X3: The Last Straw

You know the movie you’ve just seen is bad when you have better memories of the trailer for Ghost Rider (a movie starring Nick Cage about a flaming skeleton demon crime fighting biker — chew on that for a bit) than the movie itself.  When that movie is the third and final installment in a trilogy that has been, up until now, a brilliant and shining example of how comic books can successfully transition from print to screen, it’s crushing.  And when that trilogy is about the X-Men, the linchpin of your inner nerd, it’s as memorably traumatic as having your original Mint on Card Star Wars figure collection sold as the penalty for making a B on your physics test.

I’m kidding, of course, about that last part, and it’s obvious to anyone who’s known me for long enough.  I never made above a C in physics.

Needless to say, spoilers are rich in abundance, much like my hatred for the collective team behind X3: The Last Stand.

A History of 4 Color Violence

When I was 6 years old, in the spring or summer of 1977, I fractured my skull and had to spend a week in the hospital.  During this time, I was introduced to what would ultimately become the most powerful addictive in a life later filled with nicotine, alcohol, opiates, and easy women: my “nanny” (she wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, anything more than a glorified white trash babysitter who would eventually be fired for beating me for reasons that couldn’t have possibly been any worse than “being slightly irritating,” but the idea of having had an au pair is amusing to me.  So is the idea that this woman hung herself by leaping from the roof of my father’s mansion at my birthday party.  But I digress…) brought me grocery bags filled with comics.  Her husband was a truck driver, and would bring home all his reading material from the road, which they passed on to me, the poor sickly kid with a glorified Ace bandage wrapped around his head.

Out of all the comics I got — and there must have been hundreds — I distinctly remember one in particular: Uncanny X-Men #96, not because of the storyline or the gripping underpinnings of struggling to be accepted in society in spite of your differences and gifts, but because of Dave Cockrum’s art, his rendering of Nightcrawler in particular.  That always stuck with me, and I was an X-Men fan from then on.  I still remember buying the Dark Phoenix issues off the spinner rack at my neighborhood convenience store, the Paul Smith issues when Cyclops left the group to deal with the loss of his soulmate, the introduction of the Morlocks, and all the billions of crossovers.  I bought every one of them.  And years later, in the mid 1990s when I sold off my collection of over 4000 comics, there was one batch that I couldn’t being myself to get rid of, above all the Golden Age firsts, above the revolutionary titles like Watchmen and  The Dark Knight Returns and Cerebus, above my treasured Cherry Poptart run.  To this day, in fact, I still have a near complete run of the “new” X-Men books up until some point where they became too confusing to keep up with.

Yes, I’m a card-carrying nerd.  Seriously, I can show you my Justice League membership card from the days of the Super Friends.  Just ask.

Celluloid Dreams

When the first X-Men movie was announced, I shared the same trepidation that everyone else in the comic community felt.  After such tragic failures as Captain America, The Punisher, and the movie with Batman, Robin, and their nipples, you can’t help but think that a movie with expectations as high as one based on the best selling comic book of the 80s and 90s would fall flat on its mutant face. Even with Bryan Singer directing, even with a cast featuring talent like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, and naked-but-for-strategically-placed-scales Rebecca Romijn, I was nervous.

To be fair, the first movie (and its sequel, to a lesser degree) had their problems.  Some of the characterization was off by a hair (though that improved as the actors got to know their characters better).  There were (mostly necessary, for the sake of time and credibility) deviations from the comic book mythos.  Everyone had at least one favorite character who wasn’t included.  But overall, it was a good story, good presentation of the characters, good FX, and Rebecca Romijn naked, and X-Men fans everywhere sighed a collective sigh of relief.

After the second film, there was so much promise, some of it even hinted at in the second film itself (was that the shadow of the Phoenix that we saw in Lake Alkali?! What about the Weapon X program, now officially introduced as canon? And look at all the new mutants that we can have introduced!).  We heard tales of Bryan Singer’s dream of filming the Dark Phoenix saga, mentions of Sentinels, the introduction of the Beast and Angel.

But then Superman Returns, and the edges start to fray.  Singer’s gone, off to play in the DC sandbox (and honestly, who can blame him?), replaced by Brett Ratner.  Kelsey Grammer is signed on to play Beast.  Brett Ratner is directing.  The studio is rushing production to make a Memorial Day ’06 release.  Oh, and Brett Ratner is directing.

Mind you, these are not all my complaints — I rather like the idea of Grammer as Beast, and I thought Ratner would do a good job directing; his movies like Rush Hour are well done, and close enough to the tonality of X-Men that I didn’t worry too much.  Just for the record, you know. And it could have been much worse, by the way — McG is still out there and working, you know.

But, you know… Its the X-Men! How bad can it be?

Did I really just ask how bad can it be?

I’ve been watching the online trailers, spotting the new character incusions like Juggernaut, Kitty Pryde, and Angel.  Hearing the rumors of a Sentinel fight, of Jean’s transformation to Dark Phoenix.  I got myself and Garth and Jason passes a few weeks ago for the sneak preview, and the excitement was rolling.  Then yesterday, making final plans to meet up with everyone, Jason says with a smirk in his voice, “I’ve read bad reviews about it.”

“No spoilers,” I tell him.  I’m determined to go into this one blind so I can be as surprised as anyone else.

“No, I didn’t read any.  I’ve just heard that the end result is really disappointing.  But I also heard a few good reviews.”

We decide that reviews don’t matter, and that we’ll decide for ourselves at 7:30.

Timing was not on our side last night.  My friend Savanah and I arrived at 6:40; Garth and Christiana and Jason and Donnie were going to meet us around 7.  Savanah and I decided to go on in and grab seats; if we hadn’t, we would have been shut out like the other four were, as they oversold the preview like no other that I’ve ever witnessed.  I guessing at least 60 people were turned away; the only movie that I’ve ever seen with quite so many people at the preview was Lilo and Stitch, and that was a kid’s movie in the middle of summer, when parents were probably giddy at the thought of having two hours of distraction for free.

But the show must go on, and it did, and I have one word for that show: Sucktastic.

The plot is no secret: there’s a cure for mutants, and some struggle with taking it, and others hate the thought, and Magneto and his band of Jolly Happy Fellows decide to blow shit up.  Cue score, enter hopelessly outnumbered heroes, day is saved.  And in and of itself, it’s not a bad plot; nor is the execution, at least on paper.

Sadly, it’s not just on paper anymore.

The worst thing is that the entire thing feels rushed.  There is seemingly no time to get involved with the characters, even those that we’ve already known well from the previous two films.  And while this works on some levels — the fight scenes have an intensity that was lacking from the other movies — there’s a near total lack of emotional involvement with the protagonists. People die — yup. Who?  Well, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Professor X.  There’s a funeral for the professor, and a briefly touching moment between Logan and Jean before she goes.  Cyclops gets two mentions, more for the sake of making Jean the bad guy than comments on a fallen comrade.

Oh, and the Phoenix force doesn’t exist.  Now, granted, that’s a pretty big concept to explain to a non-comic audience in two hours, but still — a fucking split personality? And on top of that, it’s not even a split personality — it’s more like some sort of possession. And — telekinesis as a disintegrating ability?  Seriously — Jean kills Professor X and Cyclops, and she does it by turning them to dust with her “level 5” mutant ability of telekinesis.

Some people bend spoons.  Fucking underacheievers.

There are other problems, mostly of the “we must ignore this for the sake of excitement” variety.  When Magneto tries to join the fray in the final battle, but realizes that the army has been given plastic guns, he just gives up — rather than using all the other metal on the scene as weapons, or pulling out everyone’s fillings from the distance.   He’s also treated as sort of the ultimate mutant supremacist; while this isn’t entirely out of character, his betrayal of Mystique when she is cured (while saving him from being cured, no less) is not at all in line with not only Magneto of the comics, but Magneto of the movie. Iceman finally makes decent use of his powers to save himself from Pyro — and then wins the fight not with creativity, but with a headbutt?

And why, with such a rich mythos to pull from, do we have to make up new characters for Wolverine to fight? And why do we have to give new powers to existing characters (like Callisto)?  And why did they pick Arclight, of all the marauders in the world?  And why did they make Arclight a girl?  A totally androgynous girl, at that?  And why do all the tattooed mutants have to be bad mutants?

And why, oh for the love of god why, does it suddenly become night time in the middle of Magneto moving the Golden Gate bridge to span across to Alcatraz?  Anyone?

Sigh.

The movie’s not without merits, of course.  There’s the geekery thrill of finally seeing Iceman in a full ice rendering, Beast and Angel and Juggernaut for the first time, Kitty Pryde walking through walls. We get to see a brief hint of a Sentinel, the Danger Room, Leech, Trask, Moira MacTaggert.  Long time readers like me can spot the genesis of certain scenes, the inspiration of the final confrontation in the works of Claremont and of Grant Morrison, and those are nice touches, though few and far between.

Walking out last night, I thought to myself that what I had just witnessed was the death of the X-Men franchise.  And then it occurred to me that that’s actually true — it’s been widely speculated that there will be no more X-Men movies, giving way to spin-offs for Wolverine and Magneto.  And suddenly it hit me: it was planned all along.  The studio, to ensure that the X-Men franchise was actually dead, not only provided the hammer but drove a few nails into the coffin.

Sucktastic, indeed.

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