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The X-Men are de-clawed in Last Stand

by Glen Baity

A pang of dread echoed through the comic community in 2005 when director Bryan Singer announced he would give up the director’s chair for the third X-Men film. The man who defied skepticism to turn the first film into a box-office smash, and one-upped himself in X2: X-Men United, would turn his attention instead to the last son of Krypton, directing the first new Superman film in almost two decades.

His replacement? Brett Ratner, the brains behind both Rush Hour and Rush Hour 2. You could hear the groans for miles.

We’ll see the result of Singer’s decision in a few weeks, when Superman Returns soars into theatres. Now, however, those of us who were thrilled by the first two X-Men films are left to survey the shambles of what was, before last Friday, an almost flawless comic-to-film franchise, and it might leave fans longing for arguments that now seem, if possible, even more trivial than they once were.

That is to say: anyone who, several years back, quibbled that Wolverine’s claws were supposed to come out of the top of his hands, not from between his knuckles, will likely have a meltdown when they see what’s become of the seminal Dark Phoenix saga.

The film begins shortly after the events of X2, finding the students and teachers of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters still reeling from the loss of Jean Grey at the Alkali Lake research facility. They are jarred out of their grief when the news breaks that a pharmaceutical company has developed a vaccine to suppress the mutant gene, allowing those on the margins of society to join the ranks of the ‘“normal’” for the first time.

Some mutants jump at the opportunity, but the obvious questions are raised immediately: are mutants ‘“diseased’”? Do they need fixing? It’s a debate with symbolic social significance, but it’s one articulated much more effectively in the first two films, which confronted notions of Otherness as effectively as the comic ever did.

In The Last Stand, the dialogue is short-lived, as the US government quickly weaponizes the ‘“cure,’” shooting uppity mutants and nullifying their intrinsic powers at the slightest provocation. The conflict comes to a head quickly, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Singer was adept at finding quiet moments amid the action to examine the Big Questions, but Ratner can’t pull off that balancing act nearly as well.

Sides form in the struggle, as they always do. Magneto (Ian McKellen) mobilizes his Brotherhood of Mutants with the help of a resurrected ‘— and much nastier, more powerful ‘— Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), while the X-Men, under the leadership of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry), try their best to diffuse the hostilities on both sides.

The film isn’t terrible by itself, but compared to its predecessors it certainly is. Last Stand’s reliance on Berry, a wooden presence throughout the series, to carry several pivotal scenes proves to be a borderline disaster, and Jackman’s Wolverine is neutered in this installment as he obsesses over his unrequited love for the lately-insane Grey.

Ratner deserves some credit for the effort, and anyone who was with this franchise from the beginning knew his was a tall order to fill. Some of the action scenes have the old magic, especially a later one involving the Golden Gate Bridge. The new characters (most notably Ben Foster as Angel and Kelsey Grammer as Beast) might have been good additions, but they’re so underused it’s impossible to tell.

Really, this film should’ve worked much better. Aside from the departure of Singer, the creative team, including writer Zak Penn, is largely unchanged. But the script this time around, for whatever reason, is dreadful, choked on lame quips (‘“I don’t have to be a psychic to tell there’s something wrong,’” Professor X says at one point) and over-the-top melodrama.

All the while, long-standing conflicts are swept under the rug and new plot lines go absolutely nowhere, suggesting Ratner did his best to accommodate everyone’s requests for more screen time to the greater detriment of the story. It’s almost as if the final product began as a six-hour film and was artlessly edited down to acceptable length with no regard for the audience’s investment in characters from the rest of the series (while we’re talking, where’s Nightcrawler?).

It’s been widely circulated that, as the title suggests, this is the final installment of the X-Men franchise. It’s sad to see it go out this way, because it’s without a doubt the weakest of the three, casting off much of the realism that made the world of the first two films so easy for viewers to inhabit. The result is a Last Stand that feels artificial and unfinished, a hodge-podge of decent ideas that don’t hang together. What should’ve been a strong end to a brilliant series instead stands as the Godfather Part III of comic book films, one doomed to be classified as ‘“optional at best’” by future fans.

Go all ‘berserker mode’ on Glen Baity when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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