Saturday, 16 June 2012

X-Men: A short history of Marvel's mutants in movies.

I sat down in front of my computer with the intention of writing a witty and charmingly disorganised review of X-Men: First Class. Instead I found myself delving into the history of the relationship between the popular Marvel series and the cinema. Turns out I had quite a few issues to work out in terms of the later two films. So apologies for this impromptu therapy session but getting this out in the open has prepared me to write a decent enough analysis of the latest mutant outing.

The history of cinematic adaptations of Marvel’s popular band of heroic mutants is certainly a chequered one. It all started with the good but definitely not outstanding X-Men in 2000. Bryan Singer came on board to direct and, in my opinion, his lack of interest in the comic book series made the film. Singer had something to prove with his first foray into the world of comic-book heroes after his follow up to his hugely popular The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, failed to make it. Singer’s interest in the franchise came about because of it’s references to prejudice and discrimination. X-Men was a decent film that suffered thanks to the inevitable need to introduce the key characters and concepts. Just as Batman Begins wonderfully led the way for the outstanding sequel The Dark Knight, X-Men set us up for an exciting follow up, that was to become the wonderful X2. This film kicked off the franchise and brought life back into superhero films after Joel Schumacher’s disastrous turn threatened to remove all life from it. Singer showed that films based around popular comic book characters didn’t just have to be loud, colourful and silly. They could be clever, a little bit more serious and very well made.

Singer’s 2003 sequel X2 is often quoted in lists of great comic book movies and for very obvious reasons. The film delves deeper into the mystery surrounding Wolverine’s past and reasserts the importance of the themes that were so strong in the first film. It is a very well made film and, though it is far from perfect, the plot really increases the pace after the more sedate opener. The script was inspired by the story of the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills in which Reverend William Stryker stirs up religious anti-mutant feeling and attempts to wipe out all of mutant kind (Incidentally, this is still one of the finest X-Men graphic novels. I thoroughly suggest having a read if you fancy that sort of thing. It is where the idea that mutant/human relations should be read as a metaphor for race relations really comes to the forefront.). The rules changed in the second film and the X-Men didn’t find themselves fighting one and other but teaming up to fight 'the Man'. The great cast are much more comfortable in their roles here and Singer knows how to use them. McKellen and Stewart add a touch of class to proceedings whilst offering the perfect amount of ham in their portrayal of the characters Magneto and Professor X respectively. It clearly looks like both actors, McKellen in particular, had a fantastic time whilst filming and I love their performances. X2 showed cinema goers what comic book films could really be. It’s smart, very well made and, lest we forget, contains one of cinema’s finest cliff-hangers and paves the way for an eagerly anticipated third installment.

Unfortunately, that third installment was X-Men The Last Stand (2006). This was the first film to be made without Singer’s input (after he jumped ship to make Superman Returns. Turned out really well for you there Bryan. Good choice.) and it is the silliest X-Men film ever made. After X2, Singer was keen to make a third and fourth film in his franchise and, before he left, he had already started working on a Phoenix based narrative. There were plans to make more of the younger characters (Rogue, Iceman and Pyro) and the intention was to introduce new characters, including a Sigourney Weaver shaped Emma Frost (that sounds both awesome and horrific to me) and Keanu Reeves' interpretation of Gambit (really glad this didn’t happen. I love Gambit and I greatly dislike Reeves. He’s nowhere near as charming as our favourite Cajun). After his exit, new writers were brought in and a plan to include parts of the ‘Gifted’ storyline from Joss Whedon’s phenomenal Astonishing X-Men was suggested to take centre-stage. Brett Ratner took his place in the empty director’s chair and filming commenced in 2005. I admit that the plot, revolving around a pharmaceutical company’s development of a mutant cure, had a great deal of potential but X2 had so obviously and expertly set us up for a roller coaster ride with Dark Phoenix. The terrible decision to make this a secondary plot point was an absolute travesty and one of the most dangerous and powerful characters from the series was utterly wasted. Neither story, ‘Gifted’ or The Dark Phoenix Saga, are given enough time or respect to be played out to their full potential. The first two films were beloved in part because of their subtlety and intelligence. This film basically comes down to blowing shit up. There are too many ideas that are being introduced at once and the consequences of both narratives are glossed over in order to get back to the lengthy and, often, unnecessary action sequences. Ratner’s direction was to the point but lacklustre. Any of the emotion and heart that the first two films contained was replaced with action sequences and special effects. The third film was loud, fast paced and confused about what story it was trying to tell. It is a film that could have finished off a fantastic franchise that had a great deal of potential.

Of course that didn’t happen because Fox saw the commercial potential of continuing this franchise. Whilst The Last Stand was being made work was already going ahead on a spin-off, X-Men Origins: Wolverine which was eventually released in 2009. Unsurprisingly, this film is a prequel dealing with Wolverine’s history, looking at his life before and during his time with Team X and looking at the events that led to his skeleton being bonded with adamantium. Wolverine is a fan favourite both in terms of the comics and, thanks to Hugh Jackman’s portrayals, the films. An origin story was an obvious choice for making money but the film doesn’t stand up next to the pre-existing material. I will admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this film but that was only because, after the third film, I had such small expectations that I probably couldn’t have thought less of it. On the plus side, Origins introduced us to Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit (who, despite having very little to do, showed great potential) but, on the other hand, it completely fucking ruined Deadpool. The film’s plot is hardly exciting and contains enough holes to be able to drain pasta with it. Normally a film that raises so many questions has enough excitement and fun to hide this. Unfortunately, there is too much downtime in the film to give you time to worry about ridiculous introduction of an adamantium bullet and the consequences it might have. As origin stories go, Wolverine’s is visually interesting, mainly thanks to the exciting scene where our hero becomes a bit more magnetic, but, I have to agree with the majority of critics here, it is a bit dull. Wolverine is immortal so his story is just a long list of times where he got into trouble but couldn’t die. It’s the Captain Scarlett thing all over again. (Even as a child I never really enjoyed watching Captain Scarlett. Week by week he got into life or death situations but there was never any danger. It’s why I’ll always prefer Thunderbirds or Stingray.) When a character is immortal, they simply become a vehicle for action and special effects. Unfortunately, the CGI in Origins is pretty appalling. There is no real point to this film because the audience pretty much know where we are heading. In this sense, to feel like a fulfilling film it would have to be a wonderful spectacle and incredibly well acted. This film ticks neither of these boxes (Team X in particular is awash with wooden and laughable performances. I mean Will.I.Am? Who made that insane decision?)  Whilst it is undeniably better than The Last Stand, Origins is nowhere near the type of film that this franchise reached at its peak. It gave enough of a spark to restart the heart in this battered series but the pulse remained weak and almost undetectable. Then in walks Dr Singer and expert consultant Matthew Vaughn to perform the much needed kiss of life…. but more on that story later.

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