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Non-Review Review: X-Men III – Last Stand

I’ll confess right off the bat that I don’t share the same honest-to-goodness hatred of this third film in the X-Men series that most on-line commentators do. It isn’t a patch on Bryan Singer’s original two films (and – looking at Superman Returns – it might have been better for all if he’d stayed on here), but it isn’t quite as weak as other third-instalments in other superhero franchises (Spider-Man III and Batman Forever, for example). It’s not a fantastic film, and it’s not the final chapter that the film series deserved, but it’s not a complete disaster.

Weathering the Storm...

The temptation is to lay the blame entirely at the feet of director Brett Ratner. Truth be told, that’s not an entirely unfair position. Ratner’s direction loses a lot of the intimacy that one associates with the first two films. The emotional beats in the movie are still present, but Ratner never really manages to deliver them in the same way that Singer did – he doesn’t seem emotionally engaged with what’s going on, instead trying to rush to the next action scene.

Consider, for example, the fantastic introductory scene with Warren Worthington (the character who would become “Angel”, so-called because of his white feathered wings). His father notices that the young boy has been in the bathroom for “over an hour.” We don’t see exactly what he’s doing, but we can gather from the tools he’s borrowed from his parents. It looks like he’s trying to saw through something. Concerned as his son asks for a few minutes, the father breaks into the bathroom, stunned to find his child trying to cut off two large wings coming out of his back. “Oh god,” the father mutters to himself in shock, “not you.” The son, so ashamed at being different that he’d try anything to fit in (even self-mutilation), only manages a feeble “I’m sorry.”

Get Mystique!

That’s a powerful scene, and one which hits to the core of what makes the X-Men unique among their spandex-wearing colleagues. Later, Warren, now a grown man who binds his wings to stop them from showing, has agreed to be the guinea pig for his father’s mutant “cure.” At the last minute, Warren hesitates – but his father forces the issue. “Warren, it’s a better life,” his father protests. “It’s what we all want.” Warren has a realisation that this isn’t what he wants at all, “No, it’s what you want.” And then he flies.

Those sound like two really powerful moments, don’t they? The problem is that they really seem to have nothing to do with anything else in the movie. Warren shows up once more at the climax of the film, never interacts with any of the main cast, never develops any character and suffers from having what should be a strong emotional arc reduced down to a three-scene cameo, with no real sense of natural progression. The irony is that reportedly there were scenes written (and filmed) which expanded on this arc, but they were cut to make room for more action.

Spreading his wings...

And the action is a bit of a mixed bag. Action is always hard to accept when you can’t connect with those involved. Still, Ratner does hit some nice action beats. For example, the moment featuring Magneto and the Golden Gate Bridge is one of those great comic-book-on-film moments, at least until you start wondering why he didn’t just drop it on top of the cure (solving all of his problems), rather than a few hundred metres away and causing the movie’s climactic battle. Still, it’s best not to think too much about it.

And then there’s the fact that, while Singer’s action sequences managed to seem personal and almost intimate, Ratner’s are all over the place. It’s like watching chaos unfold on screen, but we aren’t invested enough to latch on to the characters. I could also have done without the ridiculously stylised touches like Beats flying through the air in the manner of an extra from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Bigger is not always better, and a lot of the charm of the franchise’s earlier action sequences (for example, the superb assault on the mansion in X-Men II) is lost here.

Bridging the gulf...

However, it’s unfair to put all the blame on Ratner. I’ll concede that the director does have a raw energy which carries the film perhaps further than it should, but there are more fundamental problems at play, stemming to the script and even to the strategy behind the film. There’s a strong sense, in watching the film, that this is not how anyone would ever have planned the saga to end. Indeed, there are clearly some large external factors at play.

The most obvious is the rising star of Halle Berry. By no means a true unknown when she adopted the role of Storm in the first film, the actress had recently won an Academy Award and was – at the time – considered to be an actress capable of carrying her own film. So playing a supporting character wasn’t going to keep her happy. Similarly, Hugh Jackman was on the verge of becoming a “big name” of his own. While the movie is nominally about the “cure” and Jean Grey, it seems to be more clearly about whittling down the leading cast to leave the biggest names with even bigger roles.

James was quite upset when he got the script...

There have also been some suggestions that the Fox was less than pleased with James Marsden “defecting” with Singer to Warner Brothers for the new Superman movie, to the point where they “commanded” that Cyclops be killed off screen. Compared with that fate, his death sequence here is a vast improvement, but it’s hard to believe the character would ever have played a major role in the film – Marsden simply isn’t a name that you’ll see popping up above a movie title on a poster, after all, so there’s no way a blockbuster is going to revolve around his character when you the infinitely bankable Wolverine in the same film. Which is a massive shame, because this third film really should by Cyclops’ film.

I’m not talking as a comic book fan. I know Cyclops played a major role in the climax to Chris Claremont’s iconic Dark Phoenix Saga, but that alone is not reason for him to play a similar role here. I’m a pragmatist, I realise that adapting something means making changes (sometimes fundamental) to a story. So I can accept that the Phoenix was “a dormant personality” inside Jean rather than some strange cosmic force. However, Cyclops deserved a larger role in the third film simply because the whole point of his absence in the second film was that Jean chose him. Not Wolverine. The romantic triangle had been resolved, Jean had made the harder choice of the staying faithful to the decent, reliable guy rather than cheating with the hunky, aggressive sex symbol.

Wolvie on the prowl...

The logical conclusion to that line of thought is to have Cyclops play into the climax of Jean’s arc. Instead, we get more Wolverine. Lots more Wolverine – to the point where the movie might as be called “Wolverine and the X-Men.” It’s quite ironic, given one of his early lines is that’s he’s “just passing through.” He gets a lot of screentime for a guy just passing through. I am not a huge fan of the character, and I accept I am in the minority. After all, X-Men Origins: Wolverine made a shedload of money. Still, it feels very funny to treat the third wheel as Jean’s true love.

This focus on Wolverine is a problem with the script, but another issue is the fact that it seems intent to cram in mutant-after-mutant. The first film featured a relatively small cast of super-powered characters. The second movie expanded the cast, but kept it manageable. However, this time it seems that every mutant and their mother puts in an appearance, with any number of strange powers appearing just for the sake of it. Unfortunately, the movie also tries to give stuff to do to the expansive supporting cast – which seems futile given the limited screentime they have. For example, Ellen Page is probably one of the two best additions to the cast, but she’s stuck in a romantic subplot which seems like an after-thought and that none of the characters can address because we need to move on to the next large setpiece.

It's just a phase...

Which brings up a similar problem with plotting. Put simply, there is too much going on. The Dark Phoenix Saga is something of a comic book legend. It’s one of those stories that everybody with any grounding in comic books has heard of, even if they have never read it. It’s a powerful story of true love and chaos and destruction. However, here it’s compacted and vying for space along with a bunch of subplots and an adaptation of Gifted, the introductory arc to Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run. Neither story benefits from being packed in tightly.

The notion of a mutant cure is a politically loaded one, and one which should ask important questions about mutants. It’s gutsy and controversial. The movie seems to have some idea that the suggestion of “curing” mutants is not something good or bad, but something that needs to be thought about and discussed. We can understand why some characters might consider it an affront to their identity, but we can also understand how tempting it might be to some mutants. There’s a powerful exchange early in the film which hits the nail on the head, as Storm remarks, “I don’t believe this. What sort of coward would take that just to fit in?” Beast, one of the more physically “different” mutants observes, “Is it cowardice to want to be free from persecution? Not everyone can blend in so easily, you don’t shed on the furniture.” However, the Rogue subplot doesn’t work as well as it might, as it seems incredibly immature of the character to seek the cure because she’s essentially worried about her boyfriend cheating on her.

A strapping young lad...

However, the movie seems rather unconcerned with the moral and ethical questions that other aspects of the cure might raise. For example, Beast is (rightfully) horrified to discover that the United States government has weaponised the cure and is loading it into guns with which to shoot troublesome mutants. The potential abuses of a system like that are huge and – even if you trust the institutions of government, which the second film indicates maybe the X-Men shouldn’t – it still puts tremendous power in the hands of ordinary soldiers. Magneto uses the gun as “a lightening rod” to draw mutants to his cause, understandably. And the X-Men refuse to condemn it, even fighting alongside soldiers using the weapons.

The second film shrewdly illustrated that these sort of philosophical questions and issues didn’t come down to a simple agree/disagree dichotomy. The X-Men could condemn Stryker’s immoral persecution of mutants without advocating Magneto’s genocide. Similarly, the X-Men could make their distaste for a weapon designed to make mutants “normal” while still disagreeing with the Master of Magnetism. Instead, the team practically endorses the use of the cure as a weapon against mutants, with Beast injecting Magneto himself. This is especially jarring given that (from the same position) Beast could have just as easily incapacitated the villain.

Fight of the Phoenix?

This seems just a tad hypocritical from Wolverine, who loudly condemned Professor X for attempting to “cage the beast” that was Jean Grey’s dormant personality. Indeed, the movie tries to paint Charles as something of a villain for suppressing the Phoenix. “I had no idea what you were capable of,” Wolverine remarks (and prompts Charles to make a cheap “I don’t have to explain myself, least of all to you” response). I always welcome ambiguity in stories like this (and, in fact, it’s the ambiguity of Magneto which makes him so fascinating), but the movie seems intent to convince us that Wolverine was completely right and Charles was completely wrong.

All that said, the movie does acknowledge that the X-Men serve for an interesting philosophical thought experiment, at least when you think about moral and ethical science. There’s a fascinating sequence early on (which seems to exist to serve a post-credits twist) where Professor X hosts an ethics class, and wonders where their power and responsibility begin and end. Indeed, there’s a nice moment where the President wonders aloud, “I worry about how democracy survives when one man can move cities with his mind.” The problem is that these moments don’t really connect in any meaningful way to what’s happening on the film, and seem quite divorced from proceedings.

It's all for (Jugger)naut...

Another part of the problem is something we also see in the third Spider-Man movie, and is something of a developing trend in superhero movies. The simple fact is that the movie seems to be trying too hard to please the fans. So you end up with a completely unnecessary (and random) opening sequence which features a Terminator-inspired reference to the classic Claremont story Days of Future Past, a completely unnecessary delivery of the line “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” and even the appearance of the fastball special. This along with an over-abundance of characters and plot references, seems at odds with the relatively buttoned-down approach Singer adopted, favouring a sci-fi vibe to conventional superheroics.

So more time with a CGI Colossus and the presence of the Beast seem decidedly more comic-book-y than even Nightcrawler back in the second film. The Juggernaut’s weird leather fetishwear stands out as the kind of thing that Singer would never have included in his own films, preferring to keep things as grounded and possible (given the premise). It all seems rather cartoon-y, for lack of a better word.

My world has gone upside down...

Not that it’s all bad. I, for example, love Beast. Rather, I love Kelsey Grammar as Beast. I hear the actor’s voice when I read him now. Sure, he looks corny, but there was no way to include the character without making him corny. I probably wouldn’t have included him, but it is nice to see the comic book character properly brought to the big screen. In fact, Grammar’s Beast is one of the characters in the franchise who best transitions from page-to-screen, and fills the gap left by Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler.

There are other nice touches. Ian McKellen is always great, especially when playing Magneto. Patrick Stewart is superb as Charles Xavier. It’s great when the pair get to share scenes together, and I can only hope that Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy share the same chemistry in the upcoming X-Men: First Class. Hugh Jackman is solid as Wolverine, even if the character is fairly one-dimensional and a little too self-righteous here. And then there’s the superb additions to the cast, including small roles for Bill Duke, Anthony Heald and even Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Wolvie in the wood...

I do like the attempts to bring the movie trilogy a full circle. Despite my misgivings about the ethics of the X-Men’s involvement in it, Magneto’s ultimate fate seems somewhat fitting given his master plan in the first film. The scene with Wolverine and Jean in the infirmary is a nice callback to their first scene together. The movie closes with a confrontation on an iconic American landmark on an island. It might have been nicer to maintain a consistent tone, but these are all nice touches.

The third film isn’t great, but I do enough bits of it, at least more than most. Perhaps the problem is that it’s simply too large and ungainly – it can’t work at the size it has inflated itself too. Or perhaps it might have, just with a different director. I guess we’ll never know. Still, while it is disappointing, I still don’t think it represents the worst concluding chapter of a superhero trilogy ever written.

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5 Responses

  1. Nice post! I didn’t like the movie, but I agree with some of the stuff you said… like Juggernaunt’s costume and a good Beast. Pity we didn’t get enough Cyclops…

  2. Great post as usual. I’m in the same boat as you when it comes to not hating it as much as everybody else. Still disappointing, but it could’ve been worse. But then again, this is coming from somebody who doesn’t really understand all the hate towards Daredevil and The Punisher (Jane version).

  3. Leave it up to Ratner to do the impossible – completely botch the Dark Phoenix saga. Its inclusion in the animated series was a staple of my childhood. Let’s hope Vaughn can make things right.

    • I remember that too. Batman: The Animated Series was better, but I loved Spider-Man and the X-Men.

    • Ha! “Leave it up to Ratner to do the impossible- completely botch the Dark Phoenix Saga”

      Ha! Seriously! That’s kind of ridiculous. Anybody could have botched that saga. Look at the two movies that came before and look at the Dark Phoenix Saga as it was presented in the comic book or animated series. Completely different tone, the Dark Phoenix saga had a variety of crazy madcap plots that didn’t fit in the world the Bryan Singer created, the aliens, the Shi’ar, the mystical force, the whole cosmic nature would have been a problem to ANY director.

      I’m not defendiing the film or Bret Ratner. It’s still not great, but it’s not as AWFUL as others say it is, like the article says it’s missing the emotion, energy, and philosophical gray areas that Singer had in the second film, and less so in the first film.

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