Doc Psy’s Journal: May 26, 2006. Shitty movie in theaters this morning. Finger pints of meddling executives all over the remains. This entertainment industry is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. Its corporate boardrooms are blood-stained abattoirs where good ideas go to die, tortured by bean counters and business school graduates even more cynical than I am. If that’s possible.
The hatred I feel now’s been a long time coming. For two movies, I watched as fanboys and -girls the world over sang the praises of X-Men. They jumped for joy when X2 managed to avoid outright sucking. And then it happened. Bryan Singer jumped ship to do Superman Returns. Wouldn’t you? Yes, you would. You would abandon the franchise you’d spent half a decade building for the chance to do Superman. I don’t blame Singer for taking the opportunity to make that film. I blame him for the crappy film he eventually made . The rest of the blame is fitted for the shoulders of 20th Century Fox, the movie company that can’t pass a shark without jumping it.
Fox spun the Rolodex and, out of all the C-list Action Movie directors desperate for work after the genre’s slow and painful Implosion in the late 90s, they had to pick Rush Hour‘s Brett Ratner. Combine that with a script by Zak (“I made that Action Movie Implosion possible by thinking up the story for Last Action Hero“) Penn and Simon (xXx: State of the Union) Kinberg, a rushed production schedule driven by Fox’s insane insistence that the movie had to open by Memorial Day – no matter what – and is it any wonder why this movie sucks? Yes, “sucks.” Words can’t express my joy at finally having an X-Men movie I can honstely rip to shreds.
This supposed Third Act in an epic, Superhero Movie Trilogy to end all epic, Superhero Movie Trilogies opens with…a flashback, where we see a slightly-younger Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) meet the incredibly-younger Jean Gray. It’s a nice, creepy little scene and, if it were in a better movie, I’d say it does everything an opening should…but this is an X-Men film, where pay-offs are never as good as their set-ups. You might as well stop watching these films after their opening action sequences and pop in a few episodes of the X-Men cartoon. Believe me, you’ll have a better experience.
Should you chose to soldier on, you’ll find this movie’s opening action sequence in…the Danger Room we were supposed to see in the last film. Bryan Singer couldn’t raise the money for it, since no one knew X2 would be the hit it turned out to be. But by 2006, X2’s undeserved reputation as the first successful superhero sequel since Batman Returns became gospel. So we get our Danger Room…for all of five minutes. Along with a Sentinel head. Decapitated by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), but still. Will the Sentinels or the Danger Room have any further relevance to the plot? Nope. Just a bit of Fanservice. Get used to that. Plenty more where it came from.
So the X-Men are still dealing with the fallout from Jean Gray’s death at the end of the last film. Cyclops (James Marsden), their nominal team lead, is still playing Achilles up in his room. Wolverine, Storm (Halle Berry) and Professor X are struggling to hold their School for the Gifted together as best they can, a situation complicated by the psychic signal Cyclops receives from the supposedly-dead Jean. Further complications ensue when the U.S. government announces it has developed a “cure” for mutants.
This obviously creates tension among the ranks of mutantkind. Some see the “cure” as their life’s salvation. Others are offended at the very idea of treating mutation like a disease. Obviously Magneto (Ian McKellen) emerges as the leader of a militant mutant mob that sets out to destroy the cure and its source…a small boy named Jimmy that an Evil Pharmaceutical Company’s keeping prisoner in their no-so-secret lab. On Alcatraz Island.
Fuck’s sake, what is it with movies and Alcatraz? It’s like the film’s winking at us. It wants us to love it so damn much its throwing everything it has at our feet. And we do mean everything. It feels like an entire X-Men film’s squeezed into this First Act because no one heard me in 2000 or 2003. The cries of a million flabby, smooth-talking sheep drowned me out. Now, all of a sudden, with this “Threequel” the lambs are awake. They see our favorite characters have been led into a slaughterhouse but it’s too late to cry now. Now’s time for the dying.
First we have to kill Cyclops since James Marsden’s got such important work to do over at Warner Brothers. He couldn’t even stick around long enough to die onscreen. I know people hate his character. Even in the comics, Cyclops is the team’s Designated Square. But he’s done his best to shepherd this band of freaks through thick and thin for decades and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for him just for managing that Herculean task. Too bad these movies reduced him to the bland third wheel of a Designated Love Triangle that only got interesting when its apex (Jean) died, leaving the two boys free to work out their issues…right, Bryan?
Of course Scott has to die two scenes after his re-introduction. I pretty much expected that. Not like this Cyclops ever did much more than take up space. But even a die-hard hater would’ve stuck around for the Cyclops-shattering ka-boom. Brett Ratner doesn’t give a crap. Not about these characters. He might give a crap about Chris Tucker, but the X-Men? C’mon! Girls who walk through walls? Guys who can make ice with their hands? An Australian (visibly aged since the Year 2000) playing a nigh-immortal Canadian? With metal bones? And no memory? Hell, that just means we don’t have to develop his character. Just make him another generic Big Dumb Summer Movie Badass. And now his girlfriend’s turned evil. Every guy can relate to that, right?
Yes, it’s not enough they do the Cure Plot (though “do” might be too strong a verb), we need Dark Phoenix too, for some reason. By the end of X2, Every half-conscious X-Fan in the audience knew some version of the Phoenix saga was coming. There was no choice. And, for me, no real hope. Something died with Jean Gray back there at Alkalai Lake. On that day I knew I would (eventually) see one of the most iconic and beloved story arcs in the X-Men‘s long history brought to big screen life…and that Hollywood would, inevitably, find a way to fuck it all up.
They already fucked up Jean’s death. You just didn’t notice because you were too busy picturing Famke Janssen in a live-action Phoenix costume. Me, I had a girlfriend at the time, and she was pretty handy with a needle and thread, so I got to be the only one wondering, Where the fuck is Iceman when we need him? I mean…there’s a giant wall of water headed toward you…and a dude who turns water solid is sitting right over there…why’s he just sitting? Sure, have Jean hold the wave back. No need to crowd the boy. In fact, have everyone on the team contribute something. Wouldn’t that have reinforced the whole “teamwork” thing the first movie banged on about? Wouldn’t it be a good chance to show everyone, at last, “united”?
Instead, X2 tacked on a scene where everyone terrorized the president and called it “a sequel hook” This movie presents us with a different president (no surprise there) and a Department of Mutant Affairs, complete with a mutant, Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer in a glorified cameo that makes Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler almost look like well-developed character) appointee at its head. How much time’s passed between films again? And how did any president squeeze all that through a Congress that formerly housed the likes of Senator Kelly?
Never mind. This movie’s going back to…that med lab from the first one, where Professor X (after three films) finally tells Wolverine (and thus all of us) Jean’s back story. Seems she was the most powerful mutant he and Magneto ever came across during their initial recruitment drive. So powerful, in fact, that Professor X had no choice but to psychically suppress her powers…and her memory of them…and her memory of his psychic suppression. Eventually, all this mental violation created the alternate personality we’ve been hanging out with since X1. Death reset her psychic circuit breakers…somehow…and when Jean wakes up, her original personality’s driving the bus. In their sessions, Jean and Professor X labeled it “the Phoenix” for no good reason I can see…other than fanservice. I told you.
So you know that Love Interest character we’ve spent two films getting to know and half a film grieving over? Yeah. Turns out she’s been an artificial person this whole time. A construct, probably created in response to all the trauma Jean endured after Charles Xavier cut her mind up and stitched it back together.
You know that Wise Mentor character we’ve spent two and a half films getting to know? Yeah. Turns out he’s been a major league asshole this whole time. At the end of the day, Magneto will just kill ya. Professor X will do his damnedest to kill your whole personality. Failing that, he’ll twist it into a socially acceptable shape and call the whole thing “good.” That, my friends, is some Grade-A Evil.
And speaking of character assassination, the Guv’ment’s managed to capture Mystique (Rebecca Romijn)…off-screen…how’s not really important. The authorities immediately negate all their best efforts to keep her (and a bevy of other dangerous mutants) contained by transporting them in a giant metal box…on the back of a truck…guarded by all of two cop cars. Down a deserted road. In the middle of the day. I don’t know about you but, if one of my prisoner’s Known Associates happened to be the Master of Magnetism, I’d ship her in something else.
The Guv’ment caught Mystique trying to sneak out of the FDA with their new mutant cure. Magneto plans to use it as a rallying point, proof that human authority figures are poised to stamp out mutantkind. Turns out the Department of Mutant Affairs has already weaponized the cure. Every guard on Mystique’s convoy’s packing a pair, and Mystique winds up taking a dart for her fabulous leader. (Who’s honestly decked out in the best Magneto costume of all three films. No really, you guys, I’m super-serial.)
What follows breaks my heart…but, for a change, not because it amounts to a fundamental betrayal of a character I’ve known and loved since childhood. No, what follows breaks my heart because it’s fucking stupid. With a casual, “I’m sorry my dear, but you’re not one of us any more,” Magneto just stalks off, leaving the now-powerless Mystique in his dust.
After she just saved his life. But forget that for a moment. Focus on the fact Magneto’s trying to build a clandestine, domestic terrorist organization. Why in the name of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would he leave his #2 girl naked on the floor, right where any old investigative agency can just come along and find her? Odds are they’ll scoop her off the floor and start asking her questions. Questions she’ll be all-too-eager to answer now, with no powers and your dumbass betrayal fresh in her head. Surprise! That’s exactly what happens…eventually. When did Magneto become such a stupid, fucking asshole? Who wrote this movie, Jeph Loeb?
With physical evidence that the Guv’ment’s plans for mutantkind are less than benign, Magneto rallies a small force of homeless mutants to his cause. Among them is a bastardized version of Callisto (Dania Ramirez) who, apart from having superspeed, can also sense other mutants and their relative level of power…don’t ask how. For all I know, she’s listening to her midichlorians. And they’ve recently informed her about a certain, powerful psychokinetic in upstate New York…
Time for the plot threads to mesh back at Jean’s old house…once she wakes up, kicks Wolverine’s ass (like everyone else in this series) and flees the X-Mansion. Xavier tries to talk her down, but his efforts are somewhat hamstrung by Magneto being right the hell there, now actively undermining him. I get Magneto’s desire to have Fake Phoenix on his team. I even sympathize now that I know what a dick Professor X can be. But I can’t imagine why Magneto just sits there like a bump on a log while Not-Jean kills Professor X with her Powers of Bullet Time. (That she’s apparently had all this time. Professor X just turned them off years ago. Except, not really.)
So that Aging Mentor with the Tragic Mistakes in His Past that have just come back to haunt him? Yeah, he’s dead. No need to resolve that little character arc. Not in this film. Not when we can get some cheap pathos out of killing him onscreen. And his death’ll sure come in handy when this film needs to stretch the plot out for another hour. These supporting characters aren’t going to ruin themselves.
Or maybe they are. Just look at Rogue (still Anna Paquin) and Bobby “okay, now I can call him Iceman” Drake (still Shawn Ashmore). They’ve been in all three films, gone through several kinds of Hell together, and with the whole “Cure” thing it looks like they’re about to go through another. Then Bobby starts making time with Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) for no reason other than to force personal conflict onto these characters. Because God knows there’s not enough conflict in this film yet.
Kitty’s been in all three films, too, you probably just didn’t notice. The first two shoved her into the background, making her another transmission from Planet Fanservice. Since they cast a completely different actress, X3‘s betting that you blinked and missed Kitty’s previous appearances. But since this story goes out of its way to Designate Kitty as Bobby’s new Love Interest, X3‘s also banking on you giving two shits about these characters. And their relationships.
I can barely work up the level of “give a shit” necessary to care about stuff like this when I’m reading it in the comics. Seeing it on film, acting out by cardboard standie versions of these characters, I can’t even summon enough “give a shit” to hit the “Chapter Skip” buttons.
Back in…the Pacific Northwest…I guess…Magneto gathers his “evil” forces, which include cardboard standie version of Juggernaut (the wasted Vinnie Jones) and Multiple Man (Eric Dane), along with Pyro (Aaron Stanford). You know, that dude from the last movie? Yeah. Nice to see him back. Who needs Alan Cumming to reprise Nightcrawler when you’ve got the star power of “that dude from the Hills Have Eyes remake?”
Jean’s here, too…standing around…looking pretty damn hot in her red, obviously-custom-made longcoat. Because you know Magneto’s got a super-tailor somewhere in the ranks of his Brotherhood. If there’s one cause Magneto’s always championed, it’s trying to take over the world while looking absolutely fabulous.
Except he’s not, really. Trying to take over the world, I mean. In contrast to Magneto’s previous plans (both of which amounted to mass genocide) this “Evil” Plot’s remarkably straightforward. Gather a mutant “army” (because, in Hollywood, twenty extras counts as an “army”) and get them all to the Golden Gate Bridge…somehow. Rip the damn thing off its moorings and turn it into the ultimate VTOL assault ship (and Brett Ratner makes sure we know how frikkin awesome this is by turning it into a five-minute set piece. Because this movie wasn’t long enough. Yeah. Wrap your head around that) so your “army” can invade the Evil Pharmaceutical Lab formerly known as “the Rock.”
See, the Guv’ment derived their “cure” from a mutant named Jimmy…a.k.a. Leech, who has the power to cancel out other mutant powers…don’t ask how, since X-Men Physics is even more counter-intuitive and fucked-up than “normal” Comic Book Physics…and it makes “real” world quantum electrodynamics look down right Newtonian. Kill Jimmy and the Guv’ment supposedly has “nothing”…except for all the samples they’ve probably grown from Jimmy’s flesh and shipped to every secret lab in the country, the better to crank out cure darts as fast as possible.
Time to have a little flashback of my own so all of you can understand just how much this movie sucks. In the comics, Leech is a member of the Morlocks, a band of mutants either so disfigured or so anti-social they were forced to take refuge in the New York City subway system, eventually establishing their own semi-tribal culture.* I was as surprised as anyone to find the Morlocks in this film…but I’m not surprised to find them criminally underutilized. They’re the mob Magneto recruits out of a burnt-out-looking church early in the film. Like Sabertooth, Toad, Mystique and (in this film) Pyro before them, Spike, Calipso and…all the other Morlocks (I don’t even recognize most of them and, in true X-Men Movie fashion, the movie’s too embarrassed about its comic book origins to even give them names, much less costumes) are reduced to cannon fodder roles; the main villain’s Disposable Henchpeople.
[*The Marvel Universe’s “New York Underground” is a lot like Jules Verne’s Center of the Earth. Apparently, any number of deviant subcultures (Ha-ha! See what I did there?) have hollowed out the granite substructure of Manhattan Island over the last four hundred or so years, if not eariler. ]
And is that supposed to be Psylocke? Why? Because she has purple hair? I’m sorry, movie, but fuck you. I need a little more than that. We all do. We all deserve better. These characters deserve better because, over the last fifty years the X-Men have amassed one of the biggest and most complex supporting casts in all of comics. You’d think this would make it the most franchise-ready property in Hollywood history, and you’d be right. But until Hollywood (and, specifically, 20th Century Fox) conquers its (unreasonable) fears and stops treating every X-Film like it’ll be their last, most of the X-Cast will get shoved into the background of their own damn movies.
Like Jean here…who basically stands around doing nothing for most of the Climactic Battle. Not even the sight of her friends and former teammates dropping from the sky to challenge Magneto provides enough impetus to shake her from…whatever it is she’s doing. (Counting oxygen molecules, for all we know.) Great way to make your Climactic Battle a meaningless excuse in thumb-twirling, X3.
Hey, you know what? I thought up a way to make Magneto’s “evil” plot even simpler: instead of doing all that crap with the Golden Gate bridge, just ease on up to Jean and ask, “My dear, would you kindly use your new Neo-from-the-end-of-The-Matrix powers and reduce Alcatraz to a smoldering hole in the ground? Pretty please? With sugar on top?”
At the end of things, after Wolverine and Beast stab Magneto with some “cure” darts and Jean finally starts killing people, Magneto asks the camera, “What have I done?” The same thing the makers of this film did, chief: badly mismanaged a valuable resource. You’d think he might’ve had this reaction to…oh, I don’t know, say…the death of Charles Xavier? Remember him, Eric? Bald guy? Wheelchair? Psychic powers? Literally taken apart by Not-Phoenix right before your eyes? For someone who was supposedly his BFF for like, ever, you took his death in pretty good stride. But the deaths of all these anonymous schmucks suddenly gets you? Why? Because the End Credits are (finally) coming?
It’s not just the villains. I’d expect them to get short shift in any modern, Big Dumb Summer Movie. But even with all the death, there’s just too many characters and no time to know any of them for more than three scenes. Despite being the POV character and Human MacGuffin of the first film, three scenes are all Rogue needs to finish her arc in this one. All of which go pretty much like this:
Rogue: I want the cure. I wanna be normal!
Some Other Character (doesn’t really matter who): We’re not a disease to be cured. Behind all the claws and weather manipulation, we’re just people. Being genetic freaks doesn’t make us any less “normal.”
Me: Yeah, Rogue. Remember the eternal worlds of Selina Kyle?
Selina Kyle: So-called “normal” guys always let you down. Sickos never scare me. At least they’re committed.
Rogue: Screw you, hippies! I want the cure. I wanna be normal!
Me: Oh, for fuck’s sake. You’re a teenage girl with a persecution complex who turns gamma-ray green if her boyfriend so much as looks at another chick. That is normal! Why do I even have to explain this to you? Comic book-you already went through all this shit years ago! And at least her superpowers don’t suck.
That’s the real joke. The “cure” story itself’s been done a million and a half times in the comics, but I remember it best from the cartoon series producer Avi Arrad put together for Fox in the early-90s. At least that arc ended with Rogue accepting herself for who (and what) she is. Her powers even wound up saving the day, rescuing Angel (here played in all of three scenes by Ben Foster, last seen by me in the lead role of Bang Bang You’re Dead) from a life of mindless servitude to the immortal monster that calls itself Apocalypse. In the cartoon version of this story, the whole “cure” thing turned out to be a plot by Apocalypse to brainwash gullible mutants into joining his world-conquering army.
Here, it’s nothing more than a convenient way to kill off the main cast, leaving the actors free to appear in other movies. Besides Hugh Jackman, but he’s stuck playing Wolverine until he dies. Say hi to Sean Connery Syndrome, tough guy.
I mention this, not only out of my own nostalgia, but to illustrate how a low-budget, Saturday morning cartoon managed to do a better job at telling the same story than a two hundred and ten MILLION dollar movie. It’s very simple, when you get right down to it: in the cartoon stuff actually happened. Characters ran the full gambit, from good to evil and back again, not just because the script needed an action beat ever x minutes, but also because each character honestly did what they felt was right, according to the circumstances of the moment and their own emotional baggage.
The X-Men movies have no characters because their pasts are reduced to one-liners. Consequently, I don’t care about any of them. Not even enough to make fun of their actors. Because that’s all this is: a gigantic practical joke Fox played on us. That’s why I’ve used my incredible psychic powers (which I’ve had all this time…no, really) and reduced this DVD to its component molecules. Hopefully a stiff breeze will scatter the remains across Oakland and it’ll be like this movie never existed.
Hey, a mutant can dream, can’t he?