Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Top 5: X-Men Movies

This weekend sees the release of the sixth film in the X-Men movie franchise, and the second to be a solo effort for the character of Wolverine.  Simply titled, The Wolverine, the film looks like it's really trying to get the Wolverine character back to his roots after his last solo outing didn't turn out so well.  By adapting one of the most famous Wolverine stories ever written in the comic books, the filmmakers seem to be on good ground for at least the fans.  I  don't think The Wolverine will make any new fans of the series, but if you're already a fan of the world of mutants, it will hopefully more than suffice till next Summer, when we get the epic, X-Men: Days of Future Past, combining the casts of the original X-Men trilogy with that of 2011's X-Men: First Class.  However, this post is not so much looking towards the future, that time will come, but rather it's about looking back at the five X-Men films that have been released since the first one in 2000.

With five films released in thirteen years, and a sixth and a seventh that are nearly here, the X-Men franchise is easily one of the more venerable of the last decade and a half.  While some might gripe about changes from the source material, the bottom line is, almost all of these movies have at least remained consistently entertaining, otherwise they wouldn't keep throwing so many hundreds of millions of dollars at them.  While continuity errors from film to film make the X-Men movies not very easy to watch in order, each installment on their own have been some of my personal favorite films over the past thirteen years.  Each film has been filled to the brim with thought provoking social commentary, gut wrenching emotion, and adrenalized action sequences, making these the rare blockbusters that manage to both entertain and provoke thought.  Given my level of love for the franchise, I figured it would be fun to rank my favorite X-Men movies in order, from my least favorite, to my favorite.  So without further ado, here we go...

5.  X-Men: Origins - Wolverine
(Dir. Gavin Hood, 2009)
Here's the thing, doing an origin film for Wolverine was a great idea, and here's why it didn't work, because all it did was retread the Wolverine origin aspects from the other X-Men movies, just in further detail, ultimately murking up the series' continuity in the process.  Had the film taken more time exploring Wolverine's childhood, or exploring Wolverine's roles throughout history (I mean, seeing as he's immortal), rather than just giving us a few brief glimpses of Wolverine in the 1800s and a shot of him storming Normandy in WWII during the opening credits, I might have bought this movie better.  Instead, they saw fit to rehash scenes and moments from the first three movies that were shot far better in those movies.

Initially meant to be the kickstarter for a spin-off series that Fox dubbed X-Men: Origins, Wolverine was the only character that got a spin-off.  Perhaps Fox thought that the reason this movie didn't work was because it focused entirely on one character, which is why the Magneto origin movie got downsized and was infused with Professor X's and the rest of the X-Men in X-Men: First Class.  I don't know if that's the reason we only got one Origins' movie, but no matter how you slice it or dice it, this just wasn't a good movie.  It was like the Fox board members said, fans want to see this moments as well as that moment, so they all lumped it into the movie without any regard as to whether or not it lined up with the pre-established timeline from the three earlier movies, or whether or not it was faithful to the comics.  The biggest casualty of this school of thought though, was that they introduced a ton of highly important X-Men characters in this movie and shortchanged them, such as Deadpool and Gambit.  They introduced so many fan favorite characters, just so they could say that they were in the movie, and therefore no character ever got any time on their own to shine.

Ultimately, while this film may have had good intentions when they first greenlit it, very few of those intentions came across to the audience.  Sure, there were some cool action scenes, and some nice little Easter egg moments, such as Patrick Stewart's cameo, but they can't redeem what is easily the worst entry in the series.

4.  X-Men: The Last Stand
(Dir. Brett Ratner, 2006)
The common misconception about the third X-Men film is that it's a bad film, and that's not the case.  While The Last Stand is by no means as good as its predecessors, the film still manages to entertain with some of the larger action set pieces that the five X-Men films have featured thus far.  The problem with The Last Stand is that it's a half-baked movie that tried to take a bunch of broken pieces and rebuild the mold that worked so well the last go around, with many of the key pieces missing.

Director Bryan Singer, who directed the first two films, reportedly butted heads over creative differences with the studio, and when he got the chance to try and revive Superman with Superman Returns, with greater creative freedom, he took it, leaving Fox in a lurch without the director of the first two installments.  Fox tried to replace Singer with Matthew Vaughn (who went on to do First Class), but Vaughn left the project weeks before shooting began due to the rushed production schedule, with Brett Ratner being brought in at the last second, just literally there to get the film in the can so the studio could meet their release date.

With so much creative, behind the scenes politics going on, many of the actors from the first two films didn't want to stick around, with the studio negotiating just to get key actors back for only a few days worth of shooting, just so they can say their character was back.  What this meant was that the screenwriters were constantly having to write major characters out of the script, either killing them off, or stripping away their powers, in order to try and justify why that actor was not in the rest of the movie.  What it made the final film, was a much more hollow film than its predecessors, that managed to get by on sheer spectacle and a short, propulsive running time, but without much of the wit that the three X-Men films above it on this list had.

3.  X-Men
(Dir. Bryan Singer, 2000)
Arguably the film that kickstarted the whole superhero movie craze.  While there had been many superhero movies before this one, this was the first superhero movie since Batman Forever in 1995 that managed to really strike a chord at the box office with mainstream moviegoers.  While the movie was by no means a runaway success, its modest budget, coupled with a surprisingly thought-provoking and emotional story, made this film a winner with audiences and with the studio, greenlighting a sequel almost immediately.

I personally have very fond memories of this film.  I remember seeing this film in theaters with my entire family, as we were on Summer vacation one year going up to Washington, D.C.  I grew up a fan of the X-Men animated series in the '90s and a fan of the comics, and for a fan of any Marvel comic, this was a watershed moment to finally see a Marvel hero onscreen.  Up to this point, DC had had a monopoly in the superheroes onscreen department, with Batman and Superman having had numerous films each, and while Marvel had done Blade a few years before, as a 10-year-old kid, I was not yet old enough to see a movie about a vampire hunter, so X-Men was a big deal.

Even though it was not the most faithful movie, the movie manages to bring together many of the key players from the comic books and form a cohesive story that works for film.  While the scale is noticeably smaller than later installments in the series -- thanks in large part to Fox's cutting of the budget -- ultimately, X-Men is a fun film that is emotional, but it feels as if it is constantly hitting its head against the ceiling that Fox had placed above it.  Had this film had the freedom to have bust through that ceiling, this would be higher up on the list, but for that reason, many of the best ideas that director Bryan Singer and company had, had to be held back for later sequels.  Most notably, the next two films on this list.

2.  X-Men: First Class
(Dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2011)
This was a big moment for the X-Men franchise, when Fox forgave Bryan Singer for abandoning X-Men: The Last Stand.  Ultimately, Singer was unable to direct, but he remained as a producer, and his love and knowledge of the franchise is noticeable in every frame.  Initially pitched as a reboot, the film wound up being more of a prequel, by utilizing footage from the first X-Men movie, as well as a Hugh Jackman cameo, that tied this film into the continuity of all the other movies.  While this further complicated much of the continuity of the film series, as an individual film, they don't make them much better.

Director Matthew Vaughn, who left The Last Stand mere weeks before shooting, came back with the lure of Bryan Singer as producer and greater freedom, and his enthusiasm really lent this film its identity.  Vaughn gave the film this slick, stylish, Sean Connery-era Bond feel, thanks to his kinetic visuals, but mostly thanks, by and large, to the 1960's period setting.  This film came out the same Summer as Captain America: The First Avenger, and both films challenged the notion that all superhero films had to be made in modern day.  That may sound like a trivial matter, but by setting this film in the past, most notably the Sixties, it gave this film a different tonal feel than any other superhero film ever made.  It gave this film its identity, and the filmmakers had a lot of fun tying the time period into every single moment of this film.  Of course, what really makes this film phenomenal is that it's just a great film, period.

This film tells the story of how Professor X and Magneto meet, before Professor X is in a wheelchair.  We watch as they are unsure of one another at their first meeting, to their friendship slowly forming as they assist the government to combat mutant terrorists, and then the tragedy of their falling on different sides of the looming mutant war.  Vaughn treated this arc with dashes of humor and pathos, that makes this story, of essentially two brothers growing apart, on the level of Greek tragedy, at least, if you're a comic book fan that is.  Even still, throughout all of the emotion, this film manages to have fun and have a cool swagger.  It's not so serious that you aren't allowed to be entertained, but it never makes fun of itself, having the characters, even if their cracking jokes while doing it, take everything that is happening to them seriously, therefore we believe that the stakes are serious, even though we're having a blast while watching.  That is the mark of a great Summer blockbuster.

1.  X-2: X-Men United
(Dir. Bryan Singer, 2003)
This is easily the best film of the entire series, and it still stands as one of the finest examples of the young superhero genre.  With greater creative freedom, the origin story all told, and a significantly larger budget, this was the X-Men film that X-Men fans had dreamed of since their childhoods.  The larger budget allowed the filmmakers to fully realize the mutants and their powers that were introduced in the first film with greater detail and more faithfulness to their comic book counterparts.  As well, it allowed the filmmakers to introduce much more visually stunning mutants like Nightcrawler into the mix because they were too expensive to include the first go around, but now they weren't.

Where this film goes above and beyond every other X-Men film is that it's just the most complete movie of all of them thus far.  Every character has an arc and a moment to shine.  No one character was shortchanged and it made the film feel as if everyone that was included in the script had a purpose, and it worked.  Not to mention the fact that this film raised so many philosophical questions about our own world through the lens of the mutants, which is what Stan Lee did way back in the Sixties when he first created these characters.  However, what really makes me watch this film again and again, is that it's just such a fun, emotionally involving film filled with originality around every twist and turn.

X-2 was just one of those movies that dreams are made of.  The use of the super powers in this film are unparalleled by any film before it or since.  The filmmakers put so much thought into every characters power set and how far they could literally push it, and in many cases I feel the filmmakers pushed some characters and their abilities even further than the comics had on many occasions.  Of course, as I've already said, this film was just fun, and as a comic book fan, there is nothing else that can compare to Wolverine unleashing his full on berserker rage as he defends the school from the military, or when Nightcrawler is brainwashed and uses all of his teleportation skill set to try and assassinate the President of the United States.  These are moments that X-Men fans had only ever been able to dream of, and now they were realized on the bigscreen.  I cannot tell you how excited I was when the film ends with Jean Grey's voice-over as the camera flies over Alkali Lake, and right before we cut to the credits, we see the faint silhouette of the Phoenix rising out of the water.  One of the best teases ever for a sequel, unfortunately The Last Stand didn't quite live up to the awesomeness, but thankfully X-2 still manages to stand on its own, untarnished by its sequel.  Thank you Bryan Singer and company, for making what is, and always will be, a classic of the superhero movie genre.

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