The third outing in the successful "X-Men" franchise faces much the same quandary that the "Batman" franchise did at the same stage -- notably, the dual challenge of having to adapt to a new director, as well as deal with a considerably larger cast than its predecessors. There's a third challenge here, however, which is that the underlying conflict remains essentially the same, with friends-turned-enemies Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), along with their respective mutant armies, continuing to play out their philosophical differences on an increasingly violent global battlefield.
The catalyst for conflict this time is the development of a genetic "cure" that can transform mutants into "normal" humans, those dreaded homo-sapiens that Magneto so despises and whom Xavier has nobly sworn to defend. But this time, Magneto's suspicions are closer to the truth when it turns out that authorities have, indeed, elected to weaponize the cure, violating a promise that it would be offered only to willing mutants on a volunteer basis. But it's already too late -- Magneto and his baddies set their sights on destroying the cure and its strange progenitor -- a mutant boy ("Godsend's" Cameron Bright) with the power to neutralize the powers of other mutants -- while Xavier and the goodies aim to stop them.
Incoming director Brett Ratner -- who did a switcheroo with previous director Bryan Singer after Singer replaced him on the forthcoming "Superman Returns" -- has never been known for his sensitivity, story sense or acuity, all characteristics that helped Singer elevate the previous two films above comparable comics adaptations. What Ratner does have is a profound attraction to bombast and excess, essential qualities these days for overseeing the kind of mindless summer fare that relies more on compound explosions and nonstop action than cogent narrative. And with even more characters and storylines piled on this time -- meant to both sate the demands of fans and keep things fresh -- it becomes an almost untenable balancing act to give each character and relationship ample screen time while still blowing up a lot of stuff. As a result, most of the subplots feel like vignettes -- two or three scenes to wrap up what wasn't resolved in the last picture -- while characters not necessarily essential to a subplot, including some major ones from previous films, are either offed or sidelined entirely.
Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and Famke Janssen's resurrected Phoenix -- who now suffers from some kind of split-personality disorder -- get decent screen time, while Rogue (Anna Paquin), Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Cyclops (James Marsden) show up only in fits and starts. Newcomers include popular comic-book character Beast (Kelsey Grammer), Angel (Ben Foster) and Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), though only Beast really gets much of note to do.
In fairness, it's not a total catastrophe; had Singer not already set such a high standard, Ratner's effort would be perfectly acceptable from a generic action film point of view. But its problems persist, most of them a function of a script by Simon Kinberg ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith," "XXX: State of the Union") and comics adaptation specialist Zak Penn ("X2," "Fantastic Four," "Elektra") that just can't ever seem to find the right mixture of elements. If anything, the addition of so many new characters -- particularly during the climactic clash of mutants -- actually undercuts the franchise's primary theme of individuality and uniqueness. The creative implementation of diverse powers with which Singer's films kept audiences rapt has given way to a wide array of mutants who are all variations of either super-strong or super-psychic, which means that most everyone is either levitating cars or throwing them.
With both the "Batman" and "Superman" franchises now having been substantially reinvented, there's precedent for doing the same to other series that have run their course -- and while three films may seem premature to call the X-Men back into the body shop, the apparent wear and tear of having been fondled by too many pairs of hands makes it hard to see how a fourth film could do anything but worsen the situation. At this stage, Fox should seriously consider either retiring the franchise entirely or giving it a rest before reinvention.
One word of advice to those who do elect to see the film -- stay through the credits. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Kelsey Grammer, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn, Cameron Bright, James Marsden, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones and Ben Foster. Directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. Produced by Avi Arad, Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter. A Fox release. Action. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence, some sexual content and language. Running time: 105 min