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Thoughts on X-Men: The Last Stand

I decided to go into X-Men: The Last Stand with this idea: What if I thought of the movie as fanfic on film?

I read writers (apocalypsos among them) who will, for their own amusement and the (free) amusement of others, write stories set in the universes of favorite TV shows, movies, comic books, novels, what have you. It can be good writing training: take the pieces of other people’s stories and see what you can build with them. I’ve done it, though I’m NOT showing it to you! (One I can remember starting was a post-Return of the Jedi story of Rebel ships rooting out pockets of the remaining Imperial fleet. There was one line of dialogue of a crewman rattling off coordinates like he was Sgt. Friday citing a law code. I didn’t know from good dialogue back then.)

And yes, the third X-Men film (hereafter called X3) is kind of like that: filmed fanfic of an often not-all-that-mature kind. It’s also loud, violent, bombastic, wild-eyed, and (frustratingly) rather flat emotionally, except for moments that recall why I’ve liked the first two films in this series (especially X2).

From what I’ve heard, the basic story for the third film was banged out very quickly (supposedly the first draft was written in less than a week, an insanely short schedule). And the final film plays like a succession of “Wouldn’t it be cool…?” moments. It’s like the writers were saying, “Hey, we can have our guys fight Sentinals in the Danger Room! That’d be cool! And bringing back Jean Grey as Dark Phoenix – oh, no, just call her Phoenix, ‘Dark Phoenix’ sounds too ‘comic-y’ – means we can ogle Famke Janssen again! And we’ve gotta have Wolverine and Jean Grey finally really get it on, with her shredding his skin and him healing, because maaaaan they both need to get laid! Oh, and it’d also be cool if the guy who’s created the mutant ‘cure’ could buy Alcatraz Island for his facility! Oh, oh, and and and Magneto could break off a chunk of the Golden Gate Bridge and levitate it, full of mutants, to Alcatraz for the big battle!”

Never mind that several of these moments are different levels of illogical: both Wolverine and Jean would still be too wrapped up in the loss of Cyclops (a death with no impact on the audience) to be likely to rut like sloppy boars, even with their famous longtime sexual tension. (Anecdote from the making of X2: Director Bryan Singer was filming a scene between Wolverine and Jean. He decided to change it. He said to the 12 nearest crewmembers, “You look like a solid bunch of heterosexuals: You want to see them kiss?” Their answers were either “Yes!” or “Can they do more than kiss?”) I’ll admit the Golden Gate Bridge scene is hella striking as an image, but A) where are the bulk of the mutants who are waiting on it? They’re not there, but then they are, and B) really, Magneto could have done many other things to get his troops to the island. What if Jean Grey had parted the waters of San Francisco Bay, Moses-style?

And considering how powerful Jean is supposed to be as (Dark) Phoenix, WE BARELY SEE THAT. Her use of her powers in the final battle is so inconsistent and haphazard; much of the time she’s just standing there! The film is borrowing from one of the most famous stories in X-Men comics history, a real science-fiction epic, but it does almost nothing with the idea. The only time I think the portrayal works is earlier, in the house; that has dramatic weight to it, which is amusing to say about a scene where Jean levitates a house off its foundation during a battle of wits with Xavier and Magneto.

But the biggest problem is that the careful construction of the first two X-Men movies – where Singer and his writers set up a storytelling foundation and gave it a grounding in real emotion (a comic book action movie that begins with the Holocaust is making a bold move, and it works), and built on that foundation to give X2 a tough, Wrath of Khan-style climax – gets blown away by the “do all this cool shit” (profanity intentional) bombast of X3. Which means I’ll likely watch the first two films again, and imagine what I’d’ve done had I been given the chance to write X3. (We’d’ve had Nightcrawler back, for one thing!)

I liked some things, so I’m not as mad at X-Men: The Last Stand as I was at Hannibal – which followed up a film I loved (The Silence of the Lambs) with a film I could review with one word, and that word was “Ugh” – but as enjoyable as parts of X3 are, honestly, I think fans writing fanfic can, and will, come up with something better. They’ll have more time. (Heh.)

Other, more random, thoughts:

* Woo hoo to the cameo by R. Lee Ermey! He’s heard barking out orders for soldiers to turn in their metallic guns and accoutrements for plastic weapons that Magneto can’t use against them (as he’s done before; good to know the military finally figured that out!). I have a soft spot for the drill sergeant-turned-actor, I admit. I’m not the only one.

* The body count (both of major characters and of background extras) is appallingly, unnecessarily high. It becomes both bloodless (literally) and the dramatic equivalent of white noise. The deaths in the first two films? Those were difficult, you didn’t want to see them, but you did feel their impact, whether it was that senator melting away or Jean sacrificing herself. Here, it’s part of a blow-up-everything aesthetic, which fits poorly with the other films.

* But seeing Angel (part of the original 1960s X-Men lineup) come into his own as a mutant – from his cringe-inducing first scene, to his full unsheathing of his wings in that lab, to his appearance in the finale – is, I think, one of the things the third film gets right.

* Also, Kelsey Grammar as blue-furred Hank “Beast” McCoy was an inspired casting choice, embodying the deep intellect and gentleness (with power, when needed) of this very well-liked character. Apparently we can thank Matthew Vaughn, who was considered as X3’s director for a time, for bringing on Grammar. His line “Can’t believe this used to fit,” for some reason, just makes me smile…

* Is there any subtext to the first U.S. President who’s sympathetic to the mutants having a slight lisp?

* I’m glad the film’s last scene went the way it did (soft spot for Ian McKellan as well, you understand). And the scene-after-the-credits (not described, to avoid a spoiler) really worked for the crowd I attended with. Some people applauded.

* Was that Toad crawling on the church wall? It was too dark for me to tell.

* Special effects de-aged Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan to play Xavier and Magneto in a flashback to 20 years ago. And the men look plasticized. Oh well, interesting experiment.

By the way, in a small act of deference to coffeeinhell, I went to see X3 at her neighborhood’s St. Johns Cinema and Pub, so part of my admission and snack money would go to an independent movie house where you can have brews and pizza along with your flick. It was my first time there. I’ll be there again: a couple of buses convenient to me go to St. Johns. (Well, eventually.)