X-Men: The Last Stand

Shelley Rees argues that the final film in the X-Men trilogy is a galling disappointment, involving a systematic disempowerment of all the strong female characters.

Shelley Rees, 13 August 2006

The third X-Men film, helmed by Brett Ratner, destroyed everything I loved so much about the first two.

Instead of retaining all the wonderful subtlety and social commentary of the others, this movie throws itself headlong into the abyss of stereotypes and cheap lines and juvenile sexism. The point of the entire film seems to be a systematic disempowerment of the strong female characters, including Rogue, perhaps the strongest mutant of them all because she can pinch your power while she kills you. But in this movie, because she thinks her boyfriend might dump her over the fact that she can't touch (i.e., screw) him, she chooses to "cure" herself of her power and become a nice safe repository of physicality for him. Because of sexual jealously she castrates herself. I wanted to vomit.

a systematic disempowerment of the strong female characters

This is the young woman who (in X Men 2) whips off her glove and prepares to kick Magneto's ass for him. This character whose development we follow from scared, self-flagellating, and crushing girlishly on Wolverine in the first film to the self-assured woman in a relationship of affectionate equals who is not going to take Magneto's crap in the second, and Ratner breezes in and erases that carefully crafted maturation storyline. Ignores it. Does not understand it in the least. He sees Rogue as Sandy in Grease: Her feminine triumph comes from making herself sexually available to her man so he won't look for it elsewhere. How fucking inspiring.

And then the crime he perpetrates against Mystique. I love Mystique. She's so enormously powerful and so committed to her individuality, to her selfhood. She's blue and freaky looking and if you don't like it you can go piss up a rope. She can look like anyone but chooses above all to look like HERSELF. And her devotion to Magneto, and his to her, has been arresting, even touching, throughout the films. Arguably the most brilliant aspect of the X-Men story is how sympathetic Magneto and Mystique are. They're the villains in that they stand against the goals of the protagonists, but we get them. We understand their position. Why else do we see young Eric's horrific concentration camp experience? Why else the devastating conversation in which Mystique announces that she does not alter her appearance to better fit in with humans because she "shouldn't have to?" Why else Xavier's and Magneto's continued friendship? They're not homicidal maniacs - those guys make picking your team easy - they're people.

Look what the Ratner does with that shimmering legacy. I started squirming in my seat early in the film, dreading what I knew was coming. All the talk of the mutant "cure," then lots of Mystique being way too cocky and smug, clearly being set up to be put in her place, and I recall with ghastly clarity the moment I knew, when the thought burst unwilled into my recoiling consciousness: "This is leading to Rebecca Romijn naked." I could cry.

Mystique is naked and vulnerable on the ground as she begs for Magneto's help

But it gets worse. Ignoring everything about the history of Magneto and Mystique's mutual trust, each putting his or her life in the other's hands utterly and absolutely without fear over and over, after Mystique is hit with the mutant cure that eliminates her mutations Ratner has Magneto leave her naked and vulnerable on the ground as she begs for his help. Not insulted yet? Magneto then glides away with a flippant, "A shame. She was so beautiful."

Ha, ha... ha? Get it? Because she's Rebecca Romijn, a lovely swimsuit model, and the lingering Male Gaze shot of her helpless and naked establishes that, wow, she's really hot now that she isn't all blue and scaly, and you know you'd totally hit that and how HILARIOUS that Magneto doesn't want her around NOW when she's finally a proper woman, all tits and arse and heavy eyeliner(?) and none of that annoying power.

Thus Magneto ditches the bitch without a backward glance, this woman who has been his partner in the quest for mutant rights all these years, and the next time we see her she's sitting pretty as a picture as some kind of SECRETARY, primly typing away, the epitome of conventional femininity, having given up Magneto's base of operations to the enemy, allowing Ratner to feed us the oh-so-original line, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Clearly we're to understand, then, that Mystique's political convictions were never genuine, as they are easily dismantled by feminine pique over a bad breakup. She may have appeared powerful and committed to the cause of minority rights, but when it comes down to it she's really nothing more than a woman, subject to the failings and weaknesses of her sex. Jealous, petty, capricious.

we're to understand that Mystique's political convictions were never genuine

Then we must confront the character assassination of Jean Grey. It's truly horrible. In effect, Jean (being female and all) suddenly can't handle all of her power and goes rabid, so Wolverine has to put her down like Old Yeller in the end, saying "I love you" and then running her through with his claws. She's his dog so he's the one who has to take her out behind the barn and put a bullet in her. She spends the film surrounded by men who try to control her and then ends up staring into space wearing a shiny purple bridesmaid's dress during the climactic battle, waiting passively for someone to please come and "save" her with knives to the belly.

Jean's murder reminds me of an "honor" killing, like everyone agrees that since Wolverine is her nearest male "relative" (in that he loves her, even though she repeatedly asserts her intention of staying with her husband so he really has no recipricated connection to her, but that doesn't matter because male love must be revered, which is why stalking is romantic in the movies) it's his responsibility to eliminate her when she's dishonored the family. Nice that it's Storm, Jean's woman friend, not that you'd know it by this movie, who delivers the cold line, "She made her choice," and tells Wolverine to be ready to kill her. Charming. Even Magneto is worth keeping alive, and they have vials of the mutant “cure” at hand, but the plan is to put Jean down, period.

In the honor killing vein, a friend pointed out to me that Jean's crime is a sexual one, as she is established as an out of control maniac by having her wake on the hospital table and throw herself at Wolverine. I have taken students through Freudian readings of X-Men mutants in the past, discussing the phallic nature of both Cyclops's laser eyes and Wolverine's claws. In that context, when Jean tempts her husband Scott (Cyclops) into removing his protective glasses, assuring him that she can handle his (murderously) penetrative gaze now, she reveals her new status as sexually dangerous; in fact, she goes black widow on him and kills him.

female mutants must be returned to their place

Consequently, when she later attempts to seduce Wolverine we are meant to understand that Jean cannot be redeemed. Only male characters (at least in this manifestation of the X-Men narrative) may run amok. Female mutants must be returned to their place, and if they demonstrate more power than can be controlled by men they will be killed.

In short, The Last Stand is a disgrace to the X-Men franchise, and Ratner should be ashamed.

About the author

Shelley Rees

Shelley Rees has a Ph.D. in British Literature, and edits the Journal of the Thomas Lovell Beddoes Society, a U.K.-based literary journal.

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