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Bryan Singer was an X-factor when he took the helm of the first X-Men film. He was a smart indie director who knew his way around a twisting plot and carefully choreographed action sequences. But critics and the fan-boys questioned whether he would be able to capture lightning in a comic book extravaganza and spark a franchise.

The result? Singer ably translated the Civil Rights-era argument of integration versus solidarity and minority empowerment from a strictly racial dynamic into a world of evolutionary genetic mutation. He improved stylistically with more elaborate and fluid special-effects wizardry in X2: X-Men United, and now flies off into the realm of a more mythic Superman seeking rebirth.

So who would make The Last Stand? In an attempt to follow the Singer precedent, Guy Ritchie producing partner Matthew Vaughn (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) was tapped after an auspicious directing debut with Layer Cake, which was certainly the icing that sweetened Daniel Craig’s bid to earn his 007 rank in the upcoming James Bond film, Casino Royale.

Vaughn would likely have joined Singer and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) on the road to blockbuster status. But when he removed himself for personal reasons, the producers settled on a most unusual choice in Brett Ratner, a smash-and-grab guy (see the Rush Hour series), not a criminal mastermind. (Don’t even try comparing his Red Dragon to Michael Mann’s Manhunter.)

Talk about a last stand.

This could most certainly be it for our favorite “Homo Superiors.”

X3 begins with a flashback 20 years ago to Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Eric Lensherr (Sir Ian McKellan) visiting the home of a young Jean Grey (Haley Ramm). The two comrades-in-arms recruit only the most special teenage mutants together, offering them reassurance that the Xavier School for Gifted Students will be a safe haven for them, a place to grow and learn how to adjust to their unique talents. With two daddies, how could the place be any more nurturing?

Moving forward 10 years, another young man has locked himself in the bathroom of a penthouse apartment of a towering high-rise. This blond, angelic youth feverishly snips away at an unseen area on his back as his father pounds on the door. There are traces of blood … and feathers before the father bursts in.

By the time X3 reaches the present, there’s no looking back. The perceived mutant threat has warranted a cabinet-level post occupied by a furry, blue, loquacious academic named Dr. Hank McCoy, aka The Beast (Kelsey Grammer). In fact, the U.S. government expends great resources tracking Lensherr, better known as Magneto, and his mutant terrorist associates. The shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romjin) has been captured and faces a most amusing interrogation, which results in an embarrassing lack of control with absolutely no meaningful information gathered during the tortured exchange.

There are welcome hints to classic X-Men storylines like Days of Future Past and the Dark Phoenix Saga, but the details have been scrambled and reassembled into an adaptation that belongs strictly to the Marvel Comic film world of Zak Penn (X2, Elektra) and script rewriter Simon Kinberg (Fantastic Four, Elektra, Catwoman). At the forefront of the narrative, a cure has been developed for the mutant gene and a battle wages within the mutant community (suppress or express yourself) with the greater human society largely on the sidelines.

The cure presents a paradigm shift that could have propelled the philosophical and ethical debate from race and genetics into the intricacies of sexual orientation, but that would have been a different discussion, one that Singer might have addressed more fully.

Instead, Ratner dodges the thorny discourse in favor of brute physical conflict. He allows Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to bare his adamantium claws, draw much blood and even get tossed around in a couple of fastball specials by his metal-skinned teammate Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), while Ororo/Storm (Halle Berry) finally has the opportunity to unleash the deadly potential of the weather on her foes.

And then there is Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who mysteriously returns from the dead (see X2) and brings a newly awakened force within her that is more powerful than all of the known mutants’ abilities combined.

Simply put, Ratner believes that in order to survive one must fight with any and all weapons at one’s disposal and fight to the death if necessary. Death, at least in comic books, is not as final as it seems. But it’s worth noting that, in The Last Stand, each loss is clearly and deeply felt because there are quiet beats between the set pieces.

The adult romantic entanglement between Logan, Jean and Scott (James Marsden) — and even the adolescent jealousy of Rogue (Anna Paquin) for the budding attraction she senses between super-cool Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) and the immaterial girl Kitty (Ellen Page) — has far more emotional weight than MI3‘s Ethan Hunt straying from his true love (himself) for a meaningless marriage of inconvenience.

Last Stand is, at times, little more than a blunt drum when audiences might have wished for a finely-tuned instrument. But mutants are at war here. This moving drum march is a worthy addition to the X-Men film canon, and quite possibly the best Ratner effort to date. He has unleashed the dogs of war and given us a swift resolution to the conflict at hand.

But have no fear — Ratner and the X-Men will strike again. Grade: B+