I’ll just assume you’ve already seen the three X-Men films at this point; if you haven’t, don’t read this expecting a coercion. I’ll give you my review right now: they’re good, I like them, go see them. If you saw them and didn’t like them, no need for you to be here, go take another look at some of Pitchfork’s 100 Awesome(ist) Videos. Try not to let the smug rub off on you. But if you saw them and did like them, or at least liked some of them, read on. First, a disclaimer: I’m going to do my best to not compare the X-Men movies to the comic books. I haven’t read enough of them to say anything of value, and if I had, there’ve been enough books over the years to write a few master’s theses. The blog is a traditionally lazy medium, and I am too small a man to challenge that.
The best scene of the three movies is the opening scene of the first. Usually this is a bad sign, and while I’m fairly certain that if the entire series had lived up to the promise of its introduction, where Magneto discovers his mutation in Poland of 1944, it would be one of the great modern works of filmed liberal art, on average it’s still pretty damn good. What’s unexpected are the places where that average is pulled up, and the places where it’s pulled down.
Not too long ago, when you imagined a superhero movie, or a comic book movie (which invariably made you think of a superhero movie), you would picture a buff guy with some kind of animal costume beating the hell out of a mad scientist supervillain. Or maybe he would just be flying at fantastic speeds high above the city. Either way, you imagined spectacular action and cool (though hard to conceive of as working in a movie) costumes. In the first X-Men movie, both the action and the costumes stink. There may be a small flourish within an action scene, the shot of Wolverine getting launched into the air by Sabretooth’s tree-as-baseball-bat being the only example I can think of, but generally the film’s action parts are badly conceived and edited. And while they were wise to avoid the yellow spandex/crazy head fins outfit that made Wolverine look like a badass in drawing, the leather-with-X-motif they replaced it, and all of the heroes’ costumes, with was about the least inventive and least interesting idea they could’ve come up with.
It failed what you would’ve thought of as the primary rules of a superhero movie, and yet it was very successful and very good. Part of the stereotype of the comic book at the time X-Men came out was still dumb plots and archetypal characters. Simple stories for kids. X-Men’s plot wasn’t great, but they made up for it, and all other failings, on the character side. Or rather, on the side of character interaction. The characters are very well handled, and with one exception so obvious it need not go mentioned, perfectly acted, but it’s the careful interactions the characters have with each other that make them so compelling. Ian McKellen makes any Magneto scene great to watch, but when he and Patrick Stewart‘s Charles Xavier have a conversation, they show a weathered relationship that is both deep and respectful, despite being so philosophically at odds. And we begin the film wanting to see Wolverine slicing shit up in an uncontrollable rage, but end it wanting more gentle, older-brother moments between him and Rogue. It’s actually the most logical and time-tested approach to a story about a large group of characters: make their relationships the real stars.
Overall, the second film is the best. Perhaps it was all budgetary — the reasons for the failed action elements of the first — and now that Fox knew it had a real franchise on its hands, and was willing to put some real money into it, Bryan Singer and co. were able to craft some great, exciting scenes. Once again, the opener is great, with Nightcrawler beating and teleporting a path to the Oval Office, but each of the many setpieces that follow is just as grand and exciting. The dialogue scenes in X-Men 2 are as good as in the first, though they do tend to highlight the individuals a bit more. Nightcrawler is a character without all that much screen time relative to the headliners, and no particular partner to bounce off of, but every shot he gets displays depths of compassion and torment. Big credit to the costume and makeup designers, and certainly to Alan Cumming, another out-of-left-field but freakin’ brilliant casting choice. Across the board, characters in these movies were cast as people, not superheroes.
The second film is a balance between what was expected of a superhero movie and what the first X-Men showed us worked surprisingly well in a superhero movie. The third shifts that balance in the opposite direction of the first, or at least tries to. The action in X-Men: The Last Stand is larger and more epic than in the second, and while it is solid, it’s still not quite as good as expected from the series at this point. Sequences are better than the first: often the conception is good, as are the effects, for the most part, but they lack that extra glimmer of intensity or ingenuity X-Men 2 had that can push a fun-while-it-lasts battle sequence into one worth posting on your blog about.
The first film made up for less than stellar action with dialogue, character, and relationship. What the third film gained over the first in spectacle, it seems to have lost in character. Most of the elements that made X-Men something different and better than what was expected are diluted in The Last Stand. Now, the joy in seeing Xavier and Magneto on screen together comes almost exclusively from the performances; the dialogue itself can’t be called bad, but it’s nothing special anymore. And it’s without subtlety: in the original X-Men, we catch a glance of Magneto’s Auschwitz number tattooed on his arm, though it’s never addressed by anyone; in the second, Magneto’s grim past is always hanging in the air, though never spoken aloud; and in the third, it’s blatantly addressed and the tattoo pointlessly shown. In The Last Stand, when Magneto abandons his closest companion in his war against non-mutants, who was also, it was hinted through the series, his lover, the reasons for it demand an incredibly poignant moment from this character, and what we get is just pretty good. Practically every conversation in the third film is like this: the subject is good, the performances are fine, but the dialogue just doesn’t reach the strength we’ve grown accustomed to. If the first two movies hadn’t happened, I doubt this would be a problem at all.
The one place the third exceeds the other two is in plot, or at least in plot setup. There are two stories running through The Last Stand: Jean Grey discovering her evil, and extremely powerful, dark side, and the discovery of a “cure” for the mutant gene. The great potential of the former plot is probably only apparent to people aware that “The Dark Phoenix Saga” from the comics, upon which it’s based, is one of comicdom’s all-time most famous, most respected storylines; I haven’t read it, but I knew about it well before they started making X-Men movies. The potential of the latter as an incendiary for both dramatic and philosophical conflict is self-evident to anyone who’s seen the movies. And yet in neither case does The Last Stand reach its full potential. It settles on keeping both storylines speedy and entertaining, staying respectful of what’s come before without ever reaching for its predecessors’ heights.
The very best moments across all three films do not belong to the superhero genre; I would say many of the worst moments, those that strain the suspension of disbelief the most, are those which attempt to adhere to their superhero roots. This doesn’t mean scenes of exaggerated action or heightened fisticuffs –- Jerry Bruckheimer and Jackie Chan can attest to not needing to have a superhero story to include these things -– but rather when it delves into the logic-free world of the comic book, with billion-dollar jets, superhero nicknames, holographic training facilities, and whatever you’d use to describe Cerebro. These elements are uncomfortable on-screen here in ways that they aren’t in the Spider-Man or Batman films, and that’s because of the overall irony of the X-Men series: it’s at its best when it treats its fantastic elements as science fiction and not superhero fantasy. Referring to mutation as a “genetic condition,” using it as social parable for racism, legislated homophobia, or any kind of oppression you’d like, is all a very sci-fi thing to do, and most of the great moments are those that pull away from reality only enough to keep it just grounded, a typical requirement of “in the not too distant future” sci-fi, but not of Marvel Comics.
The “fear of difference” metaphor at the heart of the X-Men world is what makes it one of the great comic book concepts; not only can it reflect on a history of xenophobic oppression, but it can ask the tantalizing question “What if those who were oppressed suddenly had all the power?” That is exactly what is being posed in that opening scene of the first X-Men film, and it’s a very science fictiony setup that could’ve been explored in a variety of ways to a variety of effects. The X-Men were thought up by Stan Lee, and Stan Lee is a superhero comics man, so the books, and the movies they wrought almost thirty years later, approach it with a sense of spectacle. I don’t believe, even if the majority of film history seems to suggest it, that having action, explosions, excitement, and effects automatically means diluting the message or the art a film may be striving for; I don’t think the metaphor of X-Men suffers for its approach. Despite the flaws and the strengths that exist in these three movies, the contemplations on prejudice are neither weakened nor tainted. What they are is secondary to the drama and spectacle, and this was completely by choice. The three X-Men films as a whole and as individuals are all very good; but I feel that had they in followed the lead of that first scene set in Poland 1944, which managed to contain drama and fantasy while keeping its true subject matter front and centre, they could’ve been so much greater. laebmada