Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Don't worry. Brett Ratner still sucks.
Well, Brett Ratner has made his best movie to date.
It also happens to be the worst of the three X-Men movies.
There's a lot to hate — and a few things to admire — in Ratner's movie, but a lack of tonal focus dooms the flick after a promising start. As a geek himself, Ratner certainly understands the source material's omnipresent theme of alienation, and he even displays a surprising willingness to borrow from the horror genre for the movie's Dark Phoenix passages — but Ratner's movie resoundingly demonstrates that he is two things:
1. A hack (which we already knew).
2. A (shudder) fanboy.
Let me delve deeper into my personal definition of fanboy and how I think it relates to this movie and to moviemaking in general. In today's Internet-driven movie and media culture, "fanboy" has become synonymous with the boneheads who clog up the talkback sections of a typical Ain't it Cool News article. Fanboys obsess over every detail of a comic book or a novel's mythology and go berzerk when a movie has the artistic audacity to deviate from it. I've referred to "detail squawkers" on this site before, but I'm being way to kind to lump pure fanboys in with them, because detail squawkers tend to be smart (book smart, at least), while the pure fanboy is dumb as a brick wall made out of dumb fucking bricks.
By packing this third X-Men movie with loads of meaningless, unfocused, crowd-pleasing crap, Ratner tries to appeal to the fanboys — and he does, judging by the reaction of the crowd I saw this movie with — but he misses any chance to deliver a truly and deeply satisfying moment or movie.
To illustrate this, let me compare two moments — one from X-Men: The Last Stand, and one from the original X-Men. Both involve the character Bobby Drake, alias Iceman (Shawn Ashmore).
From The Last Stand: Comic book lore (and a lot of Saturday morning cartoons) have implanted the image of Iceman as a literal, walking man of ice — an image we don't see for the first two movies. Ratner wisely brings back Aaron Sandford's Pyro — a striking, complicated almost-villain introduced in part 2, X-Men United — and sets up a battle royale between the psychokinetic flamethrower and Drake's Iceman. During the movie's spastic climax, these two foes indeed square off. Pyro bathes Iceman in flames, apparently about to triumph, but then Iceman emerges from the flames as the iconic man of ice we all remember and wanted to see … and head-butts Pryo.
First, let me react as a geek. If Ratner was going to give us the man of ice image, why not go whole hawg and show Drake gliding around the battlefield on one of his trademark sheets of ice?
But more important, Ratner had already spent the whole movie fucking up every bit of goodness that Bryan Singer had spent two movies building up around these characters. The first two movies had shown a nuanced, tragic relationship developing between Drake and Anna Paquin's Rogue, who absorbs the superpower or life force of anyone she touches. Ratner ignores Rogue for most of the third movie and bungles a love triangle with Drake, Rogue and newcomer Kitty Pryde. As for Pyro, Singer introduced Pyro in the second movie, and Sanford (with very little screentime) built a subtle and — dare I say again — tragic figure. Pyro joins ranks with Magneto because he believes in Magneto's cause, not because he's eee-vil, which is all we get in Ratner's movie.
That said, let's drop back to Singer's deft and surprising original X-Men. Toward the beginning of the movie, Rogue enrolls in Professor Xavier's school, and we see her in her first class, nervous as hell. Two young mutants in the class start goofing around — Pryo (played by a different actor) and Iceman, approptiately enough — and Iceman leans over to Rogue, places his hand palm-down on her desk — and leaves her a small ice flower.
"Welcome to Mutant High," he says.
On the off chance that I even need to explain why Singer's choice is better, I'll say this: Superheroes are goofy enough as it is, and with a tricky, old-school character like Iceman, Singer understood that it might be better to slowly introduce (and indoctrinate) his audience to Drake's powers. But like the great artist that he is, Singer did more than that; he melded his introduction of Drake's powers with an important, beautiful moment and immediately established that Drake would use his powers for healing and protection. It's a moment that makes you smile, that makes you feel happy. At best, Ratner's moment makes you embarrassed that you just pumped your fist in the air.
Next, let’s compare how Singer and Ratner introduce new characters into their sequels. In the second movie, X-Men United, Singer introduced only two new major characters: Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), and General Stryker (Brian Cox). We also meet Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), but she fills the same role that Tyler Mane’s Sabretooth filled in the first movie – the ultra-heavy who fights Wolverine.
In The Last Stand, Ratner chose to introduce Beast, Angel, Juggernaut, Kitty Pryde, Colossus and a host of henchmen to fight with Magneto, and all of these characters got at least one moment to themselves in the movie. We also had to deal with a few boring scenes with a doughy-faced President of the United States and a couple of stuffed shirts.
End of comparison. Well, almost, but you get the idea. Singer brought in two major characters, hired great actors to play them, fully committed to their roles in the movie, and really spent some with with each character – and I can’t believe he tackled Nightcrawler in the second movie! I thought for sure he’d bring in a newer, cooler, easier-to-do-ier character like Gambit. Instead he introduces a blue-skinned guy with a forked tail and cloven feet who has the power to … well, bampf himself anywhere he wants. I’m kidding, but the advantages of Nightcrawler’s powers aren’t obvious at first glance. That didn’t deter Singer, however, who demonstrates Nightcrawler’s powers in a daring one-man assault on the White House.
Not all of the new characters in Ratner’s The Last Stand are failures – Ellen Page and Kelsey Grammer acquitted themselves admirably as Kitty Pryde and Beast (more on them later) – but most of them are worse than failures; they’re mere lip service.
LIP SERVICE EXAMPLE THE FIRST: Angel. When I heard that Six Feet Under vet Ben Foster got cast in this role and that he buffed up for it, I thought, “Great! Instead of casting some big blond idiot, they cast a strong actor with experience playing an outcast and made him hit the weights. Ratner just might not fuck this up.” A few minutes into the movie, we see a flashback to this character’s youth: a striking scene where his father catches him trying to cut off his newly grown wings. Promising start! So what follows? One context-less scene where the poor kid almost receives the mutation-suppressing “cure” and busts out a window, another couple scenes where he staggers into/wanders around the X-Mansion, and then a meaningless coda, where he rescues his father, all but saying, “I guess these durn fool wings was plumb good for somethin’ after all, hey dad?”
LIP SERVICE EXAMPLE THE SECOND: Juggernaut. Not to be a total dweeb, but here’s an excerpt from MarvelDirectory.com about Juggernaut’s backstory:
Cain Marko is the son of Dr. Kurt Marko, an atomic researcher. Cain's parents separated and Cain was eventually sent to a boarding school. Kurt Marko's colleague, Dr. Brian Xavier, another atomic researcher, died in an accident, and Kurt Marko eventually married Xavier's widow Sharon for her great wealth. On marrying Sharon, Kurt Marko moved into her large Westchester County mansion, where he lived with her and her young son Charles. Cain, who had become a cruel and spiteful boy, came to live at the mansion as well.
Cain immediately began bullying his new stepbrother Charles. But Cain was often secretly beaten by his abusive father. Charles' vast telepathic powers were beginning to develop, and on one occasion he found himself experiencing the anguished thoughts and emotions of Cain after Cain had been beaten by his father. The inexperienced young Charles could not control or end his contact with Cain's mind at this time. Somehow Cain sensed that Charles was reading his mind and had discovered his secret shame. Cain believed that Charles had invaded his thoughts deliberately, and from then on Cain regarded Charles as his enemy. Cain was abusive to his stepbrother at every opportunity.
So Juggernaut is actually Charles Xavier’s abusive stepbrother. That’s interesting! What did we get in the movie? A perfectly acceptable Vinnie Jones charging around the scene like a north London football hooligan and tossing off bon mots like, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” Booo-ring.
By no means am I arguing that Ratner (or any director adapting a comic book) should slavishly include every detail. I am arguing that in X-Men United, Singer chose one interesting mutant and not only showed us part of his comic book history (his career as a circus performer), but also highlighted the character’s deep Christian faith, going so far as to cover Nightcrawler’s skin with scars to illustrate his deeply held religious beliefs. Awesome.
And don’t forget about the always awesome Brian Cox, who took a solidly written role and made it better with a great performance. Case in point: When Stryker confronts Wolverine in the X-Mansion during a pivotal second-act battle, Cox takes a simple line – “What’s the matter, Logan? Don’t you remember me?” – and lets every word drool off his lips like smarmy butter. But on top of Cox’s stellar performance is the stronger choice Singer makes in having Cox’s Stryker character represent the government in his story, as opposed to Ratner, who crowded the screen with the aforementioned stuffed shirts and forced the LBJ-wannabe playing the prez to look into the camera and say stuff like, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” with a straight face.
Now, I promised earlier that I would praise parts of Ratner’s movie. Here’s the good stuff:
• During a bad guy meeting, Pyro tells Magneto that he would have killed Professor X if he had had the chance. Magneto says, “Charles Xavier did more for mutants than you know.” Hey, look! It’s nuance – and it’s not on the editing floor of a Brett Ratner movie! The world must be coming to a fucking end!
• Kitty Pryde has a good moment. Yeah, yeah – OK. Ellen Page is a babe. And she’s a short brunette. And a babe. Those important facts have nothing to do with my opinion that she brought a lot to an underwritten role, including a great moment where Pryde grabs hold of Juggernaut, drags him downward and strands him between two floors of a building. As the massive Juggernaut struggles, Pryde rises up through the floor, glowing with the joy of a nice person who has just triumphed over a bully. Well done.
• Beast has a good moment. Kelsey Grammer caught some flak for this role, but I dug him. He’s the perfect type, and his makeup looked significantly less ridiculous than I thought it would. His highlight, however, comes when he meets a child who absorbs and suppresses all mutant powers. Beast holds out his blue, furry hand to greet the child, only to watch it transform into a normal human hand. In another rare moment of understatement in a Ratner movie, Beast simply looks at his hand in awe.
• Some of the Dark Phoenix stuff, but one scene in particular: Professor X and Magneto confront the fully Phoenix’ed-out Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in her childhood home. During this scene and during all scenes with the Dark Phoenix creature, Ratner lets his movie downshift into full-on horror mode, invoking the mighty spirits of Carrie and The Exorcist: Jean’s eyes turn black and seem to bleed black veins throughout her flesh. Her voice drops, and she barks and bites off lines like Linda Blair wielding a crucifix. I call it a clear genre shift, and I admire it; it’s one of the few bold, sure-handed moves Ratner makes, and he finishes off Professor X in good form, his kill punctuated by an anguished cry of “Charles!” from a powerless Magneto.
But that’s about it.
OK, so what’s the point in berating this stupid movie? So Brett Ratner packed his movie with a bunch of crowd-pleasing fanboy bullshit – so what? So what if The Last Stand had a decent start only to lose focus and fluctuate between grabasstic summer-movie schlock and apocalypse? So what if he dumped a bunch of characters into a movie only to waste them? (Holy fuck, a glance at this movie’s IMDb listing says Dania Ramirez played Callisto, yet another full character wasted.)
Hell, I don’t know. CC2k staff member Lance Carmichael has bemoaned the exodus of eminent indie directors from small movies to big comic book franchises – Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer spring to mind – so why shouldn’t we just allow morons like Ratner to handle comic book movies?
Because comics are our mythology, and they deserve better. I dare anyone to say otherwise.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.