The Series Project: X-Men (Part 1)

 

So here’s the deal: I did indeed read X-Men comics when I was in high school. I did indeed study the mythology. If I sat down and really thought about it, I could list the names and superpowers of 75-90 mutants to appear in myriad X-books over the decades. I know all their real names, I know their backstories, and I followed the X-Men closely all through the 1990s. I, too, am an X-Men fan. They were never the center of my superhero comic book-reading wheelhouse (I much preferred Spider-Man and the goofy/soulful space antics of Adam Warlock), but I do still have plenty of X-books in my closet-bound collection.

I preface with this, as I intend to write about the X-Men feature films (there have been five to date), and I will try, to the best of my abilities, to remain scientific on this quest. That is to say, I will be reviewing the films and only the films. I will judge only what is on the screen, and not bring anything from outside. I will be making no comparisons. The characters in the comics will remain mutually exclusive from the characters in the movies.

As such, I will be making no complaints about altered premises, compressed timelines, or characters who look or act differently in the movies. If something looks goofy in the films, I will say so, even if it was transcribed directly from the comics. I know if it was altered. I will be treating the movies as their own entity, and will try to consider them as entertainments by themselves. I feel like I need to give warning in this regard, as I know there are a lot of rabid X-Men fans out there who will be tempted to correct me, or point out why a certain film is good or bad based solely on its fealty to the source material. For example: many of my peers find the fourth film in the series (that’d be X-Men Origins: Wolverine) to be particularly weak based solely on the things they altered. Many disliked that a character named Deadpool was so dramatically altered. While Deadpool in the comics may have his own life, I will, for the purposes of this essay, be ignoring that comic book life altogether, and considering how he appears on the screen. I have been trying to coin the phrase: Fealty to the source material is not a virtue in and of itself. It pleases fans, but may not translate well for non-fans.

Welcome, superhero fans, to another installment of The Series Project here on CraveOnline. For the next two weeks, we shall be considering the X-Men franchise, and how it’s moved as a unit over its life. There is word that two more X-Men films are in production (the sixth will be a follow-up to the events of the fifth, and the seventh will follow-up the fourth). If you’re an X-Men fan, you should have no trouble following me, and it’s highly likely you’ve seen the five films. If you’re not, you may have to follow me closely, as this universe is jumbled with dozens of characters, all given brief backstories, and all given a seemingly random set of superpowers. If you have been afraid of the complex soap-opera-like world of the X-Men, consider this a gentle initiation.

X-Men fans are unlike other superhero fans. They seem to have a more passionate interest than, say, Spider-Man fans or even Batman fans. There is some ineffable quality about the X-Men that draws people particularly close, and, even more insidiously, never let them go. I haven’t read a proper X-Men comic since probably about 1998, and yet I still kind of care about the characters. I know who they are, and care about their fate. I didn’t get that with the 2001 Spider-Man film. But maybe that’s because that wasn’t a very good film. Yes, I said it. Spider-Man wasn’t that good. E-mail me your vitriol in a timely manner, please. To defend myself, I did love Spider-Man 2.

A brief rundown on the X-Men: the X-Men are a superhero team that operates under the aegis of a paraplegic psychic named Charles Xavier (hence the name). They all have superpowers as a result of a genetic mutation that they were born with. Mutants can have all kinds of superpowers from mere psychic abilities, to super-fast healing, to big stuff like controlling the weather. They usually first manifest their powers at puberty. Mutants are known by the public at large, and are treated like second-class citizens because of their mutations. Some look mutated. Most look like ordinary people. Many hide. Some foster resentment. Some mutants fight for an idiom of equality and peace. Others would dominate non-mutants. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. vs. Malcolm X in that regard.

But enough lollygagging. Onward to the movies.

 

X-Men (dir. Bryan Singer, 2000)

The first X-Men film came before the superhero boom began in earnest, and was of an era when superhero films didn’t feel obligated to remain so stringently faithful to the source material. These days less popular characters like Thor are begin given the star treatment. When X-Men first came out, it was an enormous boon to comic book fans, and people (at least I seem to recall) embraced the changes it made from the comic.

X-Men takes place in “the not-too distant future.” Let’s say it takes place in 2013. Mutations have become so well known to the world at this point, that there is talk of a Mutant Registration Act in congress, spearheaded by one Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison from Willard and The Lathe of Heaven). Such an act would be tantamount to mass arrests and institutionalized persecution. Defending mutants is Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who works for Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Xavier, a powerful psychic, runs an expensive boarding school for gifted students, which is really a school for runaway mutants. The school is, furthermore, a front for his superhero operation, nicknamed the X-Men, where adult mutants don black leather outfits and help other mutants in need. Each of the X-Men seems to have a codename. Xavier watches the congressional hearings with dismay; he dreams of equality.

Also watching is Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellan) who goes by the nickname Magneto, and who looks on the persecution with disgust. Magneto can, as his name implies, manipulate magnetic fields and control anything made of conductive metal. He is a Holocaust survivor, and has no sympathy for the humans he can easily murder. He dreams of a day when mutants will dominate the humans, and become a dominant species. Ian McKellan was 61 when this film came out, but, for argument’s sake, let’s say that Magneto is around 80. If he was 13 or so during World War II (let’s say 1943), that would make him about 80 years old in 2013. X-Men takes place in 2013. I declare it.

Other players: We get to know a pretty teenage girl from the South named Marie (Anna Paquin), who runs away from home when she learns she can put people in comas when she touches them with her bare skin. It is later explained that she “absorbs their life energy.” She starts calling herself Rogue, even though she is skittish and dainty. Nothing roguish about her. She runs away to Canada where she meets a grizzled pit fighter named Logan (then-unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman) who is also a mutant, and often goes by the nickname Wolverine. He can heal quickly, and can sprout knives from in between his knuckles. His skeleton, we will later learn, has been forcibly infused with an indestructible metal called adamantium. He also has a mysterious past he cannot remember.

Wolverine is probably the most popular of the X-Men characters and will serve as the main character of most of the films; his past and his angst will be the driving force behind much of the drama. Why do audiences latch onto Wolverine so strongly? He’s not terribly complicated. I guess it’s his claws and his grumpy attitude that appeal to a lot of teenagers. Wolverine, in short, is a badass. Maybe it also has a lot to do with Hugh Jackman’s performance, which is spirited and strong. It’s also, in view of what I know about the character from the comics, pretty perfect. But I promised I wouldn’t do those kinds of comparisons. Wolverine still seems like small potatoes when compared with some of his teammates. Never mind that later we’ll meet a character who can control the weather!

Seriously, man. The weather. Logan is rescued from a big beastly man named Sabretooth (stuntman Tyler Mane) and taken to Charles Xavier’s Westchester mansion, where he meets Dr. Gray, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) and Ororo “Storm” Munroe (Halle Berry). Storm can summon clouds, make it rain, make it snow, and cause lightning to strike in very specific spots. You would think that controlling the weather would be a far more impressive thing to focus on, as opposed to a little Canadian dude with switchblade hands. What’s Storm’s story? How do you discover you are mistress of the elements? And what’s with that white fright-wig?

Sadly, we don’t get a lot from Storm. She, along with a lot of the supporting characters in the piece, don’t have too much personality. Storm and Cyclops are broad types, and the henchmen Toad and Sabretooth are, well, just thugs. I suppose in a film with about a dozen superpowered characters, you have to let some things just sort of ride by. As the films progress, we’ll have an ever-growing cast of characters, costumes, powers and backstories.

That seems to be the balance in these films. Is there a way to tell a story and still give equitable screen time to myriad characters? The first two films proved that it could be done. And while the dialogue can border on the stupid, the story is expertly handled. I’ll have more to say on this when I talk about X2.

Anyway, Rogue Marie is enrolled in the Xavier Academy, and Logan, presumably being hunted by Magneto, is enlisted to help stop an evil plot that Magneto is working on. Magneto’s plan is to invent a machine that can turn regular people into mutants, ending the prejudice. That seems kind of noble, although it’s revealed that his machine also kills people my mistake. When he tests it on Senator Kelly, Kelly does grow superpowers to escape, but ends up melting into a puddle of saline. It’s actually kinda gross.

Here’s something I wonder: Would Professor Xavier and the X-Men be so eager to stop Magneto if his machine worked perfectly? Like what would be Professor X’s stance if world leaders were all to suddenly become mutants? Sure, it would kind of violate their freedom, and later their bodies. It would be cruel. But I know a lot of people who would love to have superpowers. I would love to have superpowers. And then the problem of mutants would actually be more openly discussed. If only that machine had worked, maybe Magneto’s evil plot would have worked to Charles’ benefit.

It’s also here that I have to address the real subtext under the X-Men films: Mutation is a metaphor for sexuality. At least it is in the first two of the franchise. Magneto’s fantasy of turning world leaders into mutants probably very closely matches frustrated gay youth’s fantasies of more people being homosexual, just so they wouldn’t feel so alone, and so homosexuality would be discussed more openly. The director of the first two X-Men films is Bryan Singer, and he is himself a gay man. He has said in interviews that these movies are big sexuality metaphors, and he is proud of it. The second film will even feature a coming out scene.

Anyway, Magneto’s evil plot involves kidnapping Rogue (the bad guys were after her all along). Magneto has a lithe, sexy blue-skinned shapeshifter in his army named Mystique, played by professional model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. She’s kind of a badass character, and that we have a sexy model like Rebecca Romijn wandering around essentially in the nude is certainly a service to the fans. Singer may be gay, but he knows a hot woman when he sees one. Magneto intends to use Rogue’s life-sucking powers to transfer his entire consciousness into her body after he uses his machine. He, Mystique, Sabretooth, and a green-skinned guy named Toad nearly pull it all off, but the good guys stop them.

Sorry to make the story so brief, but I’m already running long, and I have another film to discuss. To be fair to the screenwriters, though, the story is actually easy to follow and fun. This was before superhero films became pre-occupied with an inter-film “mythology” (films like Iron Man 2, for instance, are little more than commercials for The Avengers) and actually cared to write a stand-alone story. X-Men is pretty good.

 


X2 (dir. Bryan Singer, 2003)

The original title for this film was X2: X-Men United. Ungainly. Why not call it merely X-Men 2? Or The Uncanny X-Men as the original comic was? No matter.

X2is easily the best film in the series. I mentioned that these films’ strengths come from their ability to interweave the stories of dozens of characters into a single story that manages to be exciting on its own terms. X2 has that in spades. During the film’s climax, we have four or five different sets of characters, all working toward independent goals, but they all feed into the central crisis. It does go on a little long (the film is 133 minutes), but we need all that screen time just to keep everything straight. I think X2 does a dandy job of this.

I watched the TV series Heroes recently, and found it reminiscent of X2. There are many characters, all with superpowers and individual stories, and all trying to take down a supervillain. But Heroes frustrated me to no end, as they felt the need to stretch that out into 13 hours of television. X2 does the same thing, better, in only 133 minutes.

Developments from the last film: Logan (Hugh Jackman) is now romantically pursuing Dr. Grey (Famke Janssen), even though she’s in a relationship with Scott “Cyclops” (James Marsden). Grey (who, curiously, is never given a superhero nickname) is also sensing that her telekinesis is growing. Erik “Megneto” Lensherr (Ian McKellan) is in a special plastic prison following the events of the previous film.  Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamon) is trying to break him out. Prof. X (Patrick Stewart) is trying to investigate Logan’s past. Rogue Marie (Anna Paquin) is beginning a romance with a student named Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), and they have to figure out how they’re going to neck when she can’t make any skin-on-skin contact. I imagine special condoms. There are ways.

The bad guy of the film is General William Stryker (the deliciously evil Brian Cox), who is on a quiet personal plot to rid the world of mutants, and easily finds Professor X’s school so he can invade it, and steal Professor X’s computer Cerebro. Cerebro, by the way, was in the first film; it’s a supercomputer that links into the Professor’s psychic powers, and can locate anyone anywhere. Nifty. And even though it’s guarded by a special retinal scanner, this is the second time in two films that someone has broken into the mansion and tinkered with it (Mystique did it with ease in the last film). Up your security, Prof. This ain’t working.

Stryker has been harvesting psychic juices from his mutant son Josh, and dribbling it on the necks of mutants in his charge. It essentially acts as a mind-control drug. Using it, he finds the X mansion, stages an assassination on the president using a mutant, and keeps a foxy Asian gal nicknamed Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) by his side. He is one cold mother. His ultimate plan is to use Josh, now a lobotomized psychic slave, to overpower the already powerful Professor X, and get him to use a Cerebro computer to kill all the mutants at once. Yeah, the computer links to people psychically, so it can kill them.

It’s been constantly said in these movies how mutants are feared and hated by the people. Stryker’s hatred of mutants is palpable, but his son made his wife commit suicide years before, so he has an excuse. I think these films would do well to see mutants on the street, encountering hate and prejudice in some real-life way. Indeed, other than an early field trip to a museum, the X-Men are rarely seen in public at all. I know there’s plenty of meat characters, but maybe trimming a few in favor of a prejudice plotline would work out. By the third film, there will be scenes on the street, but it will be in a goofy dystopian context, and will have no real oomph anymore.

Oh yes. About that assassination attempt. Stryker was using a certain mutant fellow named Kurt Wagner (Alan Cumming) to do this. Wagner is a teleporting imp with deep blue skin, yellow eyes, fangs and a tail. He can teleport short distances too. Wagner is a devout Catholic who lives in an abandoned church, and tries to live in quiet piety. He talks a lot about the power of faith in a worth of fighting and hatred. I think including a character of faith in the proceedings enriches the material. Too many superheroes are either blustery or angsty. It’s nice to have one that’s merely pious.

Logan has also been investigating his past, and it turns out Stryker had a lot to do with his metal skeleton, and, indeed, Logan finds the tank where the metal infusion took place. He still doesn’t remember his past, but he’s getting close. The mystery of Wolverine’s origin was, in the comics, a long-held mystery. By the fourth film in the series, we’ll be discussing it openly.

Continuity error: When Joshua asks Charles to use his machine to kill all mutants, he actually begins the process. All mutants  in the world fall on the ground clutching their heads. Joshua is a mutant too. Wouldn’t this have made him fall over too? And wouldn’t Charles have subsequently stopped the kill-all-mutants thing? I’m guessing someone will offer me an explanation on this point.

Also, Magneto escapes from prison, helps the good guys stop Stryker, and Jean Grey, in a fit of heroism, uses her now-very-strong telekinesis to float a plane full of her friends to safety while a tidal wave drowns her below. She’ll be back. As all good comic book fans know, no one ever stays dead in comics. Indeed, the final shot of the film is the new lake where Jean drowned, and we see the vague shape of a phoenix in the water. Phoenixes, you should know, are marked for their ability to rise from their own ashes.

No. I’m not going to mention The Dark Phoenix Saga. That’s something you’ll have to investigate yourself.


 

And this is, sadly, where the story will reach its peak. After this, we’ll stray, as I said, into sci-fi dystopia, and then retreat into the safety of prequels. Be sure to join me next week as I investigate origins, deaths, and dozens more new mutants in the final three X-Men films.  

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