(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.