Saturday, June 10, 2006

On X-Men 3

The Last Stand indeed. Mega budget directors have so thoroughly ruined the finality of that word that nowadays “last” is indistinguishable from “next.” Nothing is final in the pop landscape, least of all death so it’s no surprise that nobody believes that this is the final X-men movie. But X-men 3 should be, if Brett Ratner intends to direct any more.

Couple months ago, Entertainment Weekly did a story on why fans were so worried about X-3. Chief among their worries was the hiring of Brett Ratner to replace Bryan Singer. If you’ve never heard of him, well Ratner, like Charlie’s Angel’s Mc G or that Pearl Harbor jackass, is a new breed of hack. For some reason Hollywood seems to expect something from Ratner and hands him projects such as Red Dragon to do. But the vastly more talented Michael Mann already made Red Dragon, except he called his movie Manhunter. And while that movie shows clear signs of 80’s datedness, Manhunter was also the early work of a virtuoso and for my money, the best of the Hannibal Lecter films (Check out Brian Cox as Lecter). But Rattner wasn’t handed Red Dragon to make art, he was hired to make money. Which he’s very good at by the way. Ratner is a celeb director who loves his celebrity but he is not a geek. This is what sinks X-men 3.

For if you’re not aware, X-men is the finest geek story ever told, one of the best depictions of what it means to not belong but wanting to. Laugh all you want, but I learned more about accepting my outsider status from X-men than both the Bible and Notes From the Underground. I can still tell you what happens in issue 175 and why Wolverine would have been bitter in issue 180. Hell, I can tell you the first line in the first episode of the mutant massacre. And while the comic lost me when it went mega, the characters did not. Wolverine did more to make me feel like I was a pretty cool person than any Tony Robbins seminar. Naturally, as you’re picking up from all this, I had a geekish love for this comic that bordered on obsession. I’m not sure if Bryan Singer did too, but there was no question of his geekiness.

While I was not that sold on the first, X2 was possibly the finest comic film I’ve seen. Not much competition there, I know, but still the movie dared to have an emotional resonance that a regular action film would never even attempt. But back to geeks and Brett Ratner. While the X-men comics and first two movies were clear depictions of geek issues, (wanting to belong, hated because of difference) and geek obsessions (super powers, girls in tight leather) the third film is what happens when the dumb jock crashes the party. And Ratner, always ready to jump in when a film is in a pinch, dumbs the film considerably. Its not that he wasn’t trying to make a good film. This movie still has moments of genuine feeling and he even gets to kill off a few key characters but the film rings hollow as soon as the credits roll. The movie tries too hard to pull at every button and there’s no button Rattner won’t push because that’s exactly what filmmaking seems to be to him; to push the right sequence of keys. Then when the action comes, the scenes are tired, pre-Matrix and too dependent on spectacle. If the movie’s concept wasn’t so strong to begin with and if Hugh Jackman wasn’t so good, this movie would have be blown away by a storm wind (I know, but it’s hard to come up with a clever metaphor on such short notice.)

In his response to all the online bitching about him taking over the ‘franchise’ Ratner seemed puzzled and thought he was being playa hated; that these geeks hated him because he was successful. This shows not only a colossal ignorance of his target market but also one of the dumb misconceptions jocks have of geeks, freaks and nerds, that we don’t like showy people because they are successful. Actually we don’t like showoffs and hacks because they are assholes. We just didn’t think that a jock could tell the ultimate geek myth and we were right.

Inexperienced as he was in these waters, Rattner does what other hacks do when faced with a geek movie. He queers it up. So the new X-men has so much gay subtext that Top Gun now seems like a John Wayne film. Joel Schumacher did the same thing with Batman and Robin, having George Clooney and that other guy in such a love fest that you screamed “Get a room!” before you even noticed that the costumes had nipples. Subtext isn’t subtext when the subtext screams look at me! Ain’t I deep?

Since we’ve established that Rattner is not the most emotionally nuanced director out there one would think he would compensate in the Bang! Pow! department. But he fails there as well, mistaking spectacle for momentum. Only someone who thinks in terms of thrills instead of story would waste a good five to six minutes on a character moving a bridge. What, mutants don’t fly anymore? After seeing this movie I’m not sure Ratner is good with action either. There are several directors and screen writers out there who are redefining action movies. J.J. Abrams (Alias), Joss Whedon (Buffy), James Cameron, Luc Besson, not to mention the Hong Kong posse; (Takeshi Miike, Takeshi Kitano, Wai Keung Lau) all inject action films with serious gravitas, melancholy and consequence. Ratner, a true graduate of the Jerry Bruckheimer school of film still make movies like he’s just happy to get the job.

This is sad because X-men 3 is not a bad movie at all. What is interesting is watching a good story at the core struggling to get out from all the excess laid on top of it. A large part of the credit goes to Hugh Jackman and Ian Mackellen who save the movie from itself (Plus I forgive anything with Vinnie Jones). The movie’s finest scene is one of the least staged, where feeling unbearable grief, Iceman freezes a fountain so that he and Kitty pride can go out for a simple ice skate. That’s the one scene that speaks to our ability to make new families when we’ve lost old ones, out of the most unlikely of people. A bittersweet story at the core of every freak or geek’s heart. If you’re a jock, cheerleader, popular person, yuppie or a proud jeans shorts wearer, you most likely puked at what I just wrote. This is why one of your number should never have been given a geek story like X-men to make. You never read comics anyway.