Here’s a fair bit of damning praise: X-Men: The Last Stand (X3) is nowhere near as bad as it could’ve been, but it’s nowhere near as good as it should’ve been. Naturally, most folks will point to the changing of directors, from Bryan Singer to Brett Ratner, as the reason for this, and that’s not entirely unreasonable. Under Singer’s hand, the first two X-Men movies became something entirely deeper and more resonant than perhaps anyone had expected comic book movies to be.
The X-Men have always been about portraying outcasts, the shame and ridicule they suffer at society’s hands, and the ways in which they could rise above such persecution, through sacrifice and heroism. Singer tapped into all of these things, and delivered films that were certainly much, much better than they had any right to be. And they were still entertaining, full of great special effects, solid action sequences, great characters that you could actually care about, witty dialog, and storylines that, while quite fanciful, touched on weighty themes (prejudice, bigotry, alienation).
In Ratner’s hands, however, all of that has been stripped away and replaced with sheer spectacle. Which is certainly fun and engaging to watch, but there’s also definitely something missing.
The general crux of the plot is that a “cure” for mutants, humans whose genetic structure have somehow been altered, giving them “unique” powers, abilities, and appearances, has been announced by a major pharmaceutical company. The government sees this as a final method to control the possible threat that mutants hold for society. The mutant population is divided. Some do see it as a cure, the only way to live out a normal life in society. Others, led by the powerful mutant Magneto, see this is as an obvious threat, a “first-strike” attempt by the government to control and destroy their kind.
Caught in the middle are the X-Men, a group of mutants led by Professor Charles Xavier, who runs a school for mutants under the guise of a school for “gifted” children. And even they are divided. Some want to go on the offense, decrying the mutant cure and speaking directly to the government. Others, tired of their powers being more of a curse than a blessing, see this as something hopeful.
However, there are personal crises as well. Cyclops, aka Scott Summers, is still reeling from the death of Jean Grey, who sacrificed herself at the end of the second film to save the rest of the team. Wounded and bitter, he has sealed himself off from the rest of the X-Men, forcing Wolverine and Storm to take over the leadership. When Cyclops begins getting psychic messages hinting that Jean might still be alive, he returns to the scene of her death and discovers that not only is his former love still alive, but she’s much more powerful than ever.
Ever since the final scene of X-Men 2, fans have been wondering how Ratner and his team would include the whole Phoenix storyline, arguably one of the most famous storylines in all of the X-Men series. In a wise move, there is no mention of alien lifeforms or cosmic beings. However, the explanation that we do get, though based on the comic books, still feels cooked up and perfunctorily given, as if the writers were struggling to come up with an explanation and just crammed it into the film wherever it would fit.
But while there are plenty of niggling little errors like that, the biggest that Ratner and his team commit comes with sacrificing so many of the characters, figuratively and literally. Yes, major and beloved characters do die in X3, but Ratner has focused so much on spectacle at the expense of all else, that these characters’ deaths mean absolutely nothing. They just seem perfunctory. I didn’t feel any sense of loss whatsoever when these characters were killed, even though they’re major characters and have been developed so carefully in the previous two films.
One cause of this is the sudden influx of new characters. Which means that there are simply too many characters to focus on. The previous movies struggled with this as well, but Singer was able to balance the ensemble cast with enough private, intimate character moments that just clicked and made the ensemble that much greater.
Many of these are gone, replaced with “witty” one-liners. And while it’s fun to see new characters strut their stuff — some of my favorite scenes in the movie involve Kitty Pryde, who only had a minor role in the previous films — it’s sad to miss familiar faces. This is primarily true with Nightcrawler, one of the major highlights of the second movie, and who is gone from X3 with no explanation whatsoever.
Obviously, the filmmakers want to keep the franchise interesting and invigorating, and a part of that is bringing in fresh faces and new blood. But does that necessitate turning your back on characters that worked so well up until then, on relationships that actually had oomph, and the camaraderie that has made the X-Men one of the most beloved comic book teams of all time?
Of course, most people go to see comic book movies for the action, and there is action aplenty in X3. So much so, in fact, that it’s possible to enjoy the film as a pure big-budget, effects-driven popcorn movie. There are several scenes that are quite nice from a jaw-dropping perspective: the first showdown with the reborn Jean Grey at her childhood home, Wolverine’s forest battle with a group of mutants following Magneto, and the final setpiece, which involves Magneto ripping apart the entire Golden Gate Bridge and carrying it over the ocean.
But as much as I enjoy X3 as fine popcorn entertainment on a summer evening, I don’t to enjoy it just as such. I want more, and the first two films delivered that in, in a surprising amount that reminded you that even mere comic books could be powerful and enjoyably stories. Ratner got half of that equation right, so the movie certainly didn’t suck — I went in, braced for a trainwreck, and so as the credits rolled, found myself rather relieved — but it could and should have been much more.
Now… let’s just see what Singer has cooked up for us in Superman Returns. If the trailers and early buzz are any indication, it’ll be everything X3 could have been, and much more.