Superman Returns had better be a damn good movie. When director Bryan Singer left the X-Men franchise to tackle the Man of Steel, I felt a tiny bit betrayed. He was the one who had introduced me to the X-Men and made me care about them, and now he was leaving them to the tender mercies of Brett Ratner, the director behind such cinematic masterpieces as Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2 and After the Sunset. My reaction was terribly unfair, of course, to Singer and Ratner both, but it wasn’t unjustified. I truly wish I’d been wrong, but X-Men: The Last Stand is exactly the blundering, empty action flick I feared it would be.
The problem is not just that Singer left but that several key people behind the camera followed his lead. Composer John Ottman, for example, joined Singer on Superman, and his replacement, John Powell, created an insufferably bombastic, intrusive score for the The Last Stand. X2’s editor (Ottman again — he’s a multitalented guy), cinematographer and production designer also jumped ship.
Most damaging, Singer’s screenwriters left, and the new X-Men scribes, Simon Kinberg and Zac Penn, are hacks. The Last Stand is the sort of movie in which characters intone lines such as “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” and “What — have — I — done?” with B-movie pomposity. Only one of the screenplay writers previously worked on an X-Men movie (Penn helped concoct the story of X2, though he’s not credited as a writer), and the new duo’s collective effort demonstrates no understanding of who the characters are, how to handle numerous character arcs, or what made these characters special in the first place.
Kinberg and Penn distort and betray Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), both of whom act in ways that aren’t consistent with their previous behavior. The writers also ask us to view a life-changing choice made by Rogue (Anna Paquin) as mature and self-aware though they show us only petulant impulsiveness. Such poor writing was frustrating enough, but what I missed most were the quiet moments that made the first two X-Men movies so special: Mystique’s line to Senator Kelly before she attacked him, Wolverine touching Rogue’s streak of white hair and smiling like a proud uncle, Storm and Nightcrawler talking about faith and forgiveness, Magneto playfully admiring Pyro’s gift with fire, Iceman “coming out” to his parents, and numerous others. The telling details, the deft handling of grave themes — that’s what made the first two X-Men movies magical, and that’s what The Last Stand sorely lacks.
Sure, Ratner’s movie throws around big ideas. The idea of a “cure” for mutancy is an unsettling one, particularly when the injection is used as a biological weapon, as it is here. But neither Ratner nor his screenwriters really deal with it beyond a few facile allusions to real-world situations. They don’t even broach the highly questionable ethics of manufacturing that cure from the DNA of a young mutant boy living in isolation in a corporate stronghold.
I suppose I didn’t expect Ratner to handle the subtleties of the X-Men as well as Singer, but he doesn’t film the action scenes as well either. The final showdown is an incoherent mess, packed with stunts that don’t make logical sense so much as they make flashy special effects.
None of this would have bothered me so much if I hadn’t been so attached to the first two X-Men movies. Seeing the characters I’ve grown to love being treated to shabbily was depressing, but as much as I dislike it, I don’t think the movie is bad enough to destroy the franchise. The Last Stand will still make money, and studio executives will still want another X-Men flick. I only hope that in the future, they’ll entrust these characters to more talented hands than Ratner’s. In the meantime, I’ll check out Superman Returns. Maybe Singer can make me love Kryptonians as much as I love mutants.