Thursday, May 22, 2014

X-Men Series Re-Watch

With X-Men: Days of Future's Past approaching in theaters in a short while, I've worked my way through most of the other X-Men films as a refresher. Here are my thoughts:

X-Men (2000)

Director: Bryan Singer

This one doesn't hold up as well as I had expected.

I saw this one in the theater 14 years ago, and was pretty blown away. I had been a tremendous fan of the X-Men comic books, amassing an embarrassingly large run of the original series, which I read and re-read countless times. In 2000, though, my 25-year-old cynical self went into the theater expecting the worst. One has to remember that, back then, there really hadn't been a truly successful big-screen adaptation of a superhero movie since Superman II in 1980. At least not on a scale that a mega-popular super-team franchise like the X-Men would demand. I was figuring that something would go wrong - there would be miscasting all over the place. The writers would change up a bunch of the characters, and it would become a hash-job not unlike the wretched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (don't get me started on that blasphemous piece of excrement.) Or the acting or special effects would be horrendously bad.

Well, I was wrong on all of those counts.

Right from his opening scenes, Jackman
proved himself to be a great casting
The writers were quite faithful to the spirit of the characters and the grand themes of the comic book. The casting was solid, all around, with Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman standing out as nailing the roles of arguably the two most important characters in the whole X-Men mythos - Professor X and Wolverine. The movie had a budget that allowed them to hire actors who didn't just look the parts, but could play them very naturally. And the effects were solid. Just by not being bad, the film was great in my eyes.

Flash forward 14 years. Superhero movies have evolved a bit. With the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and the Avengers Cinematic Universe, the ante has been upped to tremendous proportions. And when compared to some of the best of the genre in the past 7 or 8 years, the original X-Men has lost some of its luster. Upon closer inspection, some of the plot elements are weak, some of the dialogue isn't quite as funny, and some of the humor is simply flat or at least a little goofy.

X-Men is by no means a bad movie. It's still a nice entry into the genre, and one could argue that it did usher in the new wave of very well-done, polished superhero films that can entertain younger and older fans alike. But this recent viewing highlighted the advancements made in the sophistication of this films' successors.

X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003)

Director: Bryan Singer

The second of the series makes some excellent strides and is still a very solid superhero movie.

Nearly all of the weaknesses of the initial installment are smoothed away or eliminated. The plot is tighter, the dialogue is a bit sharper, and the goofiness is almost non-existent.

The story carries on where the first movie left off quite well. Mutant paranoia is growing more rampant, thanks in no small part to the machinations of Colonel Stryker, a soldier and military scientist who frames mutants for an abduction of the president and whips the public into a frenzy of fear. He was also heavily involved in Wolverine's mysterious history. These different elements come together well, without things ever feeling like they're being rushed or simply mashed together. The slower, quieter moments are more carefully done in United, which lends them a little more power.

Magneto's escape from his stylish, plastic prison is one
of the several very cool and memorable action sequences.
The action is a great step up from the first. The first film had adequate action scenes, but they looked a little sloppy in places. In United, there are several creative and cool scenes, such as Magneto's escape from his plastic prison, Wolverine going berserk on the soldiers invading the school in New York, and several of Mystique's confrontations with various enemies. I was still plenty entertained by these scenes, these 11 years after the movie came out back in '03.

This one did threaten to commit the common sin of the "add a character" overload. This film brings in a few other mutants known from the comics, such as Proteus, Pyro, Lady Deathstrike, Colossus (in a cameo of sorts), and Nightcrawler. But the film didn't divide its attention among them in ways that resulted in a loss of the overall focus.

There aren't nearly as many attempts at humor as the first movie, and this was a good thing. The general tone of United is darker, so wisecracks would have been far out of place. When a line is dropped, it's in an appropriate place and is typically effective.

X-Men 2: X-Men United is arguably one of the best superhero flicks in the last 15 years. It may not be quite as strong as the best Avengers or Nolan Batman movies, but it's not far below them.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006)

Do I have to pick a side? Can I go "Switzerland" on this one?
Director: Brett Ratner

Until this viewing, I had only seen this movie once - in the theater back when it came out in '06. Back then, I left with the impression of a somewhat flat, paint-by-numbers, "style-over-substance" film that was a letdown after the first two solid films.

That opinion holds, for the most part.

The Last Stand is a near-textbook example of what can go wrong when you try to please an entire fanbase of comic dorks. The departure of Bryan Singer as director and co-writer of the film series is quite apparent. Instead of a giving us a handful of well-chosen team members to focus on, The Last Stand throws every mutant in the book at us. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of various mutants thrown into the mix, nearly all of whom showed up in the comic series at one point or another. To me, this is always an extremely weak approach to story writing. It reeks of an inability to write deeper, more meaningful explorations of the characters' human personalities or motivations, instead opting for quantity over quality.

Lest you think I view this film as a total bomb, it's not completely without redeeming qualities. The basic story and plot progression are decent. The story of a medical "cure" for the mutant gene is interesting enough, and it has pretty clear parallels in reality. It follows that such a concept would kick off a mutant uprising, led of course by Magneto. The result is a near-endless barrage of action sequences, mostly of the large-scale variety. Some of them are uninspired, but a few are actually well done.

In some respects, this adaptation was
probably better than the source material.
This entire uprising storyline, though, is where things go off the rails. By necessity, it requires so many mutants with various powers that they cease to even be interesting anymore. Superhero movies' most intriguing element is that the characters' powers and abilities set them apart from normal humans. But when the entire movie is populated almost exclusively with scores upon scores of them, the effect is seriously dulled.

The lead that almost gets buried in this movie is the other primary storyline- that of the "Phoenix," which is Jean Grey's immensely powerful, psychotic alter-ego. This story is, actually, far more interesting than the mutant uprising one, and it could have stood on its own and carried the entire film, truth be told. That is, however, if it had been handled deftly. But very little about The Last Stand speaks to deftness. It's an all-out, full-frontal assault on the viewer, with nary a hint of subtlety or novelty.

The final mark against the movie is that the most glaring attempts at depth were clumsy and wrought with misplaced sentimentality. There were far too many cheesy lines delivered by Wolverine, of all characters. If there's any X-Man who you absolutely can not have delivering hokey lines, it's Wolverine - an absolute icon of cynical cool.

So it's not all bad, but The Last Stand is easily the weakest of the three original X-Men movies.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Director: Gavin Hood

I saw this once, shortly after it came out. Like most, I thought it stunk out loud.

When I fired it up a few days ago, I had an amusing viewing experience. As I watched, I found myself wondering if perhaps we had all been a bit too harsh on the movie. Sure, there are some goofy moments, but there seemed to be some merit, and I was sort of enjoying the re-watch.

For about 45 minutes.

Then, about halfway through the movie, I started to remember the reasons for my initial feelings. And things only got worse as the second and third acts of the film play out. By the end, the movie had sunk right back to the abysmal place my mind had stuffed it.

Actually, some people are likely to enjoy the movie. If you're not one to nitpick over lack of character development, illogical plot devices, action sequences that openly defy every law of physics (without irony), and a fracturing of continuity with the previous X-Men films, then you might be OK with it. Not me, though.

One of the few strengths of the film rests in Liev Schreiber's
portrayal of classic Wolverine antagonist, Sabertooth. The
two tough guys deserved a better movie, really.
The sad thing is that there are some decent ingredients to start with. The goofy 19th century "kiddie Wolverine" opening sequence aside, the idea of Logan and Victor (a.k.a. Sabertooth) as half brothers becoming soldiers of fortune throughout the century is fine. And the notion of having a black ops team of superhumans made for a solid reason to bring in other well-known characters from the comics, such as the Blob, Deadpool, and others. And the sequence of their assault on a Nigerian drug compound is semi-decent. Decent enough that I was mostly willing to ignore things like how poorly everyone's powers were defined or illustrated.

Once those opening plot lines are set up and Logan walks away from the brutality of it all, though, things start to go downhill. Slowly, at first. Then begins the exponential increase in the momentum of suck. Any halfway intelligent casual viewer or self-respecting comic dork can't help but roll his or her eyes at just how silly virtually everything in the second half of the movie is. For the dedicated comic fan of the 1990s, things go from silly to blasphemous. The film completely butchers one of the coolest characters to come from the X-Men mythos in that decade - Deadpool. Being goofy is one thing. Destroying a beloved character is another.

I do have to say that there are a few redeeming qualities of the movie. Hugh Jackman does still play a damn good Wolverine, even if he is given inconsistent dialogue to work with. The standout to me, though, was the casting of Liev Schreiber as Sabertooth. In a way that far surpassed Bryan Singer's vision of Wolverine's classic nemesis in the original X-Men film, Schreiber conveys all of the cunning, brutal menace, and bloodlust that the character demands. Jackman and Schreiber had good chemistry, and each one did have a few decent lines to work with. And yet...

The movie's a dud, overall. It's standard case of a few good ideas being completely flubbed in the execution and the inability of the filmmakers to pare things down and tighten up the weaker elements. I don't ever need to watch it again.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Not quite as incredible as some reviewers would have you believe, but still a very good superhero flick, and my second favorite of the six X-Films so far.

In going back in time and adding to the backstories or Erik Lensherr/Magneto and Charles Xavier/Professor X, the writers and director did good work adding some solid depth to the iconic characters. Having Magneto's quest for revenge converge with Xavier's mission to band with humans to stop the nefarious Sebastian Shaw felt fairly organic, as these types of movies go. Seeing the groundwork laid for most of the primary elements of the X-Men is handled deftly, for the most part. Though the younger team members aren't given much time to develop as individuals, this was probably for the best. It's Xavier and Erik, their common short-term goals, and disparate long-term visions for mutants, which carry the movie throughout. Team members like Banshee, Havok, and the others mostly serve to bolster the greater themes at play, and this works well and keeps the plot moving.

The casting and acting is perhaps the best of all X-Films. Not one of the younger actors turns in a bad performance, and Kevin Bacon heads up the great crew of thoroughly evil and self-satisfied villains that make up the Hellfire Club. All of these are outdone, though, by James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik. Fassbender especially nails the enraged sense of righteous vengeance that Lensherr carries with him as he exacts retribution on the former Nazis who terrorized him in his youth.

Though the action sequences are strong, the more personal
scenes shared by Fassbender and McAvoy elevate 
Class to higher quality.
The plot isn't anything terribly creative. It's a standard "band together to stop the extermination of humanity" tale that many superhero flicks employ. In First Class, the story does have the added power of serving as the impetus for the eventual conflicting viewpoints of Professor X, Magneto, and all of those mutants who follow each of them. We don't get any psychoanalysis of the villains' hidden motivations, other than their thirst for domination. And for this movie, that's fine.

The action sequences are fairly strong, with a few that standout as highly entertaining. The key is that none of them is as ridiculous as what you get in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which offered no end of over-the-top fights that might as well have been video game sequences.

One thing that observant fans will notice is that, like Origins: Wolverine, the continuity of the X-Films gets muddled up even further in First Class. In terms of characters' ages, accents, and their interactions with each other in this and the other movies, the writers didn't exactly dot all their "i"s or cross all their "t"s. More casual fans won't notice or care, but dedicated comic book fans do notice and it's an unfortunate weakening of the suspension of disbelief. With just a touch more attention to detail, the writers could have woven this film seamlessly with the others in the canon.

The resolution of the movie is strong enough, with some very satisfying closure on some fronts. A few elements are severely glossed over, though, for the sake of convenience. A little more imagination from the screenwriters could have remedied this.

Very good movie, overall, and I'm looking forward to the imminent follow up, Days of Future Past.

The Wolverine (2013)

Director: James Mangold

Much closer to the mark than it's forgettable predecessor, but still not quite a bull's eye.

Picking up a few years after The Last Stand, The Wolverine finds the eponymous hero living as a wild hermit in the forests of Canada, struggling against nightmares about his violent past and his necessary killing of his beloved Jean Grey. He is found and convinced away from this solitude and taken to Japan. There, he becomes wrapped up in a massive intrigue involving an old Japanese acquaintance from World War II - Yashida. Yashida has become an immensely powerful industrialist who has a suspiciously intense interest in Logan and his supernatural healing and slow aging. Eventually, Logan is beset by yakuza, ninja hordes, a venomous mutant, and other assailants, not necessarily in that order.

The Wolverine gets much right that Origins got horribly wrong. Instead of leaning on a heavy dose of well-known yet watered-down characters from the more modern comic books, the writers focused things more on Logan, with only one other mutant involved in the entire story. This allowed Logan's motivations and actions to take center stage, which is always what the best Wolverine solo stories have done. Keeping Logan's purposes limited to the much more personal goals of survival and protection of Mariko was a great change from the epic-scale plots of earlier films.

The writers and director Mangold handled the location of
Japan extremely well, including many of the visual and
cultural hallmarks. It all worked as a solid setting for
Wolverine's struggles. 
And yet, there are basically two things about this movie that I think could have vaulted it from "pretty good" to "excellent." One is the romance with Mariko. I suspect that this was a Hollywood directive, as superfluous romances in movies usually are. If we take away Logan's bagging Mariko, then he actually becomes much more like the samurai that he is implied to be - one who does the noble thing for its own sake, rather than because the's trying to find a replacement for a lost lover.

The other improvement that I feel was a bit overlooked was Logan's loss of his powers of regeneration. For me, this was one of the best things about the movie. Without his sense of nigh-invulnerability, we get a true glimpse at what Logan is - one who will put himself in real harm's way to do the right thing. Having him regain his power with a good amount of the movie left diluted a bit of the drama for me. Instead of having to rely on his purpose and determination to see his goal through, Logan was able to mostly lean back on his superhuman qualities. While it's fun to see him duke it out in the end, I would have liked to see what he could have done by using his more human characteristics like cunning and resolve. Of course, I guess that would have made it less of a superhero movie.

The Wolverine wasn't a perfect movie, but it got more right than wrong. And for superhero flicks, that puts it in rarer company than you might think.

The Final Analysis

The X-Films franchise has certainly been a mixed bag. Of the six films, I find two of them - X2 and First Class - the be very good. Another two - X-Men and The Wolverine - are solid but not outstanding. And X3 and Origins: Wolverine are fraught with problems.

But there are more to come. I'm quite hopeful that the forthcoming Days of Future Past will be a very solid movie. There's also to be another solo Wolverine film, as well as at least one more team movie - Apocalypse. I don't know that those in charge of the X-Men movie franchise will ever attain the quality, consistency, and cohesion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but if they can get anywhere close, we fans of superhero films will have plenty to look forward to.