The Adventures of X-Men (so far…)

Art is not a competition, but it’s definitely more fun that way.  To celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Viewed Through a Lens takes a look back at the X-Men’s previous adventures as a lean, mean, mutant team (…or just a Wolverine).

The Arena

The 6 live-action films based on Marvel’s X-Men comics, a franchise that has grossed over $2 billion worldwide.

The Combatants

Superheroes weren’t a sure thing when X-Men debuted in the summer of 2000.  Outside of modest critical hits like Batman Returns and Blade, the 1990s were something of a nadir for the cape-and-tights set on the big screen.  Enter 20th Century Fox, whose TV division had aired an acclaimed X-Men animated series for 5 seasons in the mid-90s and, most importantly, had re-introduced a large, appealing stable of characters to a crucial audience demographic.

There’s quite a bit of hedging in the first X-Men film, which interrupts its character development for plenty of mutantsplaining.  Exposition isn’t all bad, and definitely necessary in an introductory film, but I could have traded some of the info dumps for more scenes like the opening sequence, which portrays a young Magneto discovering his mutant powers in the midst of the chaotic liquidation of a Jewish concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.  X-Men also shows the residues of ’90s blockbuster style as well as a tentative embrace of geekery, sending the heroes – clad in Matrix-esque leather suits – on a simplistic G.I. Joe-style mission that climaxes at the Statue of Liberty.

Still, X-Men succeeds in its goal to project itself as a “serious” action movie, preventing the audience from associating it with a campier style of comic book cinema.  That’s a credit to the lighting-in-a-bottle casting that featured actors who, at the time, were mostly lower-tier stars and up-and-comers, as well as director Bryan Singer’s emphasis on the allegorical nature of the mutants’ struggle against discrimination and injustice.  Though heavy-handed at times – the militant Magneto (Ian McKellen) tells the pacifist Professor X (Patrick Stewart) that mutants must seize their rights “by any means necessary” – it’s a strong thematic through-line that gives the action a little extra heft.

One of the better sequels of the 21st century superhero boom, X2: X-Men United (2003) shapes the talking points introduced by X-Men into a full-blown agenda.  It’s a follow-up that improves on just about every front: the pacing is quicker, the themes are stronger, and the plot is more daring and complex.  Singer manages to juggle an even larger roster of characters, many of whom are realised here in their definitive movie versions – particularly Magneto, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn).

That doesn’t mean X2 can’t get exhausting at times.  By splitting up the team, Singer obligates himself to frequent check-ins that temporarily derail the film’s momentum.  However, X2‘s many disparate parts combine into a satisfying whole, and it contains some of the series’ most memorable sequences, like the scene-stealing Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) infiltrating the White House or Iceman’s (Shawn Ashmore) big “coming out” scene at his parent’s house, a perfectly knowing bit of allegory in which his mother replies, “Have you ever tried just…not being a mutant?”  In many ways, X2 is the ideal blueprint for balancing the brains and brawn in a comic book movie.

Just about everything that made the first two X-films sly and clever and cool was fatally misunderstood by X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).  At the time, many fans bemoaned the decision to hand the franchise to Brett Ratner (Singer was busy prepping and shooting Superman Returns), and while The Last Stand suffers mightily from poor direction, it’s worth noting the script doesn’t give him much to work with.  Attempting to combine two largely unrelated A-plots – the discovery of a “mutant cure” that threatens mutant self-determination and the resurrection of Jean Grey as her vengeful id Dark Phoenix – the film is too cavalier in its compression of time and space, and subsequently struggles to define character motivations other than “the script told them to.”

The conclusion of a loose trilogy, The Last Stand peddles unearned gravitas and exploits major deaths for cheap shock value.  (Though it’s arguably more appalling how some big changes are easily undone, making it my least favorite type of movie: one with no real consequences.)  Ratner does care about the fighting, however, and at least understands the appeal of the series’ shifting alliances and finely executed teamwork.  And if nothing else, Kelsey Grammer nails his magnificent interpretation of Beast, who captures the spirit of the project in a fight sequence when he begins to pontificate on a thematic concern before interrupting himself and growling, “Oh, you get the point!”

A similar kitchen-sink approach dooms the dull X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).  Jackman finally gets to beat up some bad guys (seriously, look at his main foes in the X-Men trilogy: Mystique, Lady Deathstrike, Dark Phoenix…), but Origins insists on awkwardly shoehorning as many mutants into the story as possible.  It’s the film equivalent of a babysitter dumping a bucket of action figures onto the floor.  Screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods take their best shot at condensing Wolverine’s complex backstory into a single dramatic arc of less than two hours – a herculean labour by any standard.  There’s simply too much to play with, and director Gavin Hood can’t settle on a tone he likes, getting bogged down in rote action vignettes meant to make Wolverine seem cool at the expense of the meatier character-driven scenes that make Wolverine seem human.

“Distracted” is really the best way to describe Origins, a film that squanders appearances from fan favorites like Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds).  They’re both like anti-Nightcrawlers, stoking audience anticipation only to annoy with their knack for pointlessly hogging screentime.  The disappointing icing on the lackluster cake is the dodgy visual effects work.  Origins was famously leaked online about a month before its official theatrical release, prompting Fox to fend off complaints about poor CGI by claiming that the leak was an unfinished workprint.  There was little improvement in the final product, however, with the most egregious offenses being the blatantly cartoonish look of Wolverine’s adamantium claws to a jerky final showdown on the rim of a nuclear plant cooling tower.

Repurposing old story ideas into new material is as old as the studio system.  Still, it’s interesting to note that Magneto was next in line for a stand-alone film, especially considering how the highlights of X-Men: First Class (2011) are essentially all about the journey of a younger Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) from determined Nazi hunter ambivalent about mutant politics to the militant leader of a protectionist mutant faction.  And in the same way that Fassbender contributes a pinpoint intensity that complements McKellen’s own pragmatically ruthless take on Magneto, James McAvoy brings an exuberant sense of humor and idealism to the youthful Charles Xavier, anticipating Patrick Stewart’s wry paternalism.

That said, the film loses steam when focusing on the titular class – a group of mutant youngsters drafted by Xavier, with the CIA’s help, to oppose a mysterious demagogue named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). The trainees’ storylines are disappointingly derivative of things we’ve already seen in the franchise – even the star-crossed teenage affair between Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is a tweaked version of the Rogue-Iceman relationship.  But at least director Matthew Vaughn – who was actually the first person hired to direct The Last Stand after Singer became unavailable – knows how to disguise the movie’s flaws with visual flair.  First Class has the cinematic panache and style lacking from prior X-Men films, as well as inspired casting choices from semi-major characters (Oliver Platt) down to the tiniest bit parts (Ray Wise), that keep the audience on its toes.

Logan does Japan in The Wolverine (2013), a surprisingly taut and gripping solo adventure that reserves Jackman’s spot alongside Christopher Reeve  in the canon of best superhero performances.  There’s something very refreshing about its sense of scale – personal and intimate, it’s quite the departure from other films of its ilk.  It also handles the familiar “loss of powers” plot as smoothly as possible, sustaining itself through long actionless stretches (it takes about 30 minutes to get to the first proper action sequence) by forcing Wolverine to grapple with the concept of immortality and his identity as a warrior-protector.

Director James Mangold strikes a comfortable balance between moments of stillness and his big visual set-pieces.  His portrait of Japan is more nuanced than the typical American blockbuster, equally ancient and ultra-modern.  The one-shot comic-bookiness of the whole endeavor almost feels miraculous, and, it has a real ending!  It also helps things seem fresher then they really are; when ninjas suddenly appear in a snowy mountain village, it somehow doesn’t feel like a movie you’ve seen before.  These days it’s a treat to see a superhero movie that’s so dramatically decisive.

The Verdict

6. X-Men: The Last Stand
A legitimately terrible movie

5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
A legitimately boring movie

4. X-Men: First Class
A disappointing undercard, a spectacular main event

3. X-Men
    Manages expectations and exposition

2. The Wolverine
Jackman’s shining moment

1. X2: X-Men United
A mutant opus with excellent character dynamics

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