That may be the bottom line concerning X-Men 3: The Last Stand, one of the blockbusters of the summer of 2006. To the good, the third movie in the X-Men franchise moves assuredly from special-effects set-piece to special effects set-piece like a well-oiled machine. And the crux of the story - an injection that "cures" mutants - is a solid, interesting hook on which to hang a tale.
And yet, a crucial element of heart seems to be missing on this go-round. The film's story is an outline in search of a plot, despite the potential of that narrative hook. Worse, the familiar characters march lock-step through their paces on automatic pilot; as if nobody behind-the-scenes thought to provide actual motivation for anything they say or do. The actors all seem bored and disengaged. They showed up, and that's a plus, I guess.
Now, I'm not going to bash Brett Ratner, the director. That's too easy and too common. On the contrary, he manages to stage and shoot the set-pieces with aplomb. If we're being honest here, he manages this aspect of the production far better than Bryan Singer handled the Statue of Liberty battle in the original X-Men back in 2000 (a melange of confusing perspectives and close-ups that lacked scope). Nope, Ratner may have been but a hired hand on this project, but he does a competent job with what he's been given in terms of script. The fault isn't his.
The fault is in the script...which is a turd. The story involves the mutant community's reaction to the "cure" which will transform them all into humans. At the same time, the script resurrects Jane Grey as Dark Phoenix, a force of pure evil. How did she manage to survive the crisis at the end of X2? "Her powers wrapped her in a cocoon of telekinetic energy," Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) helpfully explains. Oh. And if you believe that, I have a bridge in San Francisco I want to sell you...
Anyway, as goofy as that one sentence explanation is, I accept it. For purposes of the story we need our evil Phoenix in action, so...whatever. Dramatic license and all. What I can't and don't accept is the slapdash way the film abruptly and immediately kills off Cyclops. Can someone explain to me why Dark Phoenix kills Cyclops but not Logan? (Hint: Jackman's a bigger star.) How does she kill Cyclops? Why don't we ever see it? Why has it been relegated to an off-screen moment? Why does she take a near-roll-in-the-hay with Logan but not Scott, before killing him? Why murder a franchise character in such a half-assed, unfocused way? A way in which, I might add, he contributes nothing to the plot? Cyclops has a cameo in this movie, and that's about it.
Secondly, why does Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) not even think about what might have happened to Scott until AFTER he frees Jane Grey from mental restraint in the lab. Is he that stupid? It suddenly occurs to Wolverine - after Phoenix is up and about and acting nutsy - that she might have had something to do with Scott's disappearance. Not the brightest bulb, this Wolverine, I guess. On the other hand, at least he actually thought of Cyclops. The script provides not a word of sorrow, confusion or worry over Scott's fate from Storm, Rogue or Professor Xavier. Aren't these guys supposed to be a team? What's with all the Cyclops non-love?
One story-point and its resolution illuminates best the problems with the film's script. Rogue, the mutant who absorbs the powers of any mutant she touches, struggles with the idea of the cure. Should she take it or not? What would she give up if she did so? What would she gain? Of all the mutants, Rogue certainly has the most dramatic reason for wanting the cure. After all, her powers physically separate her from those she loves. This should be a focal point of the script. But the plot point is resolved in a short scene, again in by-the-numbers fashion. With little build-up, she reveals to Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) that she took the cure. Oh, okay. So it was more important to Rogue to have physical intimacy...I get that. I believe it.
But hah! Then, in the deleted scenes, you'll see the exact same scene, only this time with the opposite resolution. Rogue has decided not to get the cure; to retain her powers, in this version. It's the same scene, except for her choice. In other words, the writers never sat down, got into Rogue's head and attempted to figure out exactly what it is that this character would want or desire. Nope. It was just a flip of the coin, apparently. That stinks if you're writing a movie and you understand the characters so little that you don't know where they'd stand on the plot's main point.
So the morality of the cure is not even examined here. Was Rogue wrong to want it? To get it? To give up her powers? Would she have been wrong not to have taken the mutant antibody? X3: The Last Stand has no idea. Why? There's cars to flip over and bridges to destroy!!!
Finally, why do Storm, Wolverine, Kitty, Iceman, and the other X-Men defend the humans from Magneto and his Brotherhood, when it's fairly obvious that the American government is indeed launching a genocide against Mutants? I mean, the U.S. President has authorized the use of the anti-mutant drug as a weapon. It can be fired from guns like bullets, for heaven's sake. Is that not evidence that his Administration has it out for mutants? But because the X-Men are the good guys (a priori...), they defend the human race.
Well, I'll tell you something, sometimes the human race ain't worth defending. Sometimes, we do stupid ass shit and need a smackdown. Why don't the X-Men fight Magneto AND disarm the human troops carrying the mutant "cure?" I'm reminded, of some reason, for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which didn't play favorites in terms of species...even though the audience was exclusively homo sapien. In that film, humans enslaved apes and treated the simians terribly...monstrously. The audience was rooting for the apes to win their bloody insurrection, because mankind had proven totally unworthy of being the "master" race. X3 seems to believe that the audience will be on mankind's side no matter what...even though mankind has broken faith by turning the "voluntary" cure into a pogram of eradication.
Again, it's as though the writers just didn't ever stop to think about what any of the characters in this story would legitimately feel. For that matter, what's up with the U.S. President? He's got a mutant ensconced in his administration and seems reasonable. So then why does he go from making the cure voluntary to weaponizing it? Again, the script provides not a single line of dialogue that explains his motivations.
In The X-Men universe, "mutantcy" is an allegory for homosexuality in our world. Can gays be cured? Would they want to be cured if they could? This is not an issue that's settled or obscure today. So why doesn't this film take a "stand" (or last stand...) on the matter? Why doesn't it have characters on either side of the debate passionately argue their point? Again, I suspect because there's wire-work to do, and things to smash ("I'm the juggernaut, bitch!") But an opportunity has been missed. Imagine how much more powerful it would have been if The X-Men themselves (forget Magneto...) were divided on the issue of a cure.
Again, another movie franchise, Star Trek, handled this sort of idea well. The Undiscovered Country was all about racism...even the "invisible" racism of the Enterprise crew. "Let them die," Kirk said of the Klingons. "They don't place the same value on life as we do," Scotty told Spock about the Klingons. These were horrible comments revealing that the characters we love were indeed flawed and human (we're all that way..., come on!) However, in the course of the film, Scotty, Chekov ("Guess who's coming to dinner?") and Kirk were confronted with their own racism and were able to rise above it. That's what makes them heroes! Yet in X3, the X-Men are all golden goodies, and the folks in the Brotherhood are all black hats. There's no nuance or shades of gray, and thus the issue at the core of the film is not explored in any significant way. Characters like Storm and Wolverine don't learn anything in the course of the movie. Not about the cure and not about themselves. They thought one way at the beginning of the adventure and they feel the exact same way at the end of the story. Kinda boring. And deeply, deeply disappointing, since The X-Men comic-book has always been about a disenfranchised minority fighting for freedom in a society that doesn't understand it.
X3 is a competently-made film, and the twin mutant smackdowns (one at Grey's house; the other at Alcatraz) get the adrenaline pumping. But there's something terribly by-the-numbers about this sequel. It's not so much that it feels rushed, just that it feels...empty. Again, like an outline in search of a movie. If you turn off your brain, it's entertaining enough, I suppose. It's not embarrassingly bad. Just...vacant.
On the scale of superhero sequels, this not the worst (Superman III, Batman and Robin, RoboCop 3), but it is nowhere near the top tier either (Superman II, Spider-Man 2). It's actually not even a Blade 2. Instead, it's down in the middle of the pack somewhere...a kind of sorry ranking for a "last stand."