Bad Example: X-Men – The Last Stand

by Jay Stringer

Okay, I know I said I wasn’t going to go with obvious choices. But everybody likes a big opening, right?

X Men 3, or X Men: The Last Stand, or X Thingy, or whatever it was called. It’s a great example of bad writing and poor structure. But it was a film full of talent, and with all the hard work done in the first two films; surely they couldn’t make a bad one here, right?

Everything was set up. The story was established and the cinema going public already accepted a world filled with super-powered mutants. What’s more the cast were all comfortable in their characters, and they had assembled some of the best actors you can find. And Halle Berry. Oh, and James Marsden, but they soon fixed that one.

The point is, if this film had been well written and adequately directed, it would have soared. The reason I’m starting off with this film is because it frustrates me. It’s not a bad film. What’s there on-screen is okay, and in some instances very good. But they’ve missed out all of the important bits.

Before I get down into the cracks and see where things went wrong, let’s take a look at what worked.

Ian Mckellan can do no wrong. At this point I think he could play anything. He could play a Dalek, and it would be the most intense and moving Dalek ever on-screen. If a little bit camp. Magneto as a character has always skated a fine line in the comic books. At his core, he is a very compelling character, there is that grain of truth in what he says that makes him powerful. At the same time, 40 years of inconsistent writing and characterisation means he’s as likely to be a cardboard cut out at he is an interesting villain. But ever since he first appeared on-screen as Eric Lehnsherr, McKellan has managed to convey that mixed message. He is both righteous and full of crap. He believes 100% in the cause, as long as he can throw other people in to do the dying. In this film, we see him pushed even closer to Charles Xavier. They are barely inches away from each other when it comes to morality, and I loved that.

Ben Foster is given an inch and he takes a mile. He’s only on-screen for a few seconds but he manages to convey a deep and troubled character. He gives us compelling reasons for what he chooses to do, and he makes us believe them. And that’s all Foster, because the film doesn’t do him any favours. He’s stood out in every film that I’ve seen him in, and I think he’s just waiting for that one perfect role that will make him a huge star.

Kelsey Grammer underlines many of the problems in the film. He’s not a great actor; I’ve not seen any proof that he has any real range. But he is very good at certain things, he can give you a character with a certain dignity, a certain emotional depth. He should have been perfect casting for Beast, but ultimately he is let down at every turn.

Something else that I liked in the film was the minor characters developing story, the love triangle with Bobby, Kitty and Rogue was nicely played out. If the film had worked to put in more characterisation like this, they could still have had something.

The first major problem is that the film lacks stakes. There’s nothing really hanging in the balance. In the first film, Magneto invented a machine that would make humans into mutants. Hey, cool. Mutant’s have cool powers, let’s all get zapped with the ray. To fix that they showed that the ray would kill humans after they mutated, and that Rogue would die as she powered the whole thing. Hey presto, there was something at stake, something to fight for in the final third.

In the second film there is a machine that will find and kill all mutants. And just add to the drama we are shown some young mutants in a cage. And then Magneto fudges things so that the machine will kill all humans. Again. And, as if that’s not all enough for you, the dam is going to burst.

For the third film? There’s a cure for being a mutant. And, well, that’s really it. You get shot, you stop having super powers. You become just like every person in the audience. Except for that guy over there with a little too much hair.

The cure is a great idea. Something that can lead to some tension, some deep conversations and soul-searching. But the film doesn’t go that route, it stick to being a relentless action film that now has nothing at stake. No character or actor gets to explore what the cure would really mean to themselves or the world. Beast visits the cure, and stands just close enough to see his hand turn human. Really? Wouldn’t a man who is covered all over in blue hair want to stand a little closer? Wouldn’t the actor want a chance to show the emotion in that moment? A simple way to inject a little bit of meaning to the final battle would have involved applying the film’s own logic; Wolverine has heavy metal grafted to his bones, if he was turned into a human by the cure he would die. So the un-killable character was suddenly killable. It would only have taken two lines of dialogue to get that into the film.

The film doesn’t take the time to show these moments, it doesn’t do the ‘heavy lifting’ of telling a story. There’s no character build up, and no emotional pay-off. Two big characters die early in the film, but the moment doesn’t carry any weight because the film is in too much of a rush. One of them dies off-screen. If you’re going to kill someone, it has to mean something.

There’s also a problem any time you have a character with god-like power. That would make for a very short film. Phoenix would turn up, obliterate everything and the film would be over in five minutes. So you have to write in a very important reason for this to not happen. Or, apparently, you don’t. The fact that she is all-powerful is a plot point that just gets left in a draw for most of the film, as if the writer remembered it in the last five minutes of the script. When the film does remember about her, she is swiftly killed by Wolverine after throwing a few things around.

Wouldn’t Magneto, tactical genius that he is, have been better served getting everyone to shoot Wolverine with the cure, so that he would be unable to stop Jean? Or, to shoot her with the cure early on so that she wouldn’t be a problem? Instead he throws a few cars around and that’s about it.

Perhaps the film would have had more of the epic finale they were looking for if Magneto had joined forces with Wolverine to take down the out-of-control Jean? Or to have Charles Xavier turn up in her brain, having planted himself there earlier, to shut her down? Or anything at all that resembled a story?

You can make a bad film from a good script, but I still maintain that you can’t make a good film from a bad script. Despite that, there is enough potential in what the film already had, in the characters and the almost existent story, that a good director might have coaxed something out of it. But they picked Brett Ratner.

Bryan Singer, who directed the first two, is a natural. You get the sense that he’s spent his whole life thinking of shots that he wants to use, and how to use a camera to tell a story. Ally that with a natural writer like Chris McQuarrie, and chances are good you’ll get something good, or at least interesting. But with Ratner I’ve always got the impression that he is merely someone who knows how to point a camera. There’s not flair or style, nothing to elevate a troubled film.

Still, at least Kitty Pryde was cute, right?

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