Mutant Mediocrity

Brett Ratner’s superpower is watering down the X-Men

Josh Bell

The X-Men are finally starring in an action movie. However the mutant superheroes' first two films, X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) might have appeared in advertisements, they weren't so much action films as sci-fi movies with one or two big action sequences. Director Bryan Singer emphasized characterization and philosophy over action, but he's busy making the new Superman movie, and Hollywood chameleon Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour films, Red Dragon) has taken over, using all of his commercial instincts to make a film that's bigger in every way. That doesn't necessarily make it better, but it doesn't make it that much worse, either. After two installments heavy with introspection, the X-Men are probably ready to kick some ass.

Not that Ratner ditches all of the thoughtfulness that marked the earlier films. But his film, subtitled The Last Stand, is far more interested in cool ways to make things blow up and fly through the air (which are often quite impressive) than in the nuances of how characters feel about each other or the allegorical issues raised by the concept of mutants, a persecuted minority whose superpowers are the result of inadvertent genetic anomalies.

X-Men Philosophy Report Card

1. Allegory of Social Alienation: The mutant cure could be analogous to the "cure" for homosexuality occasionally proposed by conservatives, but the parallel is never really explored. Grade: C

2. Co-existence of Good/Evil in Same Person: Jean's dual personalities are the film's most intriguing element, but again Ratner and his writers neglect to give it the attention it warrants. Grade: C-

3. Government Limitations on Civil Liberties: The predominant theme of the X-Men films gets the most screen time, with the government ready to get the mutant cure out no matter the method (even if that means putting it in guns). Grade: B

In The Last Stand, one of the major plot threads involves a cure for mutant powers, developed by a large corporation and endorsed by the government. X-Men leader Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is skeptical, but hopes to explore the idea of the cure in a rational way, especially since the government has become more friendly to mutants since the last film, even appointing the blue and furry Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer, looking a little out of place) to head up the Department of Mutant Affairs.

But Xavier's old nemesis, Magneto (Ian McKellen), sees the cure as an affront to mutant-kind and seeks to stop it with his usual lack of subtlety (at one point this involves forcibly rerouting the Golden Gate Bridge). On top of that, presumed-dead X-Man Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), left at the bottom of the lake at the end of the second movie, returns from beyond with a massive power upgrade and a dose of mental instability. Ratner and writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn also introduce a half-dozen or so new heroes and villains, but only Grammer's Dr. McCoy gets much in the way of screen time or character development. And to make way for all the new faces, some familiar characters, including James Marsden's Cyclops, Anna Paquin's Rogue and Rebecca Romijn's Mystique, have greatly reduced roles. Even Xavier is absent for a good third of the film.

Ratner still manages to clear away his army of characters for some over-the-top set pieces that easily surpass anything that Singer ever did, and The Last Stand is first and foremost an exciting action movie. Magneto, who stood on the sidelines for much of X2, once again gets to wield his considerable power, and the bridge sequence is often stunning in its grandiosity. Halle Berry, as Storm, gets the more prominent role she's been angling for since the first film, but it's Janssen who really gets to stretch this time around, bringing a fierceness and vulnerability to Jean that was hidden beneath her calm exterior in the earlier films. If only Ratner had focused on Jean's resurrection and corruption (which is perhaps the most well-known story from the X-Men comic books), he could have made a great film.

Instead what he's got is a good action spectacle, and there's nothing wrong with that. In interviews, Ratner has said that he tried to make the film look as if Bryan Singer directed it; it actually looks as if someone trying to imitate Bryan Singer directed it, but at least he got things about half right.

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