LOS ANGELES — Director Brett Ratner got his start in Hollywood by persuading Steven Spielberg to help finance his student film; when conventional wisdom seemed to be against it, he made "Red Dragon," a third movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Why, then, is this seemingly fearless man suddenly feeling some pressure?

"It's not going to be easy," Ratner said of his newest gig, taking over the seemingly cursed reins of "X-Men 3" with marching orders to deliver the effects-heavy film to theaters by next Memorial Day weekend (see " 'Rush Hour' Director Ratner To Helm 'X3' "). "But we're definitely going to hit it."

Like any great comic-book story, you need to understand the origin if you hope to fully enjoy the tale: Bryan Singer, who wrote and directed the first two installments of the Marvel Comics mutant-superhero series, declined a third volume to instead bring back DC Comics character Superman via "Superman Returns," which is currently being filmed (see "At Last! Man Of Steel Photos Surface").

"Layer Cake" director Matthew Vaughn then stepped in with ambitious plans that included the casting of Kelsey Grammar as well-mannered monster Beast and Vinnie Jones as one-man wrecking crew Juggernaut (see " 'X-Men 3' Casting News: Soccer Star, Sure ... But Frasier Crane?"). Weeks later, Vaughn stepped down for reasons that remain unclear (see " 'X-Men 3' Looking For Director #3").

"They called me and they said, 'We're interested in you for "X3," ' " Ratner recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, great, I wanted to do the first one originally.' "

The 36-year-old Ratner, who proudly declares that he has "read comic books my whole life," had indeed been a candidate to initiate the "X-Men" franchise at the beginning of the decade. This is where things get real confusing: Singer instead took on the task of bringing Wolverine and friends to the screen, while Ratner came tantalizingly close to directing an earlier version of the Superman movie — yes, the same one that Singer is now overseeing.

"I think we bring stuff onto ourselves," Ratner said of the musical-chairs game with Singer. "He had dreams of doing 'Superman,' that was his fantasy, and I had a dream of it too, and it didn't work out, but 'X-Men' is a part of that dream as well.

"Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner are in that age range who grew up on comics," Ratner said, referring to himself in the third person. "Well, I don't know if he grew up on comic books, but in that generation where comic heroes are part of our society and part of our pop culture.

"Bryan Singer left ['X-Men 3'] because he didn't like the material," Ratner insisted. "But I don't think this movie is tainted; I think it is fantastic and the script is amazing.

"Jackie Chan says Brett Ratner is the luckiest guy in the world," the director said of his "Rush Hour" star's opinion of him taking over the comic-book franchise, "and I feel like I am."

Not everyone, however, considers Ratner quite so blessed. "[They think] I'm the antichrist!" he laughed when asked about what many diehard fans are posting on popular movie-discussion Web sites. "I don't think about it."

Ratner does realize that his résumé, which includes Chris Tucker vehicles and clunkers like "After the Sunset" and "The Family Man," doesn't exactly endear him to geeks looking for a Sam Raimi-like genre veteran harboring a unique vision. He also acknowledges that comic-movie heroes including Superman and Batman both went horribly wrong after new directors took over the franchise for the third installment.

"I'm not Joel Schumacher," he said of the fan-despised director behind "Batman Forever" and the even more poorly received "Batman & Robin," "and I'm not ... um ... who did the third Superman?"

That would be Richard Lester. "I'm Brett," Ratner said, "and all I know is what I know, what I can do and what I have to work with."

As far as the growing myth that the third film always kills a superhero franchise, Ratner responded: "Well, there's also the fact that all the Supermans die a tragic death," he said, referring to the sad fates befallen by the likes of Christopher Reeve and George Reeves. "Do you think the new guy [Brandon Routh] is going to die also?"

Ratner insists that the "X-Men 3" script is up to snuff, that production will commence in Vancouver, British Columbia, in eight weeks, and that series stars Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, James Marsden and Rebecca Romijn will return. As for what he'll add to the successful Singer recipe, the director said, "I want to stay true to the franchise and true to the characters, but I think it's elevated ... I don't want to be pompous and say I'm going to take it to the next level. I think the script that Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn wrote gives me a tremendous amount of confidence."

He also said you can expect his X-Men to have an enhanced sense of humor. "Not jokes for the sake of jokes," Ratner added, "jokes that come from character humor, that come from characters and that come from the situations."

Will Brett Ratner have the last laugh, or will the latest "X-Men" director discover that the third time is anything but the charm? It's a question that would likely stump even Professor X himself.

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