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X-Men 3: The Last Stand Between Ratner and Singer

May 31, 2006

Contrary to some prior reports, Brett Ratner has left his grubby little paw marks all over X-Men 3. Surprisingly, it’s nearly as much a good thing as it is a bad thing.

But before we get into the ramifications of the Ratner effect, let’s address what he hasn’t changed, namely, the script. The story goes like this: Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men installments, left X-Men 3 because he supposedly didn’t like the screenplay (written by Zak Penn, who co-wrote X2, and Simon Kinberg). When 20th Century Fox roped Ratner, they knew they were getting a competent craftsman who leaves the writing to the writers. Unusual for a director with his kind of track record, and very much unlike Singer, Ratner hasn’t added a writing credit to his résumé since his first flick, a short he made at film school in 1990. For better or for worse, the producers of X-Men got what they wanted: a filmmaker who wouldn’t tinker with the X-Men template.

And what’s the template? Superheroes with cool powers doing battle, of course, but more importantly, a story centered around society’s fear of mutants and the spectrum of responses that elicits in them. In X-Men 3, a biotech company with a lab on Alcatraz has developed a “cure” for mutation by harvesting the genes of a mutant boy named Leech, who can neutralize other mutants’ powers. The U.S. government offers the cure for free to those who want to be “normal,” but Magneto (Ian McKellen, as awesome as ever) figures it’s just a smokescreen for forced vaccination. When he discovers that the army has started putting the cure into anti-mutant guns, he responds the only way he knows how: all-out war on humanity. And this time he has a secret weapon. After awaking from her apparent death, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, as smoking as ever) has become the most powerful, and unstable, mutant in the world… and has joined forces with the bad guys.

So if Ratner was under apparent orders not to mess with success, what did he do? For starters, he’s amped up the action. Nothing in the first two installments compares with X-Men 3’s climactic battle scene, in which Magneto commandeers the Golden Gate Bridge and moves its terminus from Marin County to Alcatraz, where armies of good and bad mutants do battle, where hundreds of human soldiers are vaporized and where Jean Grey almost destroys the world. It’s no easy feat to effectively stage scenes with virtual casts of thousands–for proof, check out the plodding war scenes in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones–and Ratner has the knack for it. Singer is the superior filmmaker and a much better director of suspense (think back to the confrontation between Magneto and Professor X on the steps of the Westchester train station in the first X-Men). But Ratner is the better director of action.

But the success of the movie’s climax isn’t simply a matter of scale and spectacle. It’s actually an intelligent, emotionally resonant depiction of the main characters’ throughlines. Take the chase scene where the evil Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) and the virtuous Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) race to find Leech in the bowels of Alcatraz. Their personalities and powers are polar opposites: she’s charming and polite; he’s brutish and blunt. She can walk through walls, he can smash through them. While he destroys everything in his path, she leaves no mark, literally disappearing into her surroundings. It’s an apt metaphor for the differing approaches of the the X-Men and the Brotherhood: where the X-Men want to quietly co-exist with human society, the Brotherhood wants to dominate and destroy it.

This touches upon what makes the X-Men movies so great–the way the mutant motif doubles as social commentary. In the other X-Men movies, mutant prejudice could easily be read as a metaphor for racism, with Magneto as Malcolm X and Professor X as Martin Luther King, Jr. In this installment, the cause of choice appears to be prejudice against homosexuals. The analogy is never announced, but consider these clues: there are numerous references to how the mutants don’t need to be fixed, how there’s nothing wrong with them in the first place; a public meeting of disaffected mutants is led by a pale, frail man who looks like he has AIDS and attended by flamboyantly dressed men and women, many of whom are androgynous; the most important action takes place in San Francisco; and the most obvious–Magneto is played by Ian McKellen, who is very public about his homosexuality and active in the gay rights movement. (The parallels don’t end there. McKellen, much like Magneto in the first X-Men, only revealed the secret part of his self when provoked by the government. He came out of the closet when the Thatcher administration was considering anti-gay legislation in the late ’80s.) Several scenes even suggest that Magneto and Professor X were once lovers.

So that’s the good stuff. What did Ratner do wrong? For starters, he could’ve used his clout to cut some fat out of the screenplay, which has about a dozen too many Ahnuld-esque one-liners. Worse, his depictions of emotional moments are so crammed with cliché–when Jean Grey dies, Wolverine lifts his head to the sky and screams, “NOOOOO!!!!”–that they ring false. Further, I think he made a poor decision in how he depicts Jean Grey’s power to kill people. Because she’s nearly omnipotent, she can rearrange matter in any way she can imagine, which means that she doesn’t have to shoot, crush or gore her enemies; she just sends their molecules on their merry way. While this makes sort-of sense from a pseudo-scientific perspective, it blunts the impact of her victims’ death scenes. When she obliterates Professor X, I should have been saddened, but his disappearance was so unlike any death I’ve ever seen (or heard about) that I was merely shocked. It was narratively audacious but emotionally empty. (Compare it to the assassination of David Palmer in Season Five of 24, where a similarly beloved guru-like character is killed. Many in the audience, including myself, found themselves mourning… and I haven’t watched the show regularly since Season One.)

Intellectually, the screenplay is probably smarter and better-structured than the scripts for the first two X-Men installments–for example, witness the way the plots of Jean Grey and Mystique parallel each other. When Jean Grey becomes more powerful, she betrays Professor X and joins Magneto’s rejectionists; when Mystique loses her powers, she betrays Magneto and gives the goods on him to the government. But Ratner fails to turn the story’s thematic depth and balls–three major characters are killed, numerous characters lose their powers forever–into the stunning finale it should be.

X-Men: The Last Stand is still a damn entertaining and interesting movie. How many superhero movies have the smarts to have a coherent social subtext? But I just wish Ratner had cranked down the cartoonishness and taken as much care directing the actors as he did the action.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    June 2, 2006 10:47 pm

    i think you were a little too hard on rattner regarding the pathos or lack
    thereof. remember, this is a comic book/action movie, not schindler’s list.
    and where exactly was the emotional resonance in the first two xmen? (and
    this is not meant as a criticism of them at all) methinks you give too much
    credit to bryan singer, who lets face it, has made two great movies (usual
    suspects, x-2) one good one, and one nobody’s ever seen (apt pupil). if
    anything, the success rattner had with x-3 furthers my belief that the whole
    auteur theory is a bunch of crap. it’s all about the screen writers now!

  2. June 3, 2006 4:09 pm

    Bro, you're not the first person who has said that I'm being too hard on ratner and giving too much credit to singer. I think you're right on the first point, and maybe wrong on the second point. We may disagree on this, but in my mind, Singer has made three excellent movies (in genres that are hard to do well) and one nobody's ever seen. That's an incredible track record, better than even Quentin Tarantino, who in theory is the best director who debuted in the '90s. (My tally for QT is two masterpieces, one and a half good movies, one and a half stinkers.)

    That being said, I am being too hard on Ratner. I'm realizing now that I probably would have had the same reaction to X-Men: The Last Stand whether Singer or Ratner directed it. How I would write the review would differ, but I would have come out with the same sense of excitement mixed with mild disappointment. That's not Ratner's fault, but more the fault of my sense of astonishment at the first two X-Men.

    The first one was really the first movie to figure out how to do a superhero ensemble well. My astonishment increased when I saw X2, which, because it was a sequel, I assumed would fuck up the whole thing–and then it turned out to be just as good, if not better, than the first one. Since Singer had already set the bar so high–doing a superhero ensemble well, making a sequel that improves on the first–I hoped for a movie that would somehow exceed what those first two movies had done. I know you think that it did, but there's no getting around the fact that the achievement of doing a superhero ensemble piece well is not as ground-breaking as it once was.

    But I agree with you completely that the auteur theory is way overrated and screenwriters dictate in a very large measure the effectiveness and quality of most movies. The problem is that while a director runs the show when it comes to choreographing the filming of the movie, it's often very difficult to parse out which of the multiple writers–especially on big blockbusters like the X-Men movies–was responsible for what aspect of the script. Since that task is so complicated and the truth is so unknowable, many critics, and fans, simply revert to the easiest form of authorship critique: assume that the director was responsible for everything. Since Robert Rodriguez was kicked out of the Directors Guild of America for having the audacity to suggest that Sin City should have two director credits, I have no doubt that the DGA wants to perpetuate the myth of the auteur theory.

    One of the things that I try to do in my criticism, and that I feel I did in my X-Men 3 review, is make educated guesses on what the screenwriters brought to the table vs. what the director brought to the table. In the case of X-Men: The Last Stand, I felt that the screenwriters were responsible for much of the movie's quality, while the director was most likely responsible for the more visually oriented setpieces (i.e., on the good side, the amazingly shot, paced and edited finale; on the bad side, the overwrought way Wolverine responds to Jean Grey's death). Further, since all three X-Men movies had lead writing credits by guys who either a) had very few prior screenwriting credits or b) had credits for god-awful movies (like PCU, Inspector Gadget and XXX: State of the Uhion, to name a few), I had to assume that some of the restraint shown in the screenplays of the first two X-Men was due to Bryan Singer's influence, especially since he had writing credits on both movies. That's why I give Singer credit for the relative lack of one-liners in the first two movies and blame Ratner for not showing the good sense, and using his clout, to remove a lot of them from the third movie.

    As for the question of where the emotional resonance was in the first two movies, I'll have to answer: I'll get back to you. I rewatched the first X-Men recently but I haven't watched X2 in a few years, so I can't honestly remember how I felt when Jean Grey presumably died. I do recall being more emotionally invested when Wolverine's truck is attacked in Canada at the beginning of the first X-Men, but much of that impact is due to that being the first time I witnessed the full powers of many of the X-Men and the Brotherhood. And other than Jean Grey's death in the second X-Men, there are no other scenes that compare with the deaths in the third movie. So even after rewatching X2, it might be a bit difficult to determine if Singer was better, worse or equal to Ratner at conveying pathos.

    One final note: I fully expect Brad to have something interesting to say about all of this.

  3. Brad Glaser permalink
    June 4, 2006 5:03 am

    Just back from seeing it. (We got delayed another day due to an invite to dine at one of our favorite restaurants last night.) I will have some thoughts to add tomorrow. Still considering the movie. I definitely liked it, also had some issues, some similar to MYOC’s and a couple others perhaps. More to come…

  4. Brad Glaser permalink
    June 4, 2006 5:14 am

    That would be MOWC. Not sure where the Y or the transposition cam from.

  5. August 29, 2011 12:59 pm

    Thank you for this blog. Thats all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something thats eye opening and important

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