Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies are pop-culture anomalies: big-budget, special-effects-driven superhero blockbusters that get just about everything right. But after Singer exited the franchise to helm Superman Returns, the producers did something egregiously wrong: They handed over the reins to Brett Ratner, whose handling of Rush Hour 2 and Red Dragon proves he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a successful franchise, even one he helped create. The X-Men have survived mutation, persecution, and supervillainous foes hell-bent on their destruction. But can they survive Ratner? Well, no.
The always-welcome Ian McKellen leads an overstuffed cast as a villainous mutant intent on destroying a mutation "cure" and its source, a spooky little boy (Cameron Bright) who isn't a character so much as a sentient plot point with unnerving blue eyes. To defeat McKellen and his band of punky new recruits—most of whom appear to be on loan from a Stranglers concert circa 1981—the heroic X-Men are forced to do battle with the forces of evil alongside newcomers like Ben Foster's winged do-gooder Angel and Kelsey Grammer's Beast, who's far duller than any character who talks like a Stanford dean and looks like the misbegotten offspring of a werewolf and a Smurf has any right to be.
Directing an X-Men movie is an epic task requiring a varied set of skills. X-auteurs have to juggle new characters with old favorites, balance soap-opera plots with giant action setpieces, and deal with the series' political and philosophical underpinnings. But Ratner's direction is seldom more than workmanlike. New characters like Grammer's erudite furball and Foster's blond flyboy barely register, while Halle Berry continues to be the series' Achilles heel, a wan, forgettable presence even when delivering a eulogy that should mark a pivotal moment in the franchise, but instead feels like a ham-fisted afterthought. The setpieces lack panache, while the dramatic elements feel flat and perfunctory. Following two superior entries, Ratner's slick placeholder of a sequel lacks that crucial X-factor called inspiration.