And so it ends, not with a whimper but a big, noisy bang. If the first X-Men was Rogue (tentative, callow, unsure of its true purpose) and the second was Nightcrawler (dynamic, unpredictable, capable of both shocking violence and surprising tenderness), then the third film must surely be Juggernaut: a muscular, unstoppable mechanism with all the grace of a charging rhinoceros. It would be easy to blame this on director Brett Ratner, whose profitable track record of brash, disposable entertainment could not be further removed from Bryan Singer’s semi-autobiographical labours of love. In fairness, though, the dye was cast the moment Fox chose to press on without the latter, spurning his offer to return once he’d got the Man of Steel out his system, turning instead to journeyman safe-hands who could guarantee its shareholders a lucrative blockbuster for summer 2006.
Given the widespread misgivings about his appointment, Ratner should be commended for persuading the regulars to return – even if some (Patrick Stewart, Superman turncoat James Marsden) deliver no more than extended cameos. And there’s no denying that, in terms of sheer eye-popping spectacle, The Last Stand is easily the equal of its prequels, with some of the sequences – the Danger Room opening, the scrap in suburbia, the Golden Gate Bridge in flight – topping anything Singer could come up with. Nor do writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn and the Rush Hour director cold-shoulder the first two movies’ implicit gay allegory, embellishing their bigotry subtext with a plot device (a ‘mutant cure’ jab) that explicitly addresses hot-button topics like eugenics and ethnic cleansing.
For all that, there’s something that’s just not right about X3. Having watched him develop and mature over the course of two films, it’s disheartening to see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine default back to brusque, stogie-chomping swagger. In return for a new ‘do and a bigger slice of the action Halle Berry’s Storm has become an Xavier stooge, tutting over the unruly X-kids (Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page from Hard Candy) like a prissy schoolmarm, while in the case of Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique, she’s only brought in for a couple of token scenes before being written out with a disdain sure to rattle the randy fanboys. But most frustratingly of all, having gone to the trouble of resurrecting Famke Janssen’s psychically-charged Jean Grey as all-powerful, flame-tressed Dark Phoenix, Ratner has her stand tetchily on the sidelines as he wonders what the hell to do with her – perhaps against Kinberg and Penn’s wishes.
The filmmakers display rather more compassion when dispensing with other members of the ensemble, giving the selected few send-offs commensurate with their standing within the X-universe. Even they, though, are betrayed by sneaky codas that refuse to let them rest in peace, cynically hinting at the miraculous comebacks that will inevitably ensue if the grosses justify them. For all the title’s emphatic finality, the producers can’t bring the curtain down without leaving an X4-shaped chink – a weakness that effectively makes a nonsense of the flick’s climactic stand-off between the forces of good and what Stewart amusingly refers to in the Making Of as “Magneto’s scruffy scumbags”. You get a measure of the studio’s indecision from the raft of unsatisfying alternate endings on the DVD, each proving more open-ended and inconclusive than the last.
For the most part, though, the fulsome selection of extras on this well-stocked two-discer does a good job of masking Last Stand’s deficiencies. Splitting off two parallel menus, the bonus material spans a brace of commentaries (unavailable at press time), numerous featurettes and some choice Easter Eggs, the best of which sees Kelsey Grammer’s Beast end a take with a speech from Henry V. Ratner’s claim in the Making Of that he’s “a kid in a candy store” is borne out in on-set production diaries that find him taking Stewart’s wheelchair for a spin and turning up to work in Wolverine regalia. He’s just as playful in his yak-track for the deleted scenes, comparing one off-cut to Toys, another to Poseidon and using a discarded shot of Ian McKellen with a beard as a cue to impersonate Gandalf.
With hindsight, Ratner’s goofball, wisecracking temperament would have been ideally suited to the first X-Men; indeed, he might have brought the lightness of touch so clearly lacking from Singer’s uneven series scene-setter. It was his misfortune, and ours, that he ended up directing the last one, taking over just when the franchise was at its most vulnerable and exposed. Viewed in isolation, X3 has everything you would expect from a comic-book actioner. It was what we didn’t expect, though, that made its predecessors so special: the heart, soul and touching, unironic sincerity that can only come from someone with an emotional attachment to the material. On second thoughts, perhaps The Last Stand isn’t Juggernaut after all. It’s Angel as a child, hacking off the very wings that would allow it to soar.