Exes (Dark Phoenix, 2019)

Dark_Phoenix_posterSo…after a long delay that has pretty much reached the point where the X-Movies from Fox seem to be just getting pushed out to clear the slate, Dark Phoenix has been released.  This is the series second attempt at pretty much the same story.

Set about ten years after X-Men Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix opens with the X-Men as fairly beloved by the public. They are now celebrities, but on a mission in space, this is all jeopardized as Jean Grey is hit by a strange cosmic anomaly that causes her powers to grow exponentially.

This results in her finding out facts about her past that drive a wedge between Jean, resulting in a character dying due to her actions. A second group, expressing interest in her power tries to seduce Jean while the X-Men are fractured between those that want to save Jean and those who feel she should be dead.

And honestly…the second shot is not a redemptive one.  The whole ten year jump deal seemed to cause more problems.  There are plenty of indicators of interesting story stuff going on between the past two films. But it almost seems like they forgot about stuff they established in Apocalypse. They had established stuff like the Hellfire Club as far back as First Class and yet, leave them aside for a bland sub-story threat.

The film introduces a new threat that has never been seen before in the X-Men franchise…the series has never even suggested this type of threat is out there.  It seems logical that it could exist in a universe of mutants, but it also feels entirely out of left field.

We have yet a new world ending threat that honestly…feels kind of boring. Characters are used blandly, Storm and Nightcrawler feel like characters that Kinberg forgot were in the movie until the big fight.

Apparently they had their big end fight in space and reshot the film to set it…um…on a train.  And the train fight is pretty cool. But not enough to save the film.  The effects work fine, and the mutant effects work fine.

A lot of the performances feel like the actors are kind of ready to be done with this series.  Sophie Turner’s performance is the best…she gives a genuinely strong performance.

As the film likely to be the finale for the Fox Franchise, Dark Phoenix is a pretty weak send off. I was disappointed that they could not recover from the failings of Apocalypse. but hey…we finally got Dazzler…so that is something?

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As an aside, I am a bit amused at just how everyone appears to keep ignoring the New Mutants and are treating this as the final Fox X-Men film. But let’s face it…we don’t know if we will ever see that one released.

Xed Out (Commentary)

So, it turns out that the Marvel plans to recast all the X-Men when they do finally bring the X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe they will be recasting the team. All New, all different.

Well, except Deadpool. Marvel is not stupid.

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This should not be shocking. But what has shocked me is that I have seen a fair number of people express hopes that this would not happen…like it was not a forgone conclusion. Both Dark Phoenix and the New Mutants have been delayed multiple times.  Fox does not seem to have much faith int he films, to the point that there is talk that the New Mutants might end up debuting on Hulu. Which is…disappointing.

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Once Disney and Fox had their deal, people kept talking like Hugh Jackman was going to charge in and slice up Thanos in Endgame.  Spoiler…he totally does!

Not really. But for some reason, people assumed the Phase Four setup would include bringing in known actors in roles they made in the Fox Movies.  I would have chalked this up to wishful thinking, but some people feel like Marvel and Disney are really slighting the X-Men Franchise.

But the truth is that there is little reason to have even considered the likelihood of just bringing over the existing cast. Our first example of Marvel bringing someone into the MCU from an existing franchise was Spider-Man.

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But they did not just carry over Andrew Garfield. They introduced a new actor and cast entirely. And it made sense.  A new Spider-Man allowed them to fit him into the Universe without dealing with old baggage.

And there is a lot of X-Men Baggage.

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The first X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, was generally well received.  It’s standout had been the most controversial casting, Hugh Jackman asa Wolverine.  The cast did okay, and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan won audiences over with their portrayals.

The second film was a step up, playing with its themes far more effectively and stronger performances all around. But then, Singer left for Superman and was replaced by Brett Ratner.  It borrowed from various storylines, including Dark Phoenix and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men storyline revolving around a cure for the mutant gene.  And while it has its moments, (the sequence with a young Angel desperately cutting off his wings deserved to be in a much better film) it was a sharp decline for the franchise.

It did not help that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was…another low point.  It was decided that they would try and reboot the series, but more of a soft reboot.  A new film was going to focus on the friendship of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. They would assemble the very first team of the X-Men.

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First Class introduced the Hellfire Club, Moira McTaggert, Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost to the franchise (well, a different Emma Frost). For the most part, it is a terrific film. Emma Frost left a lot to be desired, but Shaw was a great Villain. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender gave excellent performances. Heck, if you ignore the absurd use of Darwin, it is almost a perfect film. I mean, the early portion of the film has a great “Magneto Nazi Hunter” storyline.

The followup was meant to bring the storylines together. Featuring both the original and newer casts, Days of Future Past is quite good. And so the rebooted franchise seeme to have found its footing.

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But then came Apocalypse, and the cracks began to show. One of those big cracks was the conceit introduced in the second film of the McAvoy and Fassbender era…ten year jumps between films.  First Class was set in 1962.  Days of Future Past sent Wolverine to 1973 and Apocalypse took place in 1983. The next film is taking place in the 90’s.  First Class introduced an eighteen (or there abouts) Havok.  Like in the comics, he is the brother of Cyclops. Cyclops was not introduced until X-Men Apocalypse (along with Jean Grey, Storm, Angel and Nightcrawler). We meet Cyclops as a high school student in 1983. This makes Havok about 20 years older than his younger brother. But the actors are only about six years apart, and it is painfully clear.

The time jumps meant they could catch up to the present in a few films…but they also mean Fassbender and McAvoy are playing characters over 60 and it is painfully obvious they are nowhere near that.

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And really…the franchise keeps floundering.  Both Last Stand and Apocalypse make big misteps and are generally not a whole lot of fun. Nor is X-Men Origins.

And the standouts are rare. X2, First Class, Logan and the 2 Deadpools have been the best the franchise has had to offer.  And they are all great, but not worth trying to port an entire franchise over for.  Deadpool makes some sense, because they can blow off the change with a joke.  Having to come up with some Endgame related blended universe babble is just not necessary.

We are getting our second attempt at the Dark Phoenix cinematically, and it does not look promising. It would be best and smartest to simply let the Fox films come to a close.  Let us see a bright new start.  A fresh new class.

 

(Also…it would be nice to just distance the films from Singer as much as possible.)

 

 

Breaking Down (Logan, 2017)

logan-movie-posterFirst things first.  You might figure this is a super-hero movie and safe for kids.  Logan is a hard ‘R’ and earns it in the first five minutes.

It has been known for quite some time that this was Jackman’s swan song.  Seventeen years is a long time to play the same character.  Just a few days ago Stewart said this was his final time playing Professor X.  And Logan is, without a doubt, a way to go out on top.

Taking the approach of Unforgiven, Logan is set in the not to distant future of 2029.  We meet a Wolverine who is not quite the best at what he does anymore.  He is sickly, he claws don’t work quite as well and his healing abilities are significantly slower.  He drinks, stumbles and is quietly hiding an even more troubled Charles Xavier.  There are hints and references to a massive tragedy that Charles is guilty of causing.  Logan and another mutant  Caliban (who is able to sense and track other mutants) keep Charles drugged because he has seizures that could destroy a city.

Although it is believed mutant kind is essentially wiped out, a young girl named Laura falls into their lap, forcing them to run from a nefarious organization that wants to get her into their possession.

Logan is a dark film, one that feels from the start that it has only one end for our leads.  It is a bloody struggle to get Laura to freedom.  However, it has it’s light moments.  These are primarily between Jackman and Stewart, as well as with Laura.  She is a feral child in some respects and has powers very much like Wolverine’s.

This is most certainly one of the best films in the X-Men franchise.  The story is compelling and the performances engaging.  The quality of the Wolverine films is a rare example of going from bad to great.  Logan is worth a watch.

Blog Themes

So, August had Comic Book movie as it’s theme.  I had not intended it, I kind just of fell into it.  I started because I thought it might be nice to get the rest of the X-Men films as to go along with the Apocalypse review.  And then I though, why not the Superman movies, as I have reviewed Man of Steel and Batman V Superman.  And it snowballed from there to focus on DC properties.

So, for September, I will be looking at several films from the Marvel Franchise, including some that were outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  We will cover the good and the bad.  Except George Lucas’ Howard the Duck.

 

And next month? Halloween, Baby.  Scary movies and nothing but.  Including a look at the films of John Carpenter.

Back to the Future (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014)

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-posterDays of Future Past is a well loved storyline where Kitty Pryde is thrust into a future where Mutants are herded in camps, marked and in some cases killed.  They are hunted by giant robots called Sentinels.  And for the most part, Days of Future Past keeps these ideas.  Except the film begins in the future and instead of Kitty Pryde going to the future, they send Wolverine back in time to stop it from ever happening.  Kitty Pryde is still a part of this, as she can use her phasing ability to phase people through time.  Only to a few days earlier, so they are playing a cat and mouse game with the Sentinels finding their hideout, Kitty sending Bishop back in time to warn them.  They decide they need to go farther back, but it is to taxing on Kitty and the brain of the person she sends back.  Wolverine volunteers to go, arguing his healing factor makes him the best choice.

Wolverine awakes in the 70’s and finds that the School Xavier opened is in shambles…there are no students.  Xavier is addicted to a drug that allows him to walk, but also prevents him from using his powers.  Beast is also there as his aide.  They do not initially buy Wolverines arguments, but he eventually persuades them to the cause.  They are trying to stop Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask.  Trask is the creator of the Sentinels and he has been using mutants as part of his R&D.  The research is fatal, and this is actually used to kill several characters from First Class off screen.

This is without a doubt one of the strongest films in the entire X-Men series.  The return of Bryan Singer as director was clearly a smart choice.  There is well timed humor and exciting action.  We see the return of the original (still living cast).  The future sequences are full of cool uses of power and we get new characters like Blink (who creates wormholes characters can escape through-the film is very inventive with these powers) and Warpath (a character from the 1970’s return of the X-Men comics).  We have Storm and Iceman back.  The films have always had a hard time placing Magneto on the side of evil and seeing real life friends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan back together again.

And the new characters are pretty memorable.  Quicksilver appears only a short time, but he totally steals every scene.  He is funny and likeable.  Peter Dinklage makes Trask a sympathetic and misguided villain.  He is not simply evil…he is consumed by fear of what mutants mean for the human race.  It does not make his actions acceptable.  His choices are evil, but you can see what takes him there.  William Stryker returns to the series and is trying to weaponize mutants, treating them as less than human already.  The film is, of course, very Wolverine-centric.

There are two cuts of the film out on Blu-Ray.  The theatrical cut eliminated Rogue entirely with the exception of the film’s final scene, even though they filmed several scenes focused on Rogue.  The second is not a directors cut, it is the Rogue Cut and restores Rogue to the story.  Both versions are good, but it is nice seeing the inclusion of Rogue and the important part she plays.  It also brings things back to the first film and Rogue’s relationship to Wolverine.

The film has continuity issues in regards to the film series.  One being how Patrick Stewart is back…it is a bit more focused on undoing X3 and “fixing a timeline”…which results in questions.  Like First Class, Days of Future Past overcomes a lot of these questions while watching it.  This film feels like the passing of the baton to the new cast (much in the way Star Trek Generations tried to do…but this does it oh so much better). It is, like X2, a film that has a strong identity that is built on strong performances.

Rebirth (X-Men: First Class, 2011)

X-Men-First-Class-PosterAfter the cool reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine the producers stepped back to determine their next step.  So they went back to the drawing board.  X-Men First Class starts at the beginning with a Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  It also gives an origin of sorts for Mystique.  Oddly, for a character who mostly served a function of henchman for Magneto in the original series, the latest set of films are heavily focused on Mystique as a tortured soul torn between Professor X and Magneto.  One of the interesting things that happened as the film came together was the return of Matthew Vaughn as a director.  He dropped out of X3 for family reasons.  Returning for First Class was a good move.

While the first trilogy gave no hint that Prof X and Mystique know each other, but early in the film we see them not only meet, but young Charles Xavier takes her in to live with him in his giant mansion.  But the film opens with a faithful recreation of the first X-Men film’s opening.  Young Magneto is brought into a concentration camp where he is seen as a great weapon by Nazi Officer Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  It is pretty clear that the X-Men Origins Magneto film morphed into this one and we get a well constructed scene where a grown up Magneto (now played by Michael Fassbender) finds two retired Nazis in a bar and torments them for information.  We return to Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) with a full head of hair and Raven (Mystique, now played by Jennifer Lawrence).  Xavier is recruited by the government for help regarding Sebastian Shaw, who has not aged a day.  He is trying to play governments against each other in the midst of the cold war.  The world does not know mutants are out there, but the government does and they want them.  This help brings Professor X and Magneto together when Magneto tried to take down Shaw, messing up the sting.

They start working with CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and A Man in a Suit (Oliver Platt) to locate new mutants.  The entire time, Magneto struggles with his desire for revenge against Shaw.  Raven finds herself drawn to Magneto’s pride as a mutant.  Meanwhile, Shaw and his henchmen (Including Emma Frost, inexplicably a grown woman in a film set years earlier than X-Men Origins Wolverine) are working to incite nuclear war (the film is really set around the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Overall, First Class is fun, exciting and compelling.  Magneto: Nazi Hunter is a great introduction.  The collection of characters is an intriguing mix from the X-Men comics.  You have longstanding members like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havok (Lucas Till) and newer characters such as Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi).  The film is extremely well cast and is filled with strong performances.  There is a lone exception.  January Jones once claimed her ex Ashton Kutcher told her she cannot act.  I am inclined to agree.  Her Emma Frost is dull and lifeless.  Emma Frost is a character who should be intensely arrogant and cold.  And here she feels entirely inconsequential.

While the original films irked people with the leather outfits, this film pays homage to the early costumes, with black and yellow color schemes.  This is one of the strongest films in the franchise, full of life and character.  There is much to admire and enjoy with First Class.

There are some slipups in the choices they make, such as the film kills some characters with great potential for the old “See How Great the Danger Is?”  It also just happens to be one of the few minority characters in the story.

And yet, it starts some continuity cracks.  First Class is going back to the beginning, not pretending the first three films never happened.  Moira McTaggert is a scientist in the third film, played by Olivia Williams.  First class has the same character in another job altogether decades earlier.  They use characters without concern for whether they appeared in the previous films with entirely different incarnations.  Jubilee appeared in the third film ad then in Apocalypse.  Apparently never aging.  The quality of the film overcomes these issues, but it starts a series of problems.

Lil’ Wolverine (X-Men Origins: Wolverine,2009)

x_men_origins_wolverine_posterNo doubt, the fan favorite of of the X-Men films was the comics fan favorite Wolverine.  Hugh Jackman held his own with some top talent in those first two films… a solo Wolverine film was kind of a no-brainer.  And putting it in the hands of the director of the stunning Tsotsi, Gavin Hood seemed like a terrific idea.  Then casting started to leak… Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool (what a good choice), Liev Schreiber as Sabertooth-wait…what?  In the first X-Men Movie, Sabertooth was played by wrestler Tyler Mane.  Now, the change in actors is no big deal,  It happens.  But the first movie played off the characters as unfamiliar with each other.  Wolverine’s memory loss is his easy defense…Sabertooth’s?  Don’t know.

Borrowing heavily from the comic series Origin the film establishes Wolverine and Sabertooth to by half brothers.  Big plot point to miss.  The opening credits feature a really nice montage of the young men growing to adult hood as soldiers in a series of wars, world war one, two and so on…finally settling on Vietnam …Jame’s brother Victor goes ballistic and kills civilians, as James tries to stop him…they end up being court marshaled.  They are recruited by Stryker (Danny Huston) who is putting together a special ops team comprised of mutants.  After a mission snafu, James, now called Wolverine walks.

Wolverine hides out in the wilds of Canada where he meets a beautiful young woman named Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins).  They fall in love and live in a cabin.  After she is killed (as super-hero girlfriends are prone to do) by Sabertooth, Wolverine seeks revenge.  Wolverine is approached by Stryker with an offer to make him stronger to be able to take revenge.  It is no surprise they try and double  cross Wolverine.

He escapes and meets up with surviving members of Stryker’s crew, discovering that Stryker has a secret plan to build the ultimate mutant soldier that he can control.  Wolverine finds out that Stryker is kidnapping young mutants and using his brother to do the deed.  Wolverine runs off to the secret base with the help of Gambit (who doesn’t do much beyond fly Wolverine there and wish him luck.

A final confrontation results in Wolverine and Sabertooth fight Deadpool to the kind of death, Wolverine losing his memory via a magic Adamantium bullet and Kayla’s death-but not before sending Stryker for a long walk, and a digital Professor X who needs no chair.

The truth is, this film is what you call a major mess.  By setting it in a vague “the 70’s” you start forcing the films into a specific timeline.  The first three X-Men films all took place in “the near future”.  The film features a high school age Psyclops.  Making him in his mid to late 40s.  Actor James Marsten was about 27 at the release of the first X-Men.  And there are the confusing aspects of why nobody seems to remember this moment of history.  It is hard to believe that Professor X knew where to pick up all those kids and yet is oblivious to Wolverine.  And good grief did they muck up Deadpool, nearly killing the plans to spin Deadpool off.

The real positives of the films are the strong casting choices (Lost’s Kevin Durant is great as the Blob…Danny Huston, Liev Schreiber and Ryan Reynolds are strokes of genius).  Jackman shows why he owns the character on screen again.  The performances are mostly good…but they are in a story that seems overly convoluted and needlessly confusing-even by comic book standards.  It has a nice beginning, but it falls apart quickly.  It has some very goofy action set pieces and some legit humor going for it.  It is so busy packing the film with so many characters and killing several of them off and making sure to fill in all the missing blanks of the original trilogy (How did Wolverine get his metal skeleton? How did he lose his memory?) that it becomes bloated.  And it is under two hours.  The fan service is very careless.  We meet young Emma Frost, we meet Gambit, we meet…oh, it goes on.

There were plans for a series of X-Men Origins and the next film was going to be Magneto…but this film ended those plans.  And no small wonder…in spite of excellent casting and a talented director, this film fails hard.

Gene Splicing (X3:The Last Stand, 2006)

X-Men-The-Last-Stand-PosterX-2 was how you build upon a decent movie to make a great second film creating excitement for your franchise.  Annnnnnd this one is how you screw it up.

It all starts with Warner Brothers deciding that their superhero films were missing a vital link to making their movies awesome.  Getting the guys who made those good X-Men movies.  And Bryan Singer answered their call-swayed by his love for the first two Superman movies and he took his major players with him.

Fox and Marvel started to work on a replacement.  Darren Aronofsky, Alex Proya, Joss Whedon, Rob Bowman and Zack Snyder were all considered before setting up a deal with Matthew Vaughn (Stardust).  After a brief time, Vaughn felt he could not be away from his family for the length of time making the film would require, so he dropped out.

Which leads us to Brett Ratner.  Funny enough, before Singer, Ratner was considered for the original X-Men film.  Since then he had a string of moderate successes in the Rush Hour films and Red Dragon.  I am not going to lie…I cringed at the announcement.

So, the film starts out in the past, with Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) going to meet with young Jean Grey and her parents.  Both Xavier and Lehnsherr are taken aback by the latent power house within the child Jean Grey.  I am more amazed at the some what humorous digital de-aging of Stewart and McKellen which makes them look kind like…they are made of plastic.

The scene then switches to a young boy in a bathroom.  His father is pounding on the door for him to open up… honestly, this is one of the most solid scenes in the film as the young boy is attempting to keep a secret from his father.  But his father manages to break in and we see the reveal that he was using a razor blade in an attempt to hack off  bird-like wings.  There is a real sense of heartbreak, and the actor playing young Warren Worthington is terrific.

We jump to the “near future” with what looks to be a city in ruins with young X-Men under attack.  In the end, it is revealed to be a Danger Room training exercise. This is a first, as the Danger Room has not been seen until this film.  We also see a Sentinel head in the simulation .

The film draws from Joss Whedon’s “mutant cure” storyline in Astonishing X-Men and the Phoenix Saga…minus pretty much everything from the Phoenix Saga.  Cyclops is really broken up, he has stubble, so you know it is bad. Marsten was in Superman returns, so they get rid of him quickly.  The story is an interesting idea, the cure for mutant abilities, allowing mutants to no longer be mutants.  but it is second fiddle at times to the Phoenix storyline.  In the comics, the Phoenix Saga is a large and dramatic storyline that spanned several issues.  But here it is compressed into two small hours, lacking much of the

The strongest point of the film is the cast.  Along with the cast of regulars, we get Ben Foster as Angel, Kelsey Grammer as the Beast (inspired casting if there ever was) and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde.  While Foster is not as pretty as I pictured Angel to be, he is a solid performer.

Ian McKellan is terrific as usual.  He is able to seem dangerous and cruel, yet can seem generous and wise at the turn of a hat.  At one point, Pyro makes mention that he would have killed Xavier for him…and Magneto stops and looks sternly at Pyro and defends the greatness of Xavier.  McKellan has always done a wonderful job of selling the idea that Magneto truly loved and cared for his friend-in spite of being on opposite sides of the issue.  His delivery of the Magneto speeches are poetic.

The problem is…the film is a mish mash of ideas.  It has great moments, but it is filled with lazy writing.  The resolution of the Phoenix story is troubling.  Rather than letting her sacrifice herself what we get is depressing and problematic.   The character could not just “get better”, she had killed to many people to come back from that.  And she is so powerful, that letting her go forward would be hard to defend and there is no way to “imprison” her.  The original story was grandly cosmic, and I realize that it was unlikely that we would see that version on film.  Brett Ratner is clearly trying to go big, but it tends to fall short.  Characters get short changed and used without much thought of their potential.  It is by the books, taking interesting ideas from the comics and executing them badly.  Professor X is basically reduced to Professor Exposition, leaving Stewart to fend for himself in a massively reduced role.  I realize some of this may have been related to actors schedules and the like, but there is little effort to deal with the absences in a way other than to hope you forget they are not there.  And what is the point of de-powering Magneto if you are going to end on him getting his power back right before the credits roll?

Rogue should be the real heart of this story.  Her struggle is easy to connect to.  She wants contact, but her powers prevent that.  Yet, the character disappears for large swaths of the film.  She misses the final battle entirely.

The film has some good effects, and often the actors overcome stiff or lazy dialog…but in the end, after the powerful and exciting X2, this movie just trips over itself.

This is the Alien: Resurrection of the franchise.  And yet, it was better than Superman Returns.  Go figure.

Gene Therapy (X2:X-Men United, 2003)

X-Men_2_posterWhile it had it’s flaws, X-Men was a solid enough success to warrant a sequel.  X-Men 2 went into production under Singer’s guidance.  You do not fix what is not broke after all.  And Singer got people excited by suggesting this was going to be his Empire Strikes Back.

Picking up pretty much where we left off, mutants are still feared, Magneto is in a cell of plastic, receiving visits from Professor X, who is trying to win his friend back.

In an excellent setup, we are introduced to Nightcrawler.  He  has infiltrated the White House with a band of tourists and takes off to assassinate the President.  It is a really thrilling sequence that sets the film into motion.  Professor X and the X-men start trying to locate this mutant who tried to kill the president.

The President is holding meetings with his advisors and General Stryker (played excellently by Brian Cox) .  Stryker is the very type of person Magneto fears coming to power.  He distrusts and despises mutants, and seeks to eradicate them.  And part of that is to put an end to the threat he sees in the Xavier School for Gifted Children.  He has been collecting information using as ort of “truth serum/mind control” on mutants.

That evening, with only Wolverine to watch over the kids, Cyclops and Professor X go to see Magneto, while Storm and Jean Grey track down Nightcrawler.  Magneto has managed to set up an elaborate and exciting escape.  At the same time, Jean and Storm have located Nightcrawler hiding in a church that is under renovation.  They are surprised to find a somewhat timid and fearful mutant, not the hardened terrorist one might expect.

While this is going on, Stryker launches an assault on the school.  It is here that he is surprised to discover Wolverine, suggesting Stryker may have answers to Wolverine’s past.  Wolverine escape with Rogue, Bobby/Iceman and John/Pyro.

Ultimately, the mutants all meet up, knowing they must fight together to stop Stryker’s madness.  He plans to use tech and Xavier to destroy all mutants.  This leads Magneto and the X-Men to work together in an assault on Stryker’s underground bunker.  They save the Xavier, Cyclops and the students but Magneto has no intention of trusting Xavier’s lofty goals and takes off,  Pyro in tow.  In their attempt to get out safely, The X-Men find themselves suffering another loss.

X2 really set the bar for Super-hero films.  In describing it as his Empire, Singer really hit the nail on the head.  It is a bit darker than it’s predecessor, the stakes seem higher and the losses more painful.  Oh yeah, it ends on a cliffhanger of sorts.  All the things that the X-Men comics excel at are present in Singer’s film.

The story functions both in allegory and straightforward adventure.  There is humor, heartache, mystery and excitement.  The writing really capture the characters, giving the performer and director a solid road map.

Nightcrawler is played to perfection by Alan Cummings.  He is the sensitive and compassionate spiritual soul, but also the free-spirited swashbuckling showman.  As I mentioned, Cox really hits it out of the park as Stryker.  A menacing zealot, willing to sacrifice the dignity of his own child in his thirst for vengeance.

Not shockingly, of course, McKellen’s portrayal of Magneto is top notch.  Bringing depth and thoughtfulness to the character.  He has many great moments both exciting (his clever escape scene) and quiet (he has a nice moment where he discusses what it is to be a mutant in the world with Pyro.  It is seductive in it’s emotional appeal).

Jackman shows a real affinity for the character of Wolverine.  He’s able to bring together both the gruffness and genuine protectiveness that has long been a part of the character.  And he still managed to pull off crazy “berserker rage” with Wolverine.  This is also some terrific moments of humor for the character.

The pairing of Rogue and Iceman works real well in the film.  Their attempts to navigate a relationship without touch is nicely handled.  Both Sean Ashmore and Anna Paquin have a sweet chemistry that sells the relationship.

Some complain about the heavy handed-ness of the mutant=gay subtext.  But the thing about the X-Men is, they address the “subtext of the times”.  There was a time when mutant=race was the primary read…but the gay subtext is a pretty natural fit.

Like I said, the film raised the bar.  X2 is easily still one of the top five super-hero films.  It manages to both be enjoyable for a newer fan with plenty to reward the die-hard fan.  This is a solid film that still holds up.

First Mutations (X-Men, 2000)

x-men-2000-PosterX-Men kind of set a template for Marvel films that they have stayed fairly close to and it has served them well.   Get a director with some real film cred, and the rest will follow.  X-Men is certainly proof that it is an effective approach.

Really, it was the hiring of Bryan Singer (then most recognized for the Usual Suspects) that got actors to take notice.  Most of the actors admitted no familiarity with the comics, and Bryan was not a fan of the series when he came on board.  While having a non-fanboy running the show ruffled some feathers (especially when it was revealed that none of the X-Men would be wearing costumes), it really seemed to miss the point.

A good storyteller need not be a fan to tell a great tale about these characters.  Patrick Stewart’s lack of interest in Sci-Fi did not stop him from becoming a beloved Star Trek Captain or Professor X.  And many of the actors opted to research their characters by reading the comics.  Sir Ian McKellan devoted an extensive section of his website to Magneto, he found simple ways to connect the characters to real life.

Of course, the big issue was Wolverine.  Hugh Jackman was way to tall to play the runt.  Oh, the frustrations comic fans are forced to deal with.  Along with the previously mentioned news that Singer was ditching the costumes in favor of leather uniforms.  So, things were stacking up against it in the eyes of fans and creators.

The film begins in the early 1940’s.  A concentration camp to be specific.  Weakened and fearful Jewish families are herded through an iron gate.  The Nazi soldiers begin to separate out children. One young boy and his parents reach for each other, and as the young boy becomes more frantic, we notice little things.  The metal in the gates starts to reach back towards the boy-and he and the soldiers holding on to him are dragged towards the warping gates.  After knocking the boy out, the soldiers stare in confusion at the mangled gates before them.  Next is an introduction to Rogue (Anna Paquin).  She is in her room with a young man and they start to kiss…suddenly, he starts to appear sickly, veins seeming to grow across his face.  She starts screaming as the boy convulses before her.  These are dramatic starts for a very ambitious film.  A few years earlier Batman and Robin crashed the comic book movie boom.  And yet, Singer was taking the X-men seriously.

The film quickly works to bring all the characters together.  and there is little time wasted in creating the team, tying it around Wolverine and Rogue.

The film, despise an easy premise, suffers from the problem from so many first films for a franchise…”Introductoritus”.  It is a large ensemble, and I get wanting to put in all sorts of stuff for the die hard fan to get excited over.  But it is a big cast and that means some folks will get glossed over.  Halle Berry’s Storm is flat and pretty lifeless.  Some of it is the writing, some is the performance.  Hugh Jackman does a terrific job as Wolverine.  He is convincing as a loner, yet the (sibling like) bond with Rogue is believable.  As his his friction with Cyclops and the magnetism with Jean Grey.  Unfortunately, Marsten’s Cyclops is often kind of boring when not interacting with Wolverine.  Their verbal sparring is definitely a highlight of the film.  It often feels like the film really is not sure how they want to portray Storm and Cyclops.

But in the end, Storm gets the biggest shaft in character development.  Some of the film’s worst lines come from Storm.  There is the scene where she and Wolverine are discussing the coming war between mutants-those who wish to peacefully co-exist with homo sapiens and those who wish to rule as homo-superior.  She tells Wolverine at least she has chosen aside.  As if merely choosing a side gives you some nobility (hint-it does not).  I mean, yeah, she chose Professor X’s side…but what if she had chosen Magneto’s side?  There is also the infamous “what happens to a toad when struck by lightning” gag.  It falls flat.  It was a contribution of Joss Whedon, who swears that it was all Halle Berry’s delivery that resulted in it being so ridiculed.

Both Patrick Stewart and McKellan give rousing performances, while Hugh Jackman proved that he could embody Wolverine even though he was of average height.  Stewart and McKellan really provide a sense of a longstanding friendship that is needed as the foundation of the story.  The effects were solid for the time, many mutant powers from the comics really came to life.

On the other hand, the film is so busy introducing the concept and the characters, the plot seems under developed.  It is a pretty herculean task to try and bring a single character with over forty years of backstory to a finite two hour movie.  Trying to bring the X-Men-full of hundreds of characters together cohesively?  You have to choose who you want to focus on, knowing you will deal with complaints either way.  Singer, Tom Desanto and David Hayter struggle valiantly to bring together character and story, but really, it fell mostly on the side of character development.  Understandable, as the X-Men have a rich cast to choose from.

Toad and Sabertooth come off as pretty bland and one dimensional for most of the film, not contributing much until the end.

For Singer, this was easily his most ambitious film to date.  Not so much in story, but in cast size, and general scale.  But he does a pretty solid job with the film overall.  He seems to understand the sense of scope a film like this needed-in spite of his background in smaller films, he seemed to transition quite well to the grand scale needed for the X-Men.

The film’s overall plot is probably less memorable than it’s various character moments, and in that sense, the movie is hurt.  What could have been a terrific film is simply a good start…it is just a set up.

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