And then last year, I published a review from an anonymous spy about the X-MEN 3 script as it existed at a particular point in time, an article which also addressed some of my ongoing concerns with the way Fox manages its franchises. Here’s that piece in case you missed it.
I like this franchise. I think it has limitless possibility. I think the second movie was a definite improvement on the first film, and I’ve been crossing my fingers now for the past few months because I started to hear some genuinely good buzz on this new sequel, and I was hoping for something better than the rushed half-assery that early reports indicated. This morning, I found myself sitting alone in the Daryl Zanuck theater on the Fox lot, and I had all of about two minutes after I walked into the room before the lights went dark and the Fox logo came up. In those two minutes, I repeated the mantra that Harry had whispered to himself before the first X-MEN film six years ago.
And this morning, in that darkened theater, the movie gods answered my prayers. Because X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (since no 3 appears anywhere in the title on the actual film) is not only a worthy addition to the franchise, it actually feels like it is simply part of one big movie, absolutely on par with the first two films.
Yes, it’s true. Brett Ratner has stuck the landing.
The original X-MEN was, by comparison to its two sequels, a low-budget affair. X2 and X3 look pretty much like they are two halves of one movie, however. Ratner and his crew took their cues from what Bryan Singer had done, due in large part to the same producers being in place and maintaining some sense of continuity between the films, and the result is that this feels pretty cohesive, picking up right on the heels of the second film. I’ve avoided watching all the online clips, since I wanted to see how it played as a whole. Even though I generally knew what was going to happen, I was surprised by a lot of the specifics of it.
For instance, the first scene in the movie shocked me. Set twenty years ago, it’s the moment where Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) go to meet a young Jean Grey for the first time. Whatever bit of digital trickery they used to de-age both Stewart and McKellen, it’s fascinating. It doesn’t look like an effect at all... they’re just younger, the clock somehow rolled back. After two full films before this, it makes me sad to see Xavier and Erik together, still friends, the two of them still on the good side of the rift that separates them. There’s an optimism to that opening moment that I find really bittersweet, especially considering what else happens in this film. Both Chris Claremont and Stan Lee have cameos in that first scene, and although we’re used to seeing Stan Lee show up in Marvel films, it’s nice to see Claremont in there, considering which story they’re telling in this film. That sort of nod to fandom sets a tone for what you can expect from the rest of X3 as well. This is a movie that was made to finally satisfy fans who were left wanting even after the first two films in the series, a sort of checklist of things to get into the film before the franchise ends or morphs into something so different we don’t recognize it anymore. That’s risky, because it could make the film feel so episodic and disjointed that it no longer works as a movie, but the script by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg manages to pack in a lot of incident, a ton of characters, and a fair number of nods to specific incidents from the history of the comic, even as they manage to craft a concise, well-told story that works on its own terms. No easy feat, that, but it’s the spine that makes everything else in the film work.
One thing that really helped me in my attitude towards the movie was getting over the fact that I think it’s ri-goddamn-diculous to end this franchise at this point in time. This could be Fox’s license to print money once every couple of years if handled properly. Resigning myself to the fact that the title is literal, I ended up having a damn good time with this. In fact, I think it will be interesting to see what effect this has on mainstream audiences who aren’t already familiar with the history of the X-Men and on young viewers who only know the films and who weren’t around for the Dark Phoenix saga when it was first published. At that point in time, it seemed revolutionary. It changed the rules of what comic books could do in the same way that the original Gwen Stacy comic did. It raised the stakes, it made you question your attachment to characters, and it managed to kick unholy amounts of ass while doing so. We’re at a weird time right now for the superhero movie genre. I think the quickest way to kill these movies dead is to keep barfing up oddly-similar origin stories for second-tier characters while basically ripping off the films that have done it right in the past. Audiences now have seen enough of these movies that they’re ahead of the filmmakers as they watch, and I think it’s up to filmmakers to play off that sense of expectation now. What X3 does really well is it raises the stakes of superhero films again. The cure, the main plot point in this film, opens up some interesting ethical concerns about genetic testing and genetic tampering, but the reason the stakes feel so high in this movie is because of the goodwill we’ve built up towards these characters so far. Wolverine, Rogue, Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, Storm, Iceman, Pyro... we’ve spent time with them now. We’ve gotten to know them, and that history between them pays off in many ways.
In particular, I think the way Jean Grey has been handled in the franchise has worked out. I wasn’t sure at first... her role was fairly underwritten in the first film, but I’ve always enjoyed The Dutch Treat on film, and I thought she managed to give Jean a sense of life beyond what was in the script. In the second film, they realized that they needed to push her to center stage a bit more, and Famke really stepped up. But here, in what is largely a silent role, she manages to create a sense of real malice and danger that has nothing to do with special effects.
Speaking of special effects, though, I found all the Phoenix scenes to be beautiful. Yeah, that’s right. Beautiful. In a Brett Ratner movie. There’s a strong sense of almost AKIRA-like power in those scenes, and the one that takes place at Jean’s childhood home about halfway into the film is a stunner. I wish there had been a Beast CG team assigned to do nothing but give us the bouncing blue furball at his best instead of the wire work the film depends on, but considering the time crunch this film was under, I’m amazed that there’s any consistency to any of the work by any of the many FX houses supervised by John Bruno. There’s a genuine kick to a lot of the big moments, like Magneto’s highway rescue of Mystique or the giant Alcatraz/Golden Gate Bridge sequence, and in scene after scene, there are little touches that really make it work for me. At one point, Magneto is throwing cars at the Army while Pyro lights them on fire, turning them into giant flaming hand grenades. This is the sort of thing I wanted to see in superhero films or TV shows when I was growing up, the sort of thing that I really haven’t seen until now. There’s a lot of bone-crunching superhero-on-supervillain action in the film, another plus. That scene I mentioned in Jean Grey’s house goes seriously haywire, and I love it. I love seeing these superpowered beings open up and fight full-force.
There are some things I didn’t like. I’m not crazy about the way Rogue’s handled in the film. I’m disappointed by who gets the cure first because it removes one of my favorite characters from the film too early. And considering how good James Marsden is in his brief screen time, I would have liked to have seen more from him. Also, John Powell’s score works better in the film than it does in the clips you’ve seen (many of which evidently were using cut-up excerpts from the score in the wrong context), but I still think it’s a bit bombastic. He makes effective use of Jean Grey’s theme, though, and a few other familiar cues. I just wish he’d eased up on the sonic assault a bit. I also think some people are going to complain about lack of screen time for certain characters, especially if they’ve been waiting to see Angel or Beast. You’ve seen about half of Angel’s role if you’ve seen the trailers, and there are several characters who fans will pick out based on a few visual clues who never even get a line of dialogue. It’s a very busy film, which may frustrate some viewers, but I thought it actually made the world of X-MEN feel more epic.
These are minor complaints, no worse than any complaints I have about the first two films. When this one is working, it’s so much fun it’s ridiculous. Mystique, who deserved a spin-off spy movie franchise all her own, has a great Mystique scene that I want to see again immediately. Wolverine gets to use his claws in ways that make me giggle. And Magneto finally goes totally bad, even as he finally finds himself on the exact right side of an argument. I think the deaths that take place in the film pay off, and I was actually a little taken aback by how many people end up taking the cure, and I like that there’s a body count to this war finally. I like things like the first scene with Beast in the situation room at the White House. I just like the reality that establishes, and Kelsey Grammer turns out to be the absolute perfect choice for the character. If nothing else, fans should thank Matthew Vaugnn for fighting that fight before he left the film. It was a great decision, and I think Beast will end up a fan favorite after they see him in the film.
In short, this is a damn fine summer movie just taken as a summer movie. It’s fun, it’s smart, it moves, and you’ll see some stuff you really haven’t seen before, quality eye candy. And as a sequel, it honors the films it follows. If I have one fear from this film, it’s that the studio is going to take the wrong message from it. Instead of saying to themselves, “Oh, thank god our $200 million gamble paid off and we just barely managed to put together a coherent film through the insanely dedicated efforts of our writers and producers who were on through the entire brain damaged pre-production process,” they’re going to say, “Oh, that’s all the time anyone needs for a big film, because if X3 did it, then anyone can do it.” This film is a glorious accident, a movie that should not work based on the troubles it had getting up onscreen. Please don’t start pushing filmmakers to go from no script to final release in fourteen months on these giant FX films just because it worked this one time. This is the exception, not the rule. We got very lucky on this one, and so did Fox. They don’t deserve a movie this good after how they treated it in development, but I’m not going to hold that against the film. It works. I had a blast with it. As I said to the person who showed it to me this morning, “Can I see it again?” I can think of no higher compliment to pay any film after a screening.
I’ll be back with a few other things tomorrow before I hit the road. Until then...