Reliving the Past: The ‘X-Men’ Franchise Review
The modern superhero boom is sometimes miscredited to The Dark Knight trilogy. Batman Begins paved the way for The Dark Knight which will likely standout as the ace for decades. However, lost in the shuffle is the X-Men franchise. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy probably played a huge part in Marvel’s cinematic universe with The Avengers characters, but it was 2000’s X-Men that really got the ball rolling.
With The Wolverine releasing this weekend, I thought it’d be perfect to look back on the franchise. Set to be the sixth movie total, I have opted to review these in order of release (not chronology).
Looking back on it, it was a gutsy move to present X-Men the way they did. They completely skip the traditional origin story and thrust the audience right into the characters and their actions. Two main characters (Rogue and Wolverine) do get parts of an origin story, but the three main ones (Professor X, Magneto, and Jean Grey) can’t say the same. Luckily, it still works, as X-Men is my personal favorite of the bunch.
Unlike other superhero movies, X-Men utilizes an ensemble cast, giving everyone about the same amount of screen time. While it seemed devoid of an origin story, it should be credited with introducing the bulk of the characters, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and others.
For plot, it basically showed Professor X’s X-Men against Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants. The two groups of mutants were fighting over their method of acceptance by “normal” humans. Feeling like they were being targeted, Magneto tried to force acceptance by controlling popular human leaders. X, on the other hand, was non-violent and fought for their acceptance in a different way. The respect between these two leaders is present as they were both trying to create acceptance for their kind through different methods. Does this sound like a subtext? That’s because it is, and there is no denying the connections to racism and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
X-Men is a very strong movie because the entire ensemble has rich characteristics and they aren’t shoved down our throat. Some characters (like Rogue and Wolverine) are more at the forefront, but everyone has a role. Bryan Singer and company not only filled the screen with “cool” superheroes, but they created one of the smartest action movies I’ve ever seen.
Three years later, Singer returned to bring us X2. While certainly not as groundbreaking, it continues to the story from where the first left off. Rather than treading the same water, they took the story in a different direction that still works. All the while, they explore similar ideas of acceptance, prejudice, and inequality.
This story returns all the characters and even adds a couple – including Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) and Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). In the (human) villain role, Colonel Stryker (Brian Cox) makes it his mission to destroy mutants using a program called Cerebro. Even though the mutants have different philosophies, they join forces to stop their extinction.
From Wolverine’s standpoint specifically, we get bits and pieces of Stryker and his prior relationship. Wolverine not only has his iconic metal blades, but he has extreme healing power, making him almost indestructible. Stryker, it turns out, fits into his origin.
X2 continues to show the complicated relationship between Professor X and Magneto. It also, like I mentioned earlier, continues to show how flawed the word “normal,” is because the human population struggles accepting the unknown. In all, the film rivals its predecessor with the muddled themes, great action sequences, and a powerful conclusion.
The X-Men quality exited with Bryan Singer, who interestingly left to pursue Superman Returns. Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) took the helm and couldn’t quite keep up the previous tone. X-Men: The Last Stand still had a great ensemble and hinted at some subtext, but it came off as much lighter and action-orientated.
One of the primary focuses involved finding a cure for the mutants. With the government mulling over options, the mutants debated whether this was fair or not. Obviously, some felt that receiving a cure meant something was wrong with them.
Jean’s character also played a huge part of the story. The movie starts with a prologue showing some of her origin. We also find out she’s not dead…and now she has dual personalities. For a movie about mutants shapeshifting, flying, and reading minds, Jean’s dual personality seemed the most hokey. Speaking of hokey, the script stands out as weakest among the first three, with some super corny lines (“I’m the juggernaut bitch!”)
In the end, X-Men: The Last Stand starts to degrade significantly. I blame it on switching directors as the tone and balance just wasn’t there. It’s still a decent story, but compared to the other two, that’s about all you can say.
I’m not sure where or when the idea came about, but the X-Men franchise had this bold plan to go back and give origin stories for all their characters. It sounds good on paper. As X-Men Origins: Wolverine shows, you need more of a plan than that. In the end, it performed so poorly that the idea for Deadpool and other prequels never materialized.
Widely considered the worst of the bunch, I unfortunately must agree with the consensus. Origins is one of the worst superhero movies in my opinion. This is particularly upsetting because I genuinely like the Wolverine. The movie, though, doesn’t really help sympathize with the character who is virtually indestructible. Hugh Jackman himself gives a good performance, but the story suffers from predictability and some rather ridiculous moments.
If this franchise review was to catch us up on Wolverine’s role in the franchise, you’d think Origins would be the most important film. I guess it does fill us in more on Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) and his involvement in the Weapon X program. Still, I just can’t bring myself to compliment this movie a whole lot.
While the singular character origin stories didn’t pane out, 20th Century Fox did eventually develop an all-encompassing prequel. This prequel, titled X-Men: First Class, served as an origin story for some of the more dynamic characters. By focusing on the richest ones, including Dr. X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), First Class created an awesome backstory to the original trilogy while proving that the X-Men are back!
The story starts with a callback to the first movie by showing a young Magneto at a concentration camp. Then, it fast forwards to 1962. Through a series of events, Xavier and Erik (later called Magneto) actually become friends. The young guys rile up a group of mutants, including Mystique, The Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Havok (Lucas Till), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi), in order to take down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his lover Emma Frost (January Jones).
However, we all know what is coming – they’ll eventually be a rift between X and Magneto. Shaw becomes the reason the two don’t see eye to eye, as he was responsible for the murder of Magneto’s mother.
Sometimes knowing the “what” but not the “how,” can make it even better. It definitely works in the infamous moment where X becomes paralyzed. Seeing the formation of Professor X’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants was really exciting. They also added some good wrinkles to the situation, including Mystique’s relationship with both leaders. Lastly, they used history to their advantage by focusing on the Cuban Missile Crisis and making it all the more interesting.
In terms of The Wolverine, First Class doesn’t really explore his origins (think about it, he already had his own movie). It does include a really funny cameo, though!
In the end, X-Men: First Class could probably be considered one of the best prequels to date. Some believe the movie stands out as the best of the five. I’d still argue X-Men or even X2 take top honor. However, First Class makes it seem less like a cash-grab and more like an honest attempt at furthering the X-Men universe.
With five films in the books, the X-Men franchise has had its ups and downs. Looking at other franchises, this is bound to happen. Even with the not-so-great movies, 20th Century Fox and Marvel have created a dynamic universe with rich characters and plenty of social commentary.
As for The Wolverine, it takes place after the events of The Last Stand. Origins obviously plays a role in his character development, so you may want to brush up on that movie.
I’m looking for a darker look into Wolverine’s life and a way to sympathize with his character. He’s both a brutal and funny character, but it’s tough to do a story when a guy seems immune to death (look at Superman). We’ll see starting tomorrow!
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