In X-Men III: The Last Stand, the mutant heroes take on an unexpected foe, the most powerful and destructive force they've ever encountered. Yes, you guessed it: Brett Ratner. The outcome, needless to say, is tragic for the X-Men. I should probably insert a standard spoiler warning here, but can you spoil something that's already rotten? I will give away plot details, but if they should prevent you from seeing the movie, I expect a share of the admissions you'd be saving.
Mike and I had read the comic book as teenage dorks (well, that would describe me; I won't presume to speak for Mike), but the script, by Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Zak Penn (X2, The Fantastic Four, Elektra), simply picks at established mythology like a picky eater peeling pepperoni off a slice of pizza, leaving round craters of grease in the mozzarella landscape. The two main plotlines are these: (1) a cure is discovered for the mutant X gene, harvested from the young boy Leech, played by the same boy who convinced Nicole Kidman to take a bath with him in Birth (a power worth harvesting in its own right), and (2) Jean Grey returns in the guise of the Phoenix. The U.S. government, wary of the mutants, decide to impose the cure on the mutants, while Magneto (Ian McKellen), again playing the Malcolm X to Charles Xavier's Martin Luther King, Jr., recruits Phoenix to his brotherhood in an effort to kill the young boy and neutralize the cure.
There are a half dozen other plotlines, all treated with about as much attention as the average male devotes to wedding planning. We see a young Angel trying to remove his wings with a Microplane grater (as any experienced cook knows, if a Microplane won't do the trick, then surely the situation is dire). Rogue, still with that ridiculous white streak in her hair, is tempted by the cure, but she's on screen so little as to be a footnote. Numerous new mutants are introduced for no reason other than to show off their powers before they die, including one who throws horns out of his wrists and another who is either a porcupine or a pufferfish but is most certainly superfluous.
Bryan Singer gave the first two X-Men movies a sleek metallic sheen and tapped into the one of the charms of the comic book. Mutants represented every prosecuted minority, but their mutations were, for the most part, highly appealing. The movies extend that visually by casting attractive or at least interesting-looking actors in every part. Rebecca Romijn's slinky and nude blue Mystique gave shape-shifters an erotic female spark. Ian McKellen gave voice, and what a voice it is, to Magneto, playing him as a sort of mischievous hardline aristocrat, one who undoubtedly has accepted that some cruelty to ducks and geese is necessary to cultivate that divine food that is foie gras. When Storm (Halle Berry) invokes her powers, her head tilts back and her eyes go milky white; the expression is that of sexual release.
For a movie with such a large budget, the movie is curiously devoid of awe-inspiring moments. The Dark Phoenix re-appears off-screen. We see water swirling, the camera cuts to Cyclops' reaction, and then we cut back to Jean Grey standing on the shore, sporting an awful wig (a good plot for the next X-Men film would be the fight to discover a cure for the cheap hairpieces the actors are forced to wear). What good are all the special FX budgets if grand appearances can't be visualized? Cyclops dies off-screen; it's not entirely clear why or how, but I chalk it up to lazy plotting, and it reminded me of how in MI:III, Ethan Hunt disappears into an office building and then appears a few minutes later with the Rabbit's Foot. Apparently the interior security consisted of a ferocious Shih Tzu named Ling Ling.
When the movie does reach for the grand visual gesture, it falls short. When Magneto needs to transport his army over to Alcatraz, he doesn't ask Dark Phoenix to fly them over, nor does he think to levitate his army over on a sheet of tin foil. No, Magneto is a man of style, and so he decides to tear off one end of the Golden Gate Bridge and swing that end over to Alcatraz. Overkill, perhaps, but also an opportunity for a visual centerpiece, and yet the shots of the cars on the bridge look artificial, cartoonish. The climactic battle is a mess, a sort of playground brawl that had my head rolling back into my seat, my eyes milking over like Storm's.
The funniest moment in the movie comes from Vinnie Jones's Juggernaut and references this popular and offensive X-men cartoon remix. If only the rest of the movie had been so light on its feet. Universal handed the keys of a goldmine of a franchise to Ratner and he drove it into a tree. Jean Grey and Cyclops are dead, Xavier on life support, and Mystique is merely human. The second week box office grosses tumbled 67%, perhaps reflecting weak word-of-mouth from disappointed first weekend loyalists. The history of franchises that careen off course is not good; they usually don't recover, and if they do, it's usually only after the incoming director is allowed to hit the reset button.
My sister thought it delivered the expected dose of mindless entertainment, but then again, she admitted that during the climactic scene when Wolverine is staggering towards Phoenix, his skin struggling to regenerate itself in the face of the Phoenix's destructive glare, she was wondering (hoping?) that Hugh Jackman's pants would disintegrate.
"I wonder why they didn't?" she said with some disappointment as we walked out of the theater into the parking lot. I added it to the long tally of letdowns for the evening.