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Monday, 24 March 2014

What Would You Prefer, Yellow Spandex? A Look Back at The X-Men Trilogy

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This is something that I've been brewing for a while, and with a new trailer out today for X-Men: Days of Future Past and its already-announced follow up, Apocalypse, I think now is as good a time as any to do this post. Released in May this year, Days of Future Past will be the seventh film set in the X-Men universe, following last year's The Wolverine, which was itself the second attempt at a standalone Wolverine film. Overshadowed initially by Sam Raimi's Spiderman films, and more recently by the superfluous Avengers series and the Dark Knight Trilogy, the X Men franchise has quietly trundled along, releasing installments every two or three years since the first film came out in 2000. Not only does this make it the longest-running comic book film series ever made, but it also has become one of the most variable, interesting and important film franchises of the last fifteen years.  At the risk of becoming as unwieldy as the X series itself, over three posts I'm going to do summaries of both the original trilogy and what I'll call the 'spin off' trilogy, which consists of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, and The Wolverine. Secondly, I'll look at the extent to which Days of Future Past is an attempt to tie all the films together, but more importantly, the production of the newer X-Men films bear an increasing resemblance to not only the Avengers franchise model, with interconnected continuities across different storylines, but also, to Universal Studios' commercial strategy in the 1940s of combining its Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man properties into a single monster-mash up franchise.

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X-Men (2000)
There are only three years between the first X-Men film and 1997's abominable Batman and Robin, and yet they are worlds apart in almost every respect. Indeed, where Joel Schumacher's bat-nipples and neon overload represent the bloated, self-parodic death knells of the 90s superhero, Bryan Singer's slick, smart and engaging X-Men very much signals the rebirth, Phoenix-like, of the superhero genre as the new dominant form of action cinema. X-Men has been superseded by recent, more assured entries into the genre, including Avengers Assemble, The Dark Knight, and even the 2011 X-Men: First Class, and as a Marvel comics adaptation was preceded by Stephen Norrington's 1998 Blade. However, much like the 1931 Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, we shouldn't underestimate the importance of Singer's first entry in the series, especially as the birth of the modern superhero action film. And much like Dracula, as well as being rather talky and a little lacking in spectacular set-pieces, this first entry establishes some important tropes for the series, and the genre as a whole: the gruff, gritty hero in the shape of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, the tense friendship / enemy dynamic of Magneto and Xavier, and the looming threat of civil war between humans and mutants. It's interesting to remember that we're introduced to Wolverine through Rogue; indeed, for the first act or so she acts as the film's protagonist, the fish-out-of-water Luke Skywalker to Wolverine's Han Solo. Even as Wolverine takes centre stage, the film plays with audience expectations by misdirecting our attention away from Rogue and the fact that it is in fact she who Magneto wants.

X-Men pioneers not only the high-concept, pseudo-realistic take on comic-book mythos that would later inform The Dark Knight Trilogy, but also the ensemble casting of Avengers Assemble, and the affectionate nods towards the source material that define most contemporary superhero films. What X-Men lacks is the confidence of the later installments, and after the compelling first act, struggles in search for a strong plot with high stakes. In addition, the climax, despite being set atop the Statue of Liberty, is lacklustre, feeling flat and somewhat restrained. That said, X-Men's focus is on character, and it's here where it shines, with James Marsden's bland Cyclops and Halle Berry's questionable turn as Storm proving exceptions to the rule. Ian McKellen's Magneto, in particular, gifts us with one of the genre's most charismatic villains, and arguably the film's strongest suit is the friend / enemy relationship played out between Magneto and Patrick Stewart's Xavier: a dynamic played with throughout the series, and forming the central plot in 2011's First Class. Moreover, the score, composed by Michael Kamen, is a fantastic mix of strange textures and arrangments, fitting perfectly with the feel of the film, while the main theme is bold and exciting, comparing favourably alongside the likes of Danny Elfman's Spiderman score. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography and John Myhre's production design date the film, situating it unmistakably in that early-millenial, post-Matrix era of early-noughties science fiction cinema, but on its own terms the film looks terrific, presenting the mutant characters with a cold, inhospitable world with which to contend. What this first film lacks in confidence and bravura action sequences, it more than makes up for in great characters, charm, and personality, not to mention laying much of the groundwork that Chrisopher Nolan, Matthew Vaughn and Marvel studios would later build on.

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X 2: X-Men United
X 2 is where the series really takes off; Singer finds the directorial confidence lacking in the previous film with some fantastic set pieces, the broad cast of characters all get a fair shout, with the main mutants' relationships deepening and the auxillary characters getting satisfying satisfying arcs, and even Storm is less annoying this time around. With the possible exception of First Class, X 2 is undoubtedly the series highlight, which sadly compounds the later disappointments of The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine. By introducing Colonel William Stryker as the main baddie, X 2 manages to further explore the fraught relationship between Xavier and Magneto, building on the previous film's suggestion that the two are separated by only a very thin line, and despite their conflicting agendas, still consider each other friends. The opening scene, a thrilling sequence in which a drugged Nightcrawler teleports through the corridors of the White House, effortlessly neutralising security before almost assassinating the President, hands-down beats any of the previous film's set-pieces. Berry's Storm is significantly less irritating this time round, though neither the writers nor director can figure out what to do with James Marsden's Cyclops. Ice Man gets a slightly beefed up role this time, with a neat sub-plot about coming out as a mutant to his parents, and the entire production just feels bigger, better, and more polished. Additionally, Stryker's brutalisation of the mutants under his duress, and the White House's tacit approval of his methods not only lend credence to Magneto's deep-seated suspicion of humanity and advocacy of pre-emptive action, but also situate X 2 as a post-9/11 film five years before Nolan presented super villains as terrorists in The Dark Knight.

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X Men: The Last Stand
Having re-watched The Last Stand for this post, I would suggest that it isn't quite as bad as we all remember. Like that other infuriating Marvel trilogy misfire, Spiderman 3, it is more of a great opportunity squandered, rather than an unmitigated and irredeemable disaster. Undoubtedly, X 3 is by far the weakest of the original three films, suffering from an overabundance of new characters, the abrupt deaths of others, and the departure of Singer as director, who left The Last Stand to make the cooly-received but underrated Superman Returns. However, it could have been a lot worse; the plot about a mutant 'cure', while handled with none of the subtlety of X 1 and 2, is a natural extension of the themes of the series, while feeling sufficiently scaled-up for a trilogy-closer. Indeed, the deaths of Cyclops, Professor X and Jean Grey suggest that The Last Stand really does mean business, and the scenes with shady government agencies, the army and Secretary Trask create the sense that tensions between humans and mutants have finally come to a head. The proof, however, is in the pudding, and this is where we come to that squandered potential. Cyclops, always underused in the other films, is given even shorter shrift here, finding himself a grumpy wastrel after Jean's death in X 2, before being summarily dispatched in the first fifteen minutes by a newly-resurrected Jean. Cyclops' death, I think, neatly summarises director Brett Ratner's misguided and impatient approach to character in this film. Ratner expects an emotional gut-punch by killing off one of the main characters so early on, but instead he merely creates frustration. The focus of the scene should be on Jean's return - if she's going to kill someone it should be an extra or minor character - not a character with whom she's had a two-film relationship. That's not to say that she couldn't have killed Cyclops at all - indeed, that could have been really effective in the second act - perhaps around the point where Jean kills Professor X. Moreover, Jean as The Phoenix, exhilaratingly teased at the end of the last film, is a real disappointment, wasted as Magneto's stand-in after he inexplicably leaves a 'cured' Mystique after she sacrifices herself for him. And that moment is itself is another of Ratner's missteps; the Magneto of Singer's films would never abandon his loyal friend so callously and needlessly - especially given the intelligence she has on Magneto, which she ultimately uses against him in an act of revenge. Ratner's vision is far too binary for the murky ethics of the mutants, and mistakes the principled, angry Magneto for a simplistic bad guy. And even the action suffers: The Last Stand offers nothing of the quality of the Whitehouse-Nightcrawler or Magneto jail-break sequences of X 2, nor even the small-scale yet satisfying Statue of Liberty showdown of X 1. Sure, there's plenty of action to go round, but Ratner proves that he just hasn't got the chops to make it worth it. There are two exceptions to this: Magneto's attack on the convoy carrying Mystique and Juggernaut is nicely paced and sufficiently tense, and the Golden-Gate bridge is a satisfying spectacle. Ultimately, however, it all feels like so much nothing: spectacle created to mask a lack of depth or real engagement with the audience, and the underwhelming climax succeeds only on the basis that Ratner finally unearths some actual emotion from Wolverine and Jean's final confrontation. To return to my original point, what perhaps is most frustrating about The Last Stand is that it is not irredeemable, but that the errors in judgement on Ratner's part cripple what should have been a nuanced and emotionally mature film, giving us what is instead a serviceable, but ultimately disappointing and shallow action film.

Join me next week, when we'll be looking at the Spin-Off Trilogy, namely X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine.

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