Friday, November 22, 2013
Too many times has a superhero franchise been botched by a third film and then utterly destroyed by its fourth. Batman Forever begat Batman and Robin, Superman III begat Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and X-Men: The Last Stand begat X-Men Origins: Wolverine (in retrospect, maybe it's a good thing we never got a Spider-Man 4). It is a film so terrible in some respects that it's surprising the studio allowed it to be released at all. An awkward set-up, a confusing plot littered with holes, and special effects that would look cheesy in 1995 are just some of the many qualities that ruin Origins for anyone as excited as I was to see it when it first came out in 2009.
The story begins with a flashback, like the first and third X-Men films. This time, we meet a young Logan (or Jimmy. I guess he changes his name at some point) in the late 1800s it seems. In the most ridiculously rushed thing I've seen since the flower shop scene in The Room, Logan has a conversation with his father, his father is killed by a random man, Logan kills that random man, and then that man reveals that he was Logan's father all along. It happens within the space of about two minutes.
What am I watching, the season finale to a soap opera?
This opening gets Origins off to a really rocky start, and while nothing else in the film is quite as horrifically assembled as that first scene, it comes dangerously close at points. Logan and his brother Victor (Sabertooth) decide to run away from home, and proceed to participate in all the American wars they can fit into a montage for the opening credits. It's a creative idea, and could have lead to something truly interesting, but more on that later. The montage is edited with the speed-up-slow-down effect that was used in 300, as are most of the film's action scenes.
After that noise, Logan and Victor are confronted by William Stryker, who discovers that they are mutants during what seems to be the Vietnam War, but it's difficult to tell. The film never establishes what year it takes place in exactly, or how much time is passing in between events. Logan and Victor are given the chance to work for an elite task force made up of mutants. Keep in mind, the word "mutant" is never said aloud until (I shit you not) the ONE HOUR MARK. God, do I feel sorry for the jerk who walked into this having never seen an X-Men movie. But once again, more on that later.
So about these characters, one note as they are. We have Will i Am playing John Wraith, who has a teleporting ability just like Nightcrawler's; Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson (Deadpool in the comics), with his ability to cut speeding bullets with a sword or something; and Daniel Henney as Agent Zero. I think Zero's powers make him move really fast, but he never runs fast, he just loads a gun by ignoring the laws of physics. And he can jump really high for some reason. I'm going to call him No Physics Man.
This group is on a hunt for adamantim, a precious substance that apparently fell from the sky in a meteor. Stryker would do anything to get more of it, including kill a group of innocent people, which Logan doesn't take kindly to. He leaves the group behind, vowing to never go back to this life of killing and savagery.
We're still only at the 15 minute mark, people. The film isn't just rushed during this period, it's on crack. The film has so far been nothing more than a lousy exposition dump. It only exists so that Stryker and Wolverine can have "a history" together for later on.
What follows is a series of convoluted, cliched, and downright stupid incidents that mostly involve the death of Logan's love interest, Kayla. No, we didn't need to see how they met, or how long it's been since they've been together, or what year it's supposed to be now. Oh no. You continue with your plot. I don't want to interrupt with my needless desire to get a feel for the world and the characters.
So yeah, Kayla is killed by Sabertooth, who is apparently killing all the other mutants who were in Stryker's little group. Striker gives Logan, now calling himself "Wolverine," a chance to make himself stronger than his brother so that he can kill him out of revenge (and save the other mutants Sabertooth might go after next). Wolverine agrees to have the adamantium injected into his body and coat his skeleton, a scene that is supposed to be the reason we're seeing the film in the first place. In X2, the flashbacks depict a much darker, more surgical procedure that leaves Logan bloodied and without his memories. Here, the surgery is quick and robotic, and in a deliberate break from continuity, Wolverine breaks out of the lab and goes on another quest for even more revenge. His memories will be erased in an entirely different (and nonsensical) method later on.
The revenge aspect of the film gets a bit tiring, and the writing doesn't let us inside Logan's head at any point to see what he makes of all this. It's a lot of busy action without any of the substance, such as the themes of discrimination, that made its predecessors so great.
Getting back to the opening scene, consider the superior Holocaust scene from the opening of the first X-Men film. That scene slowly builds tension in the concentration camp setting as Magneto is being separated from his mother. The release of the tension is the reveal of Magneto's powers, and that is what hooks us into the film. The same goes for Rogue's intro scene, where she kisses a boy and puts him into a coma because of her powers. There is way too much going on in Origins' first scene for it to have any impact, and it doesn't help that the dialogue is atrocious. After seeing her son grow giant claws and stab his own father, the mother has no reaction. She asks, calmly, "What are you?" Come on, lady.
Cliches riddle this entire film, from the kindly old couple who take Logan in, to the the way he yells up at the sky with his dead girlfriend in his arms as the camera backs out into the sky. It's stock bullshit, and that is not what I had come to expect from the X-Men films.
Another thing that the first three films did so well was establish a universe with certain rules and realities. Mutants are feared by humans, so the world shuns them. In Origins, we have no clue what the outside world makes of all this. Reactions of the humans in the situations Wolverine gets himself into are nonexistent. The perfect example of this is when Wolverine and Sabertooth survive the firing squad in the army...off screen. Wouldn't it have been a great reveal of their powers, both to the soldiers, Stryker, and the audience, if we had gotten to see that scene, rather than just hear about it afterward?
Along with its awkward structure, the film does everything it needs to for the plot and nothing more. This leads to gaping plot holes and contrived motivations for the characters. Wolverine finds his lover's body in the woods, blood covered and with no pulse. What the hell happens after that? SPOILER ALERT, but she's not really dead. Are you going to tell me that there was no funeral? That Logan didn't check her body for damage? What kind of fool do you take me for, Origins?
The film also shoehorns in recognizable characters from the rest of the series. A young Scott Summers (Cyclopes) is featured here, hopefully as an apology to the character for having such a lame death in the last film, as well as Gambit (played by future box office poison, Taylor Kitsch), who was previously unseen. I like Kitsch in the role, and it's too bad he wasn't somehow featured in the earlier films. Patrick Steward, or at least a creepy, CGI version of him, appears in this film as well, reprising his role as Professor Xavier briefly. There are a slew of other characters from the Marvel Universe thrown in as well, including to most fan's dismay, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. But like everything else in the film, the casting wasn't the problem.
If anything, the actors are what ultimately make this film watchable. Hugh Jackman slips into the Wolverine role so easily it seems unlikely that any other actor will ever be able to replace him. He IS the screen version of Wolverine, and he plays it with conviction and intensity. He really thinks he's in a good movie, and it's a shame that the performance is wasted on such a terrible script. Liev Schreiber has a lot of fun as the villainous Sabertooth, and I'm willing to stretch my imagination far enough to believe that he could devolve into the more animalistic Sabertooth from the first film. Danny Huston and Lynn Collins are also quite good in their roles as Stryker and Kayla, respectively.
What's not so excellent are the action scenes and visual effects. While I recognize that practical effects were used in many scenes, with great stunt work and crazy pyrotechnics, the choppy editing, shaky cam, and speed-up-slow-down effects are unbearable and cheapen the impact of the scenes. And some of the CGI is clearly unfinished, with Logan's claw's occasionally hovering above his hand unrealistically and shoddy blue screen work. The physics of the fight scenes are often bafflingly bad, with characters flying this way and that despite it not being an established part of their powers. Sometimes the powers of the mutants are vague and nondescript, as in the case of No Physics Man.
I wouldn't care if the fight scenes and effects were bad if the script was good enough to distract me from them. But alas, I don't think it's entirely fair to blame Director Gavin Hood for the things Origins gets wrong. He was apparently getting last minute script changes that caused problems with the story, and I guess I can buy that. But it's no denying that Origins is a major missed opportunity to get inside the head of Wolverine before his memories were erased. How about the post-traumatic stress disorder from all those wars? Could that be the cause of Logan's anger and nightmares later on? Wouldn't it have been more interesting for Logan to agree to lose his memories because he couldn't take living with the guilt from all the people he's killed? We'll never know.
All we have is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a well acted disaster of an X-Men film and only a mildly bad action movie. It feels like Wolverine has been warped into a Steven Segal movie. And some people like those. Granted, there's fun to be had in spurts, and even some good humor, but it's not nearly enough to save the film. Weak characterizations and a rushed pace hurt the film in all the worst ways, letting down a great character with a great backstory played by a great actor. It saps the mystery out of Logan's history in X2, and his reason to be, which is to find out about his past. If this is your past, Logan, you're better off forgetting about it anyway.
Monday, November 18, 2013
After the tremendous success of the first two X-Men films (the franchise had so far earned about $700 million worldwide), and with X2: X-Men United's gripping cliffhanger, a third entry in the franchise was inevitable. But unfortunately, in spite of plans, writer/director Bryan Singer left the series to make Superman Returns before production started. In steps Brett Ratner, a man who's name just sounds like a Disney villain. With the only notable film he had to his name being Rush Hour 2, it was uncertain whether or not he would be a suitable replacement for Singer. The results are...mixed.
Now, if you are a fan of the first two X-Men films, you already hate The Last Stand on principle. But in spite of the script's best efforts to kill off beloved characters unceremoniously, reduce complex characters to saturday morning cartoon villains, and have an action-heavy finale that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, I find that there are some redeeming factors that save the third X-Men film from being a total bomb.
The story picks up some years after the events of the second film. Scott (Cyclopes) and the rest of the X-Men are still mourning the loss of Jean Grey (Jean Grey), while Magneto rounds up rogue mutants to form an army against the humans. There's been a cure invented; a cure that can reverse the mutant genome and turn mutants into humans instantaneously. This causes great ethical debate and some intense philosophical discussions pop up within the mutant community; do they take the cure and become normal people, or do they remain mutants, because that's the way they are and there's nothing to cure? Never before have the parallels between real world issues of homosexuality and freedom of choice been more prevalent in the series. It makes for a great conundrum for the characters to deal with while more sinister things are happening to the ones they love.
Jean Grey has apparently risen from the dead due to her psychic energy keeping her in a cocoon after she saved the team from a tidal wave in the previous film. Professor Xavier reveals to Logan (Wolverine) that he had to keep Jean's mind under control when he was teaching her how to use her powers. Her mind was split into two personalities, the more aggressive one calling itself the Phoenix. That personality has now emerged with a vengeance, and it's uncontrollable and dangerous.
This causes yet another interesting problem for the main characters; is it right for the professor to have sealed away this entity, or should Jean have tried to fight it herself? The Phoenix represents Jean's id, or her instinctual sense of lust, anger, and pleasure. Every person has an id, and they need to learn how to deal with that as they mature. Charles doesn't even give her the chance to fight it out of fear and love for her, and now it has emerged with a fury. This will prove to have no payoff at all. Doesn't that suck?
The entire first act is extremely well done, setting up the moral issues and the various plot threads with care and energy. Unfortunately, the second act seems to breed one groan inducing scene after the next, until the film finally deflates, then tries again to pick up energy and be an entertaining, effects-driven blockbuster.
One huge problem with the film as a whole is Magneto, who seems to be stripped entirely of his emotionally-fueled motivations in favor of Evil Villain plots and nonsensical tactics. This is brought to the forefront several times, but non so obviously as when Mystique's powers are taken away and he abandons her. Seriously? Just like that? Their relationship seemed so strong in the previous two films, and when her powers are gone he just leaves her? Magneto should be absolutely devastated by her permanent transformation. He would never leave her there naked and alone in that truck. It could have been a major turning point for his character, forcing him to decide whether or not he still loves Mystique the way she is.
Another problem with Magneto is his endgame plan to wage a war with the humans. The finale scene involves Magneto moving the Golden Gate Bridge (in an extraordinary effects scene) in order to move his army of mutants to the island where the cure is being kept so they can destroy it. I understand that it makes a statement of your power, Magneto, but what in God's name were you planning to do when you got there? He sends out the "pawns" to go and kill the mutant boy from which the cure is coming from, and they are shot down darts that inject the cure into them. Magneto is painfully aware that this was going to happen. There goes your army, buddy. He wastes what seems like a few hundred mutants in order to get to this boy, and I'm sorry, but I don't see the logic here. Not to mention that he doesn't even use the Phoenix, who has turned to his side, and who was so powerful that she could have destroyed the entire island herself. Keep in mind, Ian McKellen is still excellent in the role, but the writing is just so lacking.
But enough about that. We need to get down to the character deaths. While Charle's death is handled well for the most part, poor Scott is barely mentioned after he dies. What the hell is that about? The screenplay doesn't allow the cast to mourn the loss of one of the main characters due to all of the other plot threads taking precedence, and that is just something that wouldn't have happened under Bryan Singer's control. In the first two films, characters took priority over the plot, and if one of them dies, it needs to tie into the story. But here, it doesn't. It seems to be done for shock value, and that is a waste of the character.
So what does the film do well, you might ask? Well, it may fail as an X-Men film in some regards, but it's a hell of a good action film. The visual effects, CG-ladden as they may be, impress and exhilarate on levels even above X2. The ending battle scene is stupid on the page, and chock-full of out-of-place one-liners, but the amount of technical planning, choreography, and effects-blending is staggeringly effective. Ratner may not have given a damn about the characters, but he sure as hell knows how to create a spectacle. It's just a shame that it comes after such a deflating second act, which does make it a bit more exhausting than it needed to be.
It also sort of works as a horror film. Famke Jansen is actually pretty scary as the Phoenix, and she turns out to be a pretty memorable villain. She picks the characters off one by one with seemingly unstoppable power, and there's a level of unpredictability in here scenes that keeps things interesting in that regard. There's no holding back on the carnage she causes; one scene hundreds of soldiers disintegrating around her, and the way she kills Charles is also quite intense.
I will also admit that the film does try to keep character plot threads alive. Wolverine's turmoil over Jean is handled very well, and Jackman delivers an excellent performance as always. Rogue is having frustration over the lack of intimacy she can have with her boyfriend due to her powers, which makes her the perfect character to make an example for how "the cure" really can be a cure.
Halle Berry is given a bit more to do as Storm, and I probably liked her the best out of all the films here. She takes on a leadership role when Charles is gone, and her new look is pretty sexy.
Newcomers are especially welcome here as well. Ellen Paige is charming as Kitty Pride, Kelsey Grammer is ideal casting for Beast (finally making his big-screen debut), and one of my favorite underrated actors, Ben Foster plays Angel with nice presence but not much to do in terms of the plot. Also, what happened to Nightcrawler?
Being the most expensive film in the franchise to date, and the most financially successful, it's a shame that it isn't also the best. The elements were all in place to make a really great superhero film, but unfortunately, all we get is a film with big ideas and very little payoff. It is like Iron Man 2 in many regards, though that film wasn't nearly as ambitious as The Last Stand. It's also not fair to call this film the worst in the series, though that would have been nice. The X-Men franchise was about to step into some really bad territory with its first attempt to tell a prequel story, in the horribly misshapen cinematic form that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
The gap between the first and second X-Men films was only three years, but in that time, the superhero genre exploded like no one could have predicted. Blade had a sequel, Daredevil and the Hulk received the mega-budget treatment, and let's not forget the one that really got people's attention, the amazing Spider-Man. Not The Amazing Spider-Man, but Sam Raimi's incredibly successful adaptation of Peter Parker's origin story that broke records and entertained audiences around the world to the tune of $800 million. I think the studio execs took notice.
So here we are in 2003: X2: X-Men United has been seriously hyped, and with the original cast returning (minus a character here and there), expectations are high. What did we get? Well, not only was X2 true to the essence of the first film, both in its tone and characters, but its story is actually better. It does exactly what a good sequel is supposed to do; expand the world and further develop the characters.
Mutant and human relations have piqued dangerously after an attempt on the president's life (by a mutant) causes nationwide panic. Meanwhile, we catch up with the X-Men; Wolverine is still struggling to remember his past, Jean Grey is loosing control of her powers, and Magneto is devising a plot to escape his plastic prison. The characters are thrust into a rescue mission involving military scientist William Stryker, who plans to use Professor X's incredible mind powers and his machine known as Cerebro to track down all the world's mutants and commit mass genocide. Enemies must become friends in order to find Stryker's base of operations and rescue Charles before it's too late.
Like the first film, this isn't exactly kid's stuff. The story focuses on telling a mature story with themes of tolerance and acceptance, this time even further explored. There's a scene in which Bobby (Iceman) reveals that he is a mutant to his parents, but "mutant" could be replaced with "gay" and it would read the same way out of context. It's a bit on-the-nose, but I kind of love it.
The returning cast seems even more comfortable in their roles this time around. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen bring a Shakespearian weight and magnitude to what could be a very silly premise, Hugh Jackman gets to show more of his range as Wolverine, and Famke Jansen gets a bit more to do as Jean Grey. Newcomer Alan Cumming is pitch-perfect as Nightcrawler, extremely vocal about his faith and brought to life with make-up just as extensive as Mystique's. One shocking thing about the TV series was how focused on God and religion Nightcrawler's episodes were, despite the show being aimed at kids. It goes to show how different the world of children's television was in the early '90s. I'm thankful the religious themes weren't watered down for the film either.
Halle Berry is still Halle Berry, and I still feel she is miscast. But she certainly doesn't do anything that aggressively hurts the film. I even thought she was better written this time around.
The action in the film has been amped up a bit compared to its predecessor. Fight scenes have more energy and the visual effects are ambitious and effective. The opening scene with the attempted President assassination is absolutely breathtaking, as is Magneto's escape from prison. Action set pieces are mostly accomplished with real sets and practical effects (the dam break at the end of the film), but there are also some CG-heavy scenes (Storm's multiple tornado attack) that hold up quite nicely after a decade.
What makes X2 so interesting is how the characters interact with each other when their guards are down. Magneto, Wolverine, Mystique, Jean Grey, and other characters are stuck together in the woods formulating a plan to save Charles and the other mutants, and the film just spends time letting them talk to each other. It's a scene that gives the film its heart, and reveals things about the characters that give them three dimensions. Nightcrawler asks Mystique (who, if the film follows the comics/show, is unknowingly his mother) why, if she can change her appearance at will, doesn't she choose to look normal all the time. She responds with, "Because we shouldn't have to," and it says a lot. In addition, the relationship between Wolverine and Jean is given further development, and her rejection of him allows us to see a more vulnerable Logan for the first time.
With the plot in full swing in nearly every other scene, it does let a few characters fall by the wayside. Lady Deathstrike (not given a name here) is harshly underdeveloped, which is a shame because I liked her character in the TV series. Cyclops is missing for a great portion of the film, and Colossus has fewer lines than you have fingers on one hand. In addition, Beast is not present or even mentioned once again, which is just a personal complaint. It doesn't really harm either film, and I can understand the want by the production team to not have three blue-colored characters in full body makeup. I guess I'll just have to wait one more film to see you, Hank.
Stryker is a great villain, and poses a viable threat to the X-Men. He has access to military soldiers and incredible weapons, and his plot to wipe out all the mutants is fueled not by blind personal hatred, but by tragic events involving his wife and his mutant son. It's slightly off-putting that the X-Men kill his soldiers without a second thought; after all, they probably weren't even in on his plan. But that's a simple nitpick regarding morality that doesn't affect the overwhelming amount of things that the film gets right.
Considered the best superhero movie of all time when it was first released, X2 is in many ways a perfect model of its genre and also a great defiance of it. Director Bryan Singer seems to have real passion for the material, and there's an ever-present joy about the film, despite its dark moments, that keeps things fun. With a weighty and ambitious screenplay, characters that hold your attention and your heartstrings, and fun and impressive action, X2 is the rare sequel that satisfies and keeps you hungry for even more. But unfortunately, the departure of Singer in the third X-Men film kept it from fully satisfying.