02 June 2006

My Jumbled Thoughts and Meandering Review of X3

So on Monday night Beth and I went to see X3 (or, if you go by the official title, X-Men: The Last Stand), and I've been wanting to chat a bit about it here ever since then. It seems like I've got a lot to say and am having trouble organizing it, but overall.... it's just not worth the effort.

Let me explain. I was never a fan of comic books as a kid. I had a couple of Superman comics and a few others, but it was never a big part of my childhood reading, and I really got less out of it than my straight science and science fiction reading. The X-men, in particular, held no interest to me -- I didn't even watch the Saturday morning cartoon.

That said, I always loved superhero stories, and used to make up endless fantasies of my own when I was a child. I loved the idea of telekinesis or superspeed or superstrength or the ability to fly... and even today there's that preteen inside me that just wishes I could open doors without touching them or run faster than the speed of sound, as much as I'd really rather be more mature than that.

In other words, I come to the X-men movies without any backstory, with no baggage at all, but looking at them as enjoyable fantasy movies that are divorced from any prior art, but that I nonetheless have a certain affinity for on a subject-matter level. And, to be honest, these films have always felt rather lightweight and fluffy to me, great little popcorn adventures but (despite the political subtext) lacking any real character development or gravitas that comes from insightful resonance with modern-day culture.

And, on that level, X3 delivers, despite having quite a few, "uh, that was dumb" moments that I don't really recall from the first two. (The most important of which being -- and forgive me, because I'm going into heavy spoiler territory for the rest of my comments -- Magneto's need to move the entire Golden Gate Bridge for the purpose of landing a few dozen mutants on Alcatraz. Wouldn't something considerably smaller like a tanker truck or even a big sheet of scrap metal work just as well?) I know that the fanboys get wet dreams over the "Dark Phoenix" saga, and I'm sure that if I'd read the comics I'd be disappointed, but films in general just don't work for the kind of episodic long-form storytelling that is the norm in the comic book world -- why has the epic that is The Watchmen taken so long to come to the screen?

In short, X-Men:The Last Stand is a nice piece of fluffy entertainment, enjoyable as far as it goes, although serious fans of the comics will probably feel very gypped by some of the choices made. That said, I'd like to comment a bit about a few things, so let me meander a bit.

Firstly, James Marsden is actually quite good in his limited screen time as Cyclops. I've always thought that his character suffered quite a bit compared to Wolverine, ignored to the point of blandness, but here Marsden is given a bit more weight to carry and is even allowed to grow some stubble. And we all know how stubble makes great acting -- he's good here, and I was actually left wishing I'd had a bit more to chew on.

Secondly, Kelsey Grammer is just a wonderful choice to play Beast. I never read the comics, but knew a bit of this character's history, and despite the shortened shooting schedule leading to a very effects-poor portrayal, I really liked the character, and felt that Grammer gave a really nice performance in what is really a thankless role. I know that there are Wolverine spin-offs coming, and I hope Beast makes a return there, as the character is a really fascinating one and really deserves more than the few minutes of screentime he gets.

Halle Berry is finally able to let loose a bit with Storm, being given a more active role and allowed to use her powers, and I have to say that I liked this version better. An actress with the fame and acting chops of Berry being shunted into the background for the first two films has very good reason to feel slighted by the production, but I hope that Berry reconsiders her decision to leave the films here to reprise her role.

More good stuff, in sentence form, just to get it out of the way. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are great as always in their roles as Professor X and Magneto, although the writing of the former could have used some tightening up. Hugh Jackman continues to prove that Wolverine is the role he was born to play, despite being used to a bit more comic effect in this film than in the others. And Rebecca Romijn is a perfect Mystique, playing up the sexiness and the manipulative qualities of her character to the hilt in her all-to-brief screentime.

And now, for the negatives. I'm sorry, but we all knew it had to come to this.

What the fuck was up with the whole Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) subplot? I know it's supposed to lend emotional resonance to Rogue's (Anna Paquin) decision to take the cure, but to spend so much time on what was ultimately a stupid unresolved love triangle just seems silly.

This movie has cameo disease. I know that a lot of these mutants are fan favorites, but why bring a character (let alone a half-dozen) into the film only to give him or her one big effects moment and a few lines of dialogue? Other than Grammer's Beast, this applies to pretty much every character not in the last two films, who seem to be thrown in "to please the fans" but are given very little to do. I love Vinnie Jones from Snatch, and he does have one nice line, but overall he's wasted as the Juggernaut, a character whose powers could have been developed into a full-length subplot. Jones doesn't even get the time to stand around and look menacing, basically being pulled out for two big scenes and left to languish otherwise. Ben Foster as Angel doesn't even get that much -- Angel's best scene is before the opening credits, being played by a younger actor in a sequence that is genuinely disturbing.

And finally, the very last shot in the movie, right before the closing credits. (There's a very short scene after the closing credits that you should stick around for, as well.) Magneto, having had his powers removed by the cure, sits forlornly in what looks to be Central Park in front of a chessboard, alone. He reaches his finger towards one of the metal chessmen, willing it to move.... and right before the hard cut to black, it jiggles. Of course this sets up another sequel, and of course in the comics mythology the cure isn't permanent, but isn't there a more poetic moment in seeing this "god among men", this highly powerful mutant with nearly infinite power, reduced to the state of being a mere ant in comparison? Forget the excitement of another movie, isn't leaving the bastard exactly where he is in that park, an old man waiting for certain death, the most fitting ending to the film as a whole?

One last positive bit before I go. I've seen and heard a lot of commentary from people who claim that Brett Ratner's style is so remarkably different from Brian Singer's, that Ratner shouldn't have directed the series or whatever you want. I say this: whatever the faults with this film, they are really not Ratner's fault -- he was brought in at the end of the preproduction process to direct this movie, and shot the script that was handed to him. The whole production team from X2 stuck around for X3, and visually the films seem to be one of a piece, there are no huge stylistic differences between them. Anyone who complains of the relatively stilted direction here should remember that Singer isn't exactly a huge stylistic talent either, despite his geek cred (and that he executive-produces House).

That's it. I know I complain a lot about it, but it was really a decent movie and probably worth the eight bucks or so to see in a theater. Is it the best movie it could be? No, and I blame the mangled production schedule for that far more than any individual member of the writing staff or production crew or cast. It simply wasn't given the time to be a great movie.

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