Five brief thoughts on a recent film.
Give me your Dark Knights, your Supermans and your Avengers and the films can either do well or fail. They can make the original IP look great, or, as is more often nowdays, rub its face in the mud. That’s fine. Hollywood can do it’s thing and it’s not going to leave me sore.
Fuck around with the X-Men though, and to me, bub you just made things personal.
Let’s see how they did.
1) Look at that poster. Just look at it. Fuck yeah, there are a shitload of people on there (even though some of them are the same damn person) and even then, the poster doesn’t come close to showing the true number of X-Men you get in this film.
Like every other X Men film, this is a film that has a lot of characters. It’s a scary thing to have such a huge number of characters (and a huge number of A-list actors playing them) and you go in wondering exactly how they are going to handle that. The answer is that the team behind the film did a pretty much perfect job. The answer to that conundrum is not that they treated every character as a cardboard cut out and it isn’t that they tied themselves in knots trying to give everyone subplots and development.
This is a film about a small core of characters – Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast. All of the other X-Men are present (yes, all of them, gloriously all of them and more than you ever could have wanted) but like in the comic books, stories revolve around the central characters for that story with others coming in and out as necessary. As a viewer you get to see some character development and subtle moral shades for the central five characters but you also get an awesome Ice-Man with his full set of classic powers, you get Colossus and you get Storm and and Blink and those wonderful team-work power-combinations that get to the heart of how the X-men should look but that previous films (except the dreadful X3) never gave us.
Kitty Pryde remains one of the best and most enduring X-men characters but this film just isn’t about her. The writers finally figured out that a slap dash version of a superhero just disappoints (Juggernaut, Gambit, Emma from X-Men Origins: Wolverine) but the solution is just to feature the superhero so we know they are there, we get to see them and internally whoop but we don’t get a crayon-drawing version of their inner self and we don’t get side-tracked into a leaden time-wasting plot dead-end. Future Kitty uses her powers cooly, she is stoic and brave and idealistic and we know from body language alone that she has hooked up with Bobby (as she did after A vs. X, poor colossus) but she doesn’t intrude on this story. Even Wolverine the attention magnet (that like a T-Rex in a rubber dingy often sinks the whole enterprise through utterly dominating everything) actually steps back after the mid way point and just isn’t one of the central characters. This story is essentially Xavier’s origin story and his development arc into a real hero but it doesn’t feel like a leaden superhero origin story (unlike Batman and Spiderman efforts, though Begins is not bad), because it’s a detailed multi-character plot, it’s a nail-biting actioner and from beginning to end the plot flows smoothly to it’s conclusion without flab or waste. In this film, plot and character are the same thing.
Is it the best superhero film? It doesn’t really even feel like a superhero film. It’s Bourne plus Terminator plus Matrix. It’s a bit of a reductionist question. The Avengers might be a better superhero film (at least that film sets up it’s characters individually a little better so it really does feel like a meeting of Titans) but in a general sense, this is probably the better film overall. It’s equally dramatic, it’s equally fun and it has a lot more to say and a lot more for it’s characters to go through. Excelsior!
2) What I’m going to talk about in this point is what I wanted to talk about from the get-go but really I felt the film deserved an assessment that judged it on its own and on its own terms without my experience as a viewer. However, what I’m about to say is in some ways a much more important point and I’m sure at least some of you reading will feel the same.
Watching the X-Men films is like being in an abusive relationship. On the one hand, you are pretty sure you love them. Jackman has always looked the part, the costumes and powers have always been cool, the casting of Captain Picard vs. Gandalf in popcorn superhero roles is a work of lasting genius and more than that, the films got the main thing about the films right: the X-Men stand for the outsiders who are unfairly treated and bullied. Magneto’s origins make comparison to the ethnically cleansed Jews, Xavier’s inspirational non-violence and desire to work within the system rather than smash it calls to mind Martin Luther King’s approach to the civil rights’ movement and more obviously than that they find their ultimate similie in the disenfranchised socially unacceptability of being an out homosexual (sources here) – “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” ask the Drake parents of the teenage Rogue.
The films seem to get everything right….and yet, hmmmm…..things went badly pretty quickly. The first film is a pretty simple affair – follows Wolverine, Rogue as a damsel, Magneto as cackling villain and the day is saved pretty quickly and easily. It is a baggy “origins” film that even ends with Magneto and Xavier having an “and I would have gotten away with it too” kind of conversation. It’s not an outstanding film but the characters are there. X2 is a bit more fun (Magneto’s prison escape is quite wonderful) but again the plot disappears down a baggy rabbit hole. Some of the main characters are still not fleshed out and played by actors who very much go through the motions (Scott, Jean, Storm) and even worse, Halle Berry instead of trying to do a better East African accent, just gives up as if she doesn’t give a fuck. The truth is that the writers are only interested in Wolverine’s backstory and though at this point it remains interesting, it drowns anything else for any of the other characters. The plot is just a fight in a bunker – something you could never sell to movie producers today, who balk if you don’t destroy a whole city. It’s a low-key ending, a set up for the next film. We’re two films in and we’re still waiting for something to happen. It’s pretty weak.
Then JESUS FUCKING CHRIST. Brian Singer and James Marsden leave and the shit really hits the fan. Night Crawler is not mentioned at all. Angel is not an X-man. Cyclops is immediately dead (What the holy fuck)? Xavier dies half way through (FUCK). The Juggernaut is Vinnie Jones with a shit eating grin (HELL NO). Worse than that, the wonderful symbolism of the film is shattered – the whole freakin’ idea of trying to get people to accept who you are and not blaming yourself for your identity (race, sexuality, genetics, anything) is dead because this thing has a cure (NO, NO, NO). Yep, essentially gayness now has a cure. What idiot writer dropped the ball on that one? And worse than that, the mutant whose very identity is about her tormented relationship with her powers (Rogue) is cured in a blink (STOP IT, STOP HURTING ME). Magneto is de-powered (PLEASE, PLEASE I’LL DO ANYTHING). And, no, no, the Phoenix plot isn’t resolved. Jean just got too powerful and being really powerful instead of just making you awesome instead makes you pure evil because bullshit and because judeo-christian guilt over talent and success, that’s why! If that were true of Mutants, then Stryker should be the hero, you fucking fuck hack fraud dipshit Brett Ratner* (ITS TOO LATE FOR ME, SAVE YOURSELF. GET THE OTHERS TO SAFETY. GO TO THE HILLS AND START AGAIN).
Yes, there are some slivers of greatness – the Fastball Special, Frasier Crane as Beast, Magneto being generally awesome, the casting of Ellen Paige – but there’s a lot of bullshit too (Magneto moves the golden gate bridge for no reason and then it manages to operate as a functioning bridge but without any of the supports).
In short, in my mind, X-Men is one of the worst functioning trilogies in cinema history. It’s painful. It destroys the very thing that everyone loves and has come here to see. It sadistically destroys everything and kills off major characters without any earned pathos and without the realistic possibility of them coming back. The trilogy is broken and then all we get is Hugh Jackman Wolverine films that whilst wonderfully fun by comparison are nothing to get excited about and further the endless march of Wolverine being the be-all and end-all of the X-men to an extent that embarrasses him and leaves him nobody to rub up against, nobody to mentor, nobody to develop a grudging respect for or even apologise to (god damn the idea that he might have any depth).
Star Wars fans moan about the prequels but at least George Lucas didn’t lose interest during the first three and wander off. Imagine if Han Solo never got out of the carbonite, and in fact his body is destroyed. He’s dead. Lando never joins the Rebels. Luke falls to his death. The Empire Strikes back….and are driven off but your heroes are dead, the film was clearly not the climax and there is no hope of any resolution. The Empire are still in control and still rebuilding the Death Star. Yeah, it’s dark but Leia is still alive…even though it’s the last film and there’s no resolution. Don’t worry though because we’re going to do some spin off stories about Chewbacca’s back story.
For FIVE YEARS.
No, Star Wars fans had it easy compared to what these films did to me. So, I went into the cinema hopeful, but not without some seeping dread.
Was my modicum of hope fulfilled? Well, of course it was, you already read point 1.
The X-Men trilogy was ruined and torn asunder and though Hugh Jackman was still dragging the corpse onwards into a set of standalone Wolverine films, that only made the franchise seem more of B-movie affair destined for a bargain bucket. The sensible thing to do would have been to just jack the whole thing in, keep Galdalf, Picard and Jean Valjean, recast the rest and completely reboot the whole thing, like studios love to do and that actually worked pretty well with Nolan’s Batman.
For whatever reason, probably budgetary, that wasn’t an idea that was going to fly so the only way of uniting the energies of honest comic-book writers (Vaughan and Goldman in this case) and the money men who still felt a few more bucks could be whipped out of the dead horse would be to do a prequel without any of the main characters from the original trilogy. The support was low (low budget, no Jackman, forced to work within existing continuity – ish) but the end result was stylish, ambitious and was waaaayyy better than anything that had gone before at capturing the X-Men as a heroic team. What’s more, it wasn’t a generic leather clad X-team that casual fans assume is pretty much G.I. Joe with fewer guns but a very specific, well explained and understandable X-team that more familiar fans would recognise, the early teenage days**. First Class worked. Well.
And then there was new hope. New promise and mileage in the story. Without First Class, we don’t get MacAvoy and Fassbender (both brilliant) and we don’t get this movie.
Thanks god for Matthew Vaughan. Oh, yeah, I was going to tell you what I thought of the movie. Next point!
4) So it’s obvious what I thought, isn’t it? This film was to some extent a salvation. It was my Return of the Jedi (except if you remember my Star Wars metaphor, Empire was the final film planned, it was awful and all the characters died).
The film was so joyful and utilised all the resources available to it, making use of one of the best cast lists in recent memory to give us moments like the McAvoy-Stewart scene to Anna Paquin being a background extra. It felt like a unique vision, not aping recent superhero trends that demanded city-wide destruction but knitted together its own themes – the espionage and true-history elements of First Class with the dark-tinged actioner elements of the original trilogy.
Around a year ago, I called for them to reboot the franchise which would have been a quicker way to stem the embarrassment that the franchise had become but sticking with the continuity allowed them to use an amazing cast of actors (Jennifer Lawrence and Ellen Page became the two biggest credible female actors in Hollywood after their series debuts, an act of lucking out on the producers’ parts) and allowed them to use that maligned comic book trick – the retcon. What better way to solve the deaths of Jean, Cyclops and Xavier? It never happened. What about the “mutant cure”? Clearly, it never happened. All that shitty plot got written out of existence. How did Xavier come back from the dead? Doesn’t matter because it never happened.
That was a marvellous magic trick; better than a reboot, it was a vindication. An apology. It was making things good again.
So when the heroes win and Wolverine wakes up in a brave new future, we the fans have been through the same journey. X3 was our dystopia and we were saved from it. And to give us hope on top of hope, they managed to make the movie star Hugh Jackman without Wolverine being completely unstoppable and all the other X Men as his window dressing. The original trilogy gave Cyclops nothing to do, no character and no chance to be a hero when cast as Wolverine’s whipping boy. If you know the Cyke from the books, this is a pretty knuckle-headed approach to a character who eventually overshadows Xavier to some extent as the most influential mutant leader in continuity and who is forced to become a batman style badass because his mutant power kind of sucks (not that I expect to see this in the movies but Toad was a more heavily featured character). Yay, they brought him back! And yay, Kelsey Grammar Beast! Awesome!
The Avengers is going to include Quicksilver? All we can say is “SHOTS FIRED” because you already must know that is is the best part of the film. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this character return.
X-Men Apocalypse. I assume this will be the original trilogy cast. Even if so, let’s do it. I will watch that movie and after X-3 that is something I never thought I would say.
Oh, and that Captain Kirk scene? Brilliant? Finally does it feel like they are producing something for an audience they don’t underestimate?
5) Quick one to finish. Jennifer Lawrence. Amazing actress. Incredible from the get go and Whedon is hopefully kicking himself that he didn’t get her for the Scarlet Witch. However, like I said last time, the script and her sensibilities conspire to make a girl next door out of Mystique rather than a duplicitous spy. This time around, she has the combat and acrobatics skillz (in First Class she has no combat abilities, which was a nice touch I think) and her relationship with Magneto is pretty good and their collective rage at lost comrades is great. However, none of that changes the fact that she is written and acted far too weakly. One nod and a wink from Xavier and she goes right back to Girl Next Door, something it shouldn’t really be possible for this hardened assassin, Tyrion Lannister murdering woman to do quite so easily. A wink from Beast and she’s positively a giggling school girl.
Ironically, the Avengers and X-Men should have talent swapped her for Scarlett Johansen. Johansen is not the actress that Lawrence is but her natural base persona is quite detached and calculated. Without really inhabiting the character too much or breaking much of a sweat acting she does make Black Widow seem like she might be untrustworthy, which is exactly how a long term spy should seem. Whatever the scope of her range is or is not, distant and calculated is something she can do (keeping in mind she played an iPhone recently). She does a good job on Widow and would probably have done a good one on Mystique (even if she doesn’t look quite as young as the other ’60s X-men do). It would also have made the sexual relationship elements with Magneto a bit more believable.
Hey, yes, it’s a good suggestion. What can I say? I’m a sarky hack blogger.
I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.
Probably not worth travelling back in time to retcon the casting.
* FOOTNOTE: I’m aware Josh Whedon came up with the idea but he never left the cure hanging as a viable alternative which gives characters a happy ending. You think Whedon would have let Rogue ride into the sunset powerless?
** With some shades of the team formed to rescue the X-Men from Krakoa.