Remember when comic book movies were rare, and usually bad? When the idea of a Marvel Comics movie not powered by Wesley Snipes being a mainstream hit seemed laughable? It’s hard to believe that Bryan Singer, then the respected director of Oscar-winning THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and not a self-identified “geek”, was there to take the torch from BLADE, and that he is still doing X-Men movies 16 years later. Now he’s in a vastly different pop culture, where there are nine total movies in this world (plus more, including a TV show, in the works)… and it’s not even one of the more popular Marvel Comics movie franchises currently running!
We’re used to the X-Men now. We have experienced alternate timelines, recastings and two different spin-off series. And I don’t know if I’d ever rewatched the first one since part 2 came out. I wasn’t sure how well it would hold up, but I gotta tell you, I liking going back to a world where they had to work to convince us that this shit was cool. They took nothing for granted.
I enjoy the epic serialization of the Marvel movies as much as the next guy, but it’s refreshing to see a beginning here, when they had to explain this concept of mutants, how governments react to the discovery of their existence, and how they respond to that, dividing into two organized factions with differing ideologies. You could say mutants in this movie are a little like transgender people right now in that they’re starting to have a higher visibility in the world and that’s causing other people, and lawmakers, to freak out. The government wants to register them. Magneto, who already has a number tattooed on his wrist from an older type of registration, is not gonna lay down.
Mutants don’t have origin stories, they’re just born that way. So all these characters are already who they are, and most of them get dramatic introductions with their backs turned to the camera before they reveal themselves. The first time we see Professor X it’s just the back of his head as he sits in the audience at a congressional hearing about mutant registration. The shot that rotates around and first shows us his face starts as Senator Kelly talks about rumors of… him, basically.
Then we see Magneto for the first time as an adult. He’s putting on his fedora and leaving in the middle of the event, obscuring his face, like a spy or assassin in a suspense thriller. We last saw him as a child watching his parents be dragged into a concentration camp, so whatever he’s planning we’re not gonna be too judgmental.
But he’s a mystery. He’s walking with his back to us.
Then we see his face in silhouette, like a mysterious stranger in an alley in a film noir…
…before he finally shows himself.
We meet Wolverine from the back too, inside a fighting cage having a drink, unconcerned about the no-holds-barred fights he’s currently partaking in.
It goes on for a minute or two, from different angles, but only seeing his back, then his face obscured by the cage and the fighter beating him down, until he stands up.
When we see his face we know this other guy is about to get walloped. After the fight Wolverine turns his back again and smokes a cigar.
Storm and Cyclops have their introduction together, appearing out of nowhere to rescue Wolverine and Rogue from a Sabertooth attack. We first see wind – like a harbinger of doom in a horror movie, but here it marks the arrival of a famous super power – and glance their blurry forms over the villain’s shoulder.
Then we see them silhouetted in Storm’s snow.
Then, very suddenly, we see their faces. They look like creepy aliens. I love it.
After the massive success, both artistic and financial, of Marvel’s “shared universe” concept leading up to and continuing after THE AVENGERS, it seems like the whole world forgot about the entire history of storytelling up until that date. When BATMAN V. SUPERMAN fumbled its story about three iconic super heroes, some blamed it on them not having had separate movies leading up to their meeting. That, of course, is ridiculous. X-MEN, like almost all movies, shows that you can have an ensemble of interesting characters who you’re meeting for the first time. It can be exciting to learn about them, or even to wonder about them when you don’t know much about them. This is a movie all about larger than life characters, but the interesting stuff is their relationships and their disagreements.
The action climax, a battle on top of the Statue of Liberty, doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of the movie. It’s sort of charmingly dated in its special effects, but they hadn’t yet figured out how to do the big super hero spectacle without being a little cornier than the rest of the movie. I do like that the action here is more stunt oriented than super hero movies have been since BLADE II pioneered the digital stunt double. Coming about 16 months after THE MATRIX means there’s some wire work. And Ray Park plays Toad, because it was in that little window where it was cool to put Darth Maul in this or SLEEPY HOLLOW.
The best part is the character drama. I guess if I had to choose I usually prefer a fast-paced movie, but it really is refreshing now to watch a super hero movie where they take their time like this. Wolverine grudgingly becoming friends with Rogue is kind of the center of the movie, and there’s a long scene of them in his truck just talking. Long in a good way. When they bring up their powers it seems like they haven’t really talked to anyone about this stuff before. I totally forgot about the part where she looks at his hands and asks, “When they come out… does it hurt?”
“Every time,” he says sadly.
That great moment really made me feel for Logan Wolverine, even as he fulfills his role as our grizzled cynical wiseass loner, our Clint Eastwood character (and I still think he looks alot like him here). He also gets to be our audience stand-in as Professor X and Jean Grey give him a tour through their world: the school, the underground lair, Cerebro, the jet, the uniforms. They wear black leather and Cyclops makes a nonsensical jab at comics-Wolverine wearing “yellow spandex,” convinced that audiences would never accept too much comic book shit. Things were so different then that an easter egg on the DVD is an outtake where, as a prank, a guy dressed as Spider-man ran into the scene.
I remember at the time it seemed hilarious, it seemed to look ridiculous. Now it doesn’t at all. Now that’s the main type of movie that’s made.
Give Singer credit – he was the Professor X who opened a dialogue between the nerd world and their natural enemy, everybody else. He was the bridge.
X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)
I also rewatched X2, and that one holds up extremely well too. I’m not gonna go into too much detail about it here, because in my opinion my original review from when it came out in theaters is one of the great works of early 21st century film criticism. You can find it here on outlawvern.com or in my important book Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer. But I have a few comments to add.
X-MEN ended brilliantly with Magneto confined in an all plastic prison and Xavier coming to visit and play chess with him. Still in contention with each other, but still friends, despite everything. X2 now has a really cool way of getting him out of that prison. Mystique seduces one of the guards, drugs him and injects him with iron. When he shows up to work again Magneto can sense the iron, pulls it every-so-painfully out of him, and turns it into a small ball which he shoots around like a bullet, shattering the walls around him. He’s still suspended in the middle of a huge pit, so he then turns the ball into a flat disc which he stands on and floats out. You can say “he controls metal” and figure he can throw cars around and stuff, but it takes some imagination to come up with this kind of resourcefulness with a small piece of smuggled in metal. Just like any prisoner making a weapon out of a toothbrush or what have you.
It’s one of the cleverest super power displays I can think of, and it’s only one of several great set pieces in X2. Another is the opening, with Nightcrawler warping through layers of White House security to get to the president, dodging bullets and leaving clouds of inky blue smoke. My favorite is the scene in the X-Man Jet. The military tries to ground them, which when you think about it is very reasonable because there are repercussions to having a private army with equipment like that. You need permits and shit. When the X-Men refuse to land, though, they get shot at. (People always compare Xavier to MLK, but this part is more like Black Panthers getting pulled over.)
This is a great example of Singer’s knack for creating action scenes with various mutants working together using their specific skills. Wolverine comments in disbelief that they have a jet like this with no weapons on it… cut to Storm. (It’s so beautiful that they say “We are the weapons” with editing, and not with dialogue.) She uses weather against their attackers, but two missiles are shot at them. Jean Grey uses her telepathic powers to dismantle one of them, but she’s not able to stop the other from exploding near them, tearing off the back of the jet and sucking Rogue out. Gulp.
Everybody knows who has to take this one – the new guy, Kurt Nightcrawler, who is terrified. But they tell him he has to and he knows it so he warps out of the jet, grabs her, warps back. It’s exhilarating!
The story of X2 has Magneto and his people calling a truce with the X-Men to try to stop a part of the government’s oppressive anti-mutant actions. I love that shit! We already know about their long-time tentative friendship (or frenemyship as it is now known) from the first one and now we get to see it paid off. And I’ve always loved that in these movies I often agree with Magneto and Mystique’s stances. It’s a much more interesting dynamic than in most super hero stories where there isn’t much ambiguity about who’s the good guy and the who’s the bad guy.
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)
In a non-scientific sampling of people I’ve talked to about these movies recently, I found that many haven’t rewatched the first one in years, or felt it wasn’t very good, while X2 is still generally well regarded. And everyone watched X3 one time when it came out and are sure it’s terrible. If they’re right, I’ve been wrong for a decade straight now. I really liked it then and still do now.
I don’t expect any kind of re-evaluation of X3 to happen, but watching it again I really get the feeling it was ahead of its time. I’m not saying this is the only reason they didn’t like it, but the internet people were definitely up in arms because their boy Matthew Vaughn left and was replaced by Brett Ratner, who (like Zack Snyder) they saw as the kind of guy they hated in high school. And I don’t think they understood that he was pretty much following the blueprints Vaughn left behind, so they saw it as an assault when he did extreme and dramatic things (killed off some characters) even though he was the one who insisted on adding the comic’s popular Danger Room, Sentinel and “fastball special” and the post-credits loophole for resurrecting Xavier.
But in my opinion X3 – which predates IRON MAN and the Marvel Cinematic Universe by 2 years – now plays alot like the Marvel movies. It builds off of the universe and characters set up in the previous movies, does some soap opera shit and puts them through major drama, sometimes offset with little comic relief moments (like when a mother on a destroyed bridge sees Magneto and locks her car doors). Much more than the previous X-pictures it is unabashedly comic booky, with all kinds of blue people and mutants in weird capes and helmets standing around together like it’s totally normal…
… and big battles with people warping and multiplying themselves and shooting weird projectiles and hovering and stuff. Six years after the “yellow spandex” comment, Ratner straight up has a government agency called “The Department of Mutant Affairs” and its Secretary is blue-fur-covered Hank “Beast” McCoy, in a suit and tie, taking briefings in his office and sitting in on meetings in the war room.
And he’s played by Kelsey Grammer! That was a Vaughn contribution, if I remember right, but still – some magical outside of the box casting that really worked.
The elaborate – though very digital looking – spectacle with Jean Grey’s overwhelming destructive powers and Magneto’s moving of the Golden Gate Bridge resemble what is now the Marvel house style. It was the movie that introduced digital de-aging, later used in ANT MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA 3. It was the first of the series – I believe the first comic book movie period? – to have a post-credits sequence, and yes, it was one designed to set things up for future installments.
Of course, it is a more analog movie than we have today in that it has tons of fights with actors and stunt people swinging around on wires (this is particularly cool in the case of Beast). Back then you took that for granted, but you don’t see it as much anymore.
The Golden Gate Bridge sequence is interesting because in recent years massive urban destruction in movies has been deemed offensive. X3 happened after a ten year Roland-Emmerich-inspired run of blockbuster movies where that sort of thing was a major component expected by the audience. Still, Ratner uses it in a different way, because Magneto tears off a piece of the bridge not necessarily to wreck shit, but to use it as transportation and then to serve as a direct path on and off of Alcatraz. I don’t care for the one-liner he follows it up with, but this is the type of spectacle that makes super powers seem truly awe-inspiring.
Like part 2, this has a great prison escape sequence. Mystique is held captive in a mobile prison in the back of a truck. Bad idea. Magneto stops the truck and lets out all the other prisoners, giving himself a new team of mutants.
Though Mystique doesn’t last the whole movie, her personality really comes through. She’s scary and badass and mischievously funny when she fucks with her interrogators. Then there’s the horrible tragedy of the guard shooting a mutant-cure-dart at Magneto. Mystique dives in front of it, sacrificing her own powers to save him, and he repays her by leaving her behind. Even asshole Pyro gives a look like “whoah, that’s fucked up.”
In her very brief last appearance in the movie she maintains the Mystique mystique, because she’s said to have turned state’s evidence on Magneto, but subsequent events indicate that she may still be fighting for the cause, even as a dumb homo-sapien.
At the time, fans were very upset about what they saw as callous deaths of characters. I wonder if now that every one one of the dead have re-appeared maybe they can take it less personally. Yes, Cyclops dies off screen, but in a very dramatic manner at the hands of his own love. Xavier senses it and it causes a high-pitched sound in everyone’s brains so that Wolverine and Storm instantly run to him to find out what’s going on.
I love how much the movie centers on the triangle of Xavier, Magneto and Jean. It opens with Xavier and Magneto working together, coming like basketball scouts to recruit young Jean from her suburban home. Xavier sees her powers as something dangerous that must be harnessed, while Magneto delights in them, just wants them to be unleashed. In the middle of the movie they all return to that house and it becomes the unlikely setting for the momentous super power battle in which Magneto gets his way. Be careful what you wish for.
Magneto is so much more interesting than any of the villains in the official Marvel movies. In the comics he’s a big muscleman, and Singer brilliantly decided to say fuck that, I’m gonna hire an old Shakespearean actor and no, I’m not gonna make him use human growth hormones. McKellen obviously has the gravitas to be believable as a militant leader that everyone wants to follow, yet he has many vulnerable moments, especially in this one. When he gets knocked on his ass and watches Jean kill Xavier he yells out to her, trying to stop her. And suddenly the great leader seems pathetic, crumpled on the floor, kinda looking like a kid wearing a grown up’s clothes.
He’s legitimately scared about what he’s unleashed, that has killed his old friend. Look at him. This moment he dreamed about for so many years and now it’s here and he probly feels like he’s gonna shit himself.
Later he defends Xavier’s honor from shitty comments by punk-ass Pyro. He has regrets. Then again, he believes he’s doing the right thing. Charles has become a martyr in his cause.
But when he sees Jean unleashing a psychic onslaught during the climax he definitely knows he fucked up by pushing her over the edge like this. In fact he straight up asks “What have I done?” even though his facial expression would do the trick.
Then, when he’s tricked/betrayed and loses his powers, look how helpless he looks:
Sad old man on the ground. I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. You feel for him.
I’ve enjoyed the second X-MEN trilogy, with the middle chapter, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, being the best one by far (and APOCALYPSE being the worst of either trilogy). But rewatching the original three made me realize that I genuinely love this series. It’s a great set of characters in a well thought out world with interesting issues and just the right serious tone. It has a unique setup where the hero and villain are mostly just guys who disagree with each other, who still have a friendship going back to the old days and sometimes even put their differences aside to work together. But sometimes not. And all of these things lead naturally into dramatic encounters and exciting super-power-based set pieces. It even has a good theme song.
This is one long-running series I don’t mind going on forever.
HISTORY: X-Men was a comic book starting in 1963. In the decades since it has built into an empire of spinoff books that still continue. They have appeared in over a dozen animated series’ since the ’80s and there are two live action shows coming soon. This summer’s X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is part six of the movies, or part three of the second trilogy. There have also been two (soon three) Wolverine spin-offs, one (eventually two) DEADPOOL spin-off and they’re supposedly doing another spin-off called GAMBIT. So there’s alot of X-Men shit.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.