Monday, June 05, 2006

X-Men 3: Where Fandom Failed

My sentiments regarding X-Men: The Last Stand, or X3, are far from unique. Dissenting comic book fans from all around the world have voiced their displeasure over the latest in a long line of Marvel movie missteps. And yet, despite all the negativity spewing forth from frustrated fanboys such as myself, the movie has somehow raked in an obscene amount of money since its release. Granted, it has also experienced one of the sharpest week-to-week dropoff in movie history (a whopping 67 percent), but this still does not change the fact that this piece of puerile pap, this cinematic carrion, is a bonafied hit.

(I apologize for the excessive alliteration. I've been on a Stan Lee binge lately, and I find myself unable to keep from imitating his charmingly bombastic style, so face front, True Believers, and bear with me for the remainder of this rambling rant.)

The only explanation for X3's success lies in the ignorance of the general populace. To Freddy Fratboy and Sally Sixth-grader, the X-Men represent nothing more than the awkwardly leather-clad gang of misfits presented in the films. There is no concept of their uniquely convoluted history, none of the pathos introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, nor the depth and resonance that Chris Claremont and John Byrne brought to the comic books. The X-Men have become pure popcorn fluff, movies to be watched, enjoyed, and immediately forgotten. There are feeble attempts to introduce the allegory upon which the entire X-Universe is based scattered through the films, but these are lost to the vast majority of moviegoers who refuse to look past the laser beams, lightning bolts and claws.

Now, don't get the idea that I didn't enjoy the first two movies at all. Far from it. I appreciated X-Men for simply bringing the mutants to the big screen in the first place, albeit in a somewhat bastardized form, and I could see the seeds of greatness within X2, just waiting for the opportunity to bloom into a truly satisfying third film. I wasn't entirely happy with some of the choices director Bryan Singer had made, particularly concerning the costumes and the horrific treatment of my favorite character, Cyclops. Still, his heart was in the right place and his admiration, if not respect, for the source material was readily apparent. So, when it was announced that Singer was leaving the franchise to do Superman Returns, and uberhack director Brett Ratner had been signed in his stead, I was more than a little wary. Then, like a hammer pounding the final nail into the X-Films franchise coffin, a script review appeared on Ain't It Cool News. It wasn't pretty.

Rumors had already been rumbling around actress Halle Berry, who played the weather-manipulating mutant Storm, and her dissatisfaction with her perceived lack of screen time. Like an angry little child in a sandbox, Berry threatened to quit and take her toys home with her if the studio and screenwriters did not give into her demands. Storm, who's lack of recognition and success in the previous films can only be attributed the Berry's bored, amateur performance, was to be shoved down our throats whether we liked her or not. It was only a question of which character would be the one to suffer at her expense. AICN's script scoop confirmed what X-fans had been suspecting for some time: Cyclops was toast.

Scott Summers, codenamed Cyclops, is the heart and soul of the X-Men and the glue which holds the team together. From the very first issue in 1963 to Joss Whedon's current blockbuster run in Astonishing X-Men, Cyclops has been has been portrayed as an utterly loyal, trustworthy, capable and steadfast leader. He isn't the "darkest" character around, he doesn't run all over creation slicing people apart or blasting them with enormously phallic Rob Liefeld laser cannons. He simply does his job, protecting a world that hates and fears him. Why is it, then, that the X-films have completely thrown this character to the side? In X-Men, sadly his finest on-screen portrayal, he was little more than a second banana to Wolverine. In X2, Cyke was unceremoniously captured barely 15 minutes in and was thus absent from the rest of the film. That is, until he finally emerged with twenty minutes left to battle Jean Grey as a mind-controlled henchman. In X3, he dies. Within the first quarter of the movie. And absolutely none of the characters care.

It's a little-known but true fact that the original X-film was, for a time, going to be called "Wolverine and the X-Men." As ludicrous as that sounds, it's actually a far more accurate description than the actual title. From the very moment the rights were sold, there was little doubt that the movies would focus primarily on the ol' Canucklehead. And why not? He is far and away the most popular character, and to not have him front and center would be both a financial and artistic mistake. However, Wolverine's "push," to speak in wrestling terms, should not come at the expense of the other characters, particularly those who have been X-Men (in the comics) for far longer. The extent of this favoritism even spread to the books themselves, as evidenced when artist Alan Davis was recently asked to kill off Cyclops within the pages of the comic. His reply came in the form of a sketch:

There is no place that the utter disrespect for Cyclops, and indeed the X-Men in general, is more prevalent than in X3, and it's so called "adaptation" of the legendary Dark Phoenix Saga.

The Dark Phoenix Saga, as it appeared in X-Men #129-138 by Claremont and Byrne, is still regarded as one of the most captivating and complex comic book storylines of all time. It is a tale of corruption and redemption, addiction and despair, love and sacrifice. In a nutshell, Jean Grey, lover of Cyclops, has found herself as the host of an unthinkable cosmic essence, the Phoenix Force. With seemingly limitless power at her fingertips, she begins to experience sensations and feelings that in her wildest dreams she had never thought possible. Soon, Jean, now calling herself the Phoenix, begins to crave this power like a junkie craves a fix. Already unstable, a number of unfortunate circumstances and outside influences push Phoenix over the edge, and she casts aside her earthbound shackles and human conscience to become the Dark Phoenix. She attacks and nearly kills her closest friends, menaces her family. Overcome with an insatiable hunger for power, she flies into the heart of a nearby sun, consuming it and dooming billions of inhabitants on an orbiting planet.

Thanks to Professor Xavier, Jean comes to her senses just long enough for her, along with the rest of the X-Men, to be beamed aboard an interstellar starship by a race of birdlike aliens, the Shi'ar. Long story short, the X-Men are forced to do battle with an elite squad of superpowered extraterrestrials on the surface of the moon, the Dark Phoenix resurfaces, and upon being reminded of the love she once shared with Cyclops, she regains her humanity long enough to destroy herself, saving her friends, her loved ones, and ultimately the entire universe.

Sounds just like X3, right?

Now, granted, there are elements of the original story that would never work in the more realistic universe portrayed in the X-films. I doubt that the mainstream audience would find the concept of mutants battling alien gladiators on the moon anything but absurd. Still, the core concept of the saga is pure enough to be translated onscreen in a feasible way, if the filmmakers treat it with the respect it deserves. Sadly, that didn't happen.

Throughout X3, we are told of the awesome power of the Phoenix, that she is an entity capable of unfathomable destruction. But we are never shown it. Sure, we see the Phoenix disintegrate some soldiers, an army barracks, and even Professor X himself, but the incredibly mundane way in which her powers are presented suck any sense of terror and awe from the spectacle, and we are left with a zombie-faced woman standing around while dust swirls around her. The brilliant firebird, the blazing Phoenix raptor that has come to signify the character and her cosmic presence is nowhere to be found, even after showing up in the final seconds of X2! The movie Phoenix spends most of her time as a silent henchwoman, content to mill around, glare menacingly and take orders from Magneto, who, as performed by Sir Ian McKellen, was one of the few bright spots in this otherwise dreadfully dull film. In the end, instead of coming to understand that true love is an even greater power than the Phoenix and nobly taking her own life, Jean is impaled by Wolverine as he hacks and slashes his way through her disintegration field. What could have been a truly poignant moment is thrown away in exchange for a gruesome special effects scene as Wolvie's flesh is torn from his adamantium bones while he endeavors toward his goal.

I could go into the myriad of other problems I had with the film, from the ridiculous gimp Juggernaut to the criminally underutilized Colossus, but it would be pointless. X-Men: The Last Stand was a disappointment in every sense of the word, save perhaps financially, and that is the biggest disappointment of all. The filmmakers and producers treated this property with nothing but disrespect and contempt and were rewarded with one of the biggest opening weekends in history. The movie studios now have free reign to tramp all over out beloved characters and stories, since, according to the box-office, the true fans do not matter. Mainstream America, it seems, is fully content with a washed-out, diluted and bland version of what comic fans have come to know as a dynamic, engaging franchise. One can only hope that in five or six years a talented young director will reinvigorate the franchise in the same way that Christopher Nolan revived Batman. Until X-Men Begins comes along, however, I'll have to keep myself satisfied with Singer's upcoming Superman Returns. As an unabashed Marvel Zombie, it almost pains me to say this, but from what I can tell it looks every bit the movie that X3 should have been.


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At 3:26 AM, Blogger Shell Presto said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3:27 AM, Blogger Shell Presto said...

I don't think I've ever seen Cyclops so well-defended on the Internet. He's one of my favorite characters, too, at least before they ruined him in every media possible.



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