Friday, June 3, 2011


Doesn't the tagline "Trust a Few, Fear the Rest" kind of go against the movie's message?
As the release of the X-Men franchise reboot/re-imagining/origin story, X-Men: First Class, rapidly approaches, I thought it would be interesting to re-watch X-Men and see how the ball got rolling.

To understand this movie, you have to accept that there has been a genetic trend in human births over the last sixty or so years that has allowed a tiny minority of people to be born with genetic mutations.  I'm not talking about your normal defects or abnormalities, though.
Ugly is not a super-power.
These mutations give extraordinary powers to otherwise normal people.  The powers range quite a bit, from the ability to control weather or magnetism to fast healing or being irresistible to women.
Hell-lloooo, ladies!

Can you buy into all that?  If not, this movie is going to seem a little silly.  Well, mutants (as the super-powered-by-birth are called) have apparently been trying to live normal lives, safe in their anonymity from the lynchings that can occur when people find something new to hate.  Seeing this as a dangerous status quo, Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson) proposes legislation that will require all mutants to register themselves and their abilities with the US Government, essentially treating them as weapons.  Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) believes that Senator Kelly is frightened of what he doesn't understand, but that the general public will see the legislation as the bigoted mess it is.  His take on the situation is to protect humanity from angry mutants and things will get better.  Magneto (Ian McKellan), who survived German concentration camps, sees this as another attempt to wipe "his people" off the face of the planet.  Understandably, he decides to take a more offensive approach to this problem.  Both men have followers willing to fight for these two opposing ideologies, but the first steps toward a genetic war come when a runaway teen, Rogue (Anna Paquin), and a metal-boned and -clawed tough guy, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), suddenly pop up on the radars of Xavier and Magneto.

Man, the cast of X-Men is good!  Mostly.  Well, Hugh Jackman is perfect in the lead role as Wolverine, at the very least.  Angry and tough, yet confused and surprisingly caring, Jackman brought the iconic character to life.  Ian McKellan was great as the villainous Magneto, but it wasn't his nastiness that made him so appealing; McKellan succeeded in the always difficult task of making a bad guy sympathetic.  Patrick Stewart was also good as Xavier, and not just because he looks exactly like the comic character.  Stewart's eloquence and British accent helped make the almost saintly nature of Xavier plausible --- if only the screenwriters could have found a way for his character to not get sidelined in the movie, then we could have seen his kindness tested.

The rest of the cast was definitely supporting, when compared to those three.  Anna Paquin was solid as Rogue, and she managed to not be annoying or whiny in a role that could have easily swung that way.  I think James Marsden doesn't get enough credit for his work as Cyclops; yes, playing the uptight guy is pretty easy, but he and Jackman had a lot of chemistry with their verbal barbs.  Famke Janssen was completely acceptable as Jean Grey, even if the love triangle that formed around her was pretty underdeveloped.  Halle Berry, on the other hand, was truly wretched as Storm.  Pick an accent, already, lady!  It doesn't help matters that she delivered the absolute worst line in the whole movie: "Do you know what happens when a toad is struck by lightning?  The same thing that happens to everything else."  That's just terrible.
Two non-masturbation things that make you go blind: bad acting and bangs.
On the other hand, I liked Shawn Ashmore's performance as Iceman, even if it was steeped a little too heavily in teen melodrama.  As for the bad guys, Ray Park was pretty cool as Toad, even if he's just a green-painted stuntman.  I thought Rebecca Romijn looked pretty hot in her ridiculously naked "costume," and the special effects made her character seem awesome.  When you look a little closer, though, you realize that she almost never spoke and most of her "acting" involved her looking sexy.  Well, that's good enough for most people, I guess.
Not the most attractive "O" face, but I'll take it.
I was pretty disappointed in Tyler Mane's Sabretooth, though.  A lack of interesting dialogue, an over-reliance on wires to show off his super-strength and super-jumping (?) abilities, and a generally awful character design combined to make Sabretooth pretty lame.  And that's a shame, since --- in the comics, which are obviously not the movies --- he's basically Wolverine minus the conscience. 
Plucking and threading aren't enough...grab a mower to tame those brows!

Bryan Singer did a great job directing this film, with the exception of letting Halle Berry use a terrible accent (sometimes).  This is a character-driven movie, where these potentially silly and melodramatic mutants are seen as people instead of excuses for special effects.  That is what makes this movie so important.  Keep in mind that the last major super-hero movies before this were the too-violent-for-kids Blade and the awful Batman & Robin; if X-Men didn't deliver to a wide audience, you can be sure that Spider-Man and Batman Begins would not have been made (at least not in this decade).  I appreciated a lot of the choices made by Singer and his production team, too.  The black leather costumes keep the guffaws of implausibility away much longer than comic book costumes would have.  Making Wolverine the main character and leaving a lot of his history unexplained/under-explained gave his character (who is otherwise kind of un-invested in Xavier's team) motivation and a character arc.  The tone of the film is perhaps Singer's greatest legacy on this movie, as well as for all post-2000 comic book movies.  This feels like a science fiction film instead of an adaptation of a childish medium.
Hugh Jackman always has time to entertain with a Tonys-related tale.

The movie is not perfect, though.  Magneto's secret hideout is located in an island prison with no walkways between the cells?  Exactly where would that be?  The pace is a little slow, and nothing truly thrilling ever happens; it does an admirable job of setting up the premise with a fairly interesting story, so the sequel could be awesome.  The special effects are solid, but not spectacular.  What makes this movie seem more impressive is the awful development hell it went through before being made this way.  There were several script rewrites, many directors, and Hugh Jackman was cast as Wolverine after the movie had been filming for three weeks already; the actor originally signed to play the part was the awful Dougray Scott, who backed out to film Mission: Impossible II.  The film also had Joss Whedon do a dialogue-fixing rewrite for one of the older, stupider scripts; his script allegedly only had two lines make the final movie --- Storm's lightning and toads line and the one where Wolverine calls Cyclops a dick, the worst and best (respectively) lines of the movie.  When you think of the other Marvel Comics movies that had been made before this (the Dolph Lungren Punisher and the rubber-eared Captain America) and how easily this film could have been made into something like them, I think X-Men deserves some respect.  And it helps that it's a good movie.

I should also point out that I am a ridiculously big X-Men comics fan (like, 30+ solid years of collecting big), so I know good and bad X-Men stories when I see them.  Writing this review also reminded me of the awesomely cheesy (but still awesome for its time) X-Men cartoon and its cool theme music.  Adapting that theme into a symphonic film score would have made this movie near perfect for my nerdy tastes.

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