Deep down, we're all comic book nerds

X-Men: The Last Stand
Directed by Brett Ratner | 20th Century Fox | 104 minutes
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, Rebecca Romijn, James Marsden, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Patrick Stewart, Tanya Newbould

Are movie goers nerds? Aren’t comic books for nerds? Then why are millions upon millions flocking to comic book-based movies like X-Men 3: The Last Stand?

Comic book adaptations have dominated blockbuster cinema since Superman premiered in 1978. Then came the Superman sequels of the 80s: Superman 2, Superman 3, and Superman 4: The Quest for Peace. There was no reprieve: Batman made its debut in 1989, followed by Batman Returns, then Batman Forever, then Batman and Robin, and, most recently, after a seven-year respite -- if you don’t count the Batman spin-off flesh-fest Catwoman -- audiences were treated to the excellent Batman Begins last year. Seven years was too long for movie goers to survive without comic books on film, so Hollywood produced X-Men in 2000, Spiderman in 2002, X-Men 2 in 2003, and Spiderman 2 in 2004.

Comic book influence on films does not stop there: movies like V for Vendetta, Over the Hedge, Hellboy, Daredevil, Dick Tracy, Fantastic 4, The Punisher, The Hulk, as well as the movies and sequels based on comics such as Men in Black, Garfield and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But some might be surprised to know that many well-known movies were once obscure comics. These include A History of Violence, Constantine, Blade 1, 2, and 3, and The Mask. The recent release of the deplorably grotesque yet slickly produced and star-studded Sin City saw the growing power of comic book art over film makers’ imagination. Sin City was overwhelmingly computer graphic designed in order to give a colourful and drawn --even paneled -- feeling to all the sets in order to remain faithful to the original comic book series.

Audiences will feast on comic books for a while.  Superman returns this summer in -- you guessed it -- Superman Returns, and over 180 films based on comics are in production or pre-production, 15 of which are sequels. This weekend X-Men 3 opened to an eager public, bagging US$107 million on its opening weekend, thus becoming the fourth biggest opener of all time. Yet despite the success, and the obvious enthusiasm for and trend toward even more comic book movies, X-Men 3 takes the ironic subtitle The Last Stand. The film closes the main narrative of the X-Men definitively.

AngelmanThe Uncanny X-Men comic book series, designed by Stan Lee, has a simple premise: genetic mutation yields a varied “race” of humanoids called mutants. Their powers are as varied as the imagination and have little to do with genetics. For instance Halle Berry’s character Storm can control the weather. There is no doubt that this premise, like the sweeping genetic inscape visuals that hallmark the X-Men trilogy’s cinematography, perpetuates a childlike belief in the miracles of future genetic research -- but to dwell on these issues would be to misrepresent the film.

X-Men 3 is an absurd film that patches together dozens -- hundreds for the nerds -- of kitchy references to the comic books, including a whole platoon of more obscure mutants designed to do in one movie what was done in thousands of X-Men comics and spin-offs. This is understandable. Like most other comic books which go to Hollywood, the film attempts to please by letting audiences, who have had to rely only on their imagination, finally see their favourite heroes fight “for real”. And since comic book heroes are best known for their fighting, X-Men 3 has a number of royal rumbles between mutants. Everyone who knows who these various mutants are will be pleased or displeased depending on how much they know and how often they have truly considered how (say) Wolverine would attack someone with sonic thunder-clapping powers from 30 paces.

For those who are still nursing their inner nerd, the film messes up the Dark Phoenix Saga completely. Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, who in the comics was the real leader, collapses, whining his way into oblivion. Wolverine is too cutsie;  Magneto is too passive; Ice-Man is under-used; Juggernaught is too small; and Mystique is too psycho (not to mention--unlike the comic--usually traipsing around in a nearly nude looking body suit: the real Mystique had some class at least). Only Beast, played by Kelsey Grammer of Frasier fame, is close to the comic book original. Unhappily, unlike the first two X-Men movies, the producers have starved the film of special effects. While characters in the previous two films got lavish computer graphic attention, even CG-only fight scenes, Beast was reduced to a man doing wire work in a big blue suit.

Why this happened is complicated, so listen closely. X-Men 3 had a troubled production history. The first director was Bryan Singer. He had directed the first two X-Men movies and had already designed several sets before he jumped ship. Then he was replaced by Matthew Vaughn, director of Layer Cake, who was told to beat Superman Returns into the movie theatres. The rival film was being directed by -- you guessed it --  Bryan Singer. Then Vaughn departed, citing “personal reasons”. Then Bryan Ratner, director of the two Rush Hour films and the original director of -- yes, right again -- Superman Returns --  was called in only weeks before shooting began. So this game of musical chairs may explain why X-Men 3 is both last and least in the series.

But for those who do not nurse their inner comic book nerd, the movie is pure popcorn. There are dramatic reversals, such as whether or not to close Prof. Xavier’s school, that would fit well in a suspenseful toddler TV program. Characters are developed by means of ham-handed one-liners and come backs: “I hope you’re ready to do what you have to do!” And while some may have come to love these characters by reading the comics, the movie itself does not allow audiences to bond with, and thus to mourn the numerous deaths of beloved characters in this Last Stand. But all this should not matter if movie goers know what they are getting into: this is a comic book, people!

Ice fights fire Ratner has some experience directing popcorn in films like Rush Hour. Another, better movie he directed was The Family Man, a simple Capra-esque comedy about the goodness and greatness of family love in the face of greed and power. X-Men 3 tries to develop the far more complicated and intricate comic book themes, such as minority rights, power and responsibility, the desire to fit in and the desire to stand out. However, by the time the film sufficiently satiates nerds’ desire to see characters finally strut their stuff “for real”, there is little time for deep and meaningful stuff. Even the semi-steamy scene, aside from being a bit overboard, falls so emotionally flat that if one is not stupified by the movie at that point, it might seem odd that Wolverine is tempted to make-out with--SEMI-SPOILER--a psycho-killer who just wasted her own boyfriend.  But hey, who cares, right?

While one should expect little from the genre itself, the movie under-used a number of top-quality actors such as Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Vinnie Jones and Halle Berry. Both dramatically and mutant power-wise, Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier -- they’re his “X-Men” after all- -- especially gets the shaft. All the same, X-Men 3 is an eye popping bonanza of superhero power-flexing, and people don’t go to the Colosseum for high drama, now do they?

Ironically, whether you are or are not a comic book nerd, the film will likely leave you with a sense that the writers and director(s) of X-Men 3 simply lack imagination. If you’re a nerd then the plot line will drive you nuts for its impurities. And if you’re not, then you’ll still feel a little deflated. If mutants have all these incredible powers, then you’ll wonder why so and so didn’t simply use this power then, or that power there. Perhaps it is a limitation of the medium of film, perhaps of finance, perhaps of Brett Ratner -- but whatever the excuse, my advice is to stick with the comic books. But maybe that’s too nerdy.

Matthew Mehan is US Editor of MercatorNet.


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