Friday, May 26, 2006

Well, That Was Fun

I only ask two things of superhero movies. The first is that they not bore me with pretentious claptrap, and the second is that they not insult my intelligence. These two may sometimes overlap, but not always. Although it might seem easy, so many movies fail at either one or the other, and I end up feeling like I wasted whatever monetary unit I spent in the hopes of a mild diversion. I mean, seriously, Dr. Octopus is the coolest Spider-Man villain and I wouldn't have thought it possible that they could screw up such a simple and brilliant concept - a clinically insane mad scientist with a pot belly and a mad-on for Spider-Man. How in the entire universe is it possible to screw that up? Well, apparently the morons who wrote Spider-Man 2 thought they were fucking Shakespeare over here because they sure loaded on enough backstory baggage to make me loathe Dr. Octopus, and not in the good way that we're supposed to hate villains...

Well, I am happy to report that the new X-Men film succeeds on both counts. Gone - thank the Lord! - are the long and ponderous thematic setpieces that Brian Singer used as a cudgel with which to beat the audience soundly across the head and shoulders with subtext. Here's a clue, it's called subtext for a reason. That's not to say there aren't some themes and such in the movie, but for the most part the filmmakers do a good job of keeping the subtext where it should be in an action story like this: percolating just below the surface but not in an obtrusive manner.

When I was talking about Brokeback Mountain the other day I mentioned the tendency of most American movies to bang on in such a monotonously obvious fashion with the seeming assumption that the average filmgoer has an IQ of about thirty. Well, surprisingly, X-Men 3 scored pretty high in this regard. It gives the audience a lot of credit for being able to figure things out without being hit on the head with repetitive exposition. I've already seen some complaints that there were too many characters introduced with not enough information, which is just silly. The school of storytelling that says that every onscreen character needs a fully-developed backstory and active motivation just bogs the proceedings down. In a movie like this, you don't need to really know who Colossus is or what his family life is like or what his favorite color is: you just need to know that he's a big metal guy who kicks ass. I don't think there was a single audience member at the screening I saw who was confused by Colossus or Kittie Pryde or Callisto or Madrox the Multiple Man - they knew who the characters were by what they did, which may sound simplistic but that's essentially how drama should work. Not that X-Men 3 was a great drama or anything, but I'll be damned if the screenwriters didn't succeed in putting an extremely dense block of information across with quite a deft touch, and I'll give them props for that.

Anyway, it didn't insult my intelligence and it didn't bore me. In fact, the overall effect was kind of like sniffing one of those massive jumbo-sized Pixy Stix and playing dizzy-bat. Which could be taken in a pejorative fashion, but for the purposes of an action movie like this, it's essentially the sensation they should be going for. Let's face it, the X-Men are not Tolstoy. They're cheap melodrama and spastic action in equal measure, and we sure got a fistful of both. For those who have said that the film didn't end with enough of a bang, wait a minute . . .


- didn't you see the part where Magneto destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge? I can't remember ever seeing the comic book Magneto doing anything that cool. Or the part where Jean Grey almost destroyed San Francisco? What more do you want, a tap-dancing dog who sings selections from the Threepenny Opera? Seriously, if you didn't think they had enough show-stopping action in this film, you are probably dead. I mean, seriously, check your pulse. I hate action movies and I was still suitably impressed.

For those who were worried that the Beast would just be Kelsey Grammer covered in blue hair, well, yeah, that's what he was. But you know, that's basically who the Beast is in the comics, so I don't see how there's any ground for complaints. And he even got to use his catchphrase - you know the one - and I'll be damned if even my jaded mug didn't crack a smile at that.

I even liked that the climactic battle took place on Alcatraz - if you remember, the big battle at the end of the first film took place on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. I thought that was a nice bit of symmetry. Again, someone was paying attention to the little things.

So whereas everyone predicted that a Brett Ratner-directed X-Men film would be a horrible ramshackle mess, it actually turns out to be the best of the franchise, quite possibly the best Marvel movie yet (still neck-and-neck in my mind with the first Blade). Am I alone in thinking that the first two movies were lifeless and desiccated where they should have been energized and jam-packed? Finally, we have a comic book movie that actually succeeds in evoking the very best qualities of its source material. If I were Marvel I'd be worried, because in all honesty I enjoyed this movie a lot more than any superhero comic book I've read in ages. If Hollywood has finally figured out how to faithfully replicate the cheap thrills of an X-Men comic book, why even continue to publish the dirty little rags? That's a damn good question . . .

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