X-Men: Getting your money's worth

Posted: May 31, 2006 12:01 AM

It took in $45.5 million on the day of its release—the second highest opening day haul in film history, behind only Star Wars: Episode III. It earned $120 million in its first four days, making it the biggest Memorial Day weekend movie ever, and it ranks fourth on the all-time opening weekend chart, more than exceeding studio expectations.

Like its predecessors, the third installment of the X-Men franchise is landing on all kinds of box office record lists. But does the bona fide blockbuster really merit the impressive grosses it has already raked in? That depends on how much you expect in return for your summer entertainment dollar.

Certainly the franchise’s “spectacle factor” hasn’t suffered from a changing of the directorial guard, having swapped the well-regarded Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) for the considerably less-known Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, After the Sunset). In X-Men: The Last Stand, audiences have the opportunity to ogle all manners of brilliantly costumed mutants exercising all manner of brilliant powers. Under Ratner’s hand, though, the nuanced themes and character depth that marked the first two films take a serious pummeling.

It’s not for lack of good source material that the movie seems like a dumbed-down version of its forerunners—the premise couldn’t offer more relevant material to work with. With a new, furry blue representative to the White House, Dr. Hank McCoy (also known as “the Beast,” and played by Kelsey Grammer), mutants and humans have finally begun to work out a plan for peaceful coexistence. Villainous mastermind “Magneto” (Ian McKellan) is up to his old race-baiting tricks, but most mutants aren’t of a mind to listen—that is, until a pharmaceutical company, with the help of an especially gifted young mutant, manages to develop a serum that cures the “X gene” (the source of mutant powers).

The discovery of a cure immediately causes a rift in the mutant community, dividing them into those who want to exercise their choice to have a normal life, and those who see that choice as a betrayal and threat to all mutant existence. Some X-people, like “Rogue” (Anna Paquin)—whose “power” makes it impossible for her to get to first base with her boyfriend without killing him—understandably see their genetic enhancements as a disease they’re all too happy to vaccinate. Others, like Magneto and his shape-shifting gal pal “Mystique” (Rebecca Romijn), see the cure as nothing more than the government’s method of initiating “mutant cleansing.”

When Magneto and Mystique use their supernatural talents to circumvent the law, the government responds by using the cure as a mutant-control weapon. All carriers of the mutant-X gene, including “Wolverine” (Hugh Jackman) and “Storm” (Halle Berry), react with horror at the thought that the administration would use the serum to alter mutants, even criminal mutants, against their will. But while Magneto and his minions prepare to wage war on humans, the more levelheaded X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), counsel that more communication and diplomacy are needed.

It all sounds impressive and promising for an action movie, but Ratner immediately squanders any opportunity for subtlety and insight with his bull-in-a-china-shop approach. Whereas Singer allowed his timely themes some tension, Ratner makes the “right” points of view almost childishly clear, even though there’s nothing clear about them. Example: given the obvious threat mutant powers pose to regular mortals, it seems quite sensible that the government would try to contain, if not eradicate, the gene responsible for the X-Men’s god-like gifts.

Such imperceptive moral clumsiness makes what was once subtext now supertext. Where X-Men I and II flirted with the idea of the mutant gene being equivalent to a hypothetical homosexual gene, The Last Stand's inclusion of a muscled-yet-effeminate winged character who resists his father’s shame over his “natural state” makes the suggestion far more explicit. (At one point during the movie my husband leaned over and whispered, “Ratner knows that being gay isn’t a superpower, doesn’t he?”)

Perhaps his preoccupation with infusing a moral into an action movie explains the mighty holes in the film’s logic. For instance, why, if he has the massive telekinetic power of Jean Grey—a woman who could put Stephen King’s “Carrie” to shame—at his disposal, does Magneto bother plotting elaborate attacks on his enemies? Why not just have Jean disintegrate them?

Still, Ratner’s deft hand with visual wonders and non-stop action makes it fairly easy to suspend pesky disbelief. With so many thrilling displays of super heroics, its unlikely that most non-politically-minded viewers will even notice that they’re being beaten over the head with quack theories. Partial credit for this has to go to the cast. Although the beauties of this lineup (Romijn, Berry, and Jansen) don’t bring much to the table in the way of acting, it’s a joy to watch the brawn (Grammer, McKellan, Stewart, and Jackman) interact. The gentlemen, particularly Grammer and McKellan, clearly revel in their over-the-top comic book roles, and they manage to bring us into the X-Men world in a way no computer-generated graphic ever could.

Bottom line: If you’re the sort of moviegoer who expects good acting, well-developed dialogue and some semblance of plot coherence, you are not only a minority in America, but you also probably had no interest in seeing it in the first place. But if you’re the sort of moviegoer who only requires a diverting two hours of flashes, booms, and bangs for your eight to ten bucks, then X-Men: The Last Stand will definitely give you your money’s worth.