Thursday, June 01, 2006

X-Men: The Final Solu--er, Last Stand

I am about to reveal or refer indiscreetly to practically everything important that happens in 'X-Men III'. If you wish (though I don't advise it) to save yourself for the cortex-searing cocktail of geek disillusion and drop-jawed political aghastness that is this cinematic artifact, run away now. Also, much detail is required for analysis purposes, so this is fucking long. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Right. First let me preface by saying that I fucking love X-Men. I was ridiculously excited to see this film. Excited unto sitting through the ubiquitous trailers and TV ads with my eyes squeezed shut and my ears finger-stoppered chanting lalalalalalalalala, to the undoubted joy of my neighboring movie-goers, so as to escape the slightest hint of spoilage.

And of course I secretly knew it would be disappointing, as any 3rd epigone in a beloved franchise will inevitably be. (Beyond 3, I know better than to shell out even two hours of Sunday afternoon cable-watching, let alone actual coin.) What I didn't know was that it would be, hands down, the most overtly, unapologetically reactionary piece of 'entertainment' I can remember seeing. 'X-III', or as I like to call it, 'Kapos Without a Cause', is effectively a manifesto for the implosive capitulation of liberal political ethics into its own hollow, convictionless, security-craving heart. It is the Democrat Police-State Summer Blockbuster.

[Interlude: let me now, against the very slight risk of being blindsided later, allow for the possibility that this is in fact a shockingly sophisticated piece of left-political critique in deep, deep, DEEP cover. There are actually several things about the film that make me think this is a genuine possibility, but ultimately we have to engage with the argument the film appears to make and authorial intent be damned. And as it plays on the screen, this is a film about the heroism of kapos. But just in case it comes out that Brett Ratner is actually a savage Swiftian cryptoTrot for our time, let it be known that I thought of that.]

The premise: post the thwarted mutanticidal ambitions of William Stryker in X2, (American) humans and mutants are at last coexisting in apparent harmony, complete with (the freakishly appropriately-cast) Kelsey Grammer as a big blue furry Secretary for Mutant Affairs in the Presidential Cabinet. But of course all is not durable serenity: a pharmaceutical company has developed a 'cure' for mutants, copied from the DNA of a little mutant boy called Leech. (They keep him shaven-headed and white-clad in a sealed room with a very big television, as one will do. He seems limply ok with this plan, though no one on either side ever appears to ask him.)

Cue queer-style identity politics: many see the 'cure' (quite correctly) as an attempt to pathologize their mutant identity as a disease, while others queue up to get their normal-shots (including Rogue, whose sole, and blessedly scant, function in the film is to enact an odd little embedded High School Misfit narrative: her mutation means she can't touch her boyfriend, which granted does suck, and she miserably suspects him of running around with another girl. In the time-honored self-hating-misfit move, she runs off secretly to get fixed, and we confidently expect that at the last minute she will learn to Love Herself and Value Her Special Difference, and not get cured after all. Hold that thought). Protests, factions, confusion. Isn't it awful? What to do? Then Magneto shows up to organize a real resistance, and the fascist fun begins.

It quickly emerges that the 'voluntary' cure has already been weaponized by the government (poor Mystique is shot with it, and is turned speedily and permanently into a pink, naked and oddly chunkier Rebecca Romijn; NB: head-to-toe teal apparently slimming). By way of justification, the supposedly mutant-friendly President tells outraged Mutant Affairs Secretary Beast that 'I worry how democracy survives when a man can move cities with his mind.' Apparently in this model democracy survives by forcibly genetically bleaching that man, along with any other inconveniently-abled citizens. Beast has a hissy fit, denounces the weaponized cure, and walks out on the government to join his X-friends at Xavier's School, where they all stand around looking Very Concerned about how awful it is, consider packing it all in and then boldly decide to, er, continue holing up in their posh private school. This is the bold plan, mind you.

Magneto meanwhile has been busily gathering a throng of radical followers--naturally pierced, dyed, gender-ambiguous and gothed-up to a man-woman--and they all convene in a forest encampment that evokes, surely non-accidentally, Robin Hood. Magneto delivers an address rousing the Brotherhood to fight the 'cure', and rather desultorily gesturing toward some kind of vague mutant-supremacy platform. (This is one of a small handful of moments thrown in to present him as an eville, heartless tyrant-presumptive; the problem being that they're so lazily conceived that they're completely inconsistent with his character and thus completely unconvincing. The sloppiest, and nastiest, of these is when devoted henchmina Mystique, 'cured' and lying naked and helpless on the floor, looks up plaintively and says, 'Eric...?', to which Magneto icily replies, 'You're no longer one of us', turns and leaves her there. This makes exactly no sense in the context of his character, which has been notable for its loyalty, even to King Kapo Xavier. A clumsy smear-job.)

Meanmeanwhile, having died so promisingly in the end of X2, Jean Grey has come back as the unpromisingly dyed, issuetastic Phoenix and, rather redeemingly, appears right off to have iced Cyclops, her old lover. Dr. Xavier supplies the charming back-story of how, when Jean was but a wee mutantette, she was like totally the Most Powerful Mutant Ever, and for reasons unspecified (but in fact embodied in the entire program of the film) we couldn't have that, so he whisked her off to his school and handily created a series of blocks inside her mind. This caused her to develop a split personality and bury all her impulses of joy, desire, anger and power in the id-persona Phoenix, leaving the sensationally insipid control-shell Jean Grey to struggle pathetically at shifting pennies with her mind-fragment (not to mention at achieving some tepid flicker of chemistry with ultraweenie Cyclops).

Man just out and says all this, as if he'd committed a perfectly understandable, justifiable intervention, instead of, oh, criminal therapeutic child abuse. Now of course the hellcat's out of the bag, and she is one supremely fucked-off megamutant. She explodes Xavier, which to be honest he pretty much deserves, then schleps conflictily off with Magneto (who btw tried to stop her killing Xavier; heartless and disloyal my ass) to Sherwood Base Camp (stopping on the way to pick up some curiously ill-fitting gothwear). Now Magneto and his posse have The Ultimate Weapon. But ahhhhh, can they control her?

This is the last point at which the movie bothers to make any kind of narrative logical sense. Wolverine shows up to try to get Phoenix/Jean (Jeanix?) back, and on the way kills an absolute fuckload of other mutants in Magneto's camp, basically just cuz. (Wolverine's body count in these films has always dwarfed the entire rest of the cast's combined, but this is the first time we see him killing almost exclusively other mutants. I don't believe this is the slightest bit accidental. By the end he will become the prime motivator of the X-Men going out deliberately to kill untold other mutants in order to save [actively mutanticidal] humans--the precise inversion of his role in X2, and the sad resolution of the major ongoing storyline across all three films: the taming/reclaiming of Wolverine into a tool of the state that, in its most pathological [but still broadly sanctioned] incarnation, created him. Poor Wolverine; he was better than this. And to add insult to injury, they present his domestication as if it meant he's finally grown up.)

Jeanix just sort of looks at him for a bit, and then Magneto hucks him magnetically off into the forest far far away, so he mopes blowdriedly back to the school.

Magneto broadcasts a public service announcement on Fox News telling the humans to stay out of the Brotherhood's way and don't fuck with their mission, or prepare to get squished. That irritating fire-boy from X2 (now abruptly risen to #1 Magneto henchman; man does go through minions) blows up the pharm company's office building, and then they all set off to uproot the Golden Gate Bridge so they can take it to Alcatraz Island, where the labs and the cure-mutant are kept in ostentatiously remarked-upon impregnability. (Unclear to me why they couldn't simply have taken some kind of boat to Alcatraz, much as I did myself some years ago for the rather tedious prison tour.) All in all, we are rather generously treated to the spectacle of Resistance Going Too Far. As soon as we use violence, you know, They Have Won™. Thing is, though, nobody actually ever does argue that Magneto's position is in any way incorrect, either factually or morally. We're simply strenuously informed that he is being not at all nice about it.

Meanwhile, back at the plush, leafy Westchester X-ranch, the (mysteriously decimated; could they not afford scale for more than 6 speaking X-Actors?) gang are gearing up for war. Not against the government that is openly preparing to retro-eugenically bleach them. No suh. Rather, they get their war on and go jetting off in defense of the forces of genetic fascism, seemingly because Magneto's lot are preparing to inflict some property damage and kidnap Cure-boy.

Very Important Note: at no point do the (clean-cut and J-Crew-clad) X-Men ever actually say out loud why it is that they must go out to oppose Magneto's (gothy-punky) resistance. There is no 'But if he succeeds in doing Thing N, the world will end/humanity will be wiped out/mutanity will be wiped out/puppies everywhere will die horrible deaths! Quick, to the X-Jet!' In fact, quite the reverse. All that's happening is that the resistance is going to fuck up a factory, to stop production of the eugenic weapon that does in fact threaten to wipe out all mutants, including the X-Men. And yet without a second thought the latter are off to oppose the saving! At Wolverine's urging they stand, literally six of them heroically Holding The Line, to protect hundreds of human soldiers, who are at that very moment in the process of firing cure-weapons at their fellow mutants, from being overrun by Magneto's insurrectionary Brotherhood. Because here's the thing: it's not that the Brotherhood's opposition to the cure is aberrant; we got some terribly soul-sista-stirring lines from Storm earlier on about how awful and unacceptable the cure is. It's quite simply that they're doing it wrong. And when it comes down to a (really rather minor) crunch, the X-Men unhesitatingly lock and load on the side of Order, even when it means killing hordes of their own fellows to serve an authority that effectively wants to kill them all.

What does that make the X-Men? It makes them kapos. This is rendered absolutely clear in the final boss-battle with Magneto, who, having succinctly identified them as 'traitors to their own kind', is handily kicking their asses by flinging burning cars at them from the bridge. In their huddled bunker, Wolverine looks down and sees a little clutch of cure-cartridges fallen from one of the soldiers' magazine. He and furry blue quisling Beast exchange a dawning, manly, determined look, a look in which the two give each other implicit permission to abandon any last tatters of independent moral compunction: Beast to betray his own earlier principled stand against that very weapon, and Wolverine his very self, constructed in resistance against the genocidally normative forces that built both his skeleton and the cure-weapon. And so they make a sneaky little plan, and they go out and defeat Magneto by stabbing him from behind with that handful of cure-darts. They use the enemy's anti-mutant weapon to kill the mutant Magneto, reducing him to the helpless, unwilling human Eric Lensherr.

(The Eric Lensherr who, as all three films repeatedly emphasize, was not only a victim of Nazi genocide, but whose mutantness opened the whole trilogy in that searing scene that constructs the boy Eric's suddenly-emerging mutant identity as a desperate, somatic act of resistance against that genocide--an act that has its fleeting moment of efficacy before he is overcome and beaten down by the agents of fascism. These films will not let us forget that central fact of Magneto's identity. This is actually Thing #1 that makes me wonder whether something might be Going On with this film. The interplay between Magneto's mode of defeat and his so-emphasized Survivor identity is so overt and telling that, if it isn't meant as some kind of inversion, those responsible are astoundingly thick. I'm just saying.)

I can scarcely think of a scene more chilling in a film, ever. That's really the climax, or I should say the nadir, of the film. That's the money shot, the pragmatic payload of 'X-III': real heroes will stick at nothing, will collaborate in the basest atrocity, to fulfil their empty, mechanical, ineluctable, fratricidal obeisance to Order. For fuck's sake, no one even called and asked the X-Men to go stop Magneto. There was no actual content to their impulse, stated or implicit. They just upped and did it, because that's what they're for.

Does any of that start to sound familiar at all? Does it sound like an epically-enhanced depiction of a political party so abased before the imperative of Order that, unasked, it will savagely censure its own members rather than allow 'uncivil' opposition to the party it faintly purports to oppose? That it will freely deploy the enemy's ideological weapons of 'patriotism' against its own, rather than let them question the extinguishing of individual liberty in the name of Order? That it will volunteer legislation designed to out-draconian the demonic fever-dreams of the party in power, so that if it must attack that party it can do so on the grounds that the governing party is not sufficiently attending to the maintenance of Order?

That is the yawning moral vacuum, contentless yet bizarrely active, of the Democrat-liberal political existence, and it is not merely justified but celebrated in this film. The denouement is stunningly reactionary: status quo restored with a vengeance; well-behaved mutants returned to nice, quiet, separate-but-equal 'coexistence' in their lovely green island of mutants-only privilege [cough-Israel-cough]; nasty radical mutants violently killed or 'cured' or both; 1-2-3 manicured graves in the garden of the Xavier School, sedate monuments to those who fell in sacrifice to almighty Order (no graves for the scores of rebel mutants killed, most of them by Wolverine, the rest by the effects of being forcibly 'cured' while, say, clinging mutantly to the underside of a hundred-foot tower); and most jaw-dropping of all, Capo di Tutti Kapi Beast rewarded with, I shit you not, the post of Ambassador to the UN. (That's Thing #2 in my Something's Up Suspicions List: in the era of John Bolton, could anyone posit that reward with a straight face?)

(Thing #3, fwiw, is the extremely odd resolution of the Rogue subplot: she goes through with it. When she comes back to the school, we're quite obviously set up to expect that she's had the requisite change of heart and learned to love herself just as she is. And yet she just fucking hasn't. She's just gone and got normalized, in defiance of every teen film ever, and it's quite obvious from the unenthusiastic finger-twine she gets from Bobby that she is so not going to get the boy. What is that about? It's about something, clearly. This film's desperate, rationality-trumping need to stamp out desire in all its forms is the subject for a whole nother essay. Most obviously: in Boss-Battle 2, when Phoenix has gone all glowy and is threatening to bust up everything and everyone, why exactly is it necessary for Wolverine to kill her, when they have conveniently on hand the little cure-boy whose precise power is to deactivate other mutants? Because she is embodied desire, and you'll recall that we couldn't have that. It must be slaughtered in sacrifice. And poor Wolverine has to do it, to seal his self-surrender. And, most horribly, Jean has to recognize and welcome that necessity in the moment of her death, and forgive him with her eyes. A thousand, million, billion times ew.)

This film is an absolute paean to jackbooted collaborationism. One is accustomed to science fiction that critiques fascism from the liberal (and harder) left, as well as that which celebrates it from the right, and that which glares dyspeptically at both from the 'apolitical' outside. The startling, if dubious, innovation of 'X-III' is in presenting a glorious vision of the soi-disant left heroically facilitating the ends of fascism. A document for our times, indeed.

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