voluntarily renouncing her powers is tantamount to rejecting her identity. For others, such as Rogue (who cannot touch other human beings without sapping their life energy), the promise of a normal life is enticing.
For his part, the renegade master of magnetism doesn't want to talk things over. He wants to fight. "Nobody is going to cure us," Magneto tells his mutant followers. "We are the cure." He's convinced that it's only a matter of time before the government compels its cure upon all mutants—whether they want it or not. And he immediately sets out to muster mutant forces to war.
Meanwhile, in what seems like a miracle, Jean turns up alive. But it's not long before Professor X realizes the trauma of her experience has broken a barrier he placed in her mind—a barrier intended to shield her from Phoenix, a dark, violent personality lurking within her.
With the fate of humanity and mutants hanging in the balance, Professor X, Storm, Wolverine and Iceman, along with new X-Men Angel (Warren Worthington III), Beast, Kitty Pride and Colossus must not only stop Magneto, but find a way to keep Phoenix from annihilating them all.
[Spoiler Warning: To discuss the important moral issues raised by the film, significant plot points are revealed in the following sections.]
Professor X remains a steady voice of reason in a world inflamed by passion and paranoia. He emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility, telling a group of young mutants that their powers can be used for great good or great destruction (a lesson very similar to the one Peter Parker learns in Spider-Man).
X-Men: The Last Stand also delivers a strong message against prejudice and bigotry. It's clear that the alienation some mutants have experienced is unjust. Given that reality, the film presents two very different responses to it. Professor X has chosen to help mutants understand who they are and how they might coexist with run-of-the-mill humans. He believes peaceful integration is possible, provided mutants take responsibility for their powers. Xavier's example stands in sharp contrast with that of Magneto, who has rejected any notion that humans and mutants can ever get along.
While addressing the complexity of our freedom to make choices, the film implies (properly) that some choices are morally wrong. Wolverine initially doesn't understand why Professor X placed a block in Jean's mind to prevent Phoenix from taking over. He rants, "Jean had no choice at all." But the professor tells him, "I chose the lesser of two evils"; clearly, restraining some of Jean's power was preferable to unleashing it upon those who could not defend themselves.
On a more concrete level, a number of the X-Men put their lives on the line to save others and to keep Magneto from decimating humanity. (And not all of them survive.) Wolverine tells his cohorts, "If we don't fight now, everything [our friends] died for will die with them." One of the more dramatic rescues—both literally and figuratively—happens when Angel swoops down to rescue his falling father. That means that the very thing the elder Worthington feared and hated actually saves his life.
In a class on mutant ethics, Professor X discusses the possibility of projecting the psyche (or life-force) of a dying person into someone whose body was healthy but who was clinically brain dead. He doesn't say whether this would be ethically acceptable or not. A scene after the end credits, however, answers the question—at least onscreen. Professor X is obliterated by Phoenix earlier in the film, but this last scene hints that he's successfully projected himself into a brain-dead patient. Effectively, he's cheated death and moved his soul from one body to another, though the movie never uses those terms to describe the transfer.
Magneto describes Jean as a goddess. A character says/prays, "God help us."
Nothing's changed since we noted in our review of X2 that "the blue-skinned Mystique appears just barely beyond nude. Clothed is too strong a word here." What is new is that a government soldier shoots Mystique with a cure dart that eliminates her shape-shifting powers—and her blue sheath—leaving her fully naked (curled up in the fetal position) on the floor.
Reunited with his wife, Scott Summers kisses Jean. But Phoenix takes over and uses the intimate encounter to kill him. Later, a ravenous Phoenix reads Wolverine's lustful mind, kisses him and begins stripping his clothes off. She's wearing a skimpy halter top and shorts, and she wraps her legs around Wolverine suggestively in this passionate scene. He seems bent on reciprocating until he realizes that it's Phoenix, not Jean.
When Bobby Drake insists that he can have a romantic relationship with Rogue, even though they can't touch, she wonders how he'll deal with the lack of a physical relationship, saying, "You're a guy, Bobby; your mind's only on one thing."
If you've seen either X1 or X2, you'll have a reasonable idea of what to expect, violence-wise, in X3. But just as the second film upped the violence quotient, so this one kicks things up yet another notch ... or two. Most of the main characters are involved in hand-to-hand fighting at some point (including female characters). And this film easily has the highest body count of the trilogy. But true to its comic-book origins, the violence is not excessively bloody or gory—just perpetual.
Mystique kicks, punches and chokes government officials and military guards (including one man whose neck she snaps). Magneto destroys vehicles full of government agents. Juggernaut repeatedly hurls Wolverine through walls, while Storm takes a beating that includes having her head rammed through a glass table.
One of most graphic scenes is Wolverine's battle with Spike, a mutant who spontaneously generates and fires bone-spur projectiles. One of these embeds itself in Wolverine's shoulder, and two more in his torso. Wolverine eventually closes the distance and ends Spike's life. Another scene depicts the clawed hero dispatching six other mutants similarly. Shortly thereafter, Magneto hurls him a long way through a dense forest; Wolverine hits a tree and falls perhaps 100 feet, and he's covered with bloody wounds from the trees.
Another of Wolverine's mutant enemies has the power to regenerate severed limbs. So as Wolverine cuts off his arms, they reappear. So Wolverine slices again. And again. And again. Giving up, he kicks his foul foe in the crotch and says, "Regrow those."
A mutant with retractable spikes in his face pulls a female scientist cheek to cheek, then expels them (thankfully, we don't see the result). After Magneto detaches the Golden Gate bridge from its mooring, the cars on the bridge (most of whose occupants have fled) become projectiles that he rains down upon government forces and the X-Men; Pyro lights them on fire as he does so. When Storm fires lightning bolts at a female mutant holding onto a chain-link fence, the resulting electrocution is so fierce that her lip stud glows and smokes.
Some of the most disturbing moments come when Phoenix obliterates at least half-a-dozen people telepathically. When she turns her destructive attention to Wolverine, he regenerates as fast as she can destroy his flesh. When he reaches her, hearing the nearly subdued Jean beg him to "save" her, he does so in the only way he believes he can, killing her with his claws. (The camera lingers as we watch him retract his hand from her lifeless body.)
Crude or Profane Language
Characters say "Oh god" a handful of times; one exclaims, "Dear lord." Other vulgar language includes two harsh utterances of the word "b--ch," and about half-a-dozen instances total of the words "h---," "d--n" and "a--." Kitty Pride calls Juggernaut a "d--khead."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wolverine smokes his trademark cigar in one scene.
Other Negative Elements
Magneto suggests that Phoenix's unfettered, violent nature is preferable to the self-control Jean enjoyed because of Professor X's mind block: "He wanted to hold you back; I want you to be what you are, as nature intended." Magneto has no qualms about taking human life in support of his cause: "They wish to cure us. But I say to you, we are the cure ... for homo sapiens."
On one level, X-Men: The Last Stand is exactly what you would expect: A non-stop, adrenaline-charged action ride. It's darker than its predecessors—as expected. And its intense violence and one sultry scene between Wolverine and Phoenix mean that the film's PG-13 rating should be taken very seriously by families with a hankering to see Marvel's mutants in action one more time.
Equally expected, but worthy of a deeper discussion, is that under this film's comic-book veneer is a modern-day parable about tolerance, choice and power. What does it end up saying about them? That's complicated.
The forces of intolerance are symbolized by the government and the scientists working to separate mutants from their power. And the language they use to describe those with genetic mutations hints that they, perhaps even more than Magneto and Co., are the film's real villains. Angel's father, for example, describes mutants as people who are "afflicted" and "corrupted" with a "disease" that needs to be cured. Worthington II and some of the government officials have clearly rejected the idea that mutants have a place at the humankind table. Fear drives them to seek to control and find a "solution" to the mutant problem.
Magneto, meanwhile, demands complete acceptance by society on his own terms. So, in reality, he's just as intolerant as the humans he so despises.
Somewhere in between these two philosophical extremes are the X-Men, who are trying to figure out what it really means to love and accept others, and to make the right choices in the process.
Because the film doesn't provide a single "right" answer to the philosophical questions it raises, even those involved with it have different takes on what it all means and how it affects fans. Known for his outspoken activism for homosexual acceptance, Ian McKellen said, "Marvel Comics will tell you that [many fans of comic books are] young blacks, young Jews and young gays who tend to feel disaffected by society. I agree with Marvel Comics that X-Men is the most important, radical and relevant of the entire series they produce."
Christian producer Ralph Winter believes the movie pushes viewers to consider how we behave toward those who are different from us. "I think the issue about tolerance is how we treat each other and how we get along with people we don't quite understand or who don't quite look the way we do," he said. "How do we live together? How do we treat each other?"
That established, X-Men: The Last Stand does a better job of raising tough questions than it does answering them—which is apparently what Mr. Winter intended. "No one wants to be preached at in a movie theater," he said. "Movies that raise issues are more interesting than movies that try to give answers."
The message that every person is valuable and deserves acceptance comes through loud and clear (between explosions and dismemberments, that is). What's less clear is whether tolerance means embracing the choices other people make along the way. For the solution to the conflict those words generate, we have to turn away from the movie screen—and toward the Bible—for solid guidance.