Monday, 7 April 2014

"What Kind of Monster Are You? The Wolverine!" X-Men: Part Three

Few would dispute that since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel's series of Avengers films has become, at least from a business and financial perspective, the most important modern blockbuster franchise in Hollywood. Moreover, Marvel's model of an expanded universe, with a potentially limitless web of interconnected films will undoubtedly define the mindset of major studios for the foreseeable future. However, I would argue that 20th Century Fox, owner of the X-Men series, has its own share of responsibility for the current state of Hollywood superhero franchises, not only because the original X-Men kick-started the prevalence of  modern comic adaptations, but also in its almost-accidental creation of a shared universe with a haphazard collection of sequels, prequels and spin-offs. In my final post on the X-Men series, I want to suggest that both the Marvel and Fox expanded universes, while ostensibly deriving inspiration from their comic-book roots, actually mirror much of what Universal achieved in the 1940s with their series of monster-mash up horror films. 

What I find particularly interesting about the X-Men series in general is the way it plays with concepts of otherness and monstrosity, refiguring the monsters as heroes. It’s well documented that the X-Men, both in film and comic form, with their freakish abilities and position as marginalised and often feared outsiders, are effectively thinly-veiled monsters reconstructed as superheroes. In fact, I argue that in paying homage in one scene to the 1931 version of Frankenstein, James Mangold not only makes a passing reference to this reading of the X-Men, but more importantly, draws an intriguing comparison to the production of modern superhero franchises, and that of the Universal horror cycle of the 1930s and 40s. In a cinematic landscape awash with conservative vigilante fantasies (Batman) and government backed, super-secret strike forces (Avengers Assemble), the X-Men films are unique in their continuing story of the fight for mere acceptance. Furthermore, The Wolverine is particularly interesting with regard to monstrosity in the way that at one point it makes overt reference to the Frankenstein monster, perhaps the greatest example in pop cinema of the misunderstood and feared 'other'. For example, during the scene where Wolverine tries to extract the robotic device in his chest, the laboratory setting and his position on an operating table alludes to the creation of the monster in Frankenstein. In contrast to the Frankenstein monster lying unconscious as the mad scientist operates on him,Wolverine operates on himself, asserting an autonomy and self-direction usually denied the monster in cinema. Shingen's question to Wolverine in the same scene, 'What kind of monster are you?', and Wolverine's furious answer, 'The Wolverine!' hammers the point home. Unlike Frankenstein's creation, however, this monster has a name, as he unambiguously asserts as 'The Wolverine!', before dispatching Shingen in a characteristically brutal fashion. Wolverine's answer here acts both as the reassertion of his lost identity, as well as a play on the trope of the monster without a name. In a series that, at its best, is about the discovery and assertion of identity, this is a great, if rather unsubtle, moment of pop bildungsroman

Compare and contrast: Frankenstein Meets The Wolverine

The Wolverine's allusion to Frankenstein in this scene reminds us that even though the Avengers series feels fresh and innovative in its approach to story-telling (having itself been influenced by the early X-Men films), universe building across connected franchises is nothing new in Hollywood.  We’re encouraged to think that Marvel and Fox’s current shared-universe approach to their franchises is experimental and innovative, and to an extent that’s true, but it isn’t the first time that this has been attempted. Universal studios performed an almost-identical trick over seventy years ago, when they began to combine their horror series together, most notably with FrankensteinDracula and The Wolf Man. Beginning with silent films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, the so-called Universal Horror Cycle moved into the sound era with Dracula in 1931, the success of which meant it was quickly followed by James Whale's Frankenstein in the same year. Both of these received their own sequels with Dracula's Daughter (1936), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). 1941 saw the release of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., who would then play the monster in the fourth Frankenstein picture, the abysmal Ghost of Frankenstein, released the following year in 1942, as well as the ubiquitous Count (or is that his son? There seems to be no consensus) in the second (sort of) sequel to Dracula, entitled - of course - Son of Dracula, released in 1943. With Chaney starring in Universal's three major monster franchises, it seemed to make sense to mash them together and see what happened. So, 1943 also saw Chaney return to his werewolf role with the release of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, an enjoyable slice of trash that simultaneously served as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man and the fifth Frankenstein film.

Similarly, just as The Wolverine is the second Wolverine film, it is also a sequel of sorts to the third X-Men film, and yet is somehow the sixth X-Men film overall. Following Frankenstein Meets the Wolf ManHouse of Frankenstein was released in 1944. This one features Dracula as well, this time played by a delightfully hammy John Carradine, making it the third Wolf Man film, fourth Dracula film and sixth Frankenstein. 1945 saw the release of House of Dracula, featuring all three monsters in a confused mess of a mash-up, that serves as part-sequel and part-reboot to the previous film: no mention is made of the deaths of either Dracula or the Wolf Man from House of Frankenstein, but the film goes to lengths to explain the resurrection of the Frankenstein monster, who also met his end at the end of the last one. Similarly confusingly, X Men: Days of Future Past will serve as a direct sequel to not only The Wolverine and The Last Stand, but also to First Class, making it a direct sequel to three (!) different films, the second direct sequel to The Last Stand, and the seventh installment in the series overall. This means that if we were numbering the films, Days of Future Past could be legitimately called X-Men: First Class 2, X-Men 4X-Men 5X-Men 6 or X-Men 7. And that's before we consider that X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the First Class era, and another Wolverine film, almost certainly set before the events of Days of Future Past are both in production, which if we're numbering the films based on their internal chronology (and after all of this, why the hell not?), it means that Days of Future Past, the seventh in the series, might as well be called X-Men: First Class 3X-Men 8 or X-Men 9. This beats even the Universal series for sheer convolutedness, and I know of no other film series whose sequels, like the tendrils of some Lovecraftian monstrosity, knot and tangle over each other so excessively, and yet so beautifully.

Sequels such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Dracula are little more than cheaply produced cash-ins, made to ride on the coattails of their successful forbears, but they do demonstrate that the concept of successful (financially at least) shared filmic universes is nothing new. It's fascinating to me that a film like The Wolverine, which in many ways is an average comic book action film, existing only to keep a variable franchise afloat until the arrival of its next 'proper' installment, can unlock many of the relationships its parent series has with the past and ongoing history of cinema, even if those relationships mainly lie in the confusing and artistically dubious nature of sequels. I hope that it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that that the release of Days of Future Past, a film about returning to the past for the survival of the future, foreshadows what lies ahead for the superhero genre as a whole: looking to the past, whether by paying homage to James Bond and gothic monsters, or by unconsciously mirroring the insane mash-up-sequel-logic of the Universal Horror Cycle, has reaped rewards for the X-Men franchise, a series which, if nothing else, seems to excel at reinvention and rejuvenation. Perhaps, then, if the superhero genre is to find its place in the future history of cinema, then it must look backwards, to its forbears, to do so.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A Glimpse into The Past: X-Men Part 2

Last week, we looked at the original X-Men trilogy, and so to begin this week's post we'll be recapping the spin off trilogy: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine.

Ah yes, X-Men Origins. Let's get this one out of the way.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Following the disappointment of The Last Stand, things were looking shaky for the X-Men franchise, but few could have predicted just how bad things could get. In hindsight, however, the signs were all there. 20th Century Fox announced that they would be taking the series down the prequel route, beginning with a film about Wolverine before moving on to origin stories of Professor X and Magneto, as well as a Deadpool film that mercifully never materialised. The potential (from the studio's standpoint) looked great - a respectable director in Gavin Hood, and an almost endless roster of characters on which to base stand-alone films, not to mention sequels and cross-overs. At the centre of the hype machine was Hugh Jackman himself, promising audiences that this would be the film where Wolverine would finally be let loose, relentlessly tearing up bad guys and answering those questions left tantalisingly unanswered by the original trilogy. But alas, in a post-Phantom Menace world, audiences were only too familiar with the empty promises of ambitious prequels, with the empty rhetoric of 'returning to the spirit of the original' falling on skeptical ears. Critics' and audiences' reticence was borne out when, after a rough cut of the film was leaked online, Origins was hurriedly released to cinemas. When it arrived, anyone who hadn't already seen it was greeted with one of the worst superhero films ever released. Far worse than The Last Stand. Worse than Daredevil. Worse even, dare I say it, than Batman and Robin. Unfinished special effects, juvenile, boring action sequences, wasted characters, and an appalling screenplay were but a handful of the sins of which Origins was guilty. Beyond laboriously listing the film's many, many problems (not least the shoddy, unnecessary  use of CGI claws and the stunt casting of Will. I. Am), there isn't a great deal more to say on Origins, but it is important to at least acknowledge this film, because its critical and commercial failure marks a crucial change not only in the fortunes of the X-Men franchise, but more importantly, in 20th Century Fox's approach to their series. The original idea following the release of Origins was to produce similar stories based on Xavier and Magneto. Unsurprisingly, these films were shelved following the train wreck of Origins, and it looked like the franchise was dead in the water. Only two years later, however, those Magneto / Xavier origins plans were dusted off and retooled into X-Men: First Class, a quasi-reboot-prequel, and somewhat astonishingly, one of the best films of the series.

X-Men: First Class

Nobody suspected that a follow-up to Origins could have been anything other than a further descent into schlock. Indeed, a tacky, cheap-looking early promotional poster suggested as much to the few people who were still paying the series any attention. But then, this atmospheric trailer arrived, suggesting a character-driven story and a renewed focus on the friendship between Magneto and Xavier. And of course, Matthew Vaughan, responsible for Layer Cake, Stardust and the previous year's terrific Kick Ass (not to mention second choice to make The Last Stand - if only!) was directing. Maybe, just maybe, this one might be alright.

And boy, is it ever: rather than suffering from prequel-itis, First Class' sixties setting injects a sense of fun and colour arguably missing from even the first two good X-Men films. Michael Fassbender stands out as the young Erik Lensherr / Magneto, particularly in a brilliant Euro-hopping sequence where he tracks down his former Nazi tormentors, which plays out not only as an exhilarating action segment in its own right, but also as the best James Bond audition tape never filmed. Elsewhere, James McAvoy is brilliantly cast as a young Charles Xavier, playing him against expectations as a cocky ladies man thoroughly enjoying the swinging sixties. Rather than undermining Patrick Stewart's interpretation of the character as a calm scholar, McAvoy adds new dimension and depth to him. Its subtle yet consistent subversion of our expectations is perhaps First Class' greatest strength. On paper, for example, writing Xavier and Mystique as adoptive siblings sounds bizarre, but McAvoy, Vaughn, and the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence make it work. Their dynamic creates new perspectives on the groundwork laid by Bryan Singer, especially with regard to Mystique's dedication to Magneto. More importantly, in casting Magneto in a sympathetic light, and grounding his world view in his experiences of the holocaust, Fassbender enriches McKellan's older version of the character, leaving us in real ambivalence over just how far we can read Magneto as a simple villain. Of course, First Class has its share of flaws: for one thing it's littered with continuity errors with all the previous films, especially The Last Stand and Origins, although any X-Men film that disregards the events of those two is fine with me. Additionally, Fassbender's weird English-American-Irish accent becomes pretty distracting, there are a few visual effects that look unfinished, and Beast's blue make up, replete with nerdy spectacles, raised audible titters of derision in the cinema audience when I first saw the film. More importantly, the ending feels a little too neat and tidy, with Erik donning the Magneto helmet, Mystique joining him, and Charles being paralysed all happening within minutes of each other. The nadir of the film comes, however, in an embarrassing contrivance that has Rose Byrne strip to her lingerie underwear to infiltrate a nightclub, as well as January Jones' ridiculous wardrobe as Emma Frost. It's a shame, because the few female characters in the film are otherwise treated sensitively as actual human beings with their own motivations and agendas, but here Byrne and Jones are used to pander to a perceived adolescent male viewership. With those exceptions, the rest are minor complaints in a film that performs a near miracle in reviving a moribund franchise, so much so that First Class feels at times like a lesson to George Lucas in how to tell an origin story of friends-turned-enemies. Alongside X 2, this is not only one of the best films of the series, but one of the best comic book movies ever made.

The Wolverine

How does a studio follow the critical success of First Class? By returning to the concept that almost derailed the franchise, of course! Yes, The Wolverine is the second-attempt to bring audiences a stand-alone Wolverine movie. In what seems to be an X-Men tradition, the film was originally set to be directed by Darren Aronosfky, before changing hands to James Mangold. Hugh Jackman assured audiences that this one really would be 'true to the character', repeatedly, but as we know, promises like these had been made and broken in the past. And so it came as somewhat of a surprise that The Wolverine is actually rather good. Let's not get ahead of ourselves: it can't touch First Class or X 2, and isn't even quite as good as Singer's original, but as a standalone film it's entertaining, well paced and at times very nicely shot. Compared to the other Wolverine film it's a masterpiece. Although it's set up as a quasi-sequel to The Last Stand (creating yet more continuity problems with First Class), The Wolverine more or less distances itself from the other films, giving the sense that this is a chapter in an ongoing saga of Wolverine adventures, connected to but independent of the wider X-Men story. In many respects, it feels like a lot like James Bond film, perhaps not up to the Connery-esque standard of Magneto's European sequence in First Class, but as least as good as your average Dalton or Brosnan outing. This is especially true of the bullet-train scene, which stands out as one of the best and most imaginative action sequences of the series. True, there are significant problems with the film - it sags heavily in the middle, the motivations of many of the characters often feel needlessly obfuscated or overly complex, and the climax somehow succeeds at feeling both underwhelming and ludicrously over the top. Not to mention, the film has the dubious honour of giving us the series' worst female character to date in the Viper. In her every appearance she dresses in increasingly fetishistic outfits, before declaring in her final scene that she is immune to all poison, including the worst of all: 'men'. It's the most embarrassing moment of the film, which is not an insignificant achievement given it's in the same scene as an enormous samurai robot piloted by an aging World War II veteran.

Despite its standing as the least good of the good X-Men films, I'd argue that The Wolverine holds the key to the structure of the series as a cohesive story, and to the future of expanded universe action franchises. Although I have an uncommon regard for the film, undoubtedly the most satisfying part of the film is the post-credits sting, wherein Magneto and an inexplicably-resurrected Xavier jointly recruit Wolverine for an all-important-but-mysterious mission as a blatant teaser for the next proper X-Men instalment. The Last Stand and Origins also had post-credits teasers, which inevitably went nowhere. In contrast, The Wolverine's teaser is setting up a film already in production, and is clearly influenced by a practice established by the ubiquitous Avengers films. This is why The Wolverine is the key to uniting the X-Men franchise into a coherent story. Until this film, the series was produced in an almost admirably haphazard way, lurching from one film to the next, with plans for spin offs, origin stories and prequels fulfilled or forgotten on the whims of fortune. Although the upcoming Days of Future Past will tie together the First Class and Original Trilogy stories, The Wolverine is really the first film in the series to openly suggest a long-term plan for the franchise. Moreover, unlike the Marvel studios films, which all invariably lead toward the next Avengers instalment, The Wolverine succeeds at both joining the dots between the existing X-Men films, and laying the foundations of future spinoffs not directly connected to the main story. Marvel's Avengers is clearly the inspiration for Fox's renewed dedication to their franchise, and there's no doubt that Marvel's approach to interconnected franchises will inform the mindset of major studios to their properties for the forseeable future. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the X-Men series as a poor-man's Avengers. In fact, I argue that Fox's scatter-gun approach to story telling, and their admirable disregard for a slavish adherence to continuity is actually closer to the tradition of comic-book story telling than the Avengers. And like universe-resetting comics such as DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, Fox's Days of Future Past promises to correct some of the continuity problems between its prior films.

Next week will see the conclusion to this series of X-Men posts, in which I will look at the odd but illuminating relationship between the X-Men films and the Universal Horror cylce.