Every great franchise inevitably takes a step back, but to portray “X3: The Last Stand” as anything less than disappointing is mincing words. It is a shell of its predecessors, a technical exercise that is utterly devoid of substance. The story picks up in ‘the not too distant future’ where a cure for the ‘Mutant X’ gene has been discovered in a boy (Cameron Bright). He is held in a secure facility on Alcatraz Island where the mutant antidote is also processed. Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his faction of mutants see the cure as a threat meant to wipe them out. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is also wary, but is willing to work with the government and the new Secretary of Mutant Affairs, Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Kelsey Grammer). Meanwhile, Cyclops (James Marsden) has fallen into a deep depression over the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). He is inconsolable, despite the efforts of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry).
Cyclops mysteriously hears Jean’s voice and travels back to the scene of her death, Alkali Lake. He discovers that Jean is very much alive, but has radically changed. Without revealing spoilers, the trauma of her supposed death has evolved Jean Grey. She has succumbed to her dark side, an alternate personality knows as the Phoenix, whose tremendous abilities could sway the balance between humans and mutants. This fact is not lost on Charles Xavier or Magneto, who both try to curry her favor while keeping her destructive power in check. Wolverine is caught in the middle, torn by his love for Jean and the realization that she has become an immense threat.
X3 is packed with significant developments. There are more changes to the primary characters than the first two films combined. The problem is that the story is purely motivated by money. The stars that cost the most, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, and Ian McKellan, have the entire film written around their characters. Everyone else is totally marginalized and becomes an afterthought to the actors with the big paydays. Now this is par for the course in most big-budget films, but the X-Men films have been, at least up to this point, about the collective story. Not anymore, the characters that made up the emotional core of the previous films are regulated to ancillary roles and written out as expediently as possible.
Bryan Singer, the gifted director of the first two X-men films, took the time to develop relationships between his characters. He didn’t focus on the special effects as the crux of his films. This concentration on character study combined with the visual effects created a comic genre film with remarkable depth. Brett Rattner, the director of X3, places his emphasis on the action. He’s so caught up in blowing the audience away with special effects; he completely loses sight of the drama that made the first two films so memorable. X3 is a compilation of fight scenes. Everything in between is just a precursor to the string of nonsensical mutant battles. These showdowns are spectacularly unexciting and take place in the bland Vancouver settings that have became generic to all Hollywood films trying to save a buck. I have long railed against music video directors and their inability to direct narrative features. Brett Rattner is the chief culprit in this ilk. His films, while box office successes, are basically two-hour music videos that rely on gimmicks to keep your attention. Fox should have waited for Bryan Singer or hired a director, like Guillermo Del Toro or Robert Rodriguez, who understood the intricacies of the comic genre.
In an already disastrous summer, X3 is another layer in the cake of tediousness being rammed down our throats by the big studios. It takes the shine off a franchise that sparkled with brilliance. There will undoubtedly be a sequel, and countless spin-offs. So there is a chance that the ineptitude of this film will be forgotten. I hope that is the case, but as franchises continue, it is rare for them to recapture the glory of the initial films.
X-Men: The Last Stand is out May 24, 2006.