X-Men: The Last Stand / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 26, 2006 | Comments ()
Ignore all the bad press and the inevitable low expectations that accompany any movie directed by Brett Ratner; X-Men: The Last Stand is the best kind of summer blockbuster, alternating giddy adrenaline rushes and gripping emotional jolts. The plot combines a version of the comics’ Dark Phoenix Saga — resurrecting Jean Grey (the magnificent Famke Janssen) from her apparent death at the close of X2 — with another storyline about a “cure” for mutations that some mutants gratefully accept as an opportunity to live normal lives and others see as tantamount to genocide. There’s little attempt to explain just how the cure works; we only know that it’s derived from a mutant named Leech (Cameron Bright, taking the next natural step in his career from clone to reincarnated husband to deadly secret weapon — also a clone, if I remember correctly — to mutant). Rather than fill the movie with pseudoscientific gobbledygook, Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn’s screenplay focuses on the personal relationships of the characters and the wider conflict between mutants and ordinary humans. The availability of the cure triggers terrorist attacks by Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his militant Brotherhood of Mutants, which provoke a military response from the U.S. government, with the conflict mounting to a final all-out battle. As several X-Men either opt out of the conflict or aren’t available to fight, the previous lineup is splintered and a new team is assembled.
There’s a tremendous amount going on here, with the balance of power constantly shifting as major characters drop out of the storyline, minor ones assume greater prominence, and new ones are introduced with almost every scene. As some of the prominent members of the team are sidelined or eliminated, we see Storm (Halle Berry) finally living up to the badass character of the comics, becoming a strong, defiant leader for the team. I’ve always felt Berry was a little soft for the role — what a shame that Angela Bassett, my personal choice from day one, turned it down — but she seems tougher here than before, and we finally get a chance to really see what she can do with her powers. Janssen, too, gets an opportunity to step up to the plate. I never entirely bought her as Jean the nurturing teacher/doctor; in contrast to Berry, she simply didn’t seem soft enough. But here, with her new, almost godlike powers, she reveals the ferocity that was hiding under that placid demeanor all along. True, she spends half the movie in a near-catatonic state but, when she lets loose, you really believe that she could melt the flesh off your bones.
One of the filmmakers’ most apt casting choices — I can’t decide if it’s simply too obvious or so obvious yet unexpected that it’s brilliant — was selecting Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier”) to play the furry-yet-erudite Beast, who here has worked his way up to the cabinet-level post Secretary of Mutant Affairs. Dealing with Beast’s dialogue is, of course, perfectly natural for Grammer, but what’s surprising is how well he fulfills the role’s physical demands, managing to convey both the character’s intelligence and his fearsome strength. And, on the subject of furry, feral mutants, the comics’ most overrated character, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), continues to play a prominent role, though the movie is packed with so much business that for the first time he almost begins to blend into the ensemble.
The interwoven plotlines leave some nagging loose ends — an important character dies offscreen in a way that is never satisfactorily explained — but there’s hardly time to nitpick. Ratner keeps the movie going at a rat-a-tat pace, squeezing the franchise’s most complex plot into just an hour and 44 minutes, half an hour less than X2 and the same length as the first film, which had the fewest twists. (And do stay for the full length, past the closing credits. Trust me.) Ratner thrusts you from one scene into the next, in medias res, with little time to get your bearings. It’s a jarring experience, and in other circumstances it could be inappropriate and annoying, but here it serves as an analogue to the experience of reading a comic book, where you can move across entire galaxies between two panels of illustration.
Like any decent science fiction story, The Last Stand draws parallels between events in its fictional universe and real-world issues: In the first film being a mutant was compared to being a Jew in Nazi Germany or a black person in racist America; parallels to homosexuality were drawn in the second; this time we get some more of those plus the rest of the culture-war panoply, with echoes of AIDS, genetic engineering, the abortion debate, and ideological terrorism. But, for all the movie gives us about the X-Men’s superhuman powers and their subhuman treatment at the hands of bigots, it is their essential humanity that is both their strength and their weakness: It binds them together and impels them to do good, but it also makes them vulnerable to manipulation. Kinberg and Penn’s screenplay continues the established themes, exploring the catch-22 of being backed into a corner by society and goaded into acting out in self-defense, seeming to confirm all their worst suspicions, but it reaches for greater moral complexity by beginning to examine the consequences of having power over others in a way that the franchise hasn’t before. It doesn’t fully follow through on some of the issues it raises, but it allows for unexpected, thought-provoking ambiguities in characters we thought we had pegged.
For current and former fanboys, The Last Stand should be a welcome addition to the franchise. While it takes as many liberties with its sources as the previous films did, it also incorporates many popular characters and plot elements from the comics. More importantly, it has the same sense of wonder. In its tone and the balance of its elements, it’s closer to the spirit of the comics than either of its predecessors, which, as much as I enjoyed them, were a bit of a letdown. In my own fanboy days, from the mid-’80s through the early ’90s, my favorite aspects of the comics were the complicated, quasi-familial relationships between the characters and the resourceful teamwork that so often allowed them to conquer enemies who had them outnumbered and outgunned. Bryan Singer, the director of the first two films, and his teams of screenwriters more or less got the relationships right, but the battle scenes — which, ideally, would be another vehicle for understanding the relationships; the X-Men are essentially a combat unit, after all — always left me disappointed.
What kept me coming back to the X-Men comics until adolescence turned my thoughts elsewhere was a connection to the characters and a feeling that there was really something at stake in their battles. Grim story arcs like the Mutant Massacre, the Fall of the Mutants, and Inferno genuinely felt to my 10- or 12-year-old psyche as if beloved friends were fighting to the death. While characters that died sometimes came back (these are comic books, after all), often they didn’t, and the characters’ losses and the conflicts between them had genuine human consequences. The battles in the first two films never generated that sort of suspense for me. Their scale wasn’t grand enough; too often they depended on a series of smaller one-on-one confrontations rather than a dramatic melee.
In Singer’s defense, he hardly had the budget for a really big mutant brawl; Fox only gave him $75 million for the first film and a bump to $110 million for the second — enormous sums by any reasonable standard, but pittances for effects-laden action movies. The studio hasn’t released Ratner’s budget for The Last Stand, but estimates run anywhere from $165 million to north of $200 million. That’s a hell of a lot of money, though it doesn’t seem so excessive when you consider that Warner Bros. gave Wolfgang Peterson $160 mil to make the pointless Poseidon. The increased budget allows Ratner to do a lot of things Singer could only dream about: This time, when Magneto wants to relocate the Golden Gate Bridge for his personal convenience, he can do it.
For some, Ratner’s involvement will inevitably be a sticking point. Between his apparently sordid personal life and the strenuous mediocrity of much of his cinematic output, Ratner has alienated a lot of people, but The Last Stand should give them pause. Critics deride Ratner for being derivative and creatively bankrupt — and with good reason: the closest he comes to a distinctive directorial style is a bland, impersonal professionalism — but a journeyman director like him can be an ideal choice to pick up the reins of an established franchise. (Ratner came into the project nine weeks before shooting began, after Singer left the project for Superman Returns and his initial replacement, Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn, withdrew for “personal reasons.”) No one ever has to worry about Ratner imposing his own sensibility on a project: He simply doesn’t have one. Lacking a vision of his own, he retains Singer’s stylistic imprint while upping the stakes and concocting set pieces that are stunningly tense and dramatic.
Artists work to please themselves; they tend to believe that their way is the right way, regardless of what anyone else believes. Entertainers, conversely, work to please the audience, and they may be willing to go to any lengths to win its approval. Ratner will likely never be more than an entertainer, and maybe not even a top-flight one, but, when you’re adapting a superhero story, it’s probably not a good idea to have a director who’s out to make art. The Spider-Man franchise has succeeded in part because Sam Raimi has a genuine appreciation for schlock. He doesn’t condescend to the material; if anything, it’s more sophisticated than what he’s used to working with. Ang Lee, a brilliant director in the right circumstances, tried a too-highfalutin approach to Hulk and got all gummed up in dreary portentousness. Bryan Singer is no Ang Lee, but he always seemed a little bit embarrassed by the inherent hokiness of some elements of the X-Men, whereas Ratner, with his characteristic shamelessness, enthusiastically embraces every outre detail.
While comic books have in many ways grown up over the years, offering more complex themes for a broader, more mature audience, the superhero genre remains largely an arena of adolescent wish-fulfillment and angst. Ratner is enough of an adolescent himself — and I actually mean this in a positive way — that he doesn’t try to distance himself from the material or make it any more or less than it is. He doesn’t look down his nose at the soap-opera plot twists or worry that the characters’ abilities are too far-fetched. Following two films of earthbound heroes, he all but fills the skies with levitating mutants and, for that alone, millions of geeks will thank him.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.