Expressions like “Good things come in threes” and “Third time’s the charm” may have their place in the world, but when it comes to comic-book movies, so far at least, anything after two is all downhill.
Another Disappointing Third
Christopher Reeve made a pair of classic Superman films, then embarrassed himself with a couple of dismal sequels. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s two Batman films, whatever you think of them, are practically masterpieces compared to the franchise-killing follow-ups from Joel Schumacher.
X Men: The Last Stand may not be as bad as the third installments in those franchises, but it’s hard to see it as anything other than a disappointment. Not only is this effort a big step down from the excellence of the first two films, it largely squanders the dramatic and emotional momentum left by the second film.
Three years ago, the X Men series seemed likely to beat the odds. The original X Men, directed by Bryan Singer, was good enough to revive the whole comic-book genre in the wake of Schumacher’s disastrous Batman and Robin. X Men opened the door to some of the genre’s best films to date, including Batman Begins, Spider-Man 2, and Singer’s own equally impressive X Men sequel, X2. X2 also laid the groundwork for a third film that potentially could have been the best of the lot, climaxing with a sacrificial death that set the stage for the comic book’s most famous storyline, the Dark Phoenix saga.
But then Singer jumped ship to helm the upcoming Superman Returns, taking his X2 screenwriters with him. What possessed the producers to tap uninspired craftsman Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2 as Singer’s replacement? And who thought that the screenwriter of xXx: State of the Union and Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a good match for this project?
Was it producer Ralph Winter, who also allowed the dreadful Fantastic Four to be made by a director whose only previous credits were a pair of Queen Latifah comedies? Winter is one of Hollywood’s few vocal Christians, and I’m sorry to slag his work, but his job description involves bringing talent on board, and that calls for discrimination.
X Men: The Last Stand isn’t awful like Fantastic Four, but it lacks the emotional and intellectual punch of its predecessors.
You can hear it in the dialogue, which creaks with clichés. “Magneto wants a war; we’ll give him one,” one character vows. “We work as a team,” Storm lectures Wolverine, who shoots back, “The best defense is a good offense” (later in the film, sure as rain, the same two lines are called back with an ironic reversal, because that’s just so clever). Then there’s the imprisoned Mystique’s threat to a guard: “When I get out of here, I’m going to kill you myself.” Later, making good her threat, she gloats, “Told you.” Good one.
A Promising Story That Doesn’t Deliver
The story elements are promising. A certain Worthington Enterprises has developed a universal de-mutation drug hailed as a “cure.” Mutant leaders, both peaceful and militant, contend that mutation isn’t a disease to be cured though some mutants, such as Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose powers cut her off from ordinary physical contact with others, might beg to differ. Mutant separatist leader Magneto (Ian McKellen), foreseeing that a weaponized form of the drug could be used to target mutants against their will, gears up for a pre-emptive strike on behalf of mutantkind.
Meanwhile, Cyclops (James Marsden), mourning the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), has telepathic intimations that she may not be as dead as she seemed. When she turns up not only alive but more powerful than ever, something about her bad dye job and veiny makeup suggests that this may not be the Jean Grey we knew, and Cyke and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) loved, in the first two films.
As if determined not to make the Fantastic Four mistake of forgetting to include action scenes in a super-hero movie, Ratner ramps up the action to comic-book proportions, eschewing the relatively restrained realism of the Singer films. The last thirty or forty minutes of the film are more or less non-stop large-scale action; Marvel fans may get a thrill out of an early sequence that gives us the Danger Room, the Sentinels, and the iconic if silly image of Colossus hurling Wolverine headlong into battle, all in about two minutes.
So much story and action and mayhem; so little characterization or feeling.
As ever, Jackman is the movie’s charismatic center as Wolverine, but his edge has been blunted, his character saddled with trite speeches (“Then we stand together, X Men, all of us”; “If we don’t fight now, everything they stood for dies with them”). His best moment is probably a brutal action scene in the woods, pitted against a half-dozen opponents; Ratner may do a lot of things wrong, but at least he doesn’t sell short Wolverine’s combat acumen.
So much is riding on Janssen’s portrayal of Phoenix, but neither she nor Ratner seems to have much insight into the character, who is said to represent Jean’s “subconscious mind… pure joy, desire and rage.” Does this mean that Jean subconsciously hated the characters Phoenix kills? The onscreen death of one major character makes plot-level sense, I guess, though dramatically it feels remarkably cheap and unmoving. But another major character dies offscreen for no very clear reason at all.
The franchise has never figured out how to use Cyclops, alas, and he’s as wasted here as ever, or more so. Storm (Halle Berry), her half-hearted vestigial African accent entirely gone, gets more screentime and makes more effective use of her powers, but as a character she’s as boring as Cyke.
Stewart and McKellen are wonderful to watch as always, but the film flattens and coarsens their characters; Magneto particularly becomes a more stereotypically villainous bad guy, coldly turning his back on a loyal associate (“You’re no longer one of us”) and callously using fellow mutants as battle fodder (“In chess it’s the pawns that go first”). Rebecca Romijn's (née Stamos) Mystique is squandered in more ways than one.
A veritable army of new supporting characters, outnumbering the overstuffed casts of both earlier films combined, parades through the film, to little effect. There’s no breakout character akin to Cumming’s Nightcrawler; the potential was there with Beast (Kelsey Grammer, boldly cast but wasted) and perhaps Angel (Ben Foster, sculpted and anonymous), but neither emerges as much more than a plot device. Nightcrawler himself, alas, is simply absent without explanation or mention; he’s sorely missed, though it’s some consolation that even if he had been present, Ratner would have found a way to waste him.
Grammer does have one effective moment, not an action one, in the presence of a mutant named Leech (Cameron Bright). Otherwise, he spends nearly all his screentime until the big climax walking around in a suit talking. Especially compared to Singer’s adroit use of Nightcrawler’s powers, the Beast is sadly wasted. Angel is effectively introduced in a squirm-inducing prologue that is one of the film’s most vivid scenes, but after that is reduced to a cipher with hardly any lines, mostly seen from afar, apparently to hide the cheesiness of his CGI wings.
Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page, the third actress to play the part) is now more than a walk-on, figuring as a possible spoiler in the troubled Iceman–Rogue romance, and briefly going up against the Juggernaut in the final battle. Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) has more screentime but even less personality than in X2. Poor Rogue is never given a chance to use her powers in a constructive way; they’re reduced entirely to a curse.
Pyro (Aaron Stanford), last seen as a rebellious X-student who went over to the dark side, has been transmogrified to a sneering stereotype of Eeevil who complains to Magneto that he wanted to kill Xavier(!), prompting one of the screenplay’s brief flashes of nuance as Magneto flares up in defense of his longtime nemesis: “Charles Xavier did more for mutants than you’ll ever know.” The much-built-up showdown between Pyro and his natural adversary Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) is about as lazy and anticlimactic as it could possibly be, and Iceman’s thudding attempt at a parting shot after defeating his opponent has got to be a new low in the annals of action-movie screenwriting, which is saying something.
Watching Ratner struggle with his enormous cast makes one appreciate the economy with which Singer established even minor supporting characters. The original film’s villains Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane) and Toad (martial artist Ray Park) weren’t much as characters, but they were still more vivid than The Last Stand’s Juggernaut (British soccer star Vinnie Jones) and a host of anonymous cameos by tattooed villains who would be Callisto and the Morlocks, if anyone had time to call them anything.
The film does manage some striking images, mostly of the anti-gravitational variety, including an eerie fog-bound sequence at Alkali Lake, a major confrontation at Jean Grey’s childhood home, and a third-act set piece that is surely the most bravura display of Magneto’s power in all three films. The final half hour is pretty much nonstop large-scale action, some of it energetic and well-done comic-book fare (though for all its scale there’s nothing here to touch Spider Man 2’s train-top battle with Doc Ock).
Yet how many anonymous officers do we need to see vaporized by the out-of-control Phoenix? Were the crude epithets and crotch-trauma humor really necessary? Above all, when it finally comes down to a deadly confrontation between two characters whose relationship has been as close to the center of the series as anything has been, shouldn’t it matter more?
Oh, and if you’re going to kill off or otherwise permanently neutralize major characters with Whedonesque ruthlessness, do you really want to backtrack with not one but two anticlimactic codas (one before the end credits, one after) suggesting that the supposedly final changes aren’t really so final after all?
Presumably, despite claims that this really is the X-Men’s last stand, the studio wants to ensure that the door is left open for another possible sequel. Here’s a better way to do that: Make a better movie.
(c) 2006 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.