Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Summer School: 'X-Men: The Last Stand' (2006)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

When X-Men: The Last Stand was released in 2006, I was in the minority of critics who gave it a positive review, albeit with a number of reservations. Revisiting it now right after rewatching the first two movies, I'm more attuned to its faults, but I still don't think it's nearly as bad as some critics and fans have made it out to be. Sure, it's a letdown, especially after the excellent X2, but it's far from incompetent, and it delivers one of the most memorable moments of the entire series (Magneto taking hold of the Golden Gate Bridge and moving it across the bay to his destination). Brett Ratner is justifiably considered a hack, and he obviously doesn't have the same connection to the material as Bryan Singer (who's now directed four of the six movies in the main series). But he knows how to put together a Hollywood movie, and The Last Stand often works well enough as a large-scale spectacle.

It's much less successful on a character level, especially in its truncated attempts to adapt the Dark Phoenix Saga storyline from the comics. The resurrection and corruption of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is handled clumsily and without the emotional resonance that should come from such a beloved piece of storytelling, and overall the character interactions are not nearly as affecting as they were in the first two movies. Ratner and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn either downplay the important relationships (Professor X and Magneto share only a few moments onscreen) or overplay them (the shift of Jean and Logan's dynamic from unrequited love to melodramatic romance is completely miscalculated). The movie adds far too many new characters only to completely squander them, while doing a disservice to some of the central figures from the previous movies.

Poor James Marsden, after disappearing for large stretches of X2, gets unceremoniously killed off about 20 minutes into this movie, and even Professor X (Patrick Stewart) ends up dead in an anticlimactic confrontation halfway through. Both Cyclops and Professor X have been dead multiple times in the comic books, so it's not like there isn't precedent for their demises (however temporary), but the movie fails to give them the weight that Jean's death carried at the end of X2 (which is sort of undone here). After exploring his past in X2, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is mostly used as a fighter here, except when called on to wail over Jean's corruption. The returning character with the most significant development is Halle Berry's Storm, finally given some depth (in her need to step up as leader following Professor X's death) after her fairly flat appearances in the previous movies. Berry fought hard to get Storm more screen time, and those efforts finally pay off here.

As for the new characters, they're largely forgettable, and there's no villain here comparable to Brian Cox's delightful William Stryker in X2. The company that creates a mutant cure (a storyline with potential for allegory that's mostly wasted) isn't particularly sinister, so Magneto ends up as the de facto main villain, and while Ian McKellen is great as always, the series has relied too much on returning to Magneto's familiar mutant superiority angle for its major climaxes. Magneto recruits some underused new allies that are little more than cannon fodder, and the new heroes make only slightly more of an impact. Kelsey Grammer is quite out of place as the Beast (the guy is erudite, but that doesn't mean he should sound like Frasier), and Ben Foster essentially has nothing to do as Angel, while Ellen Page has a few nice moments as Kitty Pryde, even if the Kitty/Bobby/Rogue love triangle doesn't really go anywhere.

Almost of all of the plot developments in this movie were later ignored and/or retconned, so in retrospect it's hard to get too worked up over the characters that are killed off or depowered. Still, The Last Stand set the precedent for rewriting or discarding the series continuity, with its retroactive powering-up of Jean and its supporting cast of mutants with ill-defined powers. It's a movie that seems to care little about what makes the X-Men unique, instead focusing on delivering big, expensive action thinly supported by elements from the comics. Putting the X-Men in a glossy action movie isn't necessarily a bad thing, but burning through so many of the characters' most interesting stories in service of that action is a definite disappointment.

No comments: