Saga Review: X-Men (2000 – 2016)

I love my X-Men movies, but it shouldn’t be any surprise to Cinema Cocoa readers that I did not follow the comics… in fact these films were all I knew about them!

Let’s not waste any more time, we have six films to go through!

You know what worries me the most about the first X-Men movie? It is how a lot of people nowadays will look back at it and scoff at its simplicity. I personally love it, and respect the legacy it brought about single-handedly.Director Bryan Singer brings the live action film interpretation of Marvel’s comic book franchise The X-Men, a team of mutant superheroes battling to defend humanity despite the prejudice and fear shown for them. Here the film follows their defense of a young girl who’s powers are just beginning to show themselves, and the mysterious man known only as Wolverine who vowed to protect her from Magneto, a mutant who’s past has taught him nothing but hatred for humanity.While the film is by far a stellar piece of storytelling, it is a one trick pony; showing us the X-Men and their various powers not unlike a Saturday morning cartoon (how apt) a sort of “see the film, choose your favourite X-power” vibe, but one should appreciate the history of this film.
In pre-millennium years there were no superhero movies outside of Batman and Superman, Batman had dug his own grave with Batman and Robin, while Superman was immortalised and untouchable with Christopher Reeves portrayal. No other comic-inspired film had the budget or the means to excel.
X-Men was barely any different. 20th Century Fox had no plans for the franchise and believed there was no future in comic-book films and gave Singer a meager budget of $75million. Let me through out some estimated figures for comparison: The Amazing Spiderman 2 – $200million; The Green Lantern – $200million. Heck, even Sam Raimi’s Spider-man released not two years after X-Men got $139million.
Because of this budget the film barely manages a ninety-minute run time! NINETY. One hour and thirty minutes. In today’s market that is unheard of. Yet with skillful manipulation of characters, action sequences that show off all of their abilities and how they can combine their powers and having an excellent cast, Singer paved the way for what we now know as the superhero genre. It truly is miraculous film-making when you think about it! It builds foundations for multiple characters, rather than being a origin story for any one person.

Of course, this budget restraint does mean the film has its flaws and I am reluctant to criticise it because of that reason; it was the best they could do! The editing gets a bit fractured, especially when the film has to follow both Professor Xavier’s (Sir Patrick Stewart) X-Men and Magneto’s (Sir Ian McKellen) Botherhood and some times the dialogue, while I love it and it is very punchy and memorable, can be a bit silly. A toad + lightning… What happens again, Storm?

Major fans of the X-Men franchise will find issues everywhere, and again, today’s indulged audience may look back at this fledgling experience with apathy. With many characters they are reduced in scope and liberties are taken, but only to benefit the budget and entertaining nature of the film.

I love it, and while Batman and Superman technically existed first, X-Men was the first film to begin the merchandise and franchise machine that is Hollywood’s superhero genre.

Additional Marshmallows: Seriously, how can you not like a film with Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen and a naked fashion model painted blue? Seriously, this film is so much fun.

X-Men 2

Like how Spider-man 2 is to Spider-man, X2 takes the airtight foundations of its predecessor and ramps everything up to eleven. Beside his definitive film The Usual Suspects, I would say this is one of director Bryan Singer’s best.Taking straight off the back of 2000’s X-Men, we see Wolverine trying to recover his lost past and a military general named William Stryker has been given the right to track down mutants. Little do we know that Stryker has his own agenda, one that will unite Professor Xavier’s team and Magneto’s villainous Brotherhood. But for how long?

Much like its predecessor X2 is an entertaining spectacle; it opens with an engrossing attack on the White House by teleporting mutant Nightcrawler and seldom slows down after that. It is loaded with memorable scenes and acting from the main stars; Magneto’s escape from the plastic prison is a firm favourite (despite being such a short scene!) There is perhaps less of the first film’s focus on human fear of mutants, which is replaced by William Stryker’s total hatred for them, played wonderfully by Brian Cox. This elevates Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto into a permanent state of “I told you so” confidence and he and Mystique steal the show as a result.
The action is brilliantly displayed, the film released on the eve of CGI becoming all consuming (we were only just starting to make Spider-man CGI at this point) so films like X2 rely on massive set pieces and physical effects and stunt doubles, and honestly, it is better off for it!
The soundtrack is great too, the score by John Ottman had a great sense of excitement, victory and is, most importantly, memorable!

Again, like Singer’s first film, hardcore fans bemoan his treatments of some characters. A lot of fan favourite X-Men are pushed aside, given cameos or are depicted as youths. I personally have no connection to the comics and have none of these issues; I get to see some cool powers on display, and some new mutants (ie. Nightcrawler, Lady Deathstrike, Pyro). Though I do find this film more about displaying individual powers rather than combining for a team effort such as it was shown in X-Men. I’m also a little sad how often my favourite star, Sir Patrick Stewart, seems to get the short end of the stick; Xavier has been incapacitated somehow in both films!

All that aside, it is a roaring good film and I find it to be one of the best comic book movies of recent years. It has none of the pretentiousness that “Nolanification” gives films nowadays, it has none of the angst and brooding teenage melodrama of the newest Spider-man films, it has just enough serious undertones and danger to the characters that you become invested. Sometimes, if done correctly, you can do a lot with little.

Additional Marshmallows: For the record, X2‘s budget was higher than X-Men‘s, but not by much; it still worked with half what Green Lantern and Amazing Spider-man had. When you consider actor pay and the cost of CGI against the quality of the films, Singer’s two films are a marvel (no pun intended).

X-Men: The Last Stand

Three years after the success of X2, director Bryan Singer steps away from the franchise and Brett Ratner takes the helm, giving us what believes itself to be the final chapter… and unfortunately it was not what anyone wanted.When a clinic discovers a cure for mutation Magneto goes on the warpath against humanity, seeing the cure as a weapon forced upon mutants rather than a choice. While trying to stop him, Xavier and the X-Men are confronted by a resurrected Jean Grey, seemingly possessed by a powerful personality known as The Phoenix.

I think I’ve only seen this once before, in the cinema, so watching it again was a daunting prospect. If X2 was on the verge of “too many mutants”, The Last Stand topples over it.
As if responding to angry fans about the lack of favourite mutants in Singer’s films, Brett Ratner chose to cram as many of them in as possible, yet curiously ditching a lot of the favoured characters from previous films in the process. We don’t get Nightcrawler, Cyclops (within the first ten minutes!) is killed off, Rogue barely features and another terrible loss occurs mid-way through. Instead we have Beast, a fan favourite, Angel and Kitty Pryde. None of them get character development.
Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants suffers the same fate, enter The Juggernaut, Multiple Man and a host of randoms who may have names but I couldn’t catch them.

What happens now is we need passion and emotion: this is the final bout, the conclusion, the battle that has been prophesied by both Xavier and Magneto for two films now… but we don’t get that. Half of the characters we followed through the films are barely featuring, and new characters are put in just as a generous nod towards the comic book fans.
The best that the film can muster is between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and between Iceman and Pyro, two of the younger characters after they’ve chosen sides. I don’t see how these elements couldn’t have carried the film alone.
Instead we have Angel… who is completely unnecessary, behaving like a footnote “Meanwhile, with Angel”. Kitty Pryde drives a completely unbelievable wedge between Rogue and Iceman, which goes nowhere only to add one or two moments of teenage angst.

To think, this film has the budgets of the previous two films combined! It feels like a finale that didn’t want to be. Beloved characters are killed off, replaced or “cured” just as they are getting into their stride. Colours of the beginning of Alien3 come to mind.
Then, unsurprisingly, they turn the tables at the last second. Status Quo is restored.

So anything good about the film? Asides a couple of characters brief sparks of conflict, there is precious little, and a couple of action sequences are good, usually when Magneto is tossing thing around.
But ultimately the new characters aren’t three dimensional, instead they fling their allocated powers to give themselves identity. There’s a fine line between X-Men and its third installment, a fine line between ingenuity and failure.

Additional Marshmallows: The decline of part three is due to several problems. Singer admitted that leaving the franchise to make Superman Returns instead was a mistake, but also during the production of X1 and X2, he had arguments with actress Halle Berry. Berry almost didn’t return for X3, but with the disaster of Catwoman, she returned and demanded more screen time for her character Storm.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Lesson learned from watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine? If you are a friend to Wolverine your life expectancy diminishes rapidly!Before he met Colonel William Stryker and the Weapon-X project, we see Logan’s life as it was, and his relationship with his brother Victor “Sabretooth” Creed.

Perhaps the first sign that 20th Century Fox really wants to keep the rights to the X-Men franchise in light of Marvel’s own film studio building in strength, my opinion on the film remains mostly unchanged. X-Men Origins is entirely “filler”: an unnecessary entry that either tells us what we already know, or gives us information that will never be relevant again.

Completely gone is Bryan Singer’s original interpretations of mutant prejudice and hatred from humans, the struggle of what it means to be different… now we literally just have men jumping and leaping around attacking inconsequentially because they are either self-healing mutants or will be brought back because of potential sequelage.

It is sad because the film isn’t inherently bad, but because X2 showed us Wolverine’s grisly, horrifying past with Brian Cox’s compelling portrayal of William Stryker, the major events of Origins just feels like repetition. In fact the film’s strongest element is only featured during the opening credits, where we see the immortal brothers battle through every major war in America’s history. Honestly if this film had followed that rather than Weapon-X again, I might have forgiven it for any other mistakes!
Everything else becomes yet more fan service like we had with The Last Stand; mutants don’t get stories or characteristics, they merely lend their powers to help the main character get to wherever the plot needs him to go. Hey, its The Blob, he’s fat. Hey its a guy who can teleport, hey, its a guy who… is good at shooting people?

What ultimately happens to the few characters who might escape this fate, such as Gambit, the film bombed (equal ratings with The Last Stand on IMDB) and we will never see this interpretation of that character, or any connections to this film whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Taylor Kitsch isn’t returning as Gambit.

Plagued with dodgy CGI, repetitive fight sequences between Logan and Victor, and retreading story elements that were given better treatment in X2, this is one film you can completely ignore.

Unless you are a fan of Hugh Jackman’s biceps.

X-Men: First Class

With their original plan for multiple origin story films dying with Wolverine, 20th Century Fox let’s Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughn helm this prequel to the X-Men trilogy. What we get is one incredible return to form!Before they chose their sides, Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr were allies and wished to protect mutants from the misunderstanding of humans, hoping all can one day live in peace. But when one mutant, Sebastian Shaw, plans to destroy most of humanity so mutants can rule the world… the two friends find themselves with differing views of the future.

After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, audiences were relieved to see some of the best characters in the franchise return to the big screen via a prequel, but best of all Vaughn’s casting is nearly impeccable! Rising star James McAvoy takes on the difficult task as a young Xavier extremely well, but Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Magneto completely… utterly steals the show. The film could be seen as his origin story above all others, but one should remember that Magneto is one of the most compelling characters in the franchise.
Alongside them are a multitude of new mutants and the return of Mystique, another favourite (played wonderfully by another rising star Jennifer Lawrence), Beast, Azazel, Angel and Emma Frost to name a few.

The action is wonderfully shot and implemented, powers are shown at their very best and there is a great sense of teamwork as Xavier begins to form the titular X-Men team. But probably best of all is its sense of humour. While it does maintain the murky reality that gives the Bryan Singer films their pathos, the wit on display is written so well that it lifts spirits immediately. The training montage, Charles and Eric’s search for recruits are some of the best moments in the whole series.

Some of the magic that First Class has is due to Bryan Singer’s involvement in production. While the director was busy with Jack the Giant Slayer at the time, there is a lot of continuity with his two films, most notably is the shot-for-shot remake of Eric Lehnsherr’s brutal childhood experience at the Nazi camp.

I am a little sad that I didn’t place this film higher in my final ratings for 2011, coming 13th, I suppose Sebastian Shaw wasn’t the most compelling bad guy (as fun as it is to see Kevin Bacon return and have such fun with a role!) it is a film were the good guys get the best attention, like most origin stories. Shaw’s ultimate plan seems unnecessarily long winded for such a simple end result.
It ends with a note of finality, true colours revealed, as if to tie directly into Bryan Singer’s X-Men, which is a little sad as I could imagine a lot more being done with the characters as they were depicted in this time frame. It felt a little forced, but

I love it. The sense of humour, the scale of some of the battles and the casting… god the casting alone is perfect. If you lost faith after The Last Stand and didn’t want more X-Men, I beg you to give this film a watch. You will not regret it.

Additional Marshmallows: Did you know, to add to the problems of The Last Stand’s production, Matthew Vaughn was briefly set to direct that film after Bryan Singer dropped out. He would decline and Brett Ratner was brought in instead.

The Wolverine
Things are destined to go wrong when our western hero goes to Japan!The Wolverine boldly follows on from the events of the critical flop X-Men: Last Stand (something yet to be committed to in seven years) as 20th Century Fox maintains the rights to the characters of Marvel’s franchise.
We see Logan completely lost and alone after the tragic events seen in the earlier films, finding himself at odds with his nature and purposeless. However when a man from his past returns with an offer to end his brooding self-pity, Logan might rediscover himself.The meat of this film is that Logan’s contact, a Japanese genius in control of a super high-tech facility, is dying and wants Logan’s mutant healing ability. Eventually Logan loses his powers and becomes mortal. He must fight to defend the man’s grand daughter from Yakuza assassins without his powers.At last we have a Wolverine spin-off film that is justified. I found the last installment, Wolverine: Origins, to be a dazing, absurd waste of time; it told me nothing I didn’t already know about the character. Here at least we can see a vulnerable Logan, and how despite his weakness he still battles with ferocity! It probably makes the best of what The Last Stand gave the character.This is mostly descriptive of the film’s opening act. It is a surprisingly moody, dour beginning but not without Logan’s signature aggressive humor and superiority. I enjoyed this, it proved the film wasn’t solely reliant on bravado and ridiculous action scenes.
While I liked this and Wolverine’s loss of powers, something goes wrong towards the end of the film… It certainly does not end as powerfully as it began and continued, and I can only attribute this with some pretty random plot devices and blatantly obvious “twists”. (Logan is in a hurry to save someone so he…. gets off his motorbike and decides to walk the last two miles?)Still, despite a few glaring wobbles in the plot and storytelling towards the end, and some “indescribable tech” that does what it does because it can, I enjoyed the movie. There isn’t much to say, but it has good action and a refreshing look on a well established character.It is certainly better than Origins.

As we look towards a new film this week that merges two different timelines, I would like to take a moment and mention how completely messed up the X-Men franchise is thanks to 20th Century Fox. Unlike Marvel Studios, who have maintained a steady narrative and casting choices… Fox has mixed and matched and confused everybody.

As a simple example: the mutant Emma Frost features in X-Men First Class as a fully grown woman, in the 60s, but in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Emma Frost features as a little girl, about the same age as Cyclops!
Certainly, watching all of the X-Men films provides quite a headache, and it isn’t the same as watching all of the Marvel films (unless you include 2003’s Hulk, but then why would you?) You could watch the trilogy and First Class together, and at a pinch Wolverine. But Origins has been left at the wayside, at least for now.

I am trying to not be over hyped about X-Men: Days of Future Past, but it is extremely hard not to! Not only do I get to see Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen reprise their roles as well as James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but it is directed by Bryan Singer once again!

Of course, Bryan Singer has made some terrible choices in the past… Superman Returns remains to many as an unacceptable betrayal of the fans, both of comics and of the films, needlessly harming his excellent run of films and making a bad film at the same time! I am hopeful that Singer sees his return to the X-franchise with the same importance that I do.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

My days of watching all the past X-Men films paid off; director Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise not only triumphs but rights many of the wrongs with the series! The future seems bright again. (Yep, I just used the film’s title in my opening statement)In the distant future the world is torn apart by war. The human prejudice against mutants escalated so far as to create robots known as Sentinels; changelings that adapt to mercilessly track and kill mutants. When they begin to target humans too, Professor Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr work together and send Wolverine’s mind back in time to the eve of the Sentinels’ creation by Dr. Bolivar Trask. But that’s the easy part; Wolverine must convince a traumatised young Xavier, rescue an imprisoned Magneto, and find the mutant who can disguise herself as anyone before she can doom all of their futures.

When this film starts, and the opening titles start with that familiar victorious theme from X2 (John Ottman returns for this film’s score) I knew things were going to get good! We are shown the bleak future left for our heroes, Iceman, Xavier, Magneto, Storm, Wolverine, Kitty and some new faces as they are attacked repeatedly from super-advanced machines. There is something of an exposition dump during this sequence, which I found a little nebulous to grasp at first. But once they send old Wolverine back to the 1970s, things get interesting.

This film has a great sense of humour. Something of a mix between Matthew Vaughn’s First Class (he assisted writing this film) and Bryan Singer’s first two movies. We see Logan pre-Weapon-X days with bone claws, but with the memories of future events, confront our heroes from Vaughn’s prequel, a confused and troubled Xavier (James McAvoy) and a deceptive Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The film isn’t suffering from lame “Oh, its Wolverine in the 70s!” jokes but there is a sense of fun throughout events. Especially when they enlist the help of one mutant named Quicksilver. Possibly the most riotous fun the entire series has ever had!

Of course, things get intense too, Singer has always had an edge to his X-Men films, and Days of Future Past has some pretty unpleasant, brutal sequences! Even the not metal-infused Wolverine gets beaten up badly!
I would also say that for once Magneto doesn’t steal the show. There’s a lot more focus here on Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique (probably because of her rising stardom) and McAvoy’s Xavier, which I appreciated; throughout the films the Professor has had very little to do. This film isn’t just action and powers being thrown around, the characters do have something to say.

The film’s strength lies in what some might consider its only weakness. Like the roots of a tree, the story links and curls around previous adventures, combining virtually all of the films into one massive experience. As it stands on its own, it is a blasting, continuous adventure giving only brief moments to pause, but if someone has followed all of the films to date (to some extent including the Wolverine films too) they will love it.
I was grateful I’d watched the old films again, though Logan’s time traveling allows for brief flashbacks (or is that flashforwards?) to remind us of events past and future. I do love films that act as sequels and prequels.

All of our favourite characters and actors are back in surely one of the most star studded comic book films yet, and amazingly it doesn’t collapse under the weight! Sure, there are a couple of lingering questions on my mind, but not enough to detract from the overall entertainment.

I’ll definitely be watching it again! Is it as good as X2 in my mind? I don’t know yet, but it sure feels like the good old days are back again: good, solid and exciting entertainment!

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

It is upsetting that Apocalypse is getting a bad wrap. Are we not allowed to just have enjoyable, fun comic movies anymore?

Charles Xavier and his school for gifted children is put to war when an ancient mutant, the first mutant, known as Apocalypse, returns to Earth and vows to have total dominion.

What with 2014’s Days of Future Past basically resetting 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise but keeping director Bryan Singer’s involvement and continuity (that kick ass theme music from John Ottman returns!) Apocalypse has everything to play for in setting up this new time line and new reality. For the most part, it succeeds!
We have new faces to original characters now more youthful than before, Apocalypse being set in the 1980s, ten years after the events of Days of Future Past (at least, that film’s “past present”… uhm…) a young Scott Summers discovering his powers, a young and tormented Jean Grey, and a young Nightcrawler who has all the coy good-natured personality he had in Singer’s previous X-Men 2.
All in all, the new cast are great and I’d be happy to see them start a new series.

The film is great fun. The X-Men film franchise is a strange beast; the films are strung together so loosely that each film is a unique experience that should be considered as such, and Apocalypse is no different. It strikes a good chord of pre-Nolan era of comic book movies; when the genre was just an enjoyable time without being bogged down in pathos, subtext and need to be realistic.  You don’t need to really do your homework on a franchise to enjoy it, you won’t feel exasperated or stuck in a moral quandary about modern society. You’ll just have a good time!

But this film is a mixed bag. Michael Fassbender acts his socks off initially with an awesome development for Magneto’s character (he is still my favourite Marvel character) and James McAvoy perhaps becomes more and more like Sir Patrick Stewart (and no I don’t mean the hair) with a very Xavier heavy themed movie.
Yet on the flip-side, the CGI is terrible, the cinematography is terrible. There’s a special cameo which is an awesome sequence but could easily have been cut to allow twenty minutes for development of other characters (Psylocke, Angel and others). The comedy is on point most of the time, but other times it feels misguided or unnecessary. They run with the ball with Quicksilver, repeating the humour and gimmick from the previous film with gleeful abandon! Yet Mystique and Magneto’s characters feel woefully written (Jennifer Lawrence looks like she’s asleep) and where they wind up isn’t nearly as satisfying as what it could have been…

It is a tremendous mix of good and bad elements. But then, in a year were our superhero outings have been just that, I feel X-Men shouldn’t be as brow beaten as it has been by critics! It isn’t as good as X2, or First Class, or even Days of Future Past, but what’s important is just how liberal and fun it feels.

It is a comic book movie that cuts loose. Sure it looks cheaper than its peers, but it has a lot of great moments and delivers some challenging ideas that even Marvel Studios haven’t touched… yet (psychic battles within the mind!?) as well as Apocalypse himself, in not too shabby style. Don’t write it off completely.



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