“The Key to Our Evolution”: Matt Revisits X-MEN

by     Posted 186 days ago

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[With X-Men: Days of Future Past opening on Friday, May 23rd, I'm taking a look back at the X-Men movie franchise.  These reviews contain spoilers.]

I’ll always have a soft spot for X-Men.  They had a huge impact on my life.  I still remember watching the first episode of the animated series with I was eight-years-old, and from there I went down a very geeky road.  I collected the X-Men cards, constantly tried and failed at drawing X-Men, and even attempted to keep up with the comics, although I could never quite get hooked.  Before the X-Men, I knew Superman and Batman from their live-action series, but the X-Men changed my perception of what superheroes could be and do.

Cut forward eight years later, and the X-Men were now coming to a theater near me.  The mutants were here to save the day and make way for a geekier tomorrow even if they weren’t quite sure how to do it.

Director Bryan Singer and screenwriter David Hayter make a bold move in how they begin X-Men.  They don’t start by introducing any of the heroes; they do an origin story for the villain, and that origin takes place in a concentration camp.  Then he moves to a girl whose first kiss almost kills her boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson) wants a “Mutant Registration Act”, and the wheelchair bound psychic Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) believes that super-powered mutants can peacefully co-exist with humans while his old friend Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen) believes that mutants are the future, and doesn’t want to relive the same persecution he experienced as a boy.

This is also a movie where people can fly and shoot energy blasts from their eyeballs.

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X-Men may be a superhero movie, but when it came out in 2000, it defied easy comparison to the other blockbusters in the genre.  Spawn and Blade had kept the genre alive since the implosion caused by Batman & Robin, but X-Men was the first major comic to take a shot at the box office, and it was on uneasy ground.  Singer knew they couldn’t go too campy, but how serious could they go without making the movie a bummer?  What were the boundaries?  Singer was trying to find the path by walking it and X-Men has become fascinating for how it tried to get a mainstream audience to accept things comic book fans took for granted.

The collapse of the Batman franchise coupled with the lack of another major superhero title in the marketplace gave Singer both freedom and caution in equal measure.  He had the freedom to start his movie in a concentration camp, but then he had to figure out how to give characters names like “Magneto”, “Cyclops,” and “Storm”.  Singer needed to find the balance between what was essential and what could be discarded.  He knew he could get away with making Rogue a teenager with only her lifeforce-drain ability, and he even aroused the ire of fans online when early photos didn’t show her signature hair-stripe.  He went with a younger Storm rather than the older, wiser version.  He also made Sabertooth a brute rather than Wolverine’s archenemy.

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Then there were trickier, more “comic-book” elements, and this included the little details.  The costumes were good, the visual effects were where they needed to be with regards to Mystique’s transformations, Wolverine’s claws, Cyclops’ optic blasts, etc.  But imagine if the “Snikt” sounded off, or Wolverine’s hair wasn’t right.  Most importantly, imagine if they had miscast Wolverine entirely.

Of course, we know that casting Hugh Jackman as Wolverine was perfect.  He nailed the tone, the comic timing, the irreverence, and could bring a grin to your face by saying, “Bub.” Dougray Scott originally had the part, but he had to go do Mission: Impossible 2, so they took an unknown Australian actor and gave him a life-changing, career-defining role that would be scrutinized by fans the world over (“He’s too tall!” was my favorite criticism because it was so ridiculous).  When I think about this simple twist of fate, I’m amazed Scott didn’t put his head in an oven.  If you want to know what perseverance looks like, look at Dougray Scott.

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The rest of the cast ranges from pitch-perfect to slightly off.  Patrick Stewart as Xavier is pure fan-casting, and it works perfectly.  Ian McKellen had worked with Singer before on Apt Pupil, and casting him as Magneto was an inspired decision.  The rest of the cast fits their roles fairly well.  No one is egregiously miscast based on the definitions of their role.  You can get Tyler Mane to play a brute; you can get a traditionally handsome guy like James Marsden to play Scott Summers.  Anna Paquin may be younger than Rogue from the comics, but there needs to be a surrogate for the teenagers in the audience; someone who can relate to the awkwardness and alienation these young fans might feel, and Rogue is perfect for it.  An age-appropriate alternative would have been Kitty Pryde, but Rogue’s ability is better for the (admittedly silly) plot.  The only misstep is Halle Berry is Storm, not because she’s too young, but because she didn’t know what to do with the accent.  The character is African in the comics, so Berry decided to put on a bad African accent and no one said, “Yeah, we’ve already made your character younger, so perhaps there’s no need to stay faithful to an accent that’s not working.”

This ambivalence about where to stay faithful and how to relate to a mainstream audience is the crux of where X-Men fails and succeeds.  It has the courage to embrace the civil rights subtext of the original comics and update it from racial tension to the current persecution of homosexuals (Singer is gay, and you can feel he relates to the story on a personal level).  It’s a movie willing to start off on bummer notes before giving people the exhilaration of Wolverine kicking ass and cracking jokes.

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When X-Men becomes too cautious and too self-conscious is when it falters badly.  I cringe every time I hear Professor X introduce Cyclops and Storm, and then the movie needs to rely on Wolverine to openly say, “This is so stupid.”  When Berry goes for a grandiose line reading of “Do you know what happens to a toad…” (a delivery that Joss Whedon, who wrote a draft of the script, did not intend), it throws off the balance.  In some ways, the movie retreats entirely with Michael Kamen‘s forgettable score and the lack a of visual style, although I admire Singer’s willingness to embrace comic book environs to the point where Magneto and the Brotherhood operate out of a cave off the coast of who knows where.

I still admire the movie for focusing more on world-building and subtext (although keeping with the subtext, the supervillain’s plan would amount to “Magneto made me gay!”).  X-Men is remarkably low-scale, although part of that can be attributed to the fact that the movie had six months shaved off its production schedule.  I don’t know what big action scenes Singer had planned, but all he ended up with was a skirmish at a train station, and fights in a gift shop and on top of the Statue of Liberty.   That seems so quaint in an age where most superhero movies are now about saving the world.  And even if Magneto’s plan comes to fruition, he’ll only turn all of New York into jelly.  Sure, that’s millions of people, but it’s not like the whole world will be tuned into jelly.

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That’s the kind of movie X-Men is—leading off with a concentration camp to the threat of people being turned into mutant jelly.  Despite these polar extremes, X-Men does find a surprising amount of solid middle ground even if it’s not always surefooted.  Most importantly, it never sold out the heart of the franchise.  Even though the focus on Wolverine makes the movie less of an ensemble, the larger story always kept an eye on the problem facing a species rather than a generalized threat.  We lead off with Magneto because we’re supposed to see things from his point of view, and we close with the threat of a looming war.

The moment that best exemplifies X-Men is when Wolverine criticizes the uniforms.  He’s still in the 2000 reality where audiences may be hesitant to accept anyone not named “Superman” or “Batman” running around in a costume.  “Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?” Cyclops quips.  Explain it a way with a joke and a smile, and get back to the fun.

When it came time for the sequel, things weren’t just fun.  They had mutated into something spectacular.

Rating: B

[Tomorrow: X2]

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  • http://tarek-to-verso.over-blog.com/ tarek

    My most beloved character of the X-Men is Cyclops.
    He is in my top 3 Marvel superheroes

    1 Spiderman
    2 Ironman
    3 Cyclops

    And a stupid guy killed him in Last stand. So I can’t stand Brett Ratner anymore

    • Ashtalon

      Bret Ratner didn’t write Last Stand. He stepped in as director very late in the game, once the original director left the project. I know everyone wants to blame Ratner for X3, but he was doing his best in a far-less-than-perfect situation.

      • http://tarek-to-verso.over-blog.com/ tarek

        It seems that they killed Cyclops because of Madsen’s filming commitments with the awful superman return, which was being shot the same time.

      • Werefon

        Again, stupid. If he couldn’t film for more days doesn’t mean he should be killed. They could injure him or put in coma (another poor decision because it repeats Prof X being in coma in X1 but still a better one).

      • http://tarek-to-verso.over-blog.com/ tarek

        true,

      • eternalozzie

        They killed Cyclops and Prof. X because Halle “the diva” Berry refused to come back for X3 unless she got co-lead with Hugh Jackman … they should had recast her bad acting butt and moved on … and don’t get me started on how they ruined Jean Grey. X-men 1-3 crapped all over the comics books.

      • punyGod

        I like X3. I don’t think it is as bad movie as people make it out to be. Fairly entertaining in bits. Beast is great. and the last set piece is just sensational.

      • Werefon

        Yeah, it was the most epic X film to date. Well, it was defo better than TASM 1 and 2 but people will argue with that. So, you can trust “fans” comments. It wasn’t great but wasn’t shit either.

        If directors and studio will follow fans suggestions we will not get anything. Comics must be adapted, straight transition works only in a few cases.

      • Kyle Chandler

        I can still hate bret ratner for all his other shitty films, right?

    • Werefon

      Brett Ratner actually added Danger Room sequence, it is small scene but cool one and unfortunately he was invited very late after Vaughn left. Basically, all he had is to direct actors, decide where to put camera and visual tone. That’s it.

      Now, he gets shit over him. It wasn’t his fault at all. Writers wanted
      Phoenix saga, Producers told them to put Cure plot line (that should’ve been the plot of separate film). And mish-mash is result. Killing off characters is their attempt to add drama to a dull script. And it fails miserably because it is stupid.

      • http://tarek-to-verso.over-blog.com/ tarek

        I am sorry for him. But he deserves a part of this hatred. Why did he accept to direct this huge franchise if the script was awful ?

      • Werefon

        He read comics when he was a kid, he was going to work with great actors and it was his biggest film with grand scale VFX. Also, they paid him good money.

        On his place you and I could’ve done the same. All the factors above is enough to make a film because it outweights weak script. Also, script was changing during the production and it was out of his control (any movie of that scale does not allow to much control).

      • unsocial

        If not Ratner than any other director would still be in the same no win situation… Basically FOX wouldn’t stop the film and that was that…

    • http://www.collider.com/ DNAsplitter

      I blame Matthew Vaughn, Singer and James Mardsen. All made choices that hampered X3′s potential. Singer took off in early pre-production when he got offered Superman. Vaughn bailed weeks into production causing Fox to scramble for a replacement director and Mardsen for choosing Superman Returns over X3 because of his loyalty to Singer. And I heard it was out of retaliation from Fox that Cyclop’s character was killed since he chose to be in Singer’s film at a rival studio. Either way Ratner gets the blunt of the blame for other people’s actions that he had no control over.

      • Werefon

        Exactly.

      • Werefon

        I must add that Vaughn wanted a little biit more time to develop the script and have more time to shoot. He didn’t get it and left after all pre-prod as concept art and set pieces.

        But he later agreed to make First Class with even less time because he wanted finally make X-Men film. And as it seems, one film in a certain world is enough for him.

      • http://www.collider.com/ DNAsplitter

        True. I think a lot of the blame really lies on Singer for bailing on production of X3. From what Singer has indicated in a few interviews is that he and the head of Fox studios at the time were clashing heads alot so he decided to make his home at another studio. It’s why he agreed to come back was because whoever that studio head was (it slips my mind right now) had left. Still it ate a large chunk of preproduction time w all of this going on and very little time for the person who got the position at the 11th hour – Brett Ratner. For what he was given I still think he did a servicable job of handling the film for a rushed timeline and walking into someone else’s production.

      • unsocial

        That’s basically it… Ratner showed up way too late to ruin anything… All that drama pre-ruined it before he got there…

      • Werefon

        I think the name of Fox guy was Rothman.

      • unsocial

        Yes… Most folks overlook that Ratner was brought in when filming had already started. The committee, so to speak, had taken over.. Ratner was there to block camera shots and say action basically…

  • Ashtalon

    The yellow spandex line is terrible. It shows a bit of contempt for the source material. It also doesn’t work because it’s a half-assed attempt to justify the movie’s full-body leather outfits, which honestly are not any less silly than something more colorful.

    • Grayden

      But leather suits were more contemporary than spandex. Batman never wore spandex in his films. The Riddler wore spandex, and that tells you all you need to know about blindly following sorce material, for source material’s sake.

    • Tony Ferris

      It’s not about having contempt for the source material though. That line is a reflection of the time at which the movie was made, and the nervousness everyone involved had about the genre, and how far might be too far to push before mainstream cinemagoers would turn away.

      Matt’s right, it does er too much on the side of caution at times, but it’s understandable. It really didn’t know how audiences were going to respond to this sort of thing, and it’s shackled by that. All the same though, X-Men is largely responsible for breaking the seal on this stuff so that others wouldn’t need to approach the genre with the same degree of trepidation, and I love it’s first act with all my heart. It’s impact was seismic, and Singer’s FAR more assured sequel would reinforce that brilliantly. :)

    • Werefon

      So, you would prefer yellow spandex over leather suits(that are not great but still better)?

      That line was addressing every fanboy bitching about changing the suits from comics.

      Of course they’ll change it. Or Wolverine mask, do you have any idea how it will work without being stupid shit?

    • Kyle Chandler

      The line itself is a little clunky and a bit too “on the nose” for me, but I understand what they were going for, and I don’t think it was contempt.

  • http://www.collider.com/ DNAsplitter

    “If you want to know what perseverance looks like, look at Dougray Scott.” Bwahahahaha that is probably the funniest and most honest thing I’ve read. That poor guy could have been an A lister like Jackman but instead got stuck in a delayed production on M:I2 because Cruise’s schedule got all jacked up over Eye Wide Shut’s delays. Man that is a crazy domino effect when you look back on it. And for a Shyamilan twist: Scott could blame Kubrick for his failure because of his methodical long shoots (mind blow right?). LMAO
    Either way thank god we got Jackman to play the role as his dedication is something of an amazement to watch. And thank God Singer had the vision to make a darker, more serious driven comic book film that kept the underlying tones of the comics intact. Yes, he sacrificed the costumes but in reality most of the costumes would have looked terrible in cinematic form and w the backfire of B&R fresh on everyone’s minds I’m sure he had to be extra cautious as Goldberg pointed out.
    I am geeking out of DOFP as the early reviews are glowing and it seems that Singer has found a way to right the ship and bridge all of the past films under one movie. Can’t wait for Memorial Day weekend to get here!

    • Kyle Chandler

      I enjoy the original xmen movies, but I sort of feel like I did with the burton batman movies compared to the nolan ones. Burton’s were serviceable, but Nolan finally gave me the batman movies I had always wanted to see.

      I’m trying to keep my expectations tempered (I think singer is a little uneven as a director, so he’s a wildcard in my book), but the 8 year old in me is hoping DOFP is the xmen movie I always wanted to see.

      • Guy Smiley

        With the exception of TDKR, which was a horrendous, ugly mess of a film that killed all the promise of the first two Nolan Bat-movies, I agree with this completely.

        Hell, TDKR barely qualified as a “Batman” movie, given how little Batman was actually in it, let alone the “My not-girlfriend died and I decided to disappear for eight years,” and his abandoning Gotham at the end of the film.

        It was more like Nolan had some weird agenda of his own (as it is, any political “message” he was trying to make remains completely muddled), and decided to make that movie instead of the third Batman movie he was under contract to deliver. But I still love the first two, and I understand what you’re saying here.

      • Mr. White

        The trilogy is about BRUCE WAYNE. Not screen time Bruce is in costume. Wayne is Batman. Who did get plenty of screen time.

        We got tons of Batman suit action in BEGINS, and The Dark Knight. When it’s more fun seeing in his prime Bruce Wayne. In Rises, we get just enough for it to be impactful. Waiting for him to emerge like Jaws, or the new Godzilla. Audiences have too much ADD now.

        Oh, and he’s not retired as Batman because his childhood / g/f is dead. The “Dent Act” which was built on Batman / Gordon’s lie eradicated major crime in Gotham.

        “Pretty soon they’ll have us chasing down over due library book.”

        So Bruce didn’t have much, if anything to do as Batman. All he could do was be a recluse, a social outkast, and a Howard Hughes esque character isolated from the world. There was no need in Gotham for a Batman. On the surface it was clean. Bruce had no purpose in life at that point.

        The mob was gone thanks to his sacrifice. Corruption was gone as well.

        Clearly you weren’t paying attention or understood the movie. Alfred tells the audience that Bruce is addicted to being Batman, even when physically he can’t anymore. That he was waiting for things to go bad to jump back in the suit. Bruce needed something to push against to outlet his anger.

        Was he sad about the loss of Rachel? Yes, it’s a reminder of the cost of being Batman thanks to the Joker. The maniac who killed her, who he essentially inspired with his theatrical vigilante endeavour.

        He doesn’t abandon Gotham at the end of the film, either. He lets go of his anger. Rediscovers the will to live. This isn’t the comic books. It takes balls to not go back to the status quo perpetually like in comic books all the time.

        It was an uplifting, heart warming ending for our protagonist who has endured such angst, depression, sadness, and torture through out the series. Once again I ask, do you even like Bruce Wayne?

        Are you a fan of the Batman costume? Or the character? Because the man who makes the suit work is Bruce Wayne.

        He can’t be Batman forever, he leaves the reigns, and his legacy to a worthy heir. An amalgamation of Robin / Nightwing, but in a less corny way. Someone who at heart is a good man, has strong convictions, a child born of criminal tragedy with anger who seeks to fight injustice. Someone to fight crime even when he’s gone. Making “The Batman” truly an everlasting symbol. Which is the point of those characters in the source material. Source material Nolan understands better than yourself apparently.

        Understand the movie before you critique it. You clearly have no clue what you’re talking about. The movie is an epic, with not as many plot holes as many would believe.

        After meticulously describing in detail everything to be plausible in the first two Batman films, he expects the audience to retain knowledge and take leaps of faith with the plot, and narrative to achieve the bigger picture. My question is why?

        The vast majority of you clearly are stupid, and need to be spoon fed EVERYTHING.

        Because he took 2x movies validating this character, and mythos as being plausible. And did a remarkable job at it, that’s why in the final movie of a trilogy, we don’t need to get hung up on explaining miniscule details, or semantics.

        Like do we seriously need to be told how Bruce Wayne, the great detective, the ninja master, with countless resources manages to get back into Gotham? Even though he does it in Batman Begins, and the CIA manages to do it as well in this very film as well? Child please. That’s a plot hole to you? LMAO

        Context clues explain percieved plot holes. Don’t turn your brain off int he cinemas. This isn’t shallow, cartoony, camp like the Marvel Studio films.

        TDKR is about the meaning of Batman. His legend, and legacy as a symbol. It’s also the definitive conclusion for Bruce Wayne. It’s both a great film, and a great Batman tale.

        It adapted:

        The Dark Knight Returns

        Arguably the GREATEST Batman story which BTW has Batman retired for 10x years while major crime still exists in Gotham

        No Man’s Land
        Knightfall
        Bane of the Demon (Bane and Talia are a couple)

        Once again you don’t know shit. TDKR had to live up to astronomical expectations given it was the follow up to THE BEST comic book movie of all-time. No one holds near the same amount of skeptical, nit picky criticism to much inferior films within this genre.

        That alone tells you how great Nolan’s trilogy is … it raised the bar way beyond normal expectations.

      • cruzzercruz

        Damn. You threw the gauntlet down in spectacular fashion and made all the arguments people should be articulating every time this movie is questioned. Bravo, man.

      • cruzzercruz

        People like to blow the supposed terribleness of TDKR way, way, way out of proportion as if though the movie raped their mother. You could say it wasn’t as great as TDK, but it’s hardly the cinematic cancer people on forums like to believe it is.

    • Aquartertoseven

      Dougray Scott is not a good actor, even if he was in X-Men, he wouldn’t have become an A-lister from there.

  • milo

    We’ve been going back and watching the Xmen movies again to lead up to this next one, and the first two hold up very well. I had remembered Xmen as being kind of underwhelming – the biggest problem is that the big action set pieces just aren’t that big a deal. And there was only so much he could do with the schedule and budget he had available. But the characters, the cast, and the script are great, even without a ton of spectacle it’s a really solid superhero movie, and one that really did set the stage for all that have followed.

    So does DOFP admit that X3 exists or ignore it? I’m trying to decide if I should watch it again before DOFP or just skip it it if there’s no connection to it. Anybody know yet?

  • furbula

    revists…???
    these reviews containS… ???
    ————-
    Help, we are sinking.

    • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

      Sorry for the typo on Contains. I’ve fixed it. But what’s the issue with “revisits”?

      • RiddleThemThis

        revisits is missing the second “i”.

      • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

        Well that’s embarrassing. Thanks for pointing it out. Much appreciated.

  • Aquartertoseven

    Huh. I’d give this a B- (7.5/10) personally, it was really good but not great. X2 though, wow. *Drools*

  • xman blue

    the subtext of the film still has racial persecution as well as religious persecution as well as persecution of homosexuals in the comics there’s no update by saying that your basically saying there’s no more racial persecution anymore like an ignorant A-Hole

    • http://collider.com Matt Goldberg

      Where did I ever say that there’s no more racial persecution? When Senator Kelly is talking about parents not wanting to be their kids to be taught by mutants, that’s an argument people in 2000 were making in public about homosexuals, not African-Americans. Obviously, the story applies to all kinds of persecution, but for Singer, you can see that the particular civil rights issue he’s addressing is homosexuality in America.

  • Captain

    I never saw the first xmen as something special. It was 90 min long and introduces like 9 characters but didnt develop anyone. All the potential themes about discrimination were treated very superficially and the fight scenes were lame ( the train station sequence was good though) . What was great was the character of Wolverine and the chemistry between two great actor as Ian Mckellen and Patrick Stewart. Maybe it was important for the comic book industry at that time but as a movie for me it was very disappointing. Batman 89 was the godfather if you compare to this movie. Sorry for my english

    • The Flobbit

      The best part for me was the chemistry and relationship between Wolverine and Rogue. Jackman and Paquin just sorta synced up and had a great chemistry that wasn’t creepy or anything. It was magnetic to watch.

  • Lance

    X-Men is interesting for me because it’s one of the last times I watched a superhero movie and felt the action was still a little too small, that it didn’t quite capture the scale you could get in the comics.

    Interestingly, I remember The Matrix (the original, in 1999) as being the first movie where I felt the movies had really captured comic book sensibilities. And while it took a few years for all comic book movies to use CGI as aggressively as that film did, when they did they conquered the summer blockbuster landscape, and have ruled ever since. For me, that era got ushered in with Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002.

  • Guest

    The cartoon was better than any movie so far.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sangbaran Sam

    thanks for the article!!

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  • cruzzercruz

    We may have come to accept Hugh Jackman as the cinematic version of Wolverine, but the fact remains that he isn’t a great adaptation of the actual comic characters. As an interpretation that people can get behind and enjoy as a separate thing, it’s fine, but let’s not go so far as to say that it’s “ridiculous” to think he’s wrong for the part. Wolverine from the comics isn’t a leading man, plain and simple. I like both versions of the character, but it’s a fair gripe to have with the movies, even fourteen years later.

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