I thought by now I’d already transferred any and all writing I’ve done on superhero movies into this space, but it turns out I was mistaken. Perhaps it was a internalized defense mechanism preventing me from even taking a moment to to think about director Brett Ratner’s dreadful outing with the students and alumni of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. I wasn’t precisely correct in my dread predictions about X4, but my theory about this misbegotten outing setting the muddled tone for the mutant movies that followed holds up, at least until the odd miracle of Logan. This was originally written and posted at my former online home.
Since I’ve recently been tagged twice by people with a certain cartoon, I’ll specifically refrain from citing any knowledge derived from the four color exploits of Marvel’s Merry MutantsTM in making my case on X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s not like the printed adventures of the X-Men are some parade of pitch-perfect stories that should be exempt from tampering, anyway. It might be helpful to look at what made the original comics successful to help contextualize the flaws and strengths (okay, mostly flaws) of the new film, but since we’re talking about the third film installment we’ve already got prior films to draw on. And when you’re writing about a sequel, those earlier outings are fair game.
And, in the case of this film, they’re absolutely necessary viewing. Maybe the home and portable viewing technology has reached such a point that it’s no longer reasonable to expect that individual films representing big studio franchises have some capability of standing on their own, but I don’t recall ever seeing a film that tried less to bring potential newcomers in the audience up to speed. Not sure why Magneto is telling Wolverine he can smell his adamantium? Sorry. Try checking Wikipedia when you get home, I guess. That problem extends to elements and characters that are new to the films, so anyone who doesn’t lean back in their theater chair with a working knowledge of the quite convoluted make-up of the mutant-driven corners of the Marvel universe is likely to still be in the dark when the auditorium lights come up at the end of the film’s important post-credits coda. This is just one of the issues with the dismal script by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, who between them have left word processor tracks on Catwoman, Fantastic Four, and Elektra, so they’re apparently Hollywood’s go-to guys for mucking up superhero movies. The dialogue is routinely flat, the characters are underdeveloped and the plot has more holes than Juggernaut puts into the converted prison where they manufacture the anti-mutant serum that drives the plot.
The flagrant missed opportunity with that piece of the story might not be Exhibit A against the film and the filmmakers, but it certainly helps lock in the verdict against their efforts. An antidote of sorts has been developed, a serum that counteracts the gene that causes mutations, stripping individuals of their special powers, but also clearing away any pesky physical manifestations that cropped up. Not a big deal if you generate ice or walk through walls, but probably a lot more enticing if blue fur and fangs were included in the power package. Rather than really wrestle with the moral dilemmas raised by this new pharmaceutical, the film makes only a few cursory stabs at enriching the material thus, preferring to use it as just something to drive the plot along and provide a handy escape hatch here and there. One of the appeals of the X-Men in the first place is the way they stand in for any outsider group, oppressed by those who fear them. That’s the subtextual pull of the greater story, and it seems to be utterly lost on the people behind the new film. This serum isn’t just a MacGuffin; it’s something that completely upends the dynamic that drives the rushing undercurrent of the story. Here it’s treated as just another piece to put in place. Another frame of film, marginally different from any other.
That’s the special skill of director Brett Ratner, who has an uncanny ability to deliver utterly pedestrian directing jobs. They’re never all that bad or muddled, simply desperately undistinguished. It’s hard to spot a baldly mishandled sequence, but the entirety of it is hopelessly bland. It’s a beautifully cooked meal, completely devoid of any of the seasoning that would actually give it flavor.
This has long been rumored to be the final film in the franchise, a decidedly welcome close given the sputtering rewards offered by Last Stand. Too bad the box office tally made a forceful counterargument. Not only is X4 likely back in play, it will most assuredly follow the lead of this film, by far the weakest in the franchise. I doubt the folks at the studio can smell Wolvie’s adamantium, but I’m willing to bet they can smell the money it helped generate.