Mutants on Mutants! Again! Does Ratner’s X-Men Succeed?

061206 article sarris Mutants on Mutants! Again!  Does Ratner’s X Men Succeed?Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, from a screenplay by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, based on the Marvel Comics characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, has already suffered all the critical slings and arrows inevitably directed at the third reworking of a comic-book series that began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, followed by Mr. Singer’s X2 in 2003. Mr. Singer passed on the third installment so that he could concentrate on the new Superman with Brandon Routh, due out in less than a month. With a new Spider-Man looming on the horizon as well, this summer promises to be awash in comic-book megalomania.

I can’t figure out why the very talented Mr. Singer preferred to return to a comparatively corny conception like Superman, whose four manifestations with Christopher Reeve (from 1978 to 1987) ran out of creative Kryptonite almost 20 years ago. Could it be that American audiences are now perceived, at least by Mr. Singer, to be yearning for a superhero without any debilitating complexes?

Certainly, the X-Men franchise is about nothing but complexes as they pertain to a tribe of mutants viewed by the rest of humankind with a mixture of wary suspicion and outright bigotry. In the beginning and, strangely, at the end, the prevailing subtext of the X-Men series is the beleaguered gay subculture. I say “strangely, at the end” because, in the current sequel, a “cure” has been found for what supposedly afflicts the mutants. This alleged “cure” is a serum derived from a new child character named Angel (Ben Foster), who inadvertently causes a civil war to erupt between two factions of the mutants.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) leads a mutant group pledged to all-out war against the human race and its attempts to “cure” the mutant minority. The more peaceful band of mutants is led by the wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who preaches a gospel of patience and accommodation with humans. On Magneto’s warlike side are his lieutenant, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), and his other fanatical follower, Pyro (Aaron Stanford). On Professor Xavier’s presumably more enlightened side are fellow faculty members Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry) and the ill-fated Cyclops, a.k.a. Scott Summers (James Marsden).

Though none of the mutants are immortal like Superman, when one adds up their aggregate superhuman powers, one wonders why they don’t simply seize control from their comparatively puny human counterparts. Any one of the mutants on either side of the factional struggle would easily knock over a Spider-Man or Batman, but put them in a group and they inexplicably become a vulnerable, oppressed minority, like gays or illegal aliens. It’s no surprise, therefore, that there are few sequences in which we’re made aware of the non-mutant majority—and, similarly, no sense of a world composed of many nations on many continents.

An area in which the X-Men concept is unusually congenial to my tastes is its almost equal sharing of power between men and women. Indeed, the most pivotal characterization in the current X-Men is that of Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who, as Phoenix, rises from the dead after having nobly sacrificed her life in X2 for her lover, the aforementioned Scott Summers. This time around, however, Jean Grey is so completely controlled by destructive forces that she starts off by killing Scott, then joins forces with Magneto to terrorize humankind. Professor Xavier tries to turn her away from evil, but only manages to lose his own life in the process.

It is left to the survivors of Professor Xavier’s team, notably Wolverine, Storm and the fur-covered Beast (Kelsey Grammer)—who doubles as the Secretary of Mutant Affairs in the President’s cabinet—to battle the renegade mutants. There are plots and subplots galore in this fast-paced adventure yarn, though Mr. Ratner and his screenwriters have geared everything for action at any cost, so there are very few of the lyrical moments characteristic of Mr. Singer’s first two installments.

Even so, having now seen all three X-Men movies, I have to confess that I found the first two eminently forgettable. Hence, I didn’t expect much from this one—which is why I may have found myself strangely moved by the sense of relationships, friendly and unfriendly, coming to an end in a dull return to normality in the world of humans and mutants. I especially felt something in Jean Grey’s last defiantly windswept moments as the would-be nemesis of us all. And though I realized that I was being manipulated every inch of the way, I did feel a twinge of pathos at the forlorn sight of Mr. McKellen’s Magneto, now a powerless old man, sitting alone at a park chess table, playing both sides with a resigned air of anticlimax.

But not to worry: After the end credits, which seem to run on for hours, a nurse making her rounds in a hospital room is startled to hear a familiar voice from an unseen (to the audience) source. Could another dead mutant be planning to rise from the dead, Phoenix-like, in the fourth installment of X-Men some three years hence? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Antoni-ennui!

The B.A.M. Rose Cinemas in the Peter Jay Sharp Building (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn) is launching a comprehensive retrospective of the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, beginning on June 7 with a one-week run of his 1966 masterpiece, Blow-Up. In that year, I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts, an institution in which most of the students carried the most expensive and sophisticated camera equipment I had ever seen in a student body. The scene in Blow-Up in which the protagonist, a fashion-model photographer played by David Hemmings, performed an ever more progressively intimate photo shoot over an inert model was like the national anthem to these students.

In the Village Voice of December 29, 1966, I hailed Blow-Up as the movie of the year, adding that I used the term “movie” advisedly for an evening’s entertainment that left me feeling no pain (or Antoniennui) whatsoever. Since I had been credited with coining the epithet “Antoniennui” to describe some of the master’s more arduous exercises, I was taking a jab at myself. Yet some of my esteemed colleagues found the film—particularly the imaginary tennis game at the end—unbearably pretentious, and you may too. But then again, you may not.

The excitement begins with the opening credits, which are stenciled across a field of green grass opening into a pop rhythm-and-blues background of dancing models seen partially through the lettering that, among other things, implicates Mr. Antonioni in the script and heralds Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings, Sarah Miles and a supporting cast of unknowns. The billing is misleading: Ms. Redgrave and Ms. Miles make only guest appearances in what amounts to a vehicle for Hemmings and Mr. Antonioni’s camera. Blow-Up is never dramatically effective in terms of any meaningful confrontations of character. The dialogue is self-consciously spare and elliptical in a sub-Pinteresque style.

Fortunately, the 24-hour duration of the plot makes it possible for Mr. Antonioni to disguise most of the film as a day in the life of a mod photographer in swinging London town. What conflict there is in Blow-Up is captured in the opening clash between vernal greens on one plane and venal blues, reds, yellows, pinks and purples on another. The natural world is arrayed against the artificial scene; conscience is deployed against convention. If you’ve never seen Blow-Up, see it now, if only to see what part of the world was like 40 years ago.