Thursday, October 24, 2013

X-Mania: X-Men

I think it's safe to say that by 2013, the Superhero genre has more than come into its own.  Back in the days of the original Superman and Batman films, the successful, adult-oriented Superhero film was the exception, not the rule.  The 1978 Superman series started strong, then fizzled out with bad sequels. The 1989 Batman series had a lot to overcome, and did it well until fizzling out with its own bad sequels. So here we are in the late 90s. Blade has just been released to much acclaim due to its dark tone and more adult attitude, washing away some of the bad taste left in people's eyes from 1997's Batman and Robin.  But what really gave the genre new life and invigorated it for the 21st century was the one-two punch of X-Men, released in 2000, and Spider-Man in 2002, which was the highest grossing film that year domestically and remains the highest grossing Superhero origin story of all time.  I imagine the studios were happy; not only did X-Men and Spider-Man bring out the massive summer crowds in droves, but people actually liked them. Critics, audiences, fans of the comics; everyone seemed happy and hungry for more. And they got more. Oh so much more. And that brings us to today, were it feels like there's a new Superhero film coming out every week (and summer of 2011, I'm pretty sure there was).

X-Men wastes no time in establishing that this isn't going to be some silly, kid-friendly Superhero movie.  An eerie and gripping holocaust scene opens the film, and we meet the boy who will eventually become Magneto being separated from his mother in a concentration camp.


Not only does it establish the tone of the film, but it quickly gives our main villain easy empathy. Who wouldn't hate humanity after experiencing that?

As the film proceeds, the classic X-Men characters are introduced; Rogue, with her ability to steal people's powers and thoughts; Wolverine and his adamantium claws and ability to heal; Storm, Cyclopes, Jean Grey, Wheels... the gang's all here! Except Beast, that is. Weird.
As a kid, I watched the 90s X-Men series all the time. Apparently, that was how Bryan Singer did most of his research, and in that respect, this is more of an adaptation of the TV series than it is of the comics. And because I know the show so well (thanks again, Netflix!), I think it's only appropriate to make some direct comparisons.

First off, it was a great idea to make Xavier's school for the gifted feel more like a school rather than the training base it was in the show. I didn't see no learnin' going on in that "school" of yours, Charles. Secondly, the decision to change the characters from their colorful costumes to black leather suits was well done and even sort of made sense.

The themes present in the show are brought out to their fullest potential in the film, which goes for the sequels as well. The subtext involving race discrimination and homophobia are strong and well-developed without bashing you over the head with specifics.

The cast is mostly excellent, with veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Steward playing Magneto and Professor X respectively. In many ways, it's their relationship that holds this franchise together.  Hugh Jackman, of course, completely owns the role of Wolverine. He still does 13 years later. Anna Paquin does a great job as Rogue, acting as one of the films audience avatars to enter the highly complex world of the film. She works much better in this regard than Jubilee does in the TV series.  I love you Jubilee, but you are completely useless. What exactly is your power anyway? And seriously, WHERE THE HELL IS BEAST? Not even a passing mention of one of my favorite characters from the show?

The villains are excellently cast as well.  I always thought it was a great bit of writing for Magneto to call his group the "Brotherhood of Mutants." Magneto is a fantastic villain because he thinks what he's doing is truly right by his people. It has to be one of the most understandable villain motivations in Superhero movie history.  There's no "take over the world" plot or "get rich and powerful" gimmick. He just wants to protect his people, and if destroying humanity is the only way, then so be it. Mystique is painstakingly brought to life in full body make-up, and every bit of the make-up team's efforts ends up on screen.

X-Men has many, MANY characters to explore, and that's probably why a TV series is better suited for truly fleshing all of them out. While the rest of the cast can't quite get equal development, I have no complaints about casting... except for Halle Berry as Storm. She's not awful, but she just doesn't fit the role. In the TV series, Storm is an imposing, theatrical, South African woman who fulfills a motherly role on the team. But in the film, there's none of that; she's just Halle Berry. She's hot, but she plays the part too casually and without any real presence extending beyond her white wig.  Storm is the Uhura of the X-Men; a strong, female, black character who was created during a time where such a thing was unheard of. I can understand the casting decision in terms of marketing the film, and I am grateful that she is played by a black actress. And in retrospect, I guess I should be grateful that she didn't even try to do any sort of African accent.

Visually, X-Men is pretty stunning. Bryan Singer's direction and shot composition is constantly full of life and energy, and the visual effects hold up quite nicely.  Practical effects used for Wolverine's claws and CGI used for Mystiques transformations are still stunning. Some of the wire-fu was a bit unnecessary, and there are moments when the CGI is obvious during the finale, but it could be so much worse. I'm looking at you, Spider-Man.

The film's tone has to balance fun (and even very funny) Superhero business with serious moments and even real world issues. The film never strays to being too dark or too campy (despite the somewhat absurd weapon Magneto intends to use on New York in the finale), and the story never forgets its characters.  The material is challenging, due to the need to create a plausible world for these mutants to live in. This was better for exploring the underlying message of tolerance, given that a strange and cartoonish world might not be taken quite as seriously from an audience perspective.

Being character driven gives X-Men its heart, and that's something that the series unfortunately lost over time.  It has spawned five sequels in the 13 years since its release, with one more on the way next summer. Its success paved the way for the genre and is part of the reason we have films like The Dark Knight and The Avengers. In modern Superhero flicks, effects get better, things get darker, and the stories become more complex. But X-Men remains a near-masterpiece of the genre due mostly to its soul.