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By Pete Vonder Haar | May 27, 2006

There was much consternation when director Bryan Singer left the “X-Men” franchise to helm the new Superman movie. This was the guy made a couple of comic book movies that ended up being two of 20th Century Fox’s biggest recent earners, after all, the success of which paved the way for movies based on Spider-Man, the Hulk, and…the Punisher, and The Fantastic Four. Marvel’s lackluster recent efforts aside, the first two “X-Men” movies achieved enough – both critically and at the box office – to leave many to wonder whether the series could survive Singer’s departure.

After seeing “X-Men: The Last Stand,” I’m still not sure. The franchise may not be dead, but it sure felt like the crash cart was rolling in.

New director Brett Ratner, the auteur who brought us “The Family Man” and the upcoming (and wholly unnecessary) third “Rush Hour” installment, finds himself in charge here. And during an early flashback sequence (Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and a pre-Magneto Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen) meeting Jean Grey) and a Danger Room exercise involving the current team, things seem like they might be all right. Granted, the scene isn’t really shot all that well, and the whole thing looks…cheaper, as if an inexplicably large chunk of the budget went to pay Halle Berry’s salary (her role is indeed larger, and she is woefully incapable of meeting the challenge). But hey, at least we’re off to a decent start.

It doesn’t last.

“X-Men” and “X2” may have been popcorn flicks about people who can shoot frickin’ laser beams out of their eyes, but Singer and screenwriter David Hayter nevertheless kept the goings-on grounded in the characters. Whether or not you bought the possibility that some machine could mutate all of New York or that a woman could mimic any human being on the planet, you could at least relate to the relatively commonplace themes of alienation and persecution.

What Ratner and writer Zak Penn have given us instead is a generic plot involving a vaccine developed by the government to “cure” mutants. These same mutants are, understandably, a little concerned by the news. Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood, wants to take out the facility housing the vaccine’s source (a boy with the ability to negate other mutant powers). Meanwhile the X-Men are wringing their hands over the reappearance of a decidedly pissed off Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the disappearance of Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), and the future of Xavier’s School.

With a number of old favorites, uh…removed from action early on, we also get about a hundred new mutant characters, each seemingly less interesting than the last. Look out, it’s…Porcupine Guy! His hugs are lethal! And there’s “Angel,” who…flies around a lot with his shirt off (don’t worry, he’ll eventually be cool when Apocalypse gets a hold of him and turns him into “Archangel”). The others might have been interesting had they been given more to do than stand around looking sullen. Magneto’s tattooed bad guys (Callisto, Juggernaut, Arclight) mope around like they’re at a Dashboard Confessional concert, and of the new X-Men, only Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) grabs our attention.

Ratner escapes without further egg on his face largely because he still had enough of Singer’s old sets on hand to get away with not adding anything original to the mix. The sole exception is the opening Danger Room sequence – which, if this movie it to be believed, is essentially the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Good thing Patrick Stewart was on hand. And our familiarity with the characters somehow carries us through dialogue that sounds like it came straight from the ‘90s “X-Men” cartoon (if I heard the line “We fight as a team” one more time I was going to garrote the guy sitting in front of me with his own Twizzlers).

Without paying too much attention to matters of comics continuity (brushed aside in the first two films, and flushed down the toilet here), there are a few glaringly obnoxious plot holes. For instance, say you’ve just captured the second-in-command/girlfriend of the most powerful evil mutant on the planet; a mutant who just happens to control magnetism. Would you imprison that person in a truck – wait for it – made out of metal?

And of course, the door is left wide open for sequel possibilities. There’s a final scene with Magneto, a post-credits sequence involving something hinted at earlier in the film, and the opening scene, in which the X-Men find themselves fighting a Sentinel. However, other than also introducing the character of Trask, there’s nothing to indicate why the non-comics person should find this compelling. Big robot? Big deal.

All this really gets to the heart of the movie’s problem. The idea of a “cure” for mutants and the inevitable weaponizing of this technology raises some interesting questions, but the deepest Ratner goes is having Rogue get all petulant about not getting to make out with Bobby. Other than that, he’s in too much of a hurry to get to his gonzo action finale to show us why we should care (this is, coincidentally, where Ratner really misses Jackie Chan; all the fight scenes are poorly staged and clumsily edited). “X-Men: The Last Stand” has a few high points, but feels far too disjointed and slapdash to favorably compare to what came before.

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