Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Summer of Trilogies - X-MEN

This is the second in a series of reflections of film trilogies that helped reshape the blockbuster landscape going into the 21st century, and gave rise to the Golden Age of Geek Cinema. Part 1, covering Sam Raimi's Spider-man Trilogy, ran already. And while those films cemented the superhero as the new heavy hitter at the box office, Marvel was counting on another property to jump-start Spider-man and several other franchises that they'd sold off to various studios.

That property was X-men.

Directors from James Cameron (who backed out to work on Spider-man, which fell through also) to Robert Rodriguez were attached to or approached about getting an X-movie off the ground during its long gestation in the late 80's and 90's. Bryan Singer got the directing gig because he was interested in a sci-fi property to follow up The Usual Suspects, and while he turned down X-men twice, he eventually warmed to the idea once he read the comics and found the themes of prejudice really resonated with him.

His first choice for Wolverine, who was present in most drafts of the scripts through the years, was Russell Crowe, but after salary disputes Dougray Scott was cast - only to be replaced 3 weeks into shooting due to his conflicting schedule of shooting Mission: Impossible 2. Hugh Jackman, the reigning superstar of this franchise, was added to the cast three weeks into filming.

(Sidebar: watching Jackman get progressively more ripped during the series is surreal - he started off "in shape for a normal guy" in 20000 but now looks like he could cut glass with his abs)

The cast of this film was one of the major early coups of genre cinema being perceived as "legitimate." While respected stage and screen actors appearing in sci-fi and fantasy goes back at least as far as Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, the turn of the 21st century saw several highly respected thespians strapping on capes or fake beards in films from X-men to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings. Getting both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan - who also responded to the allegory of the mutant story - in major roles bought a lot of early goodwill, both from fans who were upset about a lack of colorful costumes (a choice that now actually seems wrongheaded in a world where Steve Rogers gets a "big hero moment" from re-donning his stars and stripes in The Winter Soldier)  to critics who were still reeling from the disastrous latter Batman films.

Actually, the film's industry-shaking casting and the way it uses the inherent racism of the mutant oppression story line as an allegory for modern homosexuality ends up being far more interesting than the film itself. There are a couple of things about X-men that work well - Logan and Rogue have a great dynamic with some fantastic payoff (his scrapper luck, resulting in not winning any of his big fights, and his own "big hero moment" being an act of sacrifice rather than violence, is great use of the character) and every time Stewart and McKellan share the screen, the film really shines.

Unfortunately, while there's other movie there, but not much story. X-men ends up feeling more like a first issue or two-part television pilot than an actual movie. Aside from looking cheap and small-scale (it was made for less than $80 million, an unthinkable budget for modern superhero blockbusters), not a whole lot happens. The story seems almost incidental and the central device (a machine that turns normal people into mutants, then kills them) itself is rather stupid - and not in the fun, goofy comic book way.

And yes, Singer's not a terribly gifted visualist. Most of the film relies heavily on Patrick Stewart explaining the plot or character history to the audience by way of Wolverine because Singer just can't get his narrative across any other way. He borrows heavily from movies like Blade and The Matrix for his overriding aesthetic, but without the same sense of heightened reality and style that helped those movies. The result is a film that just looks drab and dark and boring a lot of the time, with action sequences that were, for their era, impressively functional in their capturing of mutant powers, but now just feel plodding and small.

But the fact that the film was a hit (it was the first successful Marvel comic book movie) paved the way for better things - including its own improved sequel.

This one's a step up. Not a huge one, but noticeable nonetheless.

The original X-men frankly could have been a disaster, given the casting changes and the severely cramped production schedule (a phenomenon that seems to be as much a recurring theme for this series as civil rights allegory), and while it wasn't a wreck, the movie remains fairly small even as it strains to expand its scope. The sequel's story benefits a great deal from having more breathing room, feeling like an actual movie as a result. However, it still feels a bit cheap (90% of the film takes place in mostly-interchangeable interiors and boring hallways), especially compared to movies like Spider-man/Spider-man 2 and Batman Begins, which were coming out around the same time or followed soon after.

Acting as a direct continuation from the "Magneto is trying to start shit between mutants and humanity" setup of X-menX2 focused on the efforts of William Stryker to initiate a preemptive strike against mutantkind using a reworked version of Cerebro (Xavier's mutant-locating psychic-tech). Luckily, this provides the film with a compelling and gloriously detestable villain to contrast with the more sympathetic antagonists of the Brotherhood of Mutants. Less fortunate is the increased focus this brings to Wolverine as a character, due to his back-story with Stryker and the Weapon X program. Logan had been used cannily (hee hee) in Singer's first film, giving a wry "this is what some of the audience is thinking" perspective on the X-men team, but ultimately settling into just another supporting player (albeit one with a big chunk of the story). In fact, the moment where Magneto mockingly all but tells Wolverine "No, you're not the main character." is a great bait-and-switch and one of the best ways to use him.

But X2 actually DOES treat the animalistic anti-hero as the protagonist. Sure, there's a good bit of business with Rogue and Bobby (Iceman) and Johnny (Pyro), and the "on the road" stuff with them and Logan is genuinely great. But the film builds to a moment where these three young students really step up and earn their uniforms (or reach a moral point of no return), and then utterly falls flat. The screenplay strains to include more for everyone to do (rewrites attempted to give more to Berry's Storm in the wake of her Oscar win for Monster's Ball), and scenes that would have done more to develop Cyclops and Xavier during their capture/brainwashing were nixed for time, which is unfortunate as those characters feel very shortchanged.

But for all that, what X2 gets right feels very good indeed. The film never reaches the highs of Nightcrawler's opening attack on the White House again (though the Mainsion Raid and even Pyro's at-first gleeful and then very uncomfortable assault on the police come close), but the "mutants as an allegory for homophobia" is still - obviously - a big focus, and one that genuinely works. Lines like "Have you tried...not being a mutant?" may be very on-the-nose (and admittedly worked better when Joss Whedon used the same words in Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in 1998), but it's just the right kind of obvious metaphor that feels at home for this property. And as ashamed as the franchise continues to be of the visual palette of its source material, the actors are still absolutely committed to the heroics, allegory, and even the soap operatic drama. Which makes that finale work a whole lot better than it really should have.

Ultimately, X2 is both blessed and cursed by its place in history. At the time, audiences hadn't been spoiled by the genre the way they have been now, and so this led many (including myself some 11 years ago) to proclaim this a great game-changing sequel on the level of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (it's not). And if the franchise hadn't taken such a critical drubbing in its subsequent outings, a re-evaluation of X-men and X2 might have happened earlier, as opposed to fans clinging to them as "the good ones" while the franchise struggled to adapt as the genre was changing around it.

Who knows, perhaps Singer could have pulled off something amazing - we all felt that surge of wonder and fanboy glee at that glimpse of the fiery winged shape beneath Alkali Lake. Maybe whatever the original director had in store could have lived up to that early progenitor of the "post-movie sequel tease" (an art Marvel has since refined to science).

But instead, we got X-men: The Last Stand.

Stop me if you've heard this one before - it's not as bad as you remember, and while it's definitely weaker than its predecessor, it's not actually a titanic step down for the franchise (it's really much "worse" than Singer's first movie, all told). But unlike, say, Spider-man 3, it still doesn't amount to much.

To this film's credit, The Last Stand is a much MUCH better film than Fox deserved, given the way they handled the movie. Originally planning to film two sequels to X2 back-to-back (that had become a "thing" in the wake of the LOTR and Matrix films), Singer left development when offered the chance to direct Superman Returns (a dream gig for him), and reports of Fox dragging their feet on the project prior to him jumping ship painted an early picture of a rift between director and studio - one that widened into a veritable chasm when Singer left and Fox put the production on fast-track to release the same summer as Superman in order to beat WB's film to theaters. In February 2005, they staked a claim to a release date, with only 15 months to find and hire a director, shoot, edit, and finish the effects for the film.

The list of directors who were "up for consideration" to replace Singer, or were actively approached, is staggering - Joss Whedon, Alex Proyas, Zack Snyder, Darren Aronofsky (who also was the initial helmer of last summer's The Wolverine) were all possibilities before Fox signed Matthew Vaughn. While Vaughn left the film (only to return for First Class) for "family reasons" - and because of the rushed production schedule - many of his choices carried over to the final film, including some great casting (Kelsey Grammar as Beast). Brett Ratner was brought in to finish the production, relying mostly on heavy pre-production work and the X-men knowledge of his screenwriters.

Even taken completely on its own merit, The Last Stand is an interesting, if heavily flawed, attempt. Previous films, notably Singer's second X-movie, were conscious to keep budgets and casts from getting out of control - a precaution that seemed to have been thrown to the winds here. Not only do scrapped ideas from X-men/X2 make it into this movie (Beast, Angel, the Danger Room, even a Sentinel cameo), but the film attempts to both adapt some of Joss Whedon's "Mutant Cure" storyline from his run on Astonishing X-men and squeeze the Phoenix arc into the narrative. It's insane how many plates Ratner has to keep spinning here.

And credit where it's due, Ratner does an admirable job of aping Singer's directorial style and allegorical focus, and gets way too much hate for his involvement in this. He was a dude hired to do a job, it wasn't his idea to turn this project into a mess, and he delivered a product that was way better than Fox had any right to expect after the way they went about this whole affair.

It doesn't actually make The Last Stand a good movie, however. It's surprisingly serviceable, has some decent scenes of powerful emotion, and the expanded budget (nearly twice that of X2's) means that it's actually got the sort of big scale "unleashing of all the X-men's powers in a single huge set piece" sequence that really should have been part of the previous movie. And while the film tones down the cosmic awesomeness of Jean Grey's tragic story, Famke Jansen does a great job with the dueling personalities of the more grounded version of Phoenix, and the final unleashing of her powers is something that captures an almost Akira-like level of destructive beauty (aided by John Powell's underrated score).

But it's way too much. The Last Stand is the same length as the first X-men and has three times as much going on. The film needed at least another half-hour to effectively land all the beats it's throwing about (of the three major characters die in this movie, only one gets anything close to a proper send-off), the movie does even less with the Rogue/Iceman/Pyro dynamic than the previous one did and hamstrings itself even further by trying to shove Shadowcat into the mix. So here - more than ever - the focus has to settle on Wolverine. Logan is tasked with carrying the entire movie after about the midway point, and while Jackman has the screen presence and talent to pull it off, it's arguable how that role fits the character (if at all), and everyone else's character suffers for it.

Well, except Halle Berry's Storm, who'd been pretty poor in these films from the start and reaches an almost zen-like level of bad here.

The legitimate improvements (or at least resources) in this movie make the shortcomings all the more frustrating. Fox finally coughed up some decent money and the production team actually got big-scale sets and locations, but bungled so much else. You can practically feel a better movie straining to break free of the studio interference (Fox initially wanted the death of Cyclops to be a mere throwaway line) and rushed production. Even if the first two movies don't hold up very well, the story they were building to deserved better. So did audiences, for that matter - they deserved to finally get a great X-men movie.

And they did. Eventually.

Fox learned from their mistake (Bryan Singer got invited back to the director's chair of this franchise), and between this and the public power struggle between Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures, it was a lesson to which the entire industry was forced to pay attention. Projects still go south (Edgar Wright's recent parting with Marvel over Ant Man is proof of this), but studios have to be very mindful of the optics of how they're treating directors, and many will bend over backwards to keep them. Joss Whedon was given freedom to rewrite the script for The Avengers when he was given the directing job, and got a TV producing deal when he agreed to return for Age of Ultron. WB gave Chris Nolan a blank check for a movie about dream robbers to get him to come back for a sequel to The Dark Knight.

But for all the fallout they wrought, the original X-men films are an odd relic, a remnant of a time when the genre was still finding its way after nearly collapsing. The movies are stuck in a sort of limbo between the supposed need for "realism" and "seriousness" that so many fans craved post-Schumacher, which came to define the Nolan approach to the genre, and the more fanciful, colorful, and fun tone of the Marvel comics it was based on. A direction where - ironically - the series began to lean after Marvel Studios proved that yellow spandex (or at least, gold/titanium alloy armor) works just fine on-screen, thank you.

The give and take here is fascinating. Influencing a genre is no mean feat, but arguably even more interesting has been this series' attempts to course-correct in the wake of critical duds, fan backlash, and a genre that continued to evolve even as the mutants themselves fell behind. First Class and The Wolverine were big steps in the right direction. And now Days of Future Past (a movie featuring a decidedly comic-book blend of ideas like dystopian future wars, period 70's political drama, giant robots, and the projection of consciousness back through time) has managed to recapture its predecessor's acclaim and success even in a post-Avengers world.

Now, that's what I call a Phoenix.

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