The Uncanny X Men: A Film Retrospective

X-Men TrilogyBefore you head to the theater to go check out X-Men: Days of Future Past, be sure to read my retrospective on the previous six films in the series.

– Doug

I was eleven-years-old when I picked up my first issue of Uncanny X-Men. I’m old enough that I discovered the team prior to the Fox cartoon that premiered in 1992 and when that show finally aired, I would scoff, “Well, all they’re really doing is just cramming 30 years of X-Men history into a handful of episodes.” I was never a big fan of the cartoon. The animation was inferior to the other big cartoon release that year, Batman: The Animated Series, and I had already seen all the stories done infinitely better in the comics. No, a cartoon wouldn’t cut it for me—I wanted an X-Men live-action film. In 2000, I would finally get my wish.

In the Spring of 2000, I remember seeing Entertainment Weekly’s Summer Movie Preview. There on the cover were people who were supposed to be the X-Men. Some I recognized—Halle Berry in a bad wig; Famke Janssen, whom I remembered from Goldeneye; Patrick Stewart, the only one who really embodied his character—but I had no idea who a lot of the others were. Their black leather costumes looked crappy and who was this Australian guy they’d cast as Wolverine? Nightmarish memories of “Pryde of the X-Men” filled my head as it appeared that 20th Century Fox was going to screw it all up—that they just didn’t “get” X-Men. You have to remember, this was all happening shortly after Joel Schumacher had destroyed the Batman franchise—confidence in comic book movies was not high. Then, I saw the first trailer. Some of the effects looked unfinished, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. I started to get cautiously excited. A second trailer improved on the first. Could it be? Might the X-Men have escaped the clutches of Batman & Robin shittiness? With no shortage of trepidation, I headed to the movie theater on July 14, 2000.

 

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X-Men (2000)

My fears had been completely unfounded. While Director Bryan Singer’s X-Men wasn’t perfect, it got enough right to revitalize the superhero genre and pave the way for an X-Men film franchise. Singer grounded the team in a kind of hyper-reality, leaving behind the comic book trappings with subdued uniforms and a willingness to take the material deadly serious.

Aside from Halle Berry, who was horribly miscast as the regal Storm, the cast was pitch perfect. James Marsden completely captured the stoic Cyclops, while Famke Janssen brought some much needed sexiness to Jean Grey—she definitely wasn’t a Marvel Girl. Anna Paquin was great as Rogue, though some diehards might have argued that her character should have been Kitty Pryde. There couldn’t have been anyone else cast in the role of Professor Xavier and Patrick Stewart was able to reach into the audience’s minds and convince them that Jean Luc Picard never existed. Berry was the square piece in the circle hole in this film series. She was probably added for some mainstream star cred. Little did anyone know, Berry would soon be dwarfed as the biggest star in the X-Men universe.

On the villain side, Ian McKellen brought real gravitas to the role of Magneto. The other villains were passable, but smacked of 90’s comic book movie thinking. Ray Park, known for his acrobatic skills as Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, brought those same skills to Toad, so he didn’t have to stretch much. Rebecca Romijn played Mystique and did a decent job, but if the producers had known how successful the X-Men movies would be, they might have expanded their search beyond supermodels for such a pivotal role. The biggest disappointment as far as the villains went was former professional wrestler Tyler Mane as Sabretooth. He definitely had the look and size for the part, but lacked the acting chops. In his defense though, the part was severely underwritten.

However, the real revelation of the first X-Men movie was the introduction of Hugh Jackman to audiences as Wolverine. Like with Harrison Ford in Star Wars, Wolverine put Jackman on the map and the best part was, he was perfect in the role. I could tell from the first scene he appears in—the underground fight club. Jackman had the look down—thanks to the hair and makeup people—but he also had the attitude down. He may have been a lot taller than Logan in the comics—on paper, Wolvie’s 5’3”; Jackman is around 6’1”—but beyond that, he was Wolverine. Even better, they got the claws right—they looked great. The line that completely sold me on Jackman as Wolverine was when Rogue asks if it hurts when his claws come out and he replies wistfully, “Every time.”

The plot for the film was suitably comic booky—Magneto wants to transform all the world leaders into mutants at some fictional gathering in New York—but it was practically secondary to getting the tone and chemistry right between the actors. The Wolverine-Cyclops dynamic was fantastic and made me feel like I was reading an old X-Men comic. And even though the plot was kind of silly, it still had at least one or two good twists to keep it interesting. All credit goes to producer Tom DeSanto—Singer’s resident X-Men geek—and the screenwriters—David Hayter was the sole credited writer, but it was a team of folks, including Joss Whedon—for keeping the film’s tone consistent and true to the spirit of the X-Men. They kept the focus on the struggle between the outcast mutants and a human race that did not want to accept them. Wolverine was the star, but the ideological war between Magneto and Xavier was the perpetual backdrop, as it should have been.

X-Men had done what no one thought possible. It may not have been a literal adaptation of the comic book, but it captured the essence of the characters and their world to create a firm foundation for future films. Singer did the best he could with a limited budget for a movie of this type and when it was a surprise hit its opening weekend, pulling in more than $50 million, fans knew that with the sequel, the sky would be the limit.

 

Rating: B

 

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X2: X-Men United (2003)

The worst thing about the sequel to X-Men is its title. X2? How fucking dumb. Luckily, it didn’t spell doom for the film. X-Men 2 is one of the greatest comic book films ever released.

Everything from the first film was improved upon. The script was better, the action scenes were tighter, there were more great mutant cameos at the school, and Wolverine was a little wilder, but the best part about X-Men 2 was the interaction between the characters. It really felt like Singer was crafting a cohesive world for his heroes. The events of the first film influenced the narrative of the second, making it truly feel like the second issue of a comic book series.

The story was loosely based on the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, in which a religious zealot sees the mutants as a blight on humanity and tries to eradicate them. In the film, the zealot is replaced by an obsessed military man, William Stryker (Brian Cox), and the writers—David Hayter, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris—wisely tie Stryker in with the origins of Wolverine’s adamantium-laced skeleton and claws. Stryker’s plan is to attack Xavier’s school and take control of the mutant detecting machine, Cerebro, in order to wipe out the mutants—very similar to the graphic novel.

While all this is going on, the audience learns more about Wolverine’s past, the love triangle between Cyclops, Jean, and Wolverine gets more interesting, Magneto escapes from his super-cool plastic prison, and the theme of combating intolerance is hammered home even more than in the first film. Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) makes his debut as does Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), though he’s only in a cameo appearance. Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) is given more screen time from the first film to develop his relationship with Rogue and a re-cast Pyro (Aaron Stanfield) walks the line between hero and villain. Kelly Hu also shows up as a variation on Lady Deathstrike. She is still a formidable opponent for Wolverine, but is far different from her comic book origins. There are a few missteps along the way—plot holes that may make you scratch your head a bit—but the film is so confident, you don’t really dwell on them. Or if you do dwell on them, just remember the excellent school assault scene and all should be forgiven.

Unlike with the first X-Men, I was excited about X-Men 2 from the get-go. All I kept thinking was, “With a bigger budget, all the problems with X-Men will be fixed,” and for the most part, they were. Halle Berry was still the weak link, as she couldn’t settle on a specific accent—the one she used in the first movie was completely different—but even she was a little better in X-Men 2. Though Berry was even more confident in X-Men 3, the producers have yet to capture Storm in all her glory, but it’s a problem for multiple characters in these films. No matter how perfect many of the actors were in their roles, Fox still hit some tone deaf notes with some of them. Cumming was a nice addition as Nightcrawler and it was disappointing that he never returned to the franchise, as I would have liked to have seen the producers develop the Wolverine-Nightcrawler friendship that exists in the comics.

Until Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight exploded into theaters, X-Men 2 was, for my money, the best comic book movie around. It maintained the spirit of the source material, while building the X-Men movie universe into something of its own. The ending was the perfect setup for a re-telling of the greatest story in the X-Men’s history…and Fox botched it.

 

Rating: A-

 

 

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X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Money and greed, that’s what robbed X-Men fans of a proper adaptation of the greatest story in the X-Men canon—The Dark Phoenix Saga. When 20th Century Fox delayed on nailing Director Bryan Singer down for X-Men 3, Warner Brothers tempted him with the Superman re-launch they were planning. It’s well known in geek circles that while Singer made two fantastic X-Men films, his childhood hero was Superman. Warner Brothers knew how to lure away one of the two hottest comic book directors at the time—Sam Raimi being the other one. When Fox wouldn’t pony up, Singer walked and the studio wasn’t interested in waiting on him to continue their X-Men franchise.

Matthew Vaughn was selected as Singer’s replacement. He made it the majority of the way through pre-production before leaving for personal reasons as well as the ever popular “creative differences.” Fox wasn’t giving anyone enough time to get this thing done, so they brought in Brett Ratner to take over as director. A lot of fans blame Ratner for the final product, but what they need to understand is, this movie was happening with or without Ratner. That’s not to say he shouldn’t shoulder some of the blame—he should—my point is that studio meddling was already screwing up this movie to begin with, so the director didn’t really matter in the end.

In the end though, the problems with The Last Stand are the same problems that plague every bad film: the script just isn’t very good. After the set up at the end of X-Men 2, the producers knew they had to have Phoenix (Famke Janssen) play in somehow, but they were also keen on adapting a more recent storyline in the comics by Joss Whedon, a story called “Gifted.” That story focuses on a mutant “cure” and what that would mean in the X-Men’s world if mutants could just inject themselves with a drug and lose their mutations. Either “Gifted” or Dark Phoenix would have made great movies by themselves, but when Hollywood assholes have an opportunity to half-ass two great comic book stories by smushing them together into one mediocre story, they take it! And X-Men: The Last Stand is what you end up with.

The movie is really just a case of cramming too much into the narrative and short-changing all the characters. Cyclops’ death at the hands of Phoenix was just a waste, as he should have been the character front and center in this film. Unfortunately, Singer also cast James Marsden in Superman Returns, so the actor’s screen time in X-Men 3 was diminished. The “death” of Professor Xavier made a little more sense narratively, but the Phoenix angle was already so screwed up, who knew what was up or down in this thing. It was just a wasted opportunity all around. This film could have been epic, but instead, it just ended up a crowded mess.

Another problem with the film is one of tone. The first two X-Men films were deadly serious with flashes of appropriate humor, but with X-Men 3, the script felt like it was drifting into campiness in order to offset all the death and destruction. Though many of the same actors were present, it didn’t feel like the previous two films.

Amazingly, X-Men 3 wasn’t all bad. Halle Berry finally made Storm her own in this one and Jackman is always great as Wolverine. The Beast (Kelsey Grammer) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) finally put in substantial appearances in the X-Men film universe and fans finally got a Danger Room sequence. We also kind of, sort of got Sentinels too, but not to the degree that they’ll factor into this summer’s Days of Future Past. Angel (Ben Foster), unfortunately, was more of an afterthought. Also there were a slew of mutants jammed in that neither serviced the plot, nor did any justice to their comic book incarnations. It was as if Fox was about to lose the license on a ton of characters and just started throwing names at a wall.

Overall, X-Men: The Last Stand, while not a total disaster, was ruined by shoving too many characters into the narrative and ruining two great X-Men stories by trying to tell them both at the same time. My initial reaction to X-Men 3 was, “Well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” so you can imagine just how bad I feared it was going to get. It was a fun, but frustrating entry in the X-Men series and so damaging to the continuity that part of the directive of Days of Future Past is to correct some of the biggest problems through the magic of time travel. And the worst part of all this is that we didn’t even get a good Superman movie out of it, because Superman Returns is even more horrible than X-Men 3. Of course, no matter how bad fans thought X-Men 3 was, they had no idea just how bad it could get.

 

Rating: C

 

For the story that I teased at the end of that last review, you’ll have to check out my previous reviews below. Click on the titles to head to the full reviews.

 

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Rating: D+

Despite that big D+ there, when you read the review, I’m actually a lot kinder than the final rating shows. Origins was just a poorly made film all the way around. It destroyed Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) as a viable character and damn near killed Wolverine himself with its stupidity. It did give us a literate Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), though. Click the link above to read the whole review.

 

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X-Men: First Class (2011)

Rating: C+

A lot of people love this film and Matthew Vaughn—yes, that Matthew Vaughn—got a lot right. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (James McAvoy) are great as is the 60’s vibe, but the villain, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), veers into camp at times and Fox still has the major problem of completely remaking major characters from the comic books—Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) anyone?—into unrecognizable cyphers that only serve to fulfill the plot they’ve written. Click the link above for the whole review.

 

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The Wolverine (2013)

Rating: B-

Everything was going great until the last 15 minutes or so. Such a huge disappointment. This could have rivaled X-Men 2, but instead it’s just the best of the last four films. But hey, at least the films are getting better. Click the link above for the whole review.

 

 

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

So that brings us to the latest film in the X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past. Loosely based on the comic book story of the same name, the film will cover two timelines—the 1970s and 50 years into the future—to tell the story of Wolverine traveling back in time to prevent a monumental event from happening—an event that sets in motion a dark future for mutants and humans alike. Most of the casts from both the original X-Men Trilogy as well as First Class are back for this one, as is Director Bryan Singer. Each trailer has gotten subsequently better and I’m beyond excited for this one. Hopefully, this will be the film that puts the X-Men film universe back on track. Early buzz is very positive and I’m hoping that holds true when I go to the theater this weekend to see it.

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