One of the films of this Summer people seem to be approaching with a lot of baggage, I felt kind of an odd man out stepping into the third and purportedly last full "X-Men" feature. As someone who has only occasionally browsed a comic, and haven't read so much as a single "X-Men" story in my life, my entire knowledge and enjoyment of the franchise has come from the films and second hand tales from friends who are fans. The first "X-Men" was what it was, the first film in around a decade that finally got the idea of a comic adaptation right. With its serious tone and attempt to fit these characters into a more realistic world, it was a quite enjoyable piece of fluff, even if some of the writing and direction were on the amateurish side and the villain's scheme atrociously bad.
The second "X-Men" though was a big improvement and to me stands as the best Marvel comic book adaptation yet (the fourth best comic book movie overall behind "Batman Begins" and the first two "Superman" films). Polished in every way and very easy to get into for even laymen like myself, X2 is just a deftly entertaining and effective piece of filmmaking. Hopes were set high then for the next chapter but behind-the-scenes shenanigans changed all that. Bryan Singer got offered a better deal over at Warner Bros. to do a new "Superman" movie and quickly scarpered, leaving a third "X-Men" in early stages of development and executives at Fox fuming. Thus in many ways the third "X-Men" has unofficially become a revenge project, a film which suffered heavily from studio politics and insane deadlines to be out first.
The question is, has all those problems rendered the final product a mess? Surprisingly not as much as you'd think. Taken on its own, 'The Last Stand' is an enjoyable Summer action blockbuster and the first film of the season to actually prove entertaining after a trifecta of bland disappointments (MI3, Poseidon, Da Vinci). Held up against the higher standards of the previous films, it's as polished (if not more so) than the second one but simply doesn't flow as well and ultimately sits just above the level of the first film. Held against the standards that comic book fans set though, it'll likely be slammed.
Lets start with the good stuff. The big improvement here is action of course. When Singer was onboard it seemed obvious that the plan was to churn out a franchise that could yield at least a half dozen movies and so took his time with establishing the mythology in each one. It's a great notion but economically prohibitive which is why it comes as no surprise that Fox has decided to pedal this as the last film in the series even if the ending leaves the door open for more. It also meant the action was significantly ramped up in this one, finally delivering on the much touted war between humans and mutants that was always mentioned but never really seen in the last two.
The action itself when taking place is pretty cool. There's several jaw dropping FX pieces ranging from the Golden Gate bridge being relocated to two sequences where the Phoenix lets her powers out and essentially disintegrates everything around her in a lethal whirlwind. Director Brett Ratner's work proves almost carbon copy to Singer in look, though is somewhat different in feel. Much of the lighting and small details about the characters and locations are almost exactly the same as the last film and are convincing enough that many going in probably won't notice much of a difference. Yet there are distinct variations between Singer & Ratner's filmmaking styles with the same material - most notably the editing, score, and storytelling hallmarks.
Neither director is of a calibre that you'd put up there with the likes of Ridley Scott or Spielberg, but both have their own distinct approaches and ultimately different strengths. Singer's strength is an obvious adoration for the comics, a geeky perfectionist with a love of the source material and a more slavishly loyal commitment to keeping it intact. He's also displayed a better understanding of emotional impact and character on screen than Ratner does, and is able to infuse a more genuine sense of pathos, humour and respect for these characters. Singer's films were filled with little lines and references that implied a much bigger world and backstory to explore - subtle references unfortunately lost in 'The Last Stand'.
Ratner on the other hand is a crowd pleaser, a man with a better understanding of big scale action, cinematic visuals and the elements that are pleasing to the majority rather than the fans. With the film Ratner displays a surprisingly respectful stance to the mythos that Singer's first two films have established before it, but obviously doesn't have the same passion for the comic so takes liberties with that which fanboys will find infuriating. General audiences though will find his take more relaxed and easy to enjoy than the somewhat stuffy heaviness that came with Singer's approach, even if the film lacks the smarts and emotional weight that the previous ones had.
Performances are strong for the most part too with Ian McKellen finally unleashing his Magneto at full power and ultimately owning the film. His presence whenever on screen simply commands respect and the film does a great job of seeing different parts of his personality from his friendship with Xavier to his ruthless determination to survive. Jackman again dons his signature role with style and even though his actions aren't as interesting this time around, he does his best with it. Berry is Berry, you either like her or you don't and this won't make a difference even though she has more screen time than ever before. Kudos also to Stewart, Grammer and Romjin for turning small parts into solid turns.
With all the good though comes the bad and whilst there's lots of scenes that work, there's more than a fair share that don't. The big problem with 'The Last Stand' isn't its lack of adherence to comic lore or replacement of a director. It ain't even something more common like the script or production values. It's time. I don't just mean time on the screen but off it too. This isn't a purely cynical marketing venture like last year's woeful "Fantastic Four", there's certainly more substance here than that, but It's the kind of film that distinctly feels like had the powers that be taken their time with it more instead of rushing it out for the Summer, they could've come up with something much more substantive.
A lot of the problem also goes to timing on screen. The film throws several balls in the air - new characters, the 'cure for mutation' plot, the Dark Phoenix plot, and the assorted subplots about pre-existing characters. It's too much to fit it into a two hour film, and yet it does all this in 100 minutes - further exacerbating the problem. The obvious result is portions suffer, most notably the new guys and the Phoenix storyline.
The 'Phoenix' plot is obviously included as it's essential to providing some big action set pieces for the film and gives Jackman something of an attempt at an emotional storyline. Yet it all just feels short changed with all sorts of major details skipped over. Janssen is stuck with little to do aside from a menacing look, so its final emotional conclusion rings somewhat hollow - especially after the way the storyline is introduced with a relevant character death so flippant it verges on the appalling. Purely from the film series standpoint it comes off as a passable but ultimately useless little subplot. Fans of the comic though are mostly likely going to be upset by the way this is handled more than anything else.
Much better is the 'cure' subplot. The film doesn't explore the nuances of the issue as much as one would like, but it does bring up the interesting ethical issues involved with such a thing more than you'd expect for this kind of film, even if it beats out the political message with less subtlety than ever. The X-Men have always been a representation of minorities, most notably gays and lesbians, and as we approach an age where genetic manipulation can yield things like 'curing' qualities that don't fit the majority - it becomes a quite frightening thing to consider about where a line is drawn.
Not as well handled though is the characters because at 100 minutes, dealing with all the existing characters plus several new ones leave many short changed. Angel is a great idea for a character yet the guy has at most four lines of dialogue in the movie and about 60 seconds of screen time. Juggernaut gets one good line (his first), several bad ones and a helmet so ridiculous it makes his fake muscle suit far less distracting than expected. Kitty Pride is essentially useless, and a subplot about a love triangle between her, Iceman and Rogue is a waste (Paquin seems to get more marginalised with each movie).
Beast gets the most screentime of the newcomers and is a welcome addition, even if the blue fur looks a little too much like the Cookie Monster from "Sesame Street" in the action scenes. Cyclops, they may as well have recast considering how little he's in here, and Olivia Williams shouldn't have even bothered showing up for all her involvement (two lines and 10 seconds of screen time). Much of the lacklustre Berry's time should've been given over to the newcomers.
On the flipside most of the main characters (Xavier, Magneto, Pyro) get the right amount of time, and the film starts with a great flashback to a younger Xavier and McKellen (utilising a CG trick that makes them look younger, but also like they've been injecting a little too much botox). As has been made aware, the film finally starts killing off some of its big ensemble - one badly, one along expected lines, and one with surprising poignancy. The later, coming in the middle of the film, isn't a surprise as such but it's the one that has the most impact - even if it's undermined by a short post-credits scene that again hints at another entry in the franchise being quite possible.
Ultimately X3's enjoyment will depend a large part on what you bring to it. From a purely objective standpoint there isn't really much of a difference between the films in style. Whilst those involved didn't save the best for last, they have delivered a film worthy of the title and an entertaining little vehicle to boot. Certainly had they spent more time developing it and working on delivering a good product rather than meeting a deadline we could've had the best film yet - all the framework is there for it. Nevertheless, what we have got is a lot better than most comic book movies that have been coming out in recent years, and its the first of the recent action blockbusters that delivers decent entertainment.