It could have been a lot worse. With the departure of director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects and the soon-to-be-released Superman Returns) from the X-Men series, many fans despaired that the trilogy's conclusion would flame out instead of soar. After several promising candidates, Fox settled on the soulless but competent Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) to take the director's seat. Much like his colleague Christopher Columbus (Harry Potter, Mrs. Doubtfire), Ratner is a hired gun who attracts big-budget projects with major stars but brings nothing personal or unique to them. Predictably, X-Men: The Last Stand boasts impressive action sequences and an engaging drama but lacks any subtlety or grace.
When a scientist develops a serum that reverses mutant DNA, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) worries that mutancy will be regarded as a disease, while supremacist Magneto (Ian McKellen) views the government's weaponized "cure" as a declaration of war. This sets the stage for a cataclysmic showdown between man and mutant, as Dr. Henry McCoy the secretary of mutant affairs and the blue and hairy Beast, as played by Kelsey Grammer scrambles to find a diplomatic middle ground.
Meanwhile, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) emerges from her watery grave, reborn as the Phoenix, a wildly powerful and malevolently impulsive alter ego who threatens to unleash unspeakable destruction.
There are a lot of meaty sociopolitical issues to be mined in a story like this. Unfortunately Ratner misses just about all of them. Moral questions about intolerance and self-acceptance are quickly overshadowed by balls-to-the-wall action. With expert pacing, Ratner launches the film like a rocket and never gives it a moment to breathe. Beloved characters are dispatched right and left; flashy set pieces and extravagant CGI effects fill the screen; and it's almost impossible not to get swept up in all the commotion. In particular, Ratner delivers an iconic comic book moment as Magneto tears the Golden Gate Bridge from its moorings and reroutes it to Alcatraz Island.
Still, the movie feels shallow and passionless. Whenever the action slows down enough to sneak in some emotion, it feels like forced melodrama. Overstuffed with plot lines and new mutants, the narrative never focuses enough on any one story. Essential conversations are reduced to three-line exchanges, and it becomes hard to care about the fate of any one character. Nevertheless, the sprawling cast acquits itself admirably, despite having barely written roles.
What's sorely missing is Singer's deft hand at storytelling. With his guidance, the first two films boasted both humor and humanity, balancing epic grandeur against carefully etched characters. Singer understood the core appeal of the X-Men the notion that misfits could come together as both heroes and family and shaded both films with convincing emotion and dramatic sophistication.
Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, on the other hand, undermine X-Men's familial foundations by gutting the series of its main characters. They suckerpunch fans with a pair of shocking deaths in the first act then turn the surviving team members into earnestly bland do-gooders. Even Wolverine comes off as declawed. Instead, the villains have charisma and get all the best moments.
And yet, the film still manages to be exciting and engaging. There's no getting around the visceral appeal of Last Stand's spectacle. In a summer that started off with a disappointing whimper, Ratner has managed to inject a little oomph into the blockbuster season. Ultimately, this final installment of the X-Men franchise is less lamentable for what it is and more lamentable for what it might have become.
(P.S.: Be sure to stick around for a final twist after the credits.)
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.