The X-Men film series is a weird one. For a civil rights allegory there sure is a lot of shallow stuff involved. Wolverine is the poster-boy, the action sequences, in some of the features, are worth more than the character moments and, really, there’s a great sacrifice of diversity. Yet for all its creative difficulty, the X-Men film series has had its fair sure of brilliance. There are moments of pure joy, plot dovetailing and some genuinely clever pieces of character development. First Class still stands, to me at least, as a symphony of pacing and storytelling posture, X-Men 2 is still one of the best superhero flicks ever made and, well, that’s about it.
In this two part ‘something something’ I’ll have a look at each film in the X-Men franchise and uncover what really makes them tick. The series really is an odd bunch with weird solo growths and backwards prequel bits. As a pretty heavy X-Men fan myself, I remain hopeful that there will be some movie magic involved with the forthcoming Days of Future Past, based on my favorite X-Men story. Part One will focus on the original ‘trilogy’ and the next Part, in the next week or so, will focus on Origins, First Class and Wolverine.
The first X-Men flick could be said to be a bit of a boring and bland effort. The costume design is pretty dull, practically all of the action sequences are uninspired and Bryan Singer doesn’t seem to know how to film some of the heavier pieces. What lifts it out of adequacy is an attention to delivering an X-Men movie rather than an X-Man movie. There’s some particular focus on Wolverine to introduce us to the world of Xavier’s school but it’s otherwise a conservative ensemble film with comic book overlay. It works and, really, the film doesn’t really demand too much of its audience for you to be left with a bitter taste. X-Men is a serviceable first tick on the film franchise list, if a bit too basic for its own good.
It’s an easy thought that the X-Men films are pretty politically charged; X-Men seems filled with a self-aware energy, if playing with it a bit too stupidly. All the world’s leaders convene in one place for Magneto’s convenience and the social commentary of ‘different but proud’ gets a bit wishy washy. I do think that you consider the first three films, then you see all of its social treatise contradict itself and eventually burn itself out by the third feature, though there’s still some relevant comments to be found. There are some defined political incisions from how a terrorist attack on an American symbol causes the government to drug and detain children (X-Men 2). Some of the retroactive commentary in First Class doesn’t really hold up that well in my opinion, it really does use the Cold War as a circus-like prop, tossing in a few bits of hyperbole and depicting its finale, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in an almost historically disgusting light. The original trilogy doesn’t suffer from a lack of historical fact though, the X-Men films have always been more ‘fantastical’ than anything else.
X-Men 2 might be one of the most accomplished comic book efforts in cinematic history. It has a pacing and timing that is really unrivaled. The way it flips villains, themes and tackles a grander political and social scope is very admirable. It’s the most contained and concise X-Men film and it knows its stuff. It shows Wolverine actually digging his claws in guys and the film, for the most part, makes sure all of its ensemble characters are given their own sub-plots. Jean Gray is given her Phoenix rising arc, Nightcrawler tries to make amends for his awful opening act, Pyro has to choose in how he manages his powers and Wolverine has to discover his past. The film doesn’t toss the characters aside or wrap up their personal quests with sentences, choosing to have everyone’s individual stories all converge on one particular location and dovetail together.
There’s a lot of clever little bits too. Professor X calmly, with a trace of humor, tells the other X-Dude that he and Cyclops are off to visit an “old friend”. When Magneto says “old friend” to Charles, however, it causes him to panic and know that something’s afoot. The Magneto/Xavier relationship might be one of the most complex and brilliant relationships in comic book history and the few scenes that Stewart and McKellen share practically steal the show. Wolverine’s search for Stryker, the ice wall scene is quite beautiful, is practically his pseudo-Frankensteinian journey that all ends with him with burying his creator in an icy torment. That’s not to say X-Men 2 is a perfect film, it’s just a really clever and very well-paced superhero film. The way that it’s built and engineered to serve every character, with absolute faithfulness, still makes it a stellar ensemble effort. There’s a ton of plot holes I could dig into but, otherwise, I think X-Men 2 might be the best of the entire series.
See, the X-Men have always represented something about society. It’s a common interpretation that they were birthed out of the heat of the civil rights movement; ‘Mutant and proud’. Difference and diversity were the core social tenets of the comic book fabric. The film series tries to support these ideas by exploring the humanity behind the mutants, showing that even the most disgusting of creatures have a heart and soul. It does do a valiant effort in trying to emulate the comic book canon’s social themes, but I believe that The Last Stand, for all intents and purposes, just outright ruins X-Men‘s social vision.
Bret Ratner just isn’t a capable enough filmmaker to make the X-Men tick, but it’s not his cinematic mis-steps that really hurt the series. It’s something else. The flashbacks and teases of continuity, flashes of Days of Future Past in the ‘Danger Room’ opener, are just absolutely annoying. Indeed, so many Ratner-twists just come across as irritating and boil characters down to the most shallow of points. Last Stand reduces Kitty Pryde down to a prop for Ice Man’s affair, which goes absolutely nowhere, and to be the cool punkish chick who knows what “Einstein said…” and has insults like “Who’s hiding, dickhead?” She’s never given an introduction either and is never able to become a character in her own light. The entire Golden Gate bridge sequence has always annoyed me… really, this entire film annoys me on multiple levels. What is near insulting, however, is its treatment of certain characters and the X-Men social views.
Magneto is essentially reduced to a villainous caricature. The Brotherhood have arguably always come with a trace of sympathy, a group of wronged individuals who chose different means. Xaiver is essentially the Martin Luther to Magneto’s Malcolm X. In The Last Stand, all trace of identifying with the Brotherhood is washed away. Heck, the film for the most part chooses to identify the mutants purely by their powers, which is exactly akin to identifying people purely by the color of their skin; the direct opposite of X-Men’s social mantra. Magneto’s mutant festish, “She was so beautiful” combined with his psychotic traits, he tells Juggernaut to “kill the boy” without a flash of emotion. When Erik flashes his holocaust tattoo to some tweenage mutant, who he only admires for her “talents” and not her ideology, there’s a sense that Bret Ratner and company just do not understand the characters. Juggernaut, in reply to Magneto’s “kill the boy”, spits back “with pleasure”. There is zero humanity, null ability to empathize with these characters and their view on the world. Making a leap to The Dark Knight would be a gross comparison, but in Nolan’s flick you can at least understand the Joker’s worldview and anarchy.
I could go on about how The Last Stand reduces the X-Men into nothing. Jean Gray stands around for most of the film doing absolutely nothing, Storm thinks that anyone who wants to the cure would be a “coward” completely forgetting her relationship with Rogue, the humans spout the most awful of cliched lines “Dear lord”, “God help us all”, “We cannot let them do this” but, really, The Last Stand just missed the point. It isn’t even a fun action movie. Compared to the Lady Deathstrike battle in X-Men 2, most of the action sequences are uninspired or seem pulled from nowhere. Perhaps it’s the scripts, I don’t know, but the one line that sums it up for me is something that Magneto speaks before the finale: “Worthington Labs, it ends where it begins.”
“Worthington Labs, it ends where it begins.” This line bothers me so much. It’s perhaps trying to feel a bit ‘comic bookish’ or trying to set up an epic sequence, but the fact it’s spoken by Magneto makes it that much worse. It didn’t ‘begin’ in Worthington Labs, the war between humanity and mutants, in the film continuity, apparently began with the ‘Liberty Island’ incident, intensifying with the Styrker plot and, well, it’s a lot more complex than Alcatraz Island. Erik, a super genius, fails to realize this. Much like Ratner feels no need to see underneath the powers and into the characters, all things remain understood. Professor X, Jean Gray and Cyclops are all turned to corpses in te name of drama. Ultimately, The Last Stand ends the X-Men trilogy’s social commentary in a superficial and downright stupid way, with “Worthington Labs, it ends where it begins” being a synecdoche of the whole problem. Ratner reduced the series into a stupid and insipid action affair; he’s more about the explosions than the characters.
Next time I’ll talk about how First Class retconned The Last Stand (yay) and how Wolverine could work in a solo film.