X-plosions and thoughts on X-istence

‘X-Men III’ explores the headier side of the summer blockbuster

by Matt Graham

You don’t expect sequels to big-budget action movies to be this good, let alone the sequel’s sequel. But the third installment of the “X-Men” series might well be the best.

Without the responsibility of providing character backstories like in the first film, this one has a sense of life-or-death importance that the second film lacked, even as the fate of humanity was at stake. Not everybody makes it through alive, and you might be surprised who meets their fate. (Or not, you spoiler-searching fan, you.)

This time around, a California billionaire has invented a “cure” for the mutant gene. The first person scheduled to be fixed is his son, a mutant with giant wings and powers of flight that fans of the comics and cartoon will recognize as Angel.

Angel escapes at the last second. He, like many other mutants, doesn’t see himself in need of a cure.

One faction of mutants, led by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his X-Men, tries to find a peaceful end to this “cure” nonsense. The other group, led by – surprise – Magneto (Ian McKellan) sees this as yet another opportunity for declaring war on humanity.

The wild card in all of this is Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). The only “Class 5” mutant that Xavier ever has seen has returned from her watery grave – as her fate was left in the second film – and Jean is now more powerful than ever and not quite acting like herself.

The final payoff is a massive mutant battle on Alcatraz Island, where the mutant antidote is manufactured. Here we get enough explosions, mutant powers and comic-geek moments to send everyone home happy, or at least everyone who would go to an “X-Men” movie.

The strength of the series always has been its ability to provide the requisite summer blockbuster explosions without making you feel afterward that you lost 5 IQ points watching the thing. This one doesn’t disappoint and offers thinly veiled parallels to terrorism, genetic engineering and the “curing” of homosexuality, among other hot-button social issues.

But this film is, in many ways, more driven by its love story than the other two installments of the series, namely Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) infatuation with Grey. Like much of the rest of the series, it’s a little hokey, but not annoyingly so.

Let’s not kid ourselves; commentary aside, in the end the “X-Men” films really are about the special effects and the superheroes. All the rest is filler to keep you from feeling guilty about enjoying the high-tech coolness and to keep you from dwelling on the obvious questions (Why isn’t Wolverine splattered with blood? How does one gene create so many different traits? How did the X-Men get all this technology?).

It’s nice to find a summer blockbuster you don’t have to turn your brain off to enjoy. But being able to turn off half of it might help.