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> Review of X-Men 3
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Review of X-Men 3

If you haven't seen X-Men: The Last Stand yet, here's my advice: watch the first part, up to 55:32, but save the rest for another day, so that you can savor the intermediate state … what's happened so far, what's likely to happen next. And, since it's no fun to worry about the time while you're watching the movie, here's how you can tell when to stop: when you get to the ice-skating scene, wake up, you're close. Then, a minute or two later, there will be a cut to an aerial view of pine trees and mountains; that's when you want to stop.

The rest of this essay is full of spoilers.

Before I say any more about the movie, let me give you some idea of how I approached it. I'd read a lot of comics when I was little, but that was all DC and no Marvel. Still, I'd heard a little about the X-Men … I knew Wolverine and Nightcrawler were the coolest; I knew Jean Grey was Phoenix; and I knew there was a famous story about Dark Phoenix, but I didn't know any details. So, when the movies (X-Men and X2) started coming out, I was able to enjoy them without any preconceptions; and yet at the end of the second one, I was able to get the hint and think, “oh yeah, this is going to be great”. In short, I had pretty high expectations, but I wasn't concerned with, or even capable of recognizing, faithfulness to the original comics.

OK … I think now we're far enough down the page that nobody will read this by accident, so now I can tell you why you should watch the movie in two parts. The problem is, the first part of the movie is gorgeous, with only a few tiny flaws, but the second part is pretty bad. If you watch them both at the same time, you'll be left with a bad taste in your mouth, as I was; but if you watch them separately, you can appreciate the good part and then see clearly that the bad part should just be detached and forgotten. Basically, I had the same reaction to the movie as I did to the Matrix sequels, except here it was all within a single movie.

So what's so bad about the second part? I'll give some details below, but in short, the characterization just went totally haywire and I lost my suspension of disbelief. The characters were doing things they wouldn't do, and saying things they wouldn't say. There were some nice visual effects, yes, but I couldn't enjoy them properly when they didn't fit together and make sense.

So what went wrong? If I were looking at the second part by itself, I'd probably dismiss it as a simple case of action disease, but the lovely first part makes me think there must be some other explanation. My guess is, it was a combination of two things. One, the crew ran out of development time and/or effects budget. Two, the ending had been fixed, and there was just no sensible way to connect it to the beginning. It's definitely a hard problem … even if you unfix the ending, almost any plausible story about Jean is going to require a lot of special effects.

Now for the details! I'll start with a few general remarks about Jean, and about the number of characters, then I'll walk through the movie and comment on it.

About Jean, I have two points to make. (I'll call her Jean even though she's both Jean and Phoenix.)

One, CGI-ing Famke Janssen is a crime! The eyes in the second movie didn't bother me; a woman with fiery eyes is a fine thing to see. I would have put up with the dark eyes by themselves. But, to alter her perfect skin is inexcusable!

I understand the motivation … Jean has to be dark so that we'll know she's a bad guy, or bad girl as the case may be. But, what a cliché that is, that dark equals bad! Wouldn't it be better to show rather than tell? Imagine her a beauty with glowing eyes, flying around in a happy white dress with red polka dots, casually disintegrating anyone who makes her childish self mad. That would also make it easier to see that she's not just a bad guy, that the situation is complex, and tragic.

Or she could be like Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings.

In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!

Two, in the second part Jean is too passive. She's supposed to be “all desire and joy … and rage”, and yet all she does is stand around, first in the woods, then on the bridge? It just doesn't make sense. So what would she be doing? As Phoenix, who knows; but as Jean she'd be in shock and want to get away from everyone. Having her return home made perfect sense to me, for that reason. Then maybe she'd want to talk to someone, and that someone would be Logan. So, that made sense too, that she'd call out to him; but she wouldn't be calling in a crowd of strangers; and even if she were, anyone who interfered with him would be toast. I'm not sure what would happen after that; the story could go in many different directions.

The other general concern I had was with the number of characters. It's good to introduce a few new characters, but after a while you need to let the situation play out as it stands. Angel and Beast were fine. Kitty and Colossus weren't too hard to remember, since they'd had small parts in the last movie. (Reminding us of their powers via the Danger Room was a nice touch.) The three recruits in the church scene, though, were about as much as I could handle; the two additional recruits in the rescue scene were just too much.

(Conversely, it was a shame that Nightcrawler wasn't even mentioned. I know the actor who played him didn't want to come back because of the tedious makeup process, but it would have been nice to at least invent a story about it.)

Part of problem was that there wasn't a clear distinction between foreground and background characters. Angel was brought front and center in the introduction, and set up to be a major character, but in the end all he did was fly in to save his father, who I didn't even care about. Callisto, the speedy girl, is never even named in the movie, but she plays a huge role, acting as Storm's primary enemy. Arclight is even worse … she's there with Callisto as sort of a foreground character, but we don't know her name or her powers until, dea ex machina, she temporarily saves the day for the bad guys. The role of porcupine boy isn't clear, either. Finally, there's Multiple Man, who's like Angel … prominently named and introduced, but with only a small part to play in the story.

As the movie went on, the lack of a clear distinction started to affect how I reacted to things. All the mutants in the school were just good fun. When the guy sat down in church and changed size, I thought “ha ha, cool”, fully (and correctly) expecting that I'd never see him again. But, when thorn guy ambushed Wolverine in the woods, I imagined he was a major character, and thought “what, another one?!”.

Another thing that's interesting is that except for Angel, all the characters I listed above are bad guys. Maybe the idea was that the bad guys didn't need to be fully developed? In the first movie they certainly weren't; but in the second they were, and it's hard to undo that once it's been done.

Here's one last point about the number of characters: the concept of a mutant army just didn't work for me, even though it fit with Magneto's talk of war. For one thing, if you've got Jean in your camp, obviously the best thing to do is to spend your time convincing her to take an active role! You could ride over to Alcatraz in a motorboat, have Jean raze the island to the ground, and bring along a revolver just in case the boy turns out to be immune to disintegration. Second, even if you don't have Jean, a small team of mutants should be able to do the job. Heck, Callisto could probably infiltrate and kill the boy all by herself.

That's all I have to say about the movie in general … the rest is just some random thoughts that I might as well lay out in chronological order. The first part, as I said, is gorgeous, so I'll try to comment only on the parts that are unusually good, and on the flaws.

The Phoenix introduction is great.

The Angel introduction irritates me a little now that I've seen the movie, because of the foreground-background problem, but if you can look at it afresh, it's really very good.

It would have been nice to know how much time had passed since the end of the previous movie. The kids at the school look older, but Scott is still grieving … so I guess it was supposed to be a year or so? It also would have been nice to have more hints about the passage of time during the movie.

The Danger Room was a bit of a stretch. I know Professor X has some advanced technology, like Cerebro and the X-Jet, but, c'mon, a machine that simulates physical objects? Still, it was fun, and the characterization of Logan was just right.

Scott was just right there, too, as was the triangle between Bobby, Kitty, and Rogue.

The conference room scene started the plot moving with the introduction of the cure; so far so good. I especially liked the down-to-earth realism of trying to track Magneto, and of putting Mystique in a mobile prison. That's just the sort of thing the government would do when faced with mutants. There are plenty of examples of realism in comics and in comics-based movies, including the other X-Men movies, but the example I always think of is Watchmen.

The church scene bothered me for several reasons. First we see all these tattooed and pierced mutants dressed in dark clothes … that's a little strange, but I can live with it. But, then we're told that mutants are supposed to have marks? I just don't buy it; it's more of the “dark equals bad” cliché. I also didn't like the idea of assigning numerical ratings to mutants. I'm sure the point there was just to be able to say that Jean is really powerful, but, again, it's better to show than to tell. Another problem is that both these things change the universe. If mutants had marks and ratings, we would have seen them in the previous movies. Still, the characterization is fine; and when Magneto says “Could you locate one for me?”, all is forgiven, because that's so exactly what he'd do.

When Hank met the cure boy, I liked the mixed feelings. I took an instant dislike to the boy, though, perhaps because his face reminded me of the annoying kid in the Matrix sequels.

Then there's the whole sequence with Jean. The rock platform at the lake is ridiculous … I've seen lots of mountain lakes, and that's just not how they work. The rest, though, is unbelievably perfect. When the professor explains the situation, wonder of wonders, it makes sense; even better, it makes Logan mad, just as it should.

The Mystique rescue is also excellent. I love how casually Magneto dismisses the cars! I do wonder how he got there … but then I wondered the same thing in the second movie, where it made much less sense. (How did he know where the jet was going to crash?) The cure weapon is an interesting development, and the effective response by Magneto and Pyro is great, but then there's a huge error in characterization. Mystique, who's so strong and self-sufficient that she's out of the cell before the trailer is open, instantly absorbs all the implications of what's happened and lies around boo-hoo-hooing on the floor? No shock? No anger? More likely she'd get up, shake it off, get a distant look as she tried to transform, then yell “Fuck!” and stomp around the trailer naked. Maybe Multiple Man could make some smart remark and she could punch him out … that would fit.

Magneto's reaction doesn't work for me, either. Mystique is his long-time companion, who he went to all this trouble to rescue, and now he's supposed to instantly absorb the implications of what's happened and decide that he can't work with a non-mutant? They don't even know the effect is permanent … and in fact, if you believe the end of the movie, it isn't. So, more likely, he'd give her his cape and take her back to the base.

When Jean wakes up, the perfection resumes. The encounter with Logan is just right. He's expecting her to draw the line, but she doesn't, and eventually it's all too weird for him. He tries to talk to her, but doesn't know how to be anything but direct, and so says exactly the wrong things, first about Scott, then about the professor.

Afterward, it seems out of character for Professor X to blame Logan … usually he'd just stay cool and adapt to the changed situation. (Also, he never actually warned Logan about anything.) But, even that makes perfect sense; we've never seen the professor scared.

The house sequence is great, as is the funeral.

The ice-skating scene is pretty good, but the dialogue threw me off … it's not like Bobby to be bossing Kitty around, especially at a time like that. Ditto for the dialogue between Rogue and Logan. The action was about right, though. Bobby didn't kiss Kitty; Rogue wanted to leave anyway; and then Logan didn't stop her. So, on the whole, I think these scenes belong in the first part.

Now we come to the second part, where everything goes wrong. I'm not even going to talk about most of it, I'll just mention a few of the more annoying points.

The cut to the mutant army in the woods completely lost me. At first I simply thought “Where are we? And who are all these people?”; but even after it became clear who they were supposed to be, I didn't believe it. Even if Magneto had been that busy recruiting, can you imagine the logistics of setting up a tent city like that, out in the middle of nowhere? I didn't even want to believe it. Who wants to see a bunch of scruffy mutants camping in the woods?

And then Magneto comes out to talk to Jean, and she's just been standing there doing nothing? It's bad enough that she's so passive, but the dialogue is peculiar, too; it feels like she's been waiting around to say her lines.

Then we jump to the X-Men talking about closing the school. That's so wrong; why would any of them even consider the possibility?

By now I've completely lost my suspension of disbelief. The disjointed events that come next don't help any … Magneto has Pyro attack a random clinic, asks the government to destroy the cure, and then, having put everyone on full alert, goes and attacks the source anyway? Why wouldn't he just go for the source in the first place?

About the big battle, here are a few points.

  • I would have liked to have some explanation for why Magneto chose to move the bridge. Did he think a boat would be too vulnerable? Did he want to have plenty of metal around? Or did he just feel like showing off?
  • Magneto's reaction to the destruction of the mutant army was all wrong. Sure, he's cold enough not to care if they die (or lose their powers), but he's not stupid, he wouldn't want to waste resources.
  • I can see how Pyro and Magneto would enjoy launching the flaming cars, but it was silly after the first few, since it didn't seem to be accomplishing anything.
  • How on earth was Storm able to land a punch on Callisto? Callisto was moving at speed; she'd no more run into Storm's fist than she would into a wall.

Finally, the confrontation beween Jean and Logan didn't make sense. It sounds good in outline … Jean, turned into Phoenix, is out of control and needs to be stopped, and Logan's the only one who can resist disintegration, so there's no choice, he has to kill the woman he loves. Even with the flawed execution, I find it very moving. The problem is, it's not clear that she's out of control … and it would need to be crystal clear in order for Logan to take action based on it. She levitated the house, before, and that wasn't the end of the world; why would this be? Earlier she did ask Logan to kill her, but that was just an immediate reaction to discovering what Phoenix had done, not a thought-out conclusion.

There's also a practical problem. If Phoenix really didn't want Logan to get close, she could have just picked him up and cast him away telekinetically, as she did earlier … even Jean could have done that. Or she could have just flown up out of his reach.

Anyway, in the end it felt too much like Jean and Logan were just going through the motions that had been set out for them in the script.


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@ November (2006)