"Great directors," said Alexander MacKendrick (who was one), "dissolve and disappear into the work while making other people look good." Best known for directing The Ladykillers and Sweet Smell of Success, MacKendrick meant that a director's contribution to a film is at once the most crucial and the most obscure: He bears partial credit for almost every element--the cinematography, the editing, the set design, the individual performances of the actors--yet full credit for none.
Little wonder then, that there is such confusion about what exactly a director does. Those who become celebrities--Hitchcock, Scorcese, Allen, Tarantino--are generally the auteurs who advertise their presence most aggressively, whether by writing their own scripts or hewing to a signature style or casting themselves in their films. For others, a film's overall success is the only credit they're likely to receive. Evidence of the ubiquity of this confusion can be found at the Oscars, where the Best Picture has also been deemed the Best Directed a prohibitive four times out of five over the last 68 years (in the awards' first decade they were more discerning), even when it entailed such inanities as imagining that How Green Was My Valley was better directed than Citizen Kane or that Ordinary People was guided with a surer hand than Raging Bull.
Thankfully, we at last have a laboratory-perfect experiment to help us disentangle a director's contribution from the resulting film. I refer, of course, to X-Men: The Last Stand, the third and (as its title advertises and its quality ensures) last installment of the mutant superhero franchise. The movie shares a great deal with its predecessors: a solid cast, with Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, and others reprising their roles as mutants both good and bad; a similar storyline, with political tension again erupting between normal human beings and mutants (this time, thanks to the invention of a "cure" that can suppress mutations); and the familiar thematic undercurrent involving the desire to eliminate the Other, either through assimilation or extermination. What has changed since the first two films, however, is the director--which is to say, everything.
Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men films, may not be a great director, but he is clearly a good one, and he has a particular gift for elevating pulp to something approaching art. For all the laser-beam eyes, retractable adamantium claws, and (worst of all) leather jumpsuits, there is an underlying seriousness to Singer's mutant movies. In the opening scenes of X-Men, he explicitly compares his heroes' plight to the Holocaust, the Red Scare, and contemporary antigay bias--but does so with such earnest sobriety that the analogies hardly seem outlandish. The moral quandaries his characters face are rich and resonant; their losses and sacrifices possess surprising weight. He's abetted, of course, by fine performances from his cast, especially the casual magnificence of McKellan's Magneto and the gruff tenderness of Jackman's Wolverine. There are plenty of rough patches in the first two movies, but they stand, with the first Spider-Man and perhaps Batman Begins as the best that the burgeoning superhero genre has had to offer.
X-Men: The Last Stand, by contrast, is an object lesson in what can go wrong when a director gets in over his head. The director in question is Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour movies, Red Dragon), who inherited the assignment after Singer decamped to rehabilitate Superman and original replacement Matthew Vaughn pulled out at the last moment. The difference is palpable: In contrast to the tonal resonance and cohesion of Singer's films, every element feels slightly off-key and unfocused in Ratner's hands. The actors are less convincing, the plot feels more haphazard, even the score seems timid and tinny. Watching the movie bears a peculiar similarity to reading a screenplay: If you use your imagination, you can envision the film this was supposed to be, but Ratner has bothered to do very little of the work for you.
The movie opens competently enough, with flashbacks to childhood scenes of mutant self-discovery--first of Jean Gray, the X-Woman who (apparently) sacrificed her life to save the others at the end of the second movie; then of Warren Worthington (a.k.a., Angel), a new mutant who seems to have inherited Emma Thompson's wings from "Angels in America." But already, there are slight signs of trouble: The scenes are a tad rushed; the performances, oddly testy. Shortly after the movie returns to the present day, dark clouds being rolling in, altogether too literally. As had been hinted, Jean (Famke Janssen) is not dead, at least not exactly. Buried under a mountain of water at the conclusion of X2, she survived as a kind of schizo superwoman. Shortly after she turns up, she--or rather her out-of-control alter-ego, Phoenix--begins tearing things (and people) apart, molecule by molecule. Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants, meanwhile, go back on the warpath to destroy the anti-mutant cure.
Singer thrived during such bleak times, giving his mutants a kind of tragic majesty. Ratner, by contrast, wilts. He seems uncomfortable with this kind of earnest grandeur, and flinches away time and again. The first X-Man dies about a half-hour into the movie; not only does Ratner not show the death, for a considerable stretch of the movie it's not even clear whether he is dead. Another X-Man, still better-loved, dies 20 minutes later, and while this time we see the death, we never feel it. Even the subsequent funeral scene has no weight, none of the tangible sense of loss that imbued a similar scene in Hellboy, or the (again, apparent) death of Gandalf in the first Lord of the Rings film. Instead, Storm (Halle Berry) gives a half-hearted eulogy as the orchestra murmurs wanly, almost embarrassedly, in the background. The other actors go through the motions of grief, but they seem like attendees at a stranger's funeral, dutifully sad but nothing more. Though Last Stand is by far the most tragic of the X-Men films, it utterly fails to convey the emotional enormity to which it aspires.