X-Men: The Last Stand (X-Men 3)

The deck was stacked against X-Men: The Last Stand right from the beginning. First Bryan Singer left the franchise rather suddenly, abandoning it to direct Superman Returns, forcing Fox to scramble for a replacement. They settled for the questionable Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. Then as if to get revenge on Singer, Fox decided to rush the third X-Men movie into production, determined to put it in theaters before Singer’s Superman film, though Singer’s film had a several month head start on them. Throughout its frantically hurried journey to screen, The Last Stand has been plagued by depressing rumors about the nature of the script, the skills of its director, the cast, and the amount of money Fox was willing to spend on making it. Let’s not forget too, 20th Century Fox’s insistence that they’ll never make another X-Men movie, no matter how well this one turns out and though the X-Men’s universe is rich with untold stories and un-mined characters. It doesn’t help either that the film follows up X-Men 2, easily one of the best superhero genre movies ever to hit any screen. So it’s something of a surprise that Ratner’s take on the X-Men universe isn’t a total disaster. Sabotaged by the studio right from the beginning and ditched by the guy who made it great, that’s what X-Men: The Last Stand ought to be, a complete cinematic travesty. But it isn’t. Instead it’s a mildly entertaining action movie that relies almost entirely on big set pieces to carry the day because frankly, Brett Ratner isn’t capable of anything heftier.

When all hell breaks loose and the super humans in X-Men: The Last Stand finally go at it, audiences will love it. Yet there’s a lot of screen time to get through before getting there, spent with Ratner fumbling about in a pale imitation of the social relevance of Singer’s X-Men 2. The story this time around revolves around a mutant cure. Science has found one, but does anyone want it? The mutant master of magnetism Magneto (Ian McKellen) stands against it, rallying other mutants to his cause and declaring war on a world that wishes to take away what it is that makes them special. The X-Men stand between him and the human race, not because they necessarily disagree with him, but because they hate to see him kill everyone off.

While the world wrestles with whether or not mutancy is a disease, the depleted X-Men must also deal with an inexplicably resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). She’s not the same; she returns changed and quite simply, very pissed off. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) calls this new Jean "Phoenix" and explains her murderous rampage as her once caged subconscious set free to unleash the true potential of her power. To keep her from killing everyone we care about off, they’ll have to re-cage the beast inside if they can. If they can’t, they’ll have to kill her before she kills them. While the X-Men plan, Jean does a lot of standing around with Magneto, saying and doing nothing.

As a plot device, a cure for mutancy is a good one, something that presents plenty of opportunity for juicy relevancy as mutants wrestle with whether or not to give up their uniqueness for a chance at societal acceptance. Jean Grey’s resurrection as Phoenix presents similar, if more personal challenges for the film’s characters. The opportunity for something deeper is right there in front of Ratner, but he never grabs on to it. Only Ian McKellen’s Magneto grasps the implications of what’s happening, the rest of the cast seems more interested in hanging out at funerals or giving weepy advice to one another.

There are a great many speeches in X-Men: The Last Stand, but big speeches are not character development. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the worst offender in this regard. The gruff, independent, untouchable man of few words from the previous films has been whipped, tamed, and turned into a windbag. He’s lost almost all of whatever it was we liked about the character. In the place of the Wolverine we knew is a weaker, caring, romantic, team first version. If Wolverine were re-written for a romance novel, I imagine this is what you’d get. Wolverine shouldn’t be a caring father figure or a dashing romance icon. Sure, he still smokes cigars and there’s a great sequence where he rips to shreds a few of Magneto’s henchman. But those are all surface decorations. Jackman plays him soft and cuddly, and soft is not what we want or expect from Wolverine. Ratner substitutes snappy one-liners and grandiose speeches for whatever used to be Wolverine’s personality.

Amidst all of this The Last Stand introduces a slew of new characters to replace the unceremoniously departed ones. For instance you’ll see no sign of Nightcrawler, Fox simply didn’t want him. Cyclops (James Marsden) disappears early, and even Professor X’s role is limited. Enter Beast, a furry blue mutant with a big brain and impressive super agility. He’s played with brilliance by Kelsey Grammer, who normally wouldn’t belong anywhere near a superhero movie but in this case fits the character perfectly.

Also stepped up are the characters of Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford), Kitty Pryde (a girl who walks through walls), and Colossus. They don’t always say a lot, but they’re there in the thick of the fight. You’ll get to see them showing off their powers, and that’s good enough. Further filling the void is Halle Berry, whose Storm has now become the franchise’s central character and the X-Men’s leader. She’s still the series’ least interesting X-Man, but give Halle some credit: This is by far her best performance in any of these films. It doesn’t hurt that Storm gets plenty of opportunity to show off. Last Stand blows a good portion of its effects budget on making her fly, shoot lightning, and engage in a pretty eye-popping spinning-tornado attack.

What I’m trying to get across here is that X-Men: The Last Stand has all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the nuts. The script pays lip service to deeper themes, but doesn’t actually have any kind of real complexity in it; or if it does Brett Ratner doesn’t have the necessary complexity in himself to bring it out. If you’re going to enjoy this movie, you’ll have to do it on a strictly big-blockbuster, summer movie surface level. The first two X-Men movies were better than that, this one isn’t. This one was unfairly rushed, and it shows in every single frame of the film. The plot leaps around from character to character, never giving anyone or anything more than a cursory examination. The effects are impressive and a lot of fun, but even those look as though they could have been still more impressive with a month or two of extra work. Even with this script and this director, had Fox given them more time to make the best movie possible, its easy to see that X-Men: The Last Stand could have been something better. As it is, this is a barely adequate spectacle movie which I think audiences are going to enjoy and instantly forget. Ratner tries desperately to mimic the style and substance of Singer’s movies, but imitation is all it is.

Perhaps what’s most galling about X-Men: The Last Stand is that it’s so full of flat melodrama that it’s hard to work up much passion for it one way or another. They’ve completely squandered the amazing potential for a third film set up by Bryan Singer at the end of X2. They’ve utterly wasted one of the best storylines ever in the history of comic books in the form of Dark Phoenix. The film completely throws away the other best storyline in the history of comics by throwing us ten seconds of Sentinel hidden behind a dense fog on in the middle of a computer generated war re-enactment. This is a movie that tosses out everything the previos two movies have been building, and most of the character's previous personalities too. But from none of that will make you angry. It’s a movie without emotion. It can’t connect with the audience emotionally, positively or negatively. Beloved characters are killed with little consideration, as if to make room for someone who costs less money, and the best you’ll be able to muster is a resigned sigh over what a waste it all was. X-Men: The Last Stand isn’t a bad movie but it is a terrible waste of potential.

As an aside, if you’re really interested in seeing the biggest fuck you that X-Men: The Last Stand can throw at you, stick around after the credits for a brief, disappointing bonus clip that throws away everything you’ve just spent the past two hours watching to set up a sequel that 20th Century Fox insists it will never allow to happen. Or just download it off the internet somewhere. It’s not worth the wait.

Josh Tyler