In 1995 Bryan Singer showed a maturity far beyond his then 30 years when he directed The Usual Suspects; a tense, gripping thriller which had everyone on the edge of their seats, only for them to slide off that edge, reach for the remote control and immediately re-watch this modern day classic. Subsequently he then took another Marvel franchise to the big screen, X-Men.
X-Men, the comic, had the usual run of the mill 'super-heroes'; people with telekinetic mind powers, some who can walk through walls, turn objects to ice at will or manipulate magnetic fields. The list is endless and allowed for new, interesting characters to be brought in on a whim. Considered a more adult comic creation because of some of the issues they dealt with, the transfer to the big screen (admittedly like many Marvel adaptations) was welcomed by many. They would not be disappointed until the third in the trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand. Singer of course could not be faulted for that instalment, that dubious honour went to Brett Ratner whose previous works included Red Dragon, Rush Hour 2 and The Family Man.
As is usually the case when I review multi-disc box sets, the facts in one might give away some plot elements from an earlier incarnation. As such this review might indeed contain some spoilers. If you have yet to see these films then I would recommend you advance to the technical details. Have no doubt though that from an entertainment point of view I will be recommending these discs be purchased.
X-Men - Brief Synopsis.
It is apparent that mankind is taking another huge evolutionary leap. The key to evolution is mutation and there are some people whose mutated genes allow them powers far beyond normal man. The unwashed masses feel fear whenever they discuss these new mutants, fear of their abilities and what that might lead to. This fear is fuelled by politicians who, like all politicians, are working to their own agenda. Mutants stay silent, seek out their own kind and eventually these mutants themselves split into two camps. The first recognising, nurturing and protecting their identities. The second more confrontational, justifiably thinking their kind will be ostracised, and ultimately preparing for the time when mutants and 'normal' man come to blows.
Film Score : 8
X-Men 2 - Brief Synopsis.
The initial confrontation is over and Magneto is firmly behind bars, those bars and the prison which holds him containing no magnetic metal for him to manipulate. His Brotherhood failed, yet some still remain and their main desire is to see their glorious leader free once more. Wolverine, now free to track down his own history, travels North through Canada's icy landscape only to find an abandoned military base which continually comes back to haunt his nightmares. Rogue tries to maintain a relationship, Jean Grey finds her powers increasing and one William Stryker takes it upon himself to rid humanity of these perverted mutants. It seems that Magneto was correct, mankind cannot tolerate differences and the war which he prophesied is now on the horizon. Events come full circle when it is divulged that Stryker was in some way responsible for Wolverine's history. Mutants on both side of the fence team up to locate and stop Stryker before he kills every last mutant on planet Earth.
Film Score : 9
X-Men: The Last Stand - Brief Synopsis.
It's a sombre and quiet affair in the X-Men school for the gifted. After the demise of Jean Grey in the previous instalment Cyclops is inconsolable, Wolverine too feels as though his heart has been ripped out but cannot show his true feelings. In trying to make some sense of the whole escape Cyclops travels back to Something Lake to see if there is any hope for his long lost love; a journey from which he never returns. After some time Storm and Wolverine seek him out, finding only his protective ruby sunglasses they fear the worst. Those feelings turn to confusion though when they find the live, comatose body of Jean Grey. Professor Xavier indicates that Jean has a power greater than anyone he has ever known and it is this power that has probably kept her alive. That power though has the potential for destruction and for many years has been subdued. This power, known as The Phoenix, consumes Jean and in the end Jean's personality takes a back seat to this more dominant strain. She joins forces with Magneto who again is quietly raising an army. That army marches on towards a laboratory intent on providing a cure for mutants. The war has now truly begun.
Film Score : 6
Never mind the action scenarios that the original X-Men comic book heroes found themselves embroiled in, ultimately X-Men migrated into a continuing storyline of racial and minority disharmony. From this point of view in the 1970s the comics tried to explore serious issues of the day; this was of course a turning point in modern day comics but the tangent that X-Men wandered off on at that time was a little deeper than its surrounding counterparts. It is this reason that slowly but surely that X-Men found its favoured audience. Initially readers wanted more wham bam, as those, predominantly teenage, boys matured though they looked a little further into the storyline and found perhaps something they could identify with. After all which teenager at some point has not felt that the whole world is against him?
It was this concept that Singer tried to bring to the silver screen, and one I hasten to add that he firmly succeeded with; to achieve this though just prior to and then in the shadow of 9/11 was a remarkable feat. Just after those disastrous events the American government closed its doors, looked inward and to some degree rejected any population or stance which did not fit in with their current way of thinking; the quote from their Commander in Chief... “You are either with us or against us!”. So, to produce a movie in those dark times in which the main subject matter is one of minorities being suppressed or abused by society as a whole and a government in particular was a very brave move indeed.
X-Men though, both the comic franchise and the later movies, doesn't simply have the 'them' and 'us' mentality; it has a slightly more mature approach realising that indeed there are shades of grey in the world we live in. Some of the mutants plan to use their powers to help mankind, some plan for war. 'Normal' humans on the other hand fall into similar camps, some who wish to dispose of the mutant problem and some who feel it is just another section of society which requires understanding. These mutant camps are heralded by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Eric Lensherr / Magneto (Ian McKellan). It is to Singer's credit that he managed to employ the services of these two great stalwarts of screen and British theatre. Stewart more familiar to the inhabitants of these forums as one Captain of the USS Enterprise, McKellan now forever forged into memory as Gandalf the Grey. Both of these actors though have an immense amount of gravitas behind them, their work on the stage testifies to that, and in one swift move the casting of these two moved this film from teenage web crawler to something which would perhaps be taken a little more seriously.
Prior to this release most people only knew comic to film adaptations from the Christopher Reeves Superman films and the first re-boot of the Batman franchise successfully reignited by Tim Burton. Both of these series though whilst starting off incredibly well, descended into absolute farce. What usually lasts longest in the majority of the movie going public's mind though is the final incarnation, so those bums on seats were left wanting a little, seeing the comic 'hero' turned into nothing more than something to laugh at on the big screen. To undertake a serious live action adventure comic book hero film then was indeed something not to be take too lightly; so the inclusion of two heavyweights propelled this feature from lightweight to something a little more serious.
And, as expected from these two, their performances were exemplary. Stewart of course had some seven years of living in the fantasy/sci-fi arena playing the part of diplomatic Captain Jean Luc Picard in the Eighties Star Trek, and you can say that he more or less plays the same reasoned diplomat there as he did earlier when warping from star system to star system. His Professor Xavier is calm and reassuring, yet knows when to kick into fifth gear to get the results he so desperately desires. McKellan on the other hand, with Lord of the Rings waiting in the wings, was really only embarking on his fantasy career. Now though he embodies the Magneto brought to live from his two dimensional form. McKellan and Stewart play well against each other, both characters fearful of the feelings normal people have towards them yet only Stewart's Xavier preferring the non confrontational route. Magneto's destiny was decided decades beforehand when he and his family were incarcerated within a Nazi concentration camp; yet again showing the injustice one mass group of people can take against another. It is this history alone which sets out Eric Lansherr's fate. Understandably to some degree you can empathise with his response, and this is another reason to enjoy these first two instalments; the fact that you can identify with the fear that Magneto and his people have. He has a point; it's just that the way he goes about trying to alleviate his people's suffering is certainly not the best he could have chosen.
As for the other X-Men in this series most of the main players were relatively unknown at the time. Famke Janssen donned the persona of Jean Grey relatively well enough, showing early in the franchise that perhaps she had hidden depths we were yet to discover. James Marsden pulled on the ruby sunglasses of Cyclops and whereas this character had longevity within the comic books, on screen he came across as far too 2-Dimensional. The acting was a little weak, mind you he was not given too much to work with, and his involvement in the subsequent chapters of parts II and III were severely watered down. The audience wasn't happy for an out and out goody-two-shoes character. These days, and back in the early naughties, they wanted characters with a little more depth, a darker side to their nature; Cyclops just didn't cut it in any shape or form. Halle Berry was as a surprising choice as Stewart or McKellan but she fits into the role of Storm pretty well. Still though her acting talents do leave something to be desired and her acting here only enforces that belief. She does only enough to get her character from scene to scene. Hugh Jackman though.. well that's another kettle of fish. Jackman has made this role his own, essentially he turned the entire X-Men movie series from multi character vehicles to one in which we care about Wolverine the most. We want to know his history, we hoped that he would get it on with Jean Grey rather than the insipid Cyclops, it's him we all rooted for. I think it's probably fair to say that Wolverine is to X-Men as Han Solo was to Star Wars. It's the good guy with a devilish spirit that wins hands down for most, if not all, viewers.
It is for this reason that the next instalment in this series doesn't concern itself with the further trials of the mutants within this universe, but one in particular; The Wolverine. The studio are not fools when it comes to parting you from you hard earned cash. It is Wolverine you want to see, so Wolverine you will get in all his glory.
It is also surprising that parts I & II succeeded as well as they did. In previous and subsequent comic book adventure films the first incarnation ( and further 'first' outings in any reboot attempt ) usually introduces us to the main hero of the film, how he or she gained their powers and what angst they personally have to deal with. X-Men is different though it introduces us to a whole mob of mutants, each with their own powers, history and the problems they have had to face. For some these are taken as read, some others though are given slightly closer inspection and in the case of Wolverine his history is slowly revealed over the course of the first two instalments. By not joining the dots up one by one for these characters, Singer is actually treating the viewer with a little respect, a little intelligence.
So what about the actual stories? Like Godfather I & II, the first two in this series should be looked upon as a continuing storyline. The introduction of the characters, how they evolve and how they react to the world around them is incredibly well presented. The evil Brotherhood members in the first are a little weak in comparison to Xavier's band of heroes and at times they do come across as a little ludicrous; a guy with an extending tongue, someone with big hair and a fierce growl. Only Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) offers the viewer anything of any note. Her shape shifting, martial arts abilities are a good match for most of the now black, leather clad X-Men. There's some good comedy moments within the first, again from Wolverine, lightening the tone on the odd occasion and nodding a wink to those in the know of the comics. These were indeed welcomed. The story naturally evolves from the first to the second, with the same actors playing the same characters. Alan Cummings is brought in as a new mutant on the side of good and provides the occasional laughs reserved for Wolverine in the first. Brian Cox steps up to the plate as all round bad guy, despiser of his mutant son, intent on ridding the world of these throw forwards. There's good set pieces within each and some high octane scenes with excellent effects and dynamics. These two movies do keep you on the edge of your seat but not at the expense of good character development. Singer again at his best.
Last, and very much least, we come to the final verse... X-Men: The Last Stand. Bryan Singer was in negotiation to direct once again but when those talks broke down Brett Ratner stepped into his shoes. Those were pretty mighty shoes to fill and for someone who had previously directed Red Dragon and Rush Hour 2 these shoes started looking a little too large. Ultimately those fears were more or less realised. Where the first two had a certain cohesiveness this one, much like Spider-Man 3 in fact, just took off on a little tangent of its own and was more the worse for it. On the page it looks as though it should have been a good finale; Xavier and Brotherhood mutants finally coming head on with each other, Jean Grey resurrected from her 'death' in the second film as The Dark Phoenix. Her alternate character was enjoyed by comic book fans and, like Venom, should really have had her own dedicated storyline in some other X-Men movie; there was more than sufficient in this instalment to keep the viewers entertained. What we end up with though is something which is just too much of a mash-up. The relationship between Wolverine and Jean/Phoenix cannot be explored to any great depth. The history of The Dark Phoenix is briefly touched upon but needed so much more screen time to do her justice. The confrontation of mutant camps over the production of a mutant 'cure' is good enough to have taken this film to the series' logical conclusion. To encapsulate them all into this one feature was an opportunity missed, too many cooks do spoil the broth and this one had far too many cooks for my liking, it's just too fragmented and deviates from the structure of the first two.
Ultimately then the first two succeed and succeed very well indeed. The series is markedly let down by the third for a number of different reasons, some highlighted here. Initially only The Last Stand was available on Blu-ray and that simply jumped on the HD band wagon early to get some fast cash out of people. The first two are excellent, the third limps home but still I'm happy to have it (to some degree) for completeness sake. This box set rests on an 8 and in anyone's book surely that's worth a watch. I'll go one further, it's worth a buy.