X-Men: The Last Blurb

(Note: Yeah, I said my “blurbs” would not be real reviews. Apparently I lied. Sosumi.)

It’s rare that I get out to the theater to see any movie these days, what with $10 ticket prices that include ten minutes of ads followed by enough film trailers that by the time the movie comes on, I’ve forgotten what I was there to see. It’s even rarer that I get out to see a movie on its opening weekend. But rarest of all is that beast known as the midnight showing. I can’t remember the last midnight showing I went to (if ever).

But somehow, someone convinced me to see X-Men: The Last Stand, a.k.a. X3 in the theater. The third and allegedly final entry in the film franchise that begin with X-Men in 2000, X3 appears to have done very well for itself this weekend, opening with a whopping $44 million take for Friday alone. How long can this go on, I wonder? We seem to be smack dab in a superhero movie fad, as disaster movies were the big thing from the mid-to-late nineties (Independence Day, Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Hard Rain, Deep Impact, Armageddon, Godzilla, and the king of them all, Titanic–the Poseidon remake was about ten years too late). We’ve got Superman Returns later this summer, a Batman Begins sequel in the works, and Marvel has a pile of films coming soon (including Spider-Man 3, Ghost Rider and sequels to Fantastic Four and 2003’s ill-received Hulk). There’s even a plan for a film featuring X-Men‘s Wolverine in a solo adventure, which seems a lock now, given the success of X3. How long will the superhero vogue last? I give it until at least 2008–ten years after the release of Blade, the film that started the Marvel film revolution.

But I digress. How is X3? Well, suffice to say that the official reviews by people who are paid to review movies are, in a word, mixed. The film has a rather dismal 52% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but from what I can tell, the word-of-mouth among fans and non-fans alike seems fairly positive.

The first two X-Men films were treasures, blockbuster films that were better than they had to be. Most of that is due to director Bryan Singer, who made his name with the avant-garde hit The Usual Suspects and then immediately set about making superhero films (much like Christopher Nolan, who went from Memento to Batman Begins, much to the chagrin of cultural gatekeepers such as David Denby). But Singer left X3 to do Superman Returns, which at least one critic likened to Johnny Damon leaving the Red Sox for the Yankees (for those not in the know, the X-Men belong to Marvel Comics, whereas Superman is the flagship hero of their biggest rival, DC Comics). Singer was replaced by Brett Ratner, whose previous achievements included the two Rush Hour films and the Silence of the Lambs prequel Red Dragon.

I was a bit concerned about Ratner, but I think he did the best he could with the script he was given. I don’t think X3 is the hateful mess that, say, Walter Chaw does. It is, however, a bit of a mess, with too many characters, too many unresolved subplots, and too many themes to be explored in its brisk 104-minute running time.

The story, with minimal spoilers, is as follows: the U.S. government has come up with a “cure” for mutants using the mutation-cancelling powers of a mutant boy called Leech. Magneto (Ian McKellen), the anti-hero/villain of the first two films and a Holocaust survivor, believes this amounts to a form of genocide and organizes a mutant rebel force to storm the government complex (on Alcatraz, no less) and kill Leech. Opposing Magneto’s Malcolm X is his MLK-like former partner and friend, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his students, the X-Men.

There’s also a subplot involving the fate of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who was apparently killed at the end of the second film. And there are many, many other subplots, which I won’t go into detail here, except to mention the two better ones: the introduction of fan-favorite X-Man Kitty Pryde (charming newcomer Ellen Page), who can phase through walls, and the triangle that develops between her, Bobby “Iceman” Drake, and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose mutation prevents her from ever touching anyway. The idea of a “cure” is a tantalizing one for a mutant like Rogue.

Newcomers include Beast, played by an ideally cast Kesley Grammer, a mutant with fur as blue as Grover and a sesquipedalian vocabulary. Beast serves as a secretary of mutant affairs on the presidental cabinet and is a former student of Xavier. There’s also the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), a super-strong mutant who can’t be stopped–by anything–once he gets up a head of steam.

Returning from the previous films is the slithery Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), Cyclops (James Marsden, who’s in very little of the film owing to double-duty in Singer’s Superman Returns), Storm (Halle Berry, who gets a lot more screen time in this one, for better or for worse), and of course Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the Canadian son of the soil who can produce nine-inch steel claws from his knuckles.

Wolverine was a minor character introduced in an issue of The Incredible Hulk as “the first Canadian superhero” who went on to become one of Marvel Comics’ most successful characters (after the Hulk himself and, of course, Spider-Man). Singer somehow found the ideal Jackman and cast him in the role, and by X3, Wolverine has become the franchise’s main character (and Jackman arguably the most bankable actor, except for perhaps McKellen). Personally, I think Wolverine works best either solo or as a supporting character in a team book–not as the protagonist of a team book–but Jackman brings enough to the character that he’s able to carry the films.

That said, there’s still a lot to nitpick in X3. The story is rushed and much more plot-based than either of the previous movies. There are very few of the wonderful, low-key character moments we got in the earlier films and a much heavier emphasis on action (including an entirely superfluous action sequence with Wolverine in the forest). X-Men was virtually action-free, as superhero movies go; X2 upped the ante nicely and probably struck the right balance between characterization, plot and action; and X3 gives us mostly action, with some plot and a wee bit of characterization.

The greatest disappointment is Janssen’s Jean Grey, who has virtually nothing to do for most of the film, and what she does do has no clear context or motivation. Fans of the famous “Dark Phoenix Saga” from the comics will be justifiably dismayed by its handling (or lack thereof) here. The film also completely shortchanges the long history between Grey and Cyclops from the comics in favor of focusing on the more popular Wolverine/Jackman.

However, I will say this: the filmmakers have guts. Much like the largely forgettable Terminator 3, X3 is the weakest of the franchise’s three films, but redeems itself somewhat by going for broke in a way most summer blockbusters wouldn’t dare. If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, let me say this (spoiler alert):

There’s a good reason the next film will be a Wolverine solo flick.

  1. Ed left a comment on May 29, 2006 at 7:51 am

    If I had a mutant power it would be to rid reviews of words like “sesquipedalian”.

    Good review (I agree on some points, disagree on others.) One quick correction though. Both Singer and Nolan had films between their breakthrough flicks and their superhero films. Singer followed up The Usual Suspects with Stephen King’s Apt Pupil (where he first worked with Ian McKellan) while Nolan directed Insomnia after Memento. Nolan is currently working on The Prestige (based on a novel about feuding magicians in turn-of-the-century London) and will follow that film with the Batman Begins sequel.

  2. Hey, I rarely get to use words like sesquipedalian, so I’ll take any opportunity I get.

    And you’re right, I’d forgotten about Apt Pupil and Insomnia. Still, it’s interesting how many “maverick” up-and-coming directors end up on superhero flicks. Burton on Batman, Ang Lee on Hulk (which didn’t work), and now Whedon on Wonder Woman and Favreau on Iron Man (though I’m not sure whether he should be counted or not).

  3. To be perfectly honest the whole “Dark Phoenix” saga as originally told in the comics is something that seems a hell of a lot cooler in retrospect. If the Ultimate Marvel titles have shown us anything, it’s that fans aren’t necessarily the slaves to canon that they are often made out to be. Witness the DC Universe’s laughable attempts to try to iron out its continuity problems with Crisis of Infinite Earths and the just-finished Infinite Crisis. Sure, the diehard fanboys tuned in, but when all was said and done how many casual readers simply scratched their heads and wondered what the hell all the excitement was about (“Superboy is wearing the Antimonitor’s armor!” Who gives a rat’s ass?) The Marvel movie franchises successfully take a page out of the Ultimate playbook, giving a nod here and there to the source material without allowing it to become an impediment to telling a good story on film — Peter Jackson’s LOTR also did this, much to the chagrin of purists.

    There was a time when it was considered perfectly acceptable to reinvent mythology to suit one’s own artist muse. Homer gets repeatedly remixed by the tragic poets of 5th century Athens, the Christians coopt the Old Testament, and the whole flipping Renaissance is a giant mix-and-match sampler of all Western culture leading up to that point. Only in recent years have the cultural canons (high and low) become so rigid as not to tolerate the slightest bit of deviation/innovation — funny that the same kind of irrational literalism that has infected latter-day religions should also provoke endless flamewars on the Talkbacks of Ain’t It Cool News over how “true” a movie based on a comic is.

    (Well at least the fanboys aren’t blowing anyone up… yet…)

  4. Personally I don’t care too much with fiddling with comic-book mythos except when the changes make no sense–like turning one character into a completely different character, or giving a character a new name. As long as the characters are relatively true to their comic counterparts, the story can be anything (and hopefully doesn’t suck).

    I think they shortchanged Jean Grey/Phoenix in this flick, but the rest of the characters were relatively faithful (and if they weren’t, the characters were minor enough that I didn’t care).

    And as someone who once wrote a lot of fan fiction, I’m all for reinterpretation of comics, movies and whatnot–they’re today’s folklore. MIT prof Henry Jenkin’s book Textual Poachers is an excellent discussion of this topic.

  5. And btw, you’re right about the DC/Marvel thing. The best thing DC has going for it are its Vertigo titles. But Marvel still has relevance even in its superhero titles.

    Look at both companies’ respective summer crossovers. Marvel has the whole “Civil War” thing—where the government wants to register and keeps tabs on superhumans, and the superhero community becomes divided over the issue. It’s like the first X-Men film, but actually presenting the other side of the argument.

    Meanwhile, DC continues its self-obsessive attempts to make sense of its continuity. Who cares whether Krypto exists or not? The best DC superhero comic for ages has been Legends of the Dark Knight, which provides good, one-shot stories about Batman with some dashes of originality.

  6. Huh.
    Honestly, I’ve hated Marvel with a burning passion lately. Their attempts at “relevance” come across as forced at best, and the writing on a number of their titles has been pretty shoddy. Civil War may be interesting, but I can’t say I have a lot of faith in Mark Millar as a writer.

    DC, by contrast, has been telling exciting, fun, interesting stories about superheroes. Infinite Crisis wasn’t so much cool because of the attempts at continuity fixes (which mostly boiled down to “Superboy did it.”); it was cool because the characters were enjoyable, stuff was happening, and in general, it was a good old-fashioned superhero romp. And I’m ok with that.

    IC was also a fairly interesting commentary on comics, fandom, and that sort of stuff too; but that’s another discussion.

  7. Well, I’ll be honest and admit I’m not reading anything by Marvel or DC except Wolverine: Origins, which I’m reading primarily because it has Wolvie wearing his old brown costume for the first time in fifteen years.

    So I’ll bow to your assessment and admit that IC may have a lot more to offer than CW. But my allegiances still lie a little more on the side of Marvel. DC is interesting to me primarily for their two biggies: Batman and Superman, who have transcended superhero comics to become almost mythological archetypes (an idea DC has been playing to since DKR). It all seems a little pretentious to me sometimes. But again, other than the films, I don’t have a lot of interaction or awareness with comics these days.

  8. Well, to be fair to Marvel, Civil War just started. It’s entirely possible that I’ll end up thinking it was great…I don’t think I will, but it’s possible.

    I am, by tradition, a Marvel loyalist. Sadly, Marvel has been abusing that loyalty lately, most by putting out crappy stories. DC, on the other hand, keeps putting out these insanely fun arcs about pretty neat characters. So I’m slowly shifting towards DC.

  9. Excellent, a comics discussion. I really wish I could weigh in a little better on the whole IC v. CW debate already kicked off. My problem is my stack of books to read is about four months old, so I haven’t even touched IC yet. I don’t get a lot of DC books myself, as I am also a traditional Marvel loyalist, but I do enjoy an occassional Superman or Batman run and I have been picking up a couple other running series, so I used to hate DC but I have been coming around over the last ten years. As I think I said before in this space, it was the Elseworlds books that got me started.

    I have just the core IC mini issues to read, but I don’t usually read a mini until the series is done so I kill them off all at once. Anyway, I am hopeful for CW to be at least as good as House of M was, which was their best big event since Age of Apocalypse.

    I did just finish off Marvel Zombies and that was entertaining for the first three issues, but sort of lost me with the last two. X-Men: Deadly Genesis could have been better too. I won’t spoil here, but probably will on my blog soon. Hopefully as I run thru my stack, I’ll start writing about comics over there. Oh yeah, I also finished off the Spidey The Other story line and found the initial story interesting, but part of me wonders where it is going now. I guess we’ll see.

    I think J. has a point here… Marvel is getting pretty so-so these days. They seem to have lots of promising things at the start of a run, but they trail off.

  10. D’oh! I meant to mention that the only really good stuff coming out of Marvel these days is being written by Bendis. Millar does seem to be pretty hit or miss, so hopefully he’s going to hit with CW.

    Of course, Claremont and David are just doing their thing, which is good, but they are just playing in their own custom little sandboxes.

  11. Sean, have you been reading Sentry? A lot of Marvel fans seem to be really digging him lately, and I know Bendis was the one to bring him back…supposedly he’s Marvel’s latest attempt at a “Marvelized Superman.”

    And yeah, from what I’ve read about it, it sure seems like Claremont, at least, is doing his own thing. ToyFare magazine has made more than one joke about New Excalibur essentially being a fanfic…

  12. Yes, I have picked up the Sentry mini, but I haven’t read it yet. I think it just finished up, so now I can read it. He’s definitely the Marvel Superman, like Hyperion in Squadron Supreme and Supreme Power (which was excellent), but both characters have better flaws than just being allergic to Kryptonite. I’d think that anyone who hates on Supes for being too powerful would enjoy those other two characters more.

    Yeah, Claremont has New Excalibur and David has X-Factor. It’s like Marvel gives them those books to mess with as long as they write a couple more that Marvel wants written. Claremont will have another new book soon that the fans voted on over at marvel.com and it is called neXt. Sounds like New New Mutants, which isn’t all bad.

  13. I find it interesting that you buy the entire miniseries and then read it…why not just wait for the TPB? That’s what a lot of people (including myself) do these days…

    And do you read Astonishing X-Men? I recently read an issue of that (it came with a figure I bought), and it was really good. I’m planning to pick up the first TPB…

  14. Good question. I guess it is just because I like to have the individual comics as opposed to a book. When I am 65, I can sell off my collection for millions and retire to an island too. Of course, that is highly unlikely, but I probably will have spent a ton of money over my lifetime if I do keep buying. The TPB is probably a wiser use of money in some cases.

    I do read Astonishing X-Men. In fact, I don’t think there is an X-book I am not buying at the moment, which is strange because there is usually some crap one going on. I am not buying stupid minis like Storm or Colossus. Definitely pick up that first TPB. The first story arc was excellent while the second one was a bit of a let down. They are just starting into their third arc after a hiatus, but I haven’t read those two issues yet.

  15. It’s interesting Marvel is pushing the Sentry so hard (and when exactly did superheroes start being managed liked pro wrestlers? Wolverine’s current yellow costume was dictated by Marvel’s marketing department’s desire for something that looked better on a lunchbox than the black leather of New X-Men…but I digress…).

    It’s arguable (and J_Stone might want to weigh in here) that the entire DC universe is constructed to allow for the near-omnipotent presence of Superman. There are some really high-powered characters in the DCU (ironic that their most popular character has no powers whatsoever).

    But Marvel has always been the domain of characters who, on average, are much more powerful than the ordinary man, but very few come close to the abilities of Superman. Marvel superheroes generally have fairly specific abilities and the traditional “Marvel flaw.” Except maybe for Thor, who has family issues, and can’t fly through space like Superman can, if I recall correctly.

    But Sentry is basically Superman. So how, for instance, can Marvel have a “Civil War”? Whichever side has the Sentry wins (especially since Thor is apparently out of commission). I suspect the editors know this–hence the Sentry’s serious mental issues. The reason there’s never been a good Marvelized Superman is because the Marvel universe wasn’t really designed to handle one.

  16. I thought they brought back the Yellow and Blue costume because Whedon liked it better. It appeared at the time Astonishing X-Men launched. Along with that new look, err… new, old look, we got a sorta new, old look for Cyclops which also sucks.

    As for Sentry and Superman, you make a good point. I can only go on what I’ve gotten out of New Avengers in terms of the Sentry and his condition (since I still haven’t read the mini yet), but it would seem he’s in check because of his on mental state. The mini may be working thru him removing those blocks he had placed on the alter-evil-ego though.

    With respect to your question on his role in the Civil War, my guess his Thor returns to side with whatever side Sentry is not on. It would seem from the pre-CW stuff that they are definitely setting up for the return of Thor.

  17. Yeah, I thought exactly the same thing regarding Thor and Civil War.

    As for Wolverine’s costume, what happened (according to some interviews with Whedon and John Cassaday) was that Marvel wanted to bring back the costumes for marketing reasons. Cassaday designed all the Astonishing X-Men outfits except for Wolverine, who was already in the process of being redesigned by committee. Whedon said it wasn’t his idea to bring back the costumes, but he didn’t mind it.

    And now Joe Quesada’s saying he thinks the brown costume is the coolest costume, and Wolverine: Origins is the best-selling Marvel comic. I’m even buying it, and I’ll admit, I’m basically getting it because he’s back in the brown costume instead of that yellow clown suit.

  18. Joe Q is an asshat. He needs to worry less about costumes and more about finishing Daredevil: Father. Issue six in ’06? We’ll see. He shouldn’t be allowed to do anything but covers from now on unless he’s got everything in the can before he solicits it.

    I’m on-board with bringing back the Brown. I even liked the New X-Men look you mentioned, but even more than that, I liked his look at the start of Ultimate X-Men.

  19. dante the comic king left a comment on June 7, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    i know the movie seemed a little off
    but Juggernaut is not a mutant at all
    he gets his powers from a god, by a spell casted on him

  20. He gets his power from the Cyttorak Gem. Although, he found it in a temple to Cyttorak, so I guess that could be some kind of god and I suppose maybe the gem had him under some kind of spell.

    Ah hell, who am I to argue semantics with “the comic king…”

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