X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)
Director: Brett Ratner

Before the turn of the twenty-first century, great superhero movies were few and far between. For every Superman, there was a Steel. For every Batman, there was a Tank Girl. For every Blade, there was a Howard the Duck. But once we hit the year 2000, that all began to change, as evidenced by Bryan Singer's film based on Marvel's famed X-Men franchise. It was a huge box office success, and it swung Marvel from the back of the "comic adaptation" pack right to the front. It prompted Marvel to approve of movies featuring Spider-Man, Daredevil, Elektra, the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, the Incredible Hulk, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, and even Man-Thing within the span of a few years. And needless to say, there were a few more X-Men movies, too. Singer returned to the X-Men in 2003 with X2, but his commitment to Superman Returns three years later left him unable to helm what was billed as the closing chapter of the trilogy. The vacant director's chair was eventually filled by Brett Ratner, who brought us X-Men: The Last Stand. How well does it compare to Singer's work? Let's have ourselves a look.

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)Our movie opens, as with the previous two movies, sometime in the "not too distant future." Human scientists have found a way to suppress mutations, thanks to the DNA of a young mutant named Jimmy (Cameron Bright), whose own power involuntarily negates those of other mutants in his vicinity. The idea of a cure means a lot to one of its developers, Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), who lives in shame because his son, Warren III (Ben Foster), has enormous feathery wings. But what does a cure mean to mutants? For some, it means the chance to live a normal life without the fear of being persecuted, standing out, or harming themselves or their loved one. This fear is especially evident in Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose inability to have physical contact with others may or may not be pushing her boyfriend Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) into the arms of another girl, Kitty Pride (Ellen Page).

Other mutants are offended by even the notion of "curing" what makes them special, while a certain few plan on doing something to vocalize their disgust. One such example: Magneto (Ian McKellen), who raises up an army of likeminded mutants with the warning that the cure is essentially a new form of ethnic cleansing. And caught in the middle is blue-furred diplomat Hank "Beast" McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), who is loyal to his X-Man roots yet works for a government seeking widespread distribution of the cure.

But the cure isn't the only thing that has to be worried about. Cyclops (James Marsden), fighting a severe depression after the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), is drawn to the site of her death. Jean appears to him, but when they kiss, something bad happens. Something really bad. Sensing trouble, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) dispatches Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry) to investigate. When they arrive, all they find are floating rocks, Cyclops's sunglasses, and an unconscious Jean. They take her back to Xavier's school, where he explains that when Jean first joined the X-Men, he realized that full realization of her potential would make her the most powerful mutant alive. Fearful that she would be unstoppable if she lost control, Professor Xavier established a series of psychic blocks in Jean's mind that held off much of her power. But as it cordoned off some of her strength, it also caused Jean to develop a malevolent alternate personality that called itself "Phoenix." When she sacrificed herself at the end of X2, the trauma tore down those psychic blocks and granted Phoenix free reign over Jean's psyche.

With the two personas vying for dominance inside her mind, a confused Jean eventually makes a violent escape from Xavier's school and returns to her childhood home. A home that, as we are quick to discover, will be the location of a tug-of-war with Jean in the middle. On one side is Professor Xavier, seeking to restore Jean's sanity and repress Phoenix, and on the other side is Magneto, who desires to initiate Phoenix into the Brotherhood of Mutants and pretty much exploit her in order to destroy the cure. And as members of both the X-Men and the Brotherhood brawl around them, the struggle for Jean ends with Phoenix asserting herself and vaporizing (!) Professor Xavier. Although broken-hearted, the X-Men must regroup and prepare for what will be a violent war with Magneto and his Brotherhood at Worthington's laboratory on Alcatraz Island.

I'm not totally sure how to feel about X-Men: The Last Stand. While I thought the action scenes were well done, the cast put forth an acceptable effort, and the direction was credible, there's just something missing from it that makes it of less or quality than its two predecessors. Maybe it's the fact that there's way too much going on. There are way too many characters and too much plot for a movie that's only an hour and forty-four minutes long. Sometimes a little less is more, you know? More than anything, this situation could probably be blamed on the lackluster screenplay written by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg. Considering that they're trying to balance dozens of characters among two storylines and two subplots, it's kinda hard for the drama to have any sort of emotional weight. If the screenplay had been whittled down to one main story and maybe a secondary story, or if the movie had been three hours long, it might not have been so bad. But since we've got the Dark Phoenix saga, the cure story, the Rogue/Iceman/Kitty love triangle, and Angel's angst going on in one short movie, there's just too much to follow. It smoothes out in the third act, but because the majority of the movie is so muddled, it's hard to get a straight bead on what exactly is happening. Really, the X-Men are better suited for a television show. X3 has a cast of right around twenty-five people worth noting, and it's hard to focus on each and every one of them over the course of the movie. But I will give Penn and Kinberg credit for some good dialogue and a couple of really great scenes. Take, for example, the scene where Mystique (again played by Rebecca Romijn) is shot with a weaponized variant of the cure and transforms into a normal human. Magneto unsympathetically shuns her, revealing that his hatred for Homo sapiens is so total that he is willing to turn his back on even his closest allies if he feels has to. In a movie with few character-defining moments, this one speaks loudly of just who Magneto is.

Up next is Brett Ratner's direction. Ratner caught a lot of flak from devoted fanboys who wanted Bryan Singer to return, but if you ask me, the transition is seamless. I didn't notice any major differences at all. Since the story is essentially Cliff's Notes, Ratner and cinematographer Dante Spinotti take the opportunity to turn the movie into a comic book action flick. The action is exciting and entertaining and the pacing tight and effective, all of it building to a twenty-minute climax that sees an enormous fight scene, a chase or two, and an unbelievably enormous amount of chaos and destruction. And although the movie is light on story, Ratner manages to keep our attention with exciting and amazing visuals. The special effects are extremely well done, with Angel's wings, Phoenix's fury, and Magneto moving the Golden Gate Bridge standing out most. And if there's been any sort of constants in the X-Men movies, it's been great special effects and great music. I just spoke of the effects, so let's hit John Powell's great score. It does what all good movie scores do: enhance the on-screen action with an equally exciting auditory experience without being overbearing or distracting. Powell's music suits the movie to a T, so I'm not going to complain about it.

Last but not least is our cast of thousands. Just about everyone does a fine job, even those who don't have a whole lot of screen time. I've felt that Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen turned out the strongest performances of the trilogy, and X3 is no exception. Each of them put on an charismatic, engrossing show, never letting the audience out of their grasps. Halle Berry is also entertaining to watch, though I sometimes got the impression that she was just there to fulfill some sort of contractual obligations. Famke Janssen, who essentially plays two characters, makes for an intimidating, conflicted villain that, though the role could have been handled a bit differently by the writers, was intriguing to watch. Though while Janssen's character could have been written better, James Marsden's could have stood getting even more improvement. Marsden only gets two or three scenes in the whole movie (more than likely due to him following Bryan Singer over to Superman Returns), so while he's not too bad, I felt like he wasn't trying all that much either. In their relatively small subplot, Anna Paquin and Shawn Ashmore are both engaging, as was franchise newcomer Ellen Page. Playing a character that's the polar opposite of her breakthrough role in Hard Candy, Page exudes a sweet, charming innocence that makes me wish the Rogue/Iceman/Kitty triangle had gotten a little more time. Among the other newcomers to the X-Men movies, perhaps the most notable is Kelsey Grammer. Grammer is nothing short of awesome, almost as if he were born to play Beast. Vinnie Jones is also extremely entertaining as Juggernaut, and although he only has two lines, I got a chuckle out of Eric Dane's performance as Multiple Man. And despite his character being drastically underplayed, Ben Foster is fine as the winged mutant comic fans know as Angel. If they'd done the "one main plot, one subplot" thing like I mentioned earlier, they could have easily expanded upon his character's story arc, and I wouldn't have complained.

While Fox's marketing department would have had you believe that this was the last X-Men sequel, I'm sure that there will be more. There are too many stories to be told, too much money to be made. Besides, the post-credits coda leaves things a little unresolved. Although X3 wasn't as emotionally profound or as plot-driven as the first two movies, I still thought it was an entertaining ride. And there's nothing wrong with that at all. I just wish that things didn't have to be so complicated in order to get to all the fun. So I guess you could say that X3 is a bit of a mixed bag. My final verdict for X-Men: The Last Stand is three and a half stars. And now to wait for those Wolverine and Magneto spin-offs.

Final Rating: ***


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