This week’s summer blockbuster movie was X-Men 3: The Last Stand. I’ll give it this much: it could have been worse. Much worse.
Actually, as far as summer action movies based on comic books go, it wasn’t all that bad. If I were the grading type, I’d give it a solid B. The problem, of course, is that it’s following two other X-Men movies, one which was surprisingly good and another which was awesome. No surprises there; people have been comparing it unfavorably to the first two ever since it was announced that Bryan Singer wasn’t directing it. I’d been trying to keep an open mind about it, mostly because I just hate to see anybody getting dogpiled as much as Brett Ratner was.
After seeing the movie, I still don’t think he deserves as much hate as internet geekdom has been laying on him. But it’s plenty clear that this is Commercial Entertainment Product, meant to close out a franchise and make the producers and actors their money; if you’re looking for art in a comic book movie, I guess you’ll have to wait for Superman Returns.
There’s a lot of characters in this one, so we gotta start with the standard comic book roll call:
- Storm: controls the weather, uses shrill complaining and Academy Award to magnify screen time
- Wolverine: healing factor, invulnerable adamantium skeleton, claws, mutant patience power while biding time until own movie franchise
- Iceman: can freeze moisture, has a girlfriend
- Kitty Pryde: steals boyfriends and spotlight, can phase through solid objects while still maintaining physical form
- Rogue: absorbs other mutants’ powers, can phase into pointless subplot while still maintaining top billing
- Beast: super-intelligence and dexterity, blue fur, can bend laws of space and time to negate cameo appearance in previous movie
- Jean Grey: level five psychic abilities, can levitate rocks and leaves and cause people to disintegrate, can spend entire movie sitting, lying down, or standing still
- Cyclops: misses Jean, cries
- Colossus: super-strength, forms invulnerable metal shell, transforms from bit character to main team member without developing any detectable character or personality
- Professor Charles Xavier: telepathy, telekinesis, remarkable de-aging make-up ability so you’d never believe he wasn’t 20 years younger in the opening, turns out to be kind of a dick
- Angel: fey, has wings, really cool introduction scene, powers over ham-handed allegory
- Magneto: destroys bridges, devours scenery
- Mystique: can kill people with her legs because that never gets old, takes the form of any person except for one of the most beautiful women on the face of the planet
- Callisto: super-speed, can detect mutants, has sass and attitude
- Juggernaut: he’s the Juggernaut, bitch!
I was distracted through the whole thing, because I was trying to place what the movie reminded me of. Kind of like when you taste something “off” and keep eating it until you figure out exactly what it is that’s wrong.
Part of it was that it seemed like nobody involved really wanted to be there (except for Ian McKellen, who seems to be willing to do anything for any project anywhere). It seems like Halle Berry pitched a fit until she was the star, and then didn’t know what to do with it when she got it. Some of the “leads” get less screen time than the kids from Jurassic Park got in Jurassic Park 2. And the movie does go on a killing spree with some pretty significant characters; if it were handled correctly, it would’ve at least worked for shock value, but here it just seems like actors wanting to get out of their obligations as quickly as possible.
Part of it was that it seemed like a Marvel movie, when the other big Marvel movies (Daredevil and Elektra excepted) somehow managed to escape that. In the comics, I was always a fan of DC and never liked anything Marvel put out. DC had built a modern mythology, with a stable of iconic characters fighting supervillains in an alternate universe with cities like Metropolis and Gotham and Central City. Marvel had neurotic anti-heroes living around New York, pandering to teenagers with cheesy stories that pretended to relate to the real world. In reality, the two companies put out equal parts crap and good stuff, and neither’s really any more noble than the other. But as far as corporate vision and public perception go, DC was the fun and imaginative one, while Marvel was the lowbrow cousin too preoccupied with “keeping it real.”
In the movies, that somehow got reversed. Every movie based on a DC property, since Superman II has been mediocre to awful. But with X-Men and Spider-man, all of a sudden Marvel was putting out really cool movies based on characters I cared nothing about. Even the Marvel flickering comic book pages logo was cool; finally, in movies, they “got it.” (While Batman Returns tried to be darker and more realistic; go figure.) But X-Men 3 reminded me of reading a Marvel comic book — not completely awful, but completely forgettable, with completely slapdash plotting, forsaking character development for the next action scene, and a heavy-handed, clumsy attempt to relate everything to a Real World Issue.
The Real World Issue in this one, by the way, is the serum that will “cure” mutants, with Halle Berry giving clumsy speeches about how mutants don’t need to be cured. Somehow this version of X-Men has even more of teh ghey than the ones Bryan Singer made. But as blatant and clumsy as it is, none of it really sticks because it just seems crammed in there in a desperate attempt to make everything “relevant.” The comparisons between Magneto/Malcolm X and Professor Xavier/MLK Jr. are just as blatant.
The other thing that bugged me was that the whole thing felt like a fan movie. Everything looked cheap and poorly done, from the sets to the props to the costumes. Especially everybody’s hair, and I’m not usually the type who notices stuff like that. The CGI was competent but completely uninspired; it was like some CG firm down in LA had been itching to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge ever since they saw the trailers for Deep Impact and The Day After Tomorrow, so they put it in the script even though it made no sense. I’d had somewhat high hopes, because the opening scene is set in the 70s and looks perfect for a 70s suburban house — the clothes, the hair, the furniture, everything. But judging from the bland cheapness of everything else, they apparently blew their entire artistic and creative wad trying to recreate a set from “That 70’s Show.”
And like a fan movie, it was all slap-dash plotting based more on stream-of-consciousness fan fiction than telling a real story. It doesn’t hold together, it turns up the extremes too much, it relies too much on gimmicks and cheap thrills. The great thing about the first X-Men movie was that it was based on the premise, “what would it really be like to suddenly find yourself with mutant powers?” X-Men 3 seems to be based on the premise, “wouldn’t it be like totally bad-ass if Phoenix could make people disintegrate and then Iceman and Pyro got in a battle to the death and Wolverine fought a Sentinel and Magneto destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge?”
The funny thing is that it would be pretty bad-ass to see a lot of this stuff, which is what keeps the movie from being a total disappointment. Without any pacing, flow, character development, suspense, or meaning to it, though, it just all jumbles together and then disappears. The first two movies had at least one total “oh hell yeah!” moment each — for me, it was when Wolverine accidentally stabs Rogue in the first, and when Nightcrawler saves Rogue after getting sucked out of the plane in the second. For all its noise and explosions and attempts at big blockbuster moments, X-Men 3 has nothing approaching the impact of those scenes.
Except, of course, for Juggernaut’s catch-phrase, which is stupid enough to be classic. And Angel’s introductory scene was pretty damn cool, as creepy as Rogue’s from the first movie. But unlike Rogue in the first movie, Angel never had any kind of character development, so he was relegated to silent pointlessness and the aforementioned ham-handed allegory — he might as well have been a unicorn.
It still seems a little unfair to criticize the movie for not being as good as the first two, especially since X-Men had its own share of clunky moments. But the first two did a remarkable job of reminding us what is possible with a “comic book movie,” after a long drought since Superman and Superman II. Maybe it’s exaggeration or naivete, but I had the feeling after the X-Men and Spider-man movies, that we were crossing some kind of nerd/normal barrier. We’d finally see movies with stories as imaginative as comic book stories, where creators weren’t afraid of looking uncool or too low-brow for doing stories about super-heroes. And we’d get a real pop mythology going, made by people who knew what they were doing. X-Men 3 isn’t a god-awful movie, but it’s just another forgettable summer action movie, and that’s all.