Empire magazine recently named Bryan Singer’s “X2: X-Men United” (2003) as the best comic-book flick of all time, followed by “Superman” (1978), “Batman Begins” (2005) and “Spider-Man” (2002).
No mention is made of Singer’s first “X-Men” (2000), which introduced most of the characters and the actors who would play them. This seems an oversight because the sequel is such a natural progression from the first film. What would “Godfather II” be without “The Godfather”? Singer created one flowing, coherent narrative out of two films that might not have blended so naturally.
Unfortunately, Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” is more like “Godfather III.” Singer’s replacement director has made the characters so cartoonish that they’re barely recognizable. He’s more interested in cheesy plotting and over-the-top action sequences than he is in generating empathy for the people who drive the story. The grace and intelligence Singer brought to the project are missing.
The drawbacks of this third “X-Men” were far from unpredictable. Long before the movie was finished, Singer’s fans were registering a fair amount of trepidation about Ratner, who directed both of Jackie Chan’s action-packed “Rush Hour” movies as well as Nicolas Cage’s “The Family Man.”
Ratner’s films are nothing like Singer’s “X-Men” double bill, which glories in the perversity of the mutant characters created by Stan Lee — especially Magneto (Ian McKellen), a Holocaust survivor who takes a pre-emptive approach to mankind’s follies, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a self-healing loner whose claws pop out of his hands.
Magneto is back in the new “X-Men,” violently opposed to the government’s discovery of a cure for mutant behavior. He’s been described as Malcolm X to the Martin Luther King of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who opposes the cure but is reluctant to use force. On his side are Wolverine, the weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry) and the frustrated Rogue (Anna Paquin), who nearly kills with her touch.
However, the mutant cure does tempt Rogue. If she takes it, she won’t be sending her boyfriends into comas anymore. While her infatuation with Wolverine may have turned into friendship, she’s still hot for Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who can turn a pond into an ice-skating rink with his fingers. Inevitably, he has a showdown with Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who shoots flames from his hands, though it’s a surprisingly prefunctory battle.
Ratner has his hands full introducing several new characters, including the politically savvy blue-furred Beast (Kelsey Grammer), the psychic child Leech (Cameron Bright), the speedy Callisto (Dania Ramirez), the Hulk-like Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) and the persecuted winged Angel (Ben Foster). Most of them are barely introduced before they’re forgotten.
Notable among the missing is Alan Cumming, whose delightfully geeky would-be assassin, Nightcrawler, was arguably the most interesting character in the second film. But telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who was presumed dead at the end of “X2,” is resurrected by her lover, Cyclops (James Marsden).
Appearing like the Lady of the Lake from the body of water which once seemed to be her permanent resting place, she isn’t very nice to her ex-lover (to put it mildly). Her mild flirtation with Wolverine, which kept them tantalizingly apart in the first two films, has turned into full-blown lust. By film’s end, she’s more tornado than human being. The transformation is depressing.
The script by Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) and Zak Penn (“Fantastic Four”) tends to vulgarize the characters from the first films, while barely establishing the personalities and motivations of the new additions. (Singer took his “X2” writers, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, to work with him on “Superman Returns.”)
Especially disappointing is Angel, who has been heavily promoted as the main attraction in “Last Stand,” though he has only a few scenes. Foster plays him as an adult, who chooses to reject the mutant cure and uses his wings to fly across San Francisco Bay. But Cayden Boyd, cast as the child Angel, is more effective in a childhood flashback in which he tries to cut off his wings to please his conforming father (Michael Murphy).
Grammer doesn’t raise as many expectations, but he’s remarkably colorless, and the same goes for the rest of the newbies. Josef Sommer doesn’t go far with his role as the mildly demagogic American President, who makes the mutants sound like homegrown terrorists, and there’s even less for Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (“House of Sand and Fog”) to do as a worried doctor.
Working with a $165 million budget (“X2” cost $110 million), Ratner uses more money to make a lesser film. The overkill of the final scenes, which include Magneto’s transformation of the Golden Gate Bridge into a bridge to Alcatraz, is typical of his spectacle-over-people approach.
“Sometimes you forget when you’re juggling so many characters,” says Singer on the DVD commentary track for “X2.” “They’re all crossing each other’s paths and you’re trying to establish them and make them interesting, humorous, but most importantly believable.’’
He could be offering a critique of “The Last Stand,” which leaves you with little interest in following the franchise further. Aside from killing off several key characters (presumably for good, though Jean’s resurrection makes you wonder) and introducing new mutants who make little impression, Ratner fails at maintaining our interest in the characters who do survive. What has happened to Rogue, who was so vital in the earlier films, and the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), whose self-transformations were once so clever?
Also on the “X2” commentary track, Singer illustrates specifically how he emphasized believability rather than technology in a scene in which Iceman leaves his parents and brother for the family of mutants: “Instead of having the jet take off and spending the money on that, we just played it in a close-up on [Iceman]. You get more emotion out of it and save about $100,000.”
As a result, Iceman’s separation from his family is one of the most moving moments in the “X-Men” series, and — as Singer points out — one of the most practical on financial basis. You won’t find its equal in “The Last Stand.”