Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Second Chance Film Club: X-Men 3: The Last Stand

After taking on a critically-loved classic last time, we now turn our attention to a somewhat less loved film in the shape of X-Men 3: The Last Stand. When it was released last year, I wrote the following review on an internet forum I frequent:


The bile heaped upon the film from some quarters, coupled with the fact that I have only seen it the one time, made me think that a rewatch was in order. With more than a small degree of worry and fear, I delved into Brett Ratner's take on one of the most beloved franchises of recent years. As usual, since I'll be looking at the plot in some detail, and this will entail including information of the fates of several main characters, there will be spoilers.

First, a little context about my first viewing. I loved the first two X-Men films and followed the development of the third film with interest and, eventually, concern. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, here's the basics. Bryan 'The Usual Suspects' Singer, who had directed the first two films, was set to direct the third one and had developed a treatment with his regular writers Dan 'Student #2 at Metropolis Museum' Harris and Michael 'Student #1 at Metropolis Museum' Dougherty. However, at the same time, Brett 'Rush Hour' Ratner left as director of the new Superman film and the job was offered to Singer. A lifelong fan of Supes, Singer left X-Men 3 taking Harris, Dougherty and other member of his crew with him to make what would then become Superman Returns. Matthew Vaughn, director of the excellent Layer Cake, then stepped in and made a number of decisions about the film, including the casting of Frasier Crane as Beast (woo!) and Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut (buh?), before leaving the film for 'family reasons'. The stage was then set for Brett Ratner to step in, having completely swapped places with Singer.

This sequence of events made awaiting the arrival of the film something of a rollercoaster ride and my expectations fluctuated repeatedly as time wore on. By the time of the film's release in May 2006, my expectations had been lowered so much that I went in thinking ''as long as I don't throw myself off a bridge after watching it, it'll have been a good movie''. Seeing as I am still alive, it can be presumed that I got enough enjoyment out of it to warrant the good review I gave it. So it was more a case of my expectations being defied than the film actually blowing me away, then. If anything, my expectations are higher the second time.

As with any director taking on a series already in process, Ratner had to deal with characters and plotlines already set in motion in the first few issues. Further complicating the issue was the fact that the end of the second film, which saw Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) seemingly dead at the bottom of a lake, illuminated by a bird-like shape, established that the third film would deal with the Phoenix Saga, one of the most famous stories in comic book history. Clearly, Ratner had a lot to take on.

However, rather than making the whole film about Jean's resurrection as The Phoenix, which was the direction Singer intended, Rattner and his writers saw fit to graft on an entirely separate story revolving around the development of a cure for mutation, something which was taken from Buffy creator and all-round Geek God Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men series. It is the collision of these two stories that causes many of the problems for the film and, for me at least, the more enjoyable moments.

The first casualties of this treatment are the characters themselves. Whilst the first two films gave them room to breathe and gave them real depth, X3 just throws characters into the mix and doesn't really do anything with them, aside from allowing for some mutant-on-mutant action. This is particularly true of the new characters introduced in the film. The best example of this is the treatment of Angel, played by Ben Foster. Although you could have just sellotaped some wings on a mop and achieved the same effect, considering how little he actually has to do. Angel is introduced in the opening scenes of the movie as a child who is so ashamed of his mutation that he tries to file off his newly grown wings. This seems to be setting him up as a major character, and one who is filled with self-loathing and disdain for his own kind. Just the sort of compelling character the series had previously prided itself upon. However, what actually happens is that Angel is merely used as a MacGuffin, providing the reason for the development of the mutant cure. He is next seen 37 minutes into the film escaping his father's laboratory, then again 20 minutes later when he shows up at X-Men manor, then finally to save his father from being killed by other mutants. Considering how central he was to the film's marketing campaign, it seems strange that he's on screen for less than five minutes.

The returning characters fare a bit better, but that's really down to the actors rather than the direction, plot or the script. McKellan and Jackman are as good as they were in the previous films, but the dialogue they are given and the events that occur to them undermine their otherwise fine performances. One of the defining aspects of Singer's X-Men movies which set them apart from many other superhero films, even the hugely enjoyable Spider-Man films, was the nuanced nature of the scripts and the way in which they avoided cliched or obvious dialogue. In X-Men 3, however, you could quite easily make a very enjoyable drinking game out of spotting the cliches in the script. My personal 'favourite' moment in the film where this is most prevalent comes near the end. Having been deprived of his powers, Magneto looks on in horror as Phoenix spins out of control, destroying everything around her. Magneto then utters 'what have I done?'. before running off. Now, I don't want to suggest that Mr. Ratner didn't know what he was doing, but could the TRAINED SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR not have displayed his fear and terror using his face, rather than being given a flat and utterly unnecessary line of dialogue? There also seems to have been a rather strange development in Magneto's character. Whereas before he was seen as a guerilla leader of a small but powerful organisation, in this film he turns into a Bond supervillain who seems to base his operations in a cave made of tinfoil. Which is, in turn, situated in a massive forest. This is never explained and just makes him seem rather daft, not the meancing ''I will achieve my aim at any cost'' extremist of the first two films.

Elsewhere, Halle Berry is just as useless as she was in the previous films, but this time she's been promoted to head of the X-Men, so takes up even more screentime. I like the character of Storm as portrayed in the comics and the TV series, she's feisty but also quite insecure. Berry just plays her as a dull, straightforward heroine character and it makes her the least interesting character in the whole franchise.

The propensity of the film to kill off characters also suggests that those involved really didn't know what they had on their hands. Cyclops bites it within the first ten minutes in a manner which serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to tell the audience that Phoenix is bad. Big fucking insight there, Brett. Likewise, three minor villain character are established early on, battle Storm and Wolverine, then are killed in an instant, having served their purpose and not allowing for them to possibly return in future films. Finally, Xavier dies halfway through the film, thus depriving the film of one of its most charismatic performers and the possibility 0f examining the darker parts of his character which are only really hinted at during a scene in which he describes how he built up mental walls around Jean's mind, limiting her power in the process, for 'her own good'. This is just one of many examples where the film botches the chance for any decent characterisation. Having said that, Xavier's death does allow for a surprisingly revealing moment when Magneto chastises one of his underlings for mocking Xavier's death, reminding everyone that they were friends at one point and that they were not as different as you'd think. Admittedly this point is undermined by the mutant smackdown at the end of the film, but it's a surprisingly nice touch.

The character that best represents the missed opportunity of the film is Phoenix. If we look at the comics again, The Phoenix saga deals with Jean being possessed by an alien force named The Phoenix which, initially, seems only to enhance her powers and not have any other ill-efects. However, as time passes, it begins to take over her and she ends up destroying several planets, resulting in a war crimes tribunal in which Jean is put on trial for Phoenixes crimes and the saga ends with Jean sacrificing herself, rather than letting her friends die for her. Admittedly, trying to tell this story on screen wouldn't work since, like many Marvel stories, it's just fucking stupid. However, elements of it, namely the fact that Jean and Phoenix are separate entities are included in the film but never really fully explained. In the end it just seems like Jean is an irrational bitch. Admittedly, this explanation for her behaviour works if you want to view X-Men 3 as a rant against menstruation (Phoenix goes around wearing a RED cloak, see?The film take place over two or three days, eh?) but otherwise it is rather inadequate an explanation.

However, despite its many, many, many flaws, I can't help but enjoy it. I love the sheer ridiculousness of it all, the constant cliches, the fact that the President of the United States sounds like Sylvester the Cat (''Hell hasth no fury like a woman scthorned''), the stupid action sequences and the complete and utter lack of any subtlety in any form throughout the film. I even like how ridiculous the ending is, in which Wolverine is able to get close enough to Jean without being killed because he keeps healing, apparently doing so fast enough to not be completely obliterated like everyone else. It makes no sense, and in a way that makes it brilliant. Sure I'm disappointed that it isn't as good as the previous two films, but if I just try and forget about them and pretend the film has nothing in common with the other films, then it's an unintentionally hilarious film on a par with Reefer Madness or The Wicker Man remake. It's a bit like playing Battleships. For every ounce of enjoyment you eke out of it, you get a pound og frustration back. But I do rather enjoy a game of Battleships.