So last week I took a look at the original X-Men film trilogy and so, as promised, here’s some thoughts on the following films. They’re an odd bunch; two solo ventures and a complete reboot/prequel/fanservice extravaganza. X-Men has always been about diversity though and, well, I guess the extends into time periods, genres and basic narrative structures. Here I’ll look at X-Men First Class, Origins Wolverine and The Wolverine, with Days of Future Past most definitely reserved for a Part 3. It’s nice to plan that far ahead.
After the absolute travesty that was The Last Stand, which ruined the social and cultural messages of X-Men whilst also destroying all ounce of character, there was a growing sense of animosity among the comic book legionnaires. In order to try and bring the series back to a quality standard they decided that making a X-Men Meets Brett Ratner! film would be perfect. Half biopic and half superhero action. Except that, thankfully, doesn’t exist. Given quantum mechanics and parallel universes, however, that thing does exist in some possible universe… which is a shame.
Shall we start actually talking X-Men?
The first effort to get a swing of the bat, or should that be a claw at the… fence, was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Another feature titled Origins: Magneto was also in development, with the Wolverine title acting as a filmy petri dish of sorts to see if a solo X-Men film could actually play out. I do still believe such a thing is possible to do, if hard to manage. Jumping from ensemble fare to deep character focus is a tricky thing for any franchise to do. It’s fair to say then that Origins was surprising in just how blatantly blasphemous it was and how it made The Last Stand look like a fun movie.
Origins misunderstands practically every single aspect of Logan (AKA Wolverine) to a point of anger. The film decides to sweep aside his entire life from his Civil War days to World War One to Vietnam to the deep stretches of the Cold War. In a matter of an awful montage we’re shown all the possibilities, all the fantastic long stretches of historical material that could serve as the base for a great Wolverine film. Instead we’re placed into a stupid action film that throws in the Blob, will.i.am, some sort of Gambit character and Deadpool. That last move is probably the one that manages to score the most scorn points. Turning the merc with a mouth into a mouthless, generic ‘end of game’ boss.
I think I could probably harp on about Origins: Wolverine for at least a whole other Weekly Analysis. It manages to get so much wrong and practically none of it is redeemable. Hugh Jackman seems to just grin his way through the script, which manages to use all possible cliches and tropes to destroy all sense of fun, pacing or compelling elements. There is very little in the way of ‘good’ in Origins: Wolverine.
After the critical panning and the ‘fair’ box office performance, the creative folks decided on a rethink. Returning to the ‘present’ day X-Men films was on the table as was the Magneto solo venture. Perhaps out of a need to keep familiarly fresh whilst not being too risky, the studios decided another ensemble flick might be worthwhile, but this time set in the past. All of the notable X-Men outside of Wolverine would be given their Origins stories all in one. So we come to First Class.
Let’s just say I have a big grand soft spot for First Class. January Jones really phones it in, some of the action sequences fall flat, the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis is reduced to a cinematic backdrop and the film murders most of the continuity that it set out to reaffirm. In reality, however, we have a film that, in some respects, practically erases the entire existence of the events of The Last Stand and some of Origins given the paradoxes that it plays out. The film manages to capture both the drama and scope of these two competing ideologies within the same group that eventually sprout into opposing sides. Under the same ‘Mutant’ banner it was Magneto that took on militarism and Xavier that attempted compassion. First Class charts their relationship in growing complexity, the Erik/Xavier relationship has always been one that’s just been brilliantly realized in both comic book and film, and manages to ground the film in a more intimate conflict.
McAvoy and Fassbender play the chemistry practically perfectly too, alongside the rest of the cast. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is one of the smartest casting decisions I can think of, and the rest of the mutant power fun fun group manage to get in some clever pieces now and then. The only scenes that really turned me off are the ones including January Jones and that one in which all of the mutants show off their powers and name each other. It just feels a bit shoved in to the middle-ground, and it’s hard to take a film about co-existing ideologies even the slightest bit seriously. Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw is also a grand highlight, bringing a great degree of fun and bubbling charisma to the role.
And so we go to The Wolverine. First Class works given it takes the familiar X-Men mutant ensemble picture into a whole new timeline, adding in some spliced themes of racial issues and sixties movements. The Wolverine works because it is a solo venture fully centered on showing the impact, psychological torment and destruction of one of its X-Men. Origins was focused, loosely, on filling the continuity with disgusting and dumb action that ruined comic book lore. The Wolverine is a pretty smart action flick that orbits thematic concepts from existentialism to cultural familiarity. It never ‘comments on’ or attempts to seriously ‘dive’ into these issues but it still treats its setting and surroundings with respect.
The Wolverine, for the most part anyway, gets over a lot of problems with the X-Men series actually and how Wolverine dramatically fits into those films. Logan’s healing factor and claws mean that the only places we genuinely feel he’s under peril is when he’s faced with mutants. Otherwise we likely don’t feel worried about him specifically in any of the other action sequences. The Wolverine strips Logan of his healing factor and has that entire question of his valued life be the emotional flagpole of the entire story. There’s a lot not to love: the Silver Samurai’s entire portrayal, some of the plot logic and how it uses Jean Grey as a crutch for Wolverine’s own development, but The Wolverine is head and shoulders about Origins. It’s a very competent and sometimes surprising solo X-Men effort.
That’s all for now, I think? I’ve only recently seen The Wolverine and will probably attempt another Weekly Analysis at some point exclusively on the Wolverine character. Days of Future Past is also shaping up to be utterly exceptional, so that will certainly be the main man of Part 3. Until them, however, I’d like to end with some thoughts on the series as a whole. While the people at Marvel are dancing around their multiple characters and cinematic universe and Sony is too busy ruining Spider-Man, the X-Men series has been constantly surprising. Not always for the best reasons. First Class and X-Men 2 might be some of my favorite superhero flicks of all time given they both ‘get’ how to do an ensemble flick in which everyone is a rewrite away from being Norse gods. The rest of the series are either shallow but pleasant (X-Men and The Wolverine) or utterly revolting (The Last Stand and Origins). The transplant of the social agenda of X-Men from page to screen is, however, mostly successful in the films. I look forward to seeing more of the mutant forces of the comic books getting their own grand adventures.
I just hope Brett Ratner will never be involved with, well, anything actually.