Sunday, May 28, 2006

Taking A Stand on "The Last Stand"

Okay. I've seen it. My thoughts, in no particular order:

What's clearest to me is that this film is an intentional dismantling of the previous Singer movies. The characters he built up, Ratner tears down: they get passively killed off anticlimactically and with little follow-up, or they get depowered and wander about, or they become incredibly unsympathetic, or they just barely turn up at all. We don't get much closure for anyone - love triangles go unresolved, and do we even find out if Pyro survived? Or what happened to Jean's parents? Nope.

Had this been balanced out with the ascent of some fresh blood, it probably would have been a bit more acceptable. But Ratner's additions aren't particularly fleshed out either. Kitty's a cipher, Juggernaut is obnoxious, we don't know anything about Madrox, and I never would have guessed Dania Ramirez was Callisto because her name isn't spoken once. This is a recurring problem for a lot of cameo characters: their powers and appearances are changed, and no one speaks their names, so the effect of their presence is muted at best. Angel - supposedly the character around whom the plot is constructed - has no real presence to speak of. The only new character who really stood out was Beast, played surprisingly well by Kelsey Grammer. The problematic situation is hardly a shock, of course - the writing was on the wall the minute this movie was revealed to have a core cast twice the size of its predecessors. There was no way any character would be explored for more than a scene or two.

As I'm sure was obvious to any readers of the current comics, the plot is an odd mix of Claremont's Dark Phoenix Saga and Whedon's "Gifted". The basic premise actually works a bit better than Whedon's story by basing the mutant cure off Leech, a character we already know can cancel out mutation. It's a nice touch. Unfortunately, having set up the whole ethical dilemma surrounding the cure and its use... well, it doesn't really go anywhere. Magneto duly stirs up resentment while Storm is vehement that they can't be cured because there's nothing wrong with them, and that's all well and good, except that by film's end the X-Men are using the cure against other mutants. Okay, one mutant specifically, but still. It's a moment that should be fraught with emotion, because they're basically doing something that's anathema to them, but nobody particularly seems to mind. Hell, some of them gloat over it.

The Phoenix... well, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that the introduction and explanation are glossed over, and fail to convince: we're supposed to believe Jean Grey had a split personality from childhood, caused by Xavier, which somehow never manifested itself, and that only the Phoenix persona could access her full potential. Since this is the third movie in a series, it's inevitable that we look back in light of this new info, and it just doesn't mesh - the implication in the prior films was that Jean's enormous power boost was caused by her exposure to Magneto's machine at the end of the first movie. Granted, this was never made explicit (presumably because that was how Singer was going to explain the Phoenix) so Ratner isn't going against anything that's been established, but he doesn't manage to address this issue. Jean was already using Phoenix-level power in the previous movie, and she wasn't going all psycho then.

The good news? When the Phoenix takes action, it's magnificent. Again, the size of the cast and the shoddy plotting ensure that she only has two major displays of power, but those displays give us a Phoenix we've never seen before: majestic, silent, destructive and utterly terrifying. A lot of it is due to Famke Janssen, whose rendition of a statuesque goddess rings true. CGI also helps elevate her look, and the use of her power, to disturbing levels. I really liked it, and in my mind this proves that Ratner and Avi Arad were very, very wrong when they insisted that the Phoenix plot couldn't sustain the whole movie. In point of fact, Ratner doesn't quite manage to overcome the absurdity inherent in Phoenix's alliance with Magneto. As the primary villain in the film, he's required to make all these grand gestures of power... except we already know Jean can do better. But until Magneto's out of the picture, she just stands there staring into the distance. Had the film been more about her confrontation with the X-Men, and less about Magneto's crusade to make things go boom, there might have been space for more in-depth characterization, and more spectacular use of the Phoenix.

All in all... about average, I suppose. A major step down from the subtle complexities of the Singer films, and I think one big reason for the mixed opinions I've seen so far is that "The Last Stand" requires you to put its predecessors aside, but doesn't break from those predecessors completely. Fans of the Singer movies have to watch it all get ripped apart here, but these are still the same characters, even if they're going nowhere near where Singer might have taken them. Personally, I feel a bit cheated - this is not the film the Dark Phoenix Saga deserved, and might have been under different external circumstances - but it's not an incompetent train wreck, either. If Ratner can be accused of anything, it's of ending a rather good film trilogy with a concluding chapter that can best be described as "okay".