Saturday, May 27, 2006

X-Men: the Last Stand: A Review

(First half spoiler-free; I'll post warnings before I include spoilers.)

Ehh. The first two X movies managed to capture the best spirit of Marvel superhero comics -- weeding out what doesn't work and doing very well what does. When I saw the first one, I remember sitting there as the movie went on, astonished that they hadn't messed it up yet. But they didn't. They got through two full movies doing well.

But not three.

What made the first two movies work so well -- just like what made the first two Spiderman movies work, what made Batman Returns work -- is that they took them sufficiently slowly. They built the characters, made them real and likeable. (Which, after all, is what Marvel comics legendarily did in the early 60's.) They remembered that what makes these movies work is, first and foremost, the people. Oh, that wasn't all. They also had smart stories and well-crafted screenplays, good special effects and all the rest. But real people behind the powers was the sine qua non. Whereas the third X-Man movie made precisely the same mistake that the Batman franchise did after the first two movies.

Don't hire the director who did such a good job for you on the first two films back to do the third?

-- well, er, yes. That too. But what I was thinking of was this: they forgot that people make the film. They crammed it full of fights and special effects, to the exclusion of all else.

This time out, they didn't work on developing an interesting story; they didn't work on writing good dialogue; they didn't work on capturing the sense of realism particular to superhero comics, namely, a background of fantasy but with realism in the foreground. And, above all, they skimped on the character moments, editing what they had down to weak lines that talented actors struggled in vain to make meaningful, revealing -- other than silly.

All of which is not to say I didn't like it. I'm an X-Geek from way back: I enjoyed it tremendously. But unlike the first two films, which captured what I liked about the X-Men comics back in my youth, this film captures the most common current experience of X-fans: seeing something they love done badly, enjoying it because of old affections for the characters (and simply at the level of spectacle), but knowing all alone that what they're watching ain't good.

So if you have a deep affection for the X-Men, whether from the comics or the cartoon or the first two movies, go: you'll have fun. Or if you want a silly, stuffed-to-the-gills action movie with good special effects but little else to recommend it. But if you liked the first two films and wonder if the third lives up to them, the answer, sadly, is no.

(If you do go see it, though, stay through the end of the credits: there is a brief scene which follows them.)

(Spoilers for what characters are included begin here.)

They made some obvious mistakes. One is simply including too many characters (which apparently Joss Whedon warned them about while the movie was in production (sorry, no link, I forget where I read that.)) I mean, sure, as an X-Geek from way back it was a lot of fun to see the Beast get a major role, to see Kitty Pryde upgraded to the level of Iceman and Rogue from the first two movies, to see real glimpses of Colossus and Angel and others. But it was too much; they didn't have time to develop them. Oh, I laughed when Beast said "Oh my stars and garters" -- one of his trademark lines from the comics. But it was the fun of recognition, not fun on its own terms.

(Spoilers for what the major stories are, and the first third of the movie generally, begin here.)

But the big problem was that they tried to do two stories. They tried to do both the Dark Phoenix storyline and a storyline based on the Cure (from Joss Whedon's still-ongoing run on the comics). And it was simply way, way too much to do. Oh, even with that decision they could have handled it a lot better than they did -- sacrificed some of the more gratuitous fight scenes. (Such as the danger room scene in the beginning -- oh, sure, fun to see a fastball special and a sentinel (or at least the head of one). But not relevant.)

It was too much. And it meant they didn't do either properly. I think that, in the end, they skimped more on the Dark Phoenix storyline than on the Cure storyline -- the former was a shell of what it should have been, the latter almost worked. But almost not because of interference from Dark Phoenix per se, but rather because the entire movie was so busy that it became -- almost -- boring. (If I wasn't an X-fan, I probably would have been bored; as it was it was fun but silly.)

I think I get why they did that. The problem is that there isn't a role for Magneto in the Dark Phoenix storyline.* And Ian McKellen's a major actor, and the Professor Xavier - Magneto dynamic was one of the cores of the first two films -- so they put in the cure.

What they should have done, I think, was just do the Cure. That would have let them complete the Professor X - Magneto trilogy with its focus on mutant rights and all that. Let Jean stay dead for this film, and then if you do a fourth film do the Dark Phoenix saga and leave Magneto out of it. Use the extra time in the film that you'd get from chopping out the Dark Phoenix parts to slow the thing down, bring back the character arcs, recapture the feel that made the first two movies work so well.

But they didn't. And what they got was, ultimately, a disappointment.

(I should say that it's not that I thought the first two films were the greatest films of all time or anything. It's just that they worked extremely well on their own terms: they did what they were trying to do -- be good Marvel superhero stories -- quite well. Just as the first two Spiderman films did. Just as Batman Returns -- and the first Batman movie -- did. (Well, okay, those two did a lousy job of being Marvel superhero stories. But they did a good job of being DC superhero stories.))

Those are the major points I wanted to make. The only other comments I have are random thoughts and quibbles.

(Spoilers for the ending of the film begin here.)

Why in the world did Logan kill Jean? Why not just stab her with one of the cure needles? A plot hole almost as big as the potholes on our street (and that's saying a lot, believe me). I know why it happened: they were following the source material -- at least very roughly -- and the Dark Phoenix storyline was twenty-odd years before anyone thought of the cure. But in this movie it was a pothole-sized plot hole. Even worse, it was an easily avoided one: just show Jean disintegrate the cure needle as Logan's trying to approach her, leaving him no other choice. (Except a fastball special with Leech. But I suppose they couldn't risk her zapping him before he got close.)

Using Leech as the source of the cure was a good touch: it gave a very reasonable explanation for how they came up with it (without invoking the parallel universes and alien races of the comic) and also a very good reason why it won't stick around if they decide to make a fourth movie (or if, as is rumored, they make a solo Wolverine movie): there's no more cure because the kid's escaped.

Usually superhero movies are a bit more brutal than pre-Watchmen comics: back then, superheroes were squeamish about killing people and I believe that, in the comics, Wolverine still does less of it than in the films (which, given the level of violence we're used to in action movies, doesn't even register -- and doing less would seem downright odd). But Phoenix, of course, did many orders of magnitude more harm in the comics than she does here.

Bringing back Professor X was totally obvious; I saw it coming as soon as they body with no mind was mentioned. But it was -- as one of the people in the movie theater shouted at the screen -- lame. (I think there should be a limit of one resurrection per movie (unless you are doing a movie specifically about resurrections.)) Moira McTaggert was a perfect example of their trying to cram too much !@#$% stuff in, incidentally.

Okay, that's all I have to say. A lot of fun, really. But not good, even on its own terms. And it's such a pity, since they proved it possible twice, and I was really hoping they'd go for three.

(Update: Minor edits throughout.)

* Although if you had to have one, you'd have him play the role of Sebastian Shaw, with Mastermind being a lackey rather than rival. But they don't do that or anything like it.


Reel Fanatic said...

Great review ... I agree that though this movie wasn't completely terrible, it easily could have been so much more with fewer mutants and fewer unexplored plotlines

Anonymous said...

I think you went easy on the review. I think I nearly cried when I saw the movie end with Logan gazing off into the sunset. What the hell is that? And did anyone even notice that Cyclops was dead? I mean Jean killed him with no hesitation, him AND (supposedly) the Professor, but Logan was a tough choice? Colossus didn't even have a russian acccent!! All the fundamental laws of Xmen were broken in this movie. I know it cant follow the comics or the cartoons, but certain things are absolutes. The Jean/Scott thing are fundamental, Jean can't kill Scott. Phoneix can't kill Scott. GOD I HATED THIS MOVIE

Gary Farber said...

I won't be writing up my smattering of spoilerish plot-related comments until tomorrow, but, yes, I agree with pretty much all of this.

And, people, it's spelled "Phoenix." :-)