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6 Jun 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

Brett Ratner has completely messed up this reviewer's favorite gay superhero movie franchise. Thanks to his ham-fisted direction, Wolverine is boring, Rogue is annoying, Mystique looks fat and the gay subtext is almost all but lost.

Director: Brett Ratner

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn, Patrick Stewart

I hate Brett Ratner, the director of the latest X-Men movie The Last Stand. Brett - or Brat or Mr Rat - has completely messed up my beloved gay superhero franchise.

From top to bottom: James Marsden as Cyclops and Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, Halle Berry as Storm, Rebecca Romijn as Mystique with Ian McKellen as Magneto, McKellen, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and director Brett Ratner with Ben Foster (Angel).
X-Men is supposed to be the superhero series that secretly took gay issues into massive mainstream territory. Since the comic appeared in the 60s, pop-culture critics have drawn parallels between the mutants' struggle to gain wider acceptance for being genetically "different," and the gay community's struggle for acceptance and recognition.

Like queers, these mutants discover their "difference" during puberty and struggle to hide it from friends and family. They forge their self-identity when they meet others like them. And they grow up learning to fight the system that shuns and persecutes them.

Coincidentally or not, the producers of X-Men picked an openly gay director Bryan Singer to direct the first two X-Men movies. Bryan had only directed three films by then, Public Access (1993), The Usual Suspects (1996) and Apt Pupil (1998), all of which dealt with male characters who had to hide something from the rest of the world.

Bryan went on to cast the openly gay actor Ian McKellen in the all-important role of charismatic villain Magneto. He also chose Patrick Stewart - who's long been speculated to be gay - to play Prof Xavier, the leader of the good pack of mutants. For the role of the arch conservative Senator Kelly, Bryan picked Bruce Davison whose most famous role was that of a gay man in the AIDS drama Longtime Companion (1991). That gay role earned him his first and only Oscar nomination. And in X2, Bryan cast the openly bisexual Alan Cummings as the Nightcrawler.

With the rainbow baton being passed from one scene to the next, it's no wonder I loved X-Men and X2 so much. Right from the opening scenes of X-Men, where Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is explaining to a Senate Committee why mutants are as normal as humans, I knew instantly that X-Men was going to be one giant gay metaphor.

I could sympathise with Rogue (Anna Paquin), a teenage girl who's just starting to discover boys but could not touch them. When her first kiss with a boy sends him into a three-week coma, I trilled: "Thaaaat's meeeee, back in boys' school."

And in X2, when twinkie Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) comes out to his parents and his mother asks, "Have you tried not being a mutant?", she may just as well have used the word "gay."

Bryan Singer's interview on the BBC later would confirm that "mutant" was a stand-in for "gay." He told the interviewer: "A gay kid doesn't discover he or she is gay until around puberty. And their parents aren't gay necessarily, and their classmates aren’t, and they feel truly alone in the world and have to find, sometimes never find, a way to live."

But more than Rogue and all the good mutants, I loved evil Magneto (Ian McKellen) best because of his f**k-all attitude towards the humans who persecute him. He reminds me of gay activists who won't stand for shit from ultra-conservative politicians. Still, it's Prof Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who had the dandiest power of all: He could sit in his special room, close his eyes and check out all the mutants in the world - sort of like a very powerful gaydar.

X-Men and X2 succeeded as films because, apart from being slick action vehicles, they were poignant studies of angst and alienation. The superheroes did not just get into fights and showdowns. They also spent a lot of time wondering why they are different, why they can't be like everyone else, and how they can use their unique powers to achieve something good. But they sometimes misjudge their abilities and end up hurting the ones they love most. Just like us queers.
Bryan Singer - who is not just gay, but also Jewish and an adopted child - truly understands the pain and glory suffered by those who are different.

So when Bryan left The Last Stand in mid-development to direct Superman Returns, I became anxious. When they announce Brett Ratner would take over the directorial reins, I became really REALLY anxious. Brett has a bad rep for being a playboy who dates models like Naomi Campbell, Alina Puscau and Maggie Q. He is best known for moneymaking action-comedies like Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2. Sure, he's a good action director, but does he have the intellect or even interest in developing X-Men's gay subtext? Most of the time, he just wants to blow things up and make the box-office counters go kaching-kaching.

As it turns out, The Last Stand had more potential for exploring gay issues than any previous X-Men plots. But all of that is wasted on Brett... The Last Stand is about the discovery of a mutant cure that could turn mutants into normal human beings. Mutants are upset about the cure, because they say they are not "sick" to begin with. No one is angrier than Magneto, who decides to wage an all-out war against the humans and destroy the cure.

Although the mutant cure is obviously a metaphor for ex-gay movements (religious groups who try to change homosexuals into heterosexuals through counseling and prayer), Brett spends little time addressing this. He's more comfortable reaching for the CGI/Action/Explosion button every few minutes and summoning some neat-o special effects. So what we get is a big-budget B-movie, an expensive CGI videogame - instead of a memorable superhero drama.

In X-Men and X2, the many characters were fully fleshed-out. But in The Last Stand, they are given short shrift so that more time can be spent on fight sequences. Once a sexily tortured soul encased in a Tom of Finland physique, Wolverine has turned into a generic action figurine whose sole purpose in life is to fight, fight, fight. Rogue, whose loneliness and confusion were palpable throughout the first two films, has become the most boring woman in the X-universe. She's become a stick in the mud, a party pooper, a wet blanket who does nothing but sulk when her boyfriend Iceman flirts with Shadowcat.

Storm (Halle Berry) throws up so many blank expressions she should be renamed Catatonia. Jean Grey/Phoenix, a potentially complex character, remains a cipher. And when Cyclops (James Marsden) dies, no one weeps for him... except the gay men smitten with his matinee idol looks.

Shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) was one of the erotic creations of modern cinema. But amazingly, Brett manages to shoot her in the most unflattering angles and make her look fat. How does one manage to make a sexy supermodel look fat? I only wish that Magneto could inject Brett Ratner with some mutant genes (as he did with Senator Kelly) so that Brett might finally understand the cult, the essence, the significance of the X-Men mythology. Until they get Bryan Singer back into the director's chair, I won't wish for any more X-Men installment/spin-off.

In the meantime, Bryan has just finished Superman Returns. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he said that his version of Superman will focus more on Superman's soft side and his secret love for Lois Lane. Bryan cheekily calls it "my first chick flick". I can't wait.

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