Comic Book Movies 101: X-Men


It’s a killer idea for a comic – but it’s possibly an even better idea for a film. Mutants, shunned by society, form a pseudo-family in the sanctity of their mentor and fellow mutant’s mansion.
Each mutant has a fascinating past and individual personality (usually divided into two – their mutant identity and their ‘real’ one) that creates enough subplots that sequel, prequel and follow-up opportunities are endless without raking over old ground. And X-Men is an excellent foundation for any stories that follow, as well as a gripping film in its own right. I was deeply disappointed by the omission of Gambit in the first film, as the character appealed to me a great deal, but truth be told there’s just no room for him.
One look at Jackman in promotional material told you who he was playing straight away – although it didn’t tell you just how much swagger and attitude he’d bring to the part, which is thanks in part to the razor sharp dialogue. The same goes for Patrick Stewart, whose resemblance to Professor X is uncanny, and who brings a mildness to the visionary behind the X-Men that belies his true power (in both comics and films, it’s inspiring to include a character whose physical impairments matter so little because of their intellectual prowess). There’s also eye candy galore in the form of cool-headed charismatic leader Cyclops (James Marsden), conflicted Storm (Halle Berry) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos – yes, I know she’s blue and scaly, but she’s a nearly naked deviant slinking seductively around the screen).
Mystique and the rest of Magneto’s cronies are almost as intriguing as the good guys – not the underdeveloped characters you hold no empathy for that are so common in comic book movies. In fact, the politics of the movie are so delicate that you can sometimes understand their motivations in joining the dark side. Wrapped up in all the action and tension, there’s a message about the dangers of intolerance in society. While viewers label the X-Men as heroes, they themselves are fully aware that the world sees them as mutants – unnatural and alarmingly different. It’s that layer of angst and inner turmoil that gives Marvel its edge over other comic books and lends itself so well to big screen productions; it creates both multidimensional characters and impossible scenarios that are strangely believable.
The cast of characters selected for this film is faultless… but thank goodness they modernised those costumes. The garish colours and old school pants-over-tights from the comic books are obviously distinctive but would certainly detract from the film’s cool factor. And for comic book fans there’s a nice jibe from Cyclops – “What would you prefer? Yellow spandex?” when Wolverine queries the new snug black suits. And they’ve also kept in plenty of other details to balance out the updated costumes, including some that others may have perceived as too ridiculous – such as Wolverine’s trademark quiff and Rogue’s lone white streak of hair (which comes complete with its own back-story).

The film’s big showdown splices three different action sequences together, so it’s a bit more demanding than the average choreographed fight sequence some movies finish with. One of the sequences is on top of the Statue of Liberty (why do Marvel need to remind us their heroes are all-American?), while fireworks explode behind Wolverine and Sabretooth. Meanwhile, Magneto is turning Rogue into his tool, ready to kill the world leaders gathering for a summit. It’s a slower-paced close-up of a bitter old man terrifying an innocent young girl which contrasts nicely with the frantic battle going on between the animal-like mutants. The other X-Men are trapped, seemingly powerless, but flex their brains instead of their brawn and outwit their captors. The effects are a little ropey in places (Cyclops’ beam looks particularly fake) but there’s tension, intrigue and a triumph at the end, despite the fact that it’s only really a minor battle in the war the mutants face. It’s almost hard to see the movie end, both quietly and ambiguously.


The end of X-Men was an especially maddening cliffhanger because we had to wait three years to see the direction the story would take. X Men 2 (AKA X2) could be confusing if you didn’t catch the first film. All the major roles are reprised and there are some exciting new characters thrown into the mix, including Nightcrawler. He’s played by Alan Cumming who seemed like an odd choice for the part. He seems a little bit safe to play such a complex character. Yet somehow he’s every inch the demon-like devout Catholic who, once out from under the evil Stryker’s spell, jumps to the X-Men’s aid.
Again there are enough storylines to make your head spin, some of which are built on things established in the previous film. You may have anticipated that Magento’s loyal followers would attempt to liberate him from his glass prison (which, as an aside, is a brilliant set piece). The threat against the X-Men has stepped up a notch, from them simply being outlawed to becoming victims of genocide. These echoes of the Holocaust are unnerving, preventing this imaginary sequence of events becoming pure escapism. In addition, there’s also been an attempted presidential assassination – further inspiration taken from existing history.
All of these plots are dealt with coherently and simultaneously, a huge credit to director Bryan Singer, as is his ability to develop so many different characters. The effects also leaped forward in this film – they make optimal use of the character’s powers, varying the action to include tornadoes, raids, teleportation, fighter planes, and visible telekinesis (looks better than it sounds). Something I really enjoy in these films are the punches the female characters pack; even within the Marvel universe, there are few female characters that can hold a candle to the likes of Jean Grey, Rogue and Storm – and even fewer who can hold their own when compared to the male heroes (and villains – Deathstrike and Mystique are both forces to be reckoned with!).
Another nice homage to the comics is snuck in when Mystique goes through Stryker’s assistant’s files, which include several characters from the comics. This obvious enthusiasm for maintaining links between the comics and films will satisfy comic book lovers and, though the meaning may be lost on many, show a dedication to fine details. This wry humour helps alleviate the heavier stuff, which includes increasingly complex relations between the X-Men themselves. Comic book lovers will also understand the significance of the phoenix shape below the water as the film concludes, with Jean Grey’s narration tying together the end of this film and the introduction of the first. 
Another three-year waiting period, but this time tinged with apprehension – when Singer dropped out, would Ratner be able to handle the X Men as skilfully?



X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand presents yet more new additions to be managed, including Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut – aesthetically appropriate, at the very least – and, more notably, Beast. It was intriguing, wondering just how the hairy blue genius would appear on the big screen. Kelsey Grammer is impeccably cast as the government’s hyper-intelligent mutant representative and the effects are surprisingly subtle. Not sure about his wardrobe choices, but the muted blue fur covering him doesn’t look as out of place as you might imagine in a live-action movie. And the effects used to present us with a youthful Magneto and Professor X are also impressive, and avoid that potential casting pitfall of “Young Magneto”.


The writers have also found another clever plot device to make the human race look intolerant and bigoted, and to promote embracing your individuality; a so-called cure has been developed to suppress the genes that give mutants their powers. Now, initially it might sound ludicrous – who would give up superpowers and lead a normal life given the choice? But Rogue, who viewers of the first two films will feel some affinity with (although at times she borders on irritating), communicates the dilemma convincingly, as does newcomer Angel – the scene in which he attempts to hack off his wings is really rather distressing. Magneto’s sense of foreboding (which is also another excuse for him to start an uprising) that this could lead to the end of the mutant race is a realistic reaction and it gives the X-Men a chance to prove that they’re entirely unbiased as they aim to protect humans as well as themselves from the violence that could ensue.

There are stunts, action and strange superpowers galore (Kid Omega shoots spikes from his face!) in this film. One of the comic’s most surprising and thrilling stories surfaces in this film – Jean Grey’s evil alter-ego the Phoenix rears its head (at least she finally gets a proper superhero name). Famke Janssen’s sexier and deadly, and the film sees her embroiled in saucy clinches, cold-blooded murder, lots of destruction and some difficult decisions for the X-Men as she relentlessly resists suppression. It seems bold to kill off key characters in the way X-Men: The Last Stand does, but then again in this universe death isn’t necessarily forever. And hooray for a brief cameo from Marvel mastermind himself, Stan Lee!

The emphasis on action and rapid, almost disorientating pace mean there’s less emotion here than its predecessors, but this is a comic book movie after all. What’s wrong with a little more ‘POW!’ and a little less thought? The film manages to be the scariest of the trilogy, although I suspect that to see it without having seen the others would be somewhat baffling. Although certain storylines are conveniently and neatly tied up at the end of the film – particularly life at Xavier’s Academy – we’re left with some loose ends, including one major post-credit cliffhanger. 



X-Men Origins: Wolverine

 X-Men: The Last Stand concluded the X-Men series, albeit temporarily, and the story moves back in time with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This film was a departure from the ‘reasons for mutant armies to fight’ formula behind the first three. It’s both a spin-off, a prequel and a film in its own right as Jackman walks us through Wolverine’s journey to become the moody wolfman we know and love. However, by unravelling the intriguing enigma that is Logan/Wolverine/James, it makes him just a little bit safer and softer. That said, the scenes from his distant childhood are dark and disturbing. He and his wayward brother are enlisted by yet another team of mutants, but their total disregard for humans is far more sinister than Magneto’s well-rationalised battles against the rest of the world and entirely opposed to the X-Men’s outlook.

It’s not just Wolverine’s past that’s exposed. Jackman spends a memorable sequence streaking across farmland to escape the life he left behind for a simple existence with his girlfriend in Canada. I can only hope it made men experience even a fraction of the inferiority complex women so regularly face when faced with perfect bodies in the media…this is how superhumans should look!

There are some familiar characters here from the other films who are portrayed by different actors – Stryker and Victor, both of whom take more prominent roles in Origins, have been replaced and several ‘young’ versions of the X-Men make an appearance (instead of digitally enhancing them as with Magneto and Professor X in The Last Stand). This lack of continuity is salvaged by the suitability of these new actors – especially Schreiber, whose Victor is impressively menacing and genuinely resembles Jackman. And, of course, it wouldn’t be an X-men film without some new faces – Gambit finally makes his much-anticipated appearance. His role could have been bigger, but he’s every inch as cool and dangerous as I’d hoped. He’s joined by a surprising collection of actors including the Black Eyed Pea’s Will.I.Am (an interesting casting decision, but not an unwise one), Britain’s own kooky-but-charming Dominic Monaghan, and Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson/Deadpool. Another fantastic physique and an unforgettably terrifying performance as the sword-wielding mega-mutant make the climactic fight scene one of the best across these four films – and the make-up that gives him his mouth-less appearance is excellent.

I’ve heard it said that the Origins film actually goes overboard on the extra mutants, the CGI and the explanations and, in all honesty, it pushes the characters closer towards redundancy rather than lending them fuel for further prequels or sequels. But Wolverine is a strong enough character to earn his own movie and it delivers everything a comic book movie should. I can only hope the films to follow are injected with enough originality not to kill the buzz when I re-watch the first four…

Lauren Felton


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