One reason why action franchises are so prone to failure is because it’s so easy for them to collapse under their own weight. Each new instalment feels it has to outdo the last, delivering bigger set-pieces and cramming in more characters while such piffles as structure, pace, dialogue and all-round coherence are thrown to the wind. This was true of the pre-Begins Batmans, the Christopher Reeve Supermans and the Blade flicks. But X-Men, like its Marvel stablemate Spider-Man, has thus far managed to withstand the added strain.
X2 was, above all, a masterful juggling/balancing act on the part of Bryan Singer. He expanded the X-universe while simultaneously taking us deeper into the characters — from frontline heroes like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) down to supporting players like Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford). Well, Brett Ratner’s stepped onto the tightrope Singer vacated, and Fox/Marvel have chucked him even more balls to juggle. So alongside the discovery of the ‘cure’ and the renewed mutant-versus-mutant battle that ensues, we have the drama of now-schizo übermutant Jean Grey’s (Famke Janssen) return from her watery grave, plus all the small soapy strands that concern the teenies — will love-rival Kitty Pryde (Hard Candy’s Ellen Page) persuade Rogue (Anna Paquin) to take the cure so boyfriend Iceman can finally cop a feel?
Perhaps understandably, Ratner’s not even sure where to start — we jump from a “20 years ago” prologue (enticing) to a “10 years ago” prologue (less so) to “the not-too-distant future” before our first popped corn hits stomach acid. He and his scriptwriters then get round the surfeit-of-characters problem by, almost admirably, throwing a few balls away; let’s just say the X-mansion grows a few gravestones.
Yet, Ratner is missing Singer’s versatility, and X3 lacks the sharp focus if its predecessor, as if unclear what it should be doing when not delivering a set-piece. The script, too, lacks the polish of Singer’s second X, and even the esteemed Ian McKellen has trouble with a few of his clunkier lines. Meanwhile, Vinnie Jones as towering powerhouse Juggernaut is just wrong, wrong, WRONG. Why shove some old footballer in a leathery bodysuit when one phone call to WWE supremo Vince McMahon would throw up any number of genuine oily manbeast-machines?
Two things rescue this so-called “Last Stand”. First, its shameless pandering to the fanboys. They’re tossed plenty of treats, including a glimpse (finally) inside the X-mansion’s Danger Room and the introduction of various new muties like Beast (Kelsey Grammer — excellent), Angel (Ben Foster — forgettable) and Leech (the ubiquitous Cameron Bright). Oh, and if the words “fastball special” mean anything to you, rest assured, Ratner’s been thinking of you during the action scenes.
Which brings us to X3’s second saving grace — those aforementioned set-pieces. This is where Ratner gets it totally right. Whether it’s that big show-off Magneto flying the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, Wolverine and Beast going feral on a bunch of baddie mutants, or Jean Grey reducing people and buildings to their constituent atoms, there’s enough smash-bang fun and CG-savvy here to make you happy it’s summer again. Just don’t expect it to get under your skin the way X2 did.