“Have you tried not being a mutant?” asks the mother of Iceman, one of the misfit kids in Bryan Singer’s “X2,” the 2003 sequel to his 2000 “X-Men.” Iceman may attend Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, but he’s more than gifted and not exactly a youngster.
Indeed, his mutant nature, which includes the ability to freeze ponds with his fingers, only becomes stronger as he ages. A minor character in the original “X-Men,” Iceman comes into his own in “X2,” revealing his true nature to his baffled parents, who react as if he’s just announced he’s gay. His mother worries that it’s all her fault, while his brother is so revolted that he calls the police.
Brett Ratner’s addition to the franchise, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” includes a character new to the “X-Men” films, Angel, whose disapproving father finds him trying to hack off a pair of wings attached to his back. As a child, Angel is deeply ashamed of his ethereal nature. As an adult, he finds that he can literally fly away from parental rejection.
“The Last Stand” begins with a flashback to the childhood of another mutant, Jean Grey, whose parents were ashamed and afraid of her telekinetic abilities. As an adult, she vigorously defends the kids’ right to be different.
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Jean, Iceman and presumably Angel are heterosexual, as are the other mutants in the “X-Men” pictures. But they behave a lot like runaway gay kids, forming their own families of gifted outlaws as they escape birth parents who feel nothing but embarrassment for having brought them into the world.
In “The Last Stand,” which the producers emphasize is not the last installment in the series (after all, the first two collected $700 million worldwide), Iceman is completely “out” as a mutant. He uses his frosty charms to woo Rogue, who matches his ability to chill out.
Their chief opponent in the first “X-Men” is a self-proclaimed “God-fearing” senator, whose intolerant anti-mutant speeches sound a lot like current anti-gay and anti-immigrant rhetoric. “People like you are the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child,” says a mutant who kidnaps him.
Where are the next compelling X-stories?
But once they’re not afraid, once they’ve gained control, what does the future hold? Thanks to a series of lethal surprises lurking near the finale of “The Last Stand,” it’s not clear what the mutants can or will do next. Some appear to lose their powers or their lives, but perhaps this is only temporary, like Jean Grey’s far-from-terminal “death” in “X2.”
Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine, is developing a follow-up film. The crafty villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) is also set for a spin-off, as the final shot in “The Last Stand” suggests. Aside from Magneto, whose story spans several decades, Jean Grey has had the clearest character arc.
While “The Last Stand” seems to exhaust her possibilities, there’s plenty of potential in the rest of the cast. It’s easy to imagine a spin-off in which shape-shifting Mystique takes on every role in the script — which she nearly did in “X2.” In a wittily androgynous episode, she tricked Wolverine into lusting after her impersonations of both Jean Grey and the male villain, played by Brian Cox.
Which follow-up is likely to reach multiplexes first? If Jackman gets caught up in too many other projects (five more Jackman movies are scheduled for release during the next year), another mutant could prevail. In any event, the idea behind the franchise will survive in some form or other, just as it has in the past.
Origin of ‘X-Men’
Although Stan Lee’s first “X-Men” comic book appeared in 1963, the theme has been explored in plenty of other science-fiction stories and movies during the past century. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” (published in 1961) deals with a bright boy who stands out too much and is threatened with brain surgery. “Village of the Damned,” the 1960 movie based on John Wyndham’s “The Midwich Cuckoos,” turned a group of super-intelligent kids into threats to mankind.
Most of these stories owe a debt to Olaf Stapledon, the British writer who specialized in epic tales of martyred geniuses, especially the 1935 novel, “Odd John.” Such mid-1990s movies as “Powder” (another coming-out fable) and “Phenomenon” are among the most recent descendants.
“The Last Stand” sometimes suggests a mixture of “Village of the Damned,” in which the smart kids turn destructive, and “Odd John,” in which the telepathic title character and his fellow “wide-awakes” and “supernormals” are persecuted, forced to establish an island colony and hunted down by mercenaries.
“If your species discovers us, it will certainly try to smash us,” Odd John tells the merely human narrator. Rather like Magneto, Odd John is convinced that scapegoats are inevitable, and that “a nation, after all, is just a society for hating foreigners, a sort of super-hate-club.”
While the heterosexual Iceman’s confession merely suggests a gay rite-of-passage, Odd John considers same-sex intimacy part of his education.
When subtext becomes text
“The Last Stand” makes the gay subtext of “X2” more explicit. While the mutants fear the development of a “cure” for their “disease,” Storm says “there’s nothing to cure.” Indeed, the series sees the mutants as a link to a higher form of humankind.
“Mutation, it is the key to our evolution,” says the narrator at the beginning of the first “X-Men,” which was filmed in 1999 and 2000 and is set in the “not-too distant future.” The World Trade Center is still standing in a couple of shots, and the word “evolution” may be used without apology.
Magneto, the concentration-camp survivor, turns out to have little use for evolution or intelligent design. He’s convinced that “God works too slowly,” and that “we are the cure,” so he declares pre-emptive war. Skeptical that America will ever be the land of peace and tolerance he expected at the end of World War II, he becomes the thing he hates.
For all the confrontations between hostile characters, the “X-Men” franchise is at its best when it’s dealing with unique and seemingly impossible attractions. Perhaps the most poignant scene involves the teenaged Rogue, who can’t help delivering the kiss of near-death to those she touches, and the paternal Wolverine, whose considerable strengths cannot quite prevent her from overpowering him.
Their tentative embrace at the end of the first film is a uniquely enthralling moment. Spin-offs, sequels and prequels should treat it as a model.
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