Monday, December 12, 2016

X-Watch: X-Men & X2 - X-Men United (2000 & 2003)

I had no intention of watching either of these movies this weekend, but we have basic cable and they were on.  I have no further real explanation for what happened.  I guess after watching X-Men: Apocalypse, it was just x-destined to x-be.

At this point, watching these early X-films serves as an interesting view of the state of the art for superhero films circa 2000 and 2003.

One mission I have for this site is to be the old guy telling the kids how it was back in the day - and if you're not pushing 40, you're not old enough to remember what breakthrough movies the first two X-films were for superhero comic books moving to the big screen.  It's hard to understand in a universe with an Ant-Man movie what it was like to see Marvel's cinematic efforts suddenly take off after decades of embarrassing and half-assed attempts.  It still wasn't Iron Man, which would totally change the game, but it was significant.

X-Men (2000) arrived shortly after Blade (1998) made a little-known (even by comic fans) character into a pretty great cinematic action hero.  It didn't hurt that Wesley Snipes was pretty awesome in the role and he killed so, so many draculas.  I still remember how nuts the crowd went for Blade when I saw it opening weekend, cheering and yelling in all the right places.

I was cautiously optimistic about X-Men.  I knew director Bryan Singer from his 90's-classic Usual Suspects, a crime thriller that had garnered good reviews and rode the hip-crime-movie wave started by Tarantino to pretty great box office.  It seemed inconceivable a superhero movie would receive a director of that sort as "serious" directors did not take on superheroes, or - at least they made it clear it was a lark for a paycheck.

But clearly X-Men was different.

Years of comics reading had told me that the X-books had so many characters and such a degree of complexity, bringing them to the masses would be a challenge.  It was and it is, as evidenced by how that's shaken out over 10 movies.

X-Men probably was a clunky movie even upon it's release, and it bears a lot of the trappings of overly-expository dialog that marked superhero films.  As arguably the first "team book" movie there was a lot to squeeze in, so you wind up with Professor X telling Logan "this is Ororo Munroe, also known as 'Storm'".  Which, really, is a weird thing to say, but we do not have all day here to explain code-names as mutant-pride identifiers.

What makes the movie maybe truly different, and what pointed the way for what was to come (and which Raimi did pretty darn well in 2002's Spider-Man) was that the movie treated the characters like... characters, not card-board cut-outs.  Rogue is a girl who is experiencing something alien and scary, and Logan responds with humanity and a nuanced kindness.  This is not superhero action figures bopping against each other.  Look, I like The Shadow and Batman, but the character bits are mostly broad strokes, intentionally so.  Back then, it was considered a "cartoon universe", so what was the point of "acting"*?

I'd argue that Donner piloted real characterization with Superman, but Superman's relationship to everyone takes place at a distance (which is kind of the point of his character's inner issues).  And maybe it's not a huge surprise that Donner is listed as an Executive Producer on X-Men, and his wife, Lauren Schuler Donner, is a producer on ALL of the X-movies.  One can assume a few conversations took place at the Donner household about superheroes before X-Men went before the lens.

The first X-Men now looks small in scope, and even by 2003, X2: X-Men United is a far greater achievement of superhero movie making.  It melds character development and humanity in with the sci-fi goings-on at a better level, provides the soap opera romantic elements of melodrama that give it emotional pull (and why X-Men played so well for so long as a comic with this sort of thing going on in the pages, unlike so many other comics), and it all feels far less slip shod and ridiculous.  And - the characters are no longer winking at the camera in any way to tell you how this is *not* a ridiculous comic book film.

And that's a fairly major thing.  Unless you were Godfather II or The Empire Strikes Back, sequels were never better than the original, and usually a mild embarrassment that could kill any devotion the original engendered.  But by the 00's, the studios and the Gen-X'ers coming in as directors and writers knew this was a problem to be solved, not to just roll over for the inevitable shaming by critics.  Freed from exposition, X2 could build on the premise set forth in the original.

There's some much better writing, if not acting, in X2, and in particular I've always like the mini-arc for Pyro in the movie.  It makes 100% sense, and you can see why folks would jump ship to Magneto's squad.  Brian Cox is appropriately awful as Stryker, and Alan Cumming was really perfectly cast for Nightcrawler.

You can tell where the level of fan-service was at the time as plenty of easter-eggs show up, from characters clearly supposed to be some version of a known X-Man, from Colossus to Syren to seeing Multiple-Man's name pop up on a screen.  But then they strip Lady Deathstrike of any character, killing her off without ever really coming close to doing anything with her - and you're reminded of both how much stuff they shoved into these movies without explanation, and how much movies used to blow off critical details from the comics as they brought characters to the big screen.  Hell, I spent ten minutes explaining Mystique-in-the-comics to Jamie today, and she's seen every one of these movies a couple of times.

Both X-Men and X2 still have huge issues as far as giving humanity every damn reason in the world to want to lock up or eradicate every mutant on Earth.  After all, Professor X almost kills literally every human on the planet with a super-migraine, and the Secret Service realizes they're useless against even one motivated mutant.  And, to top it off, the X-Men then storm the damn White House and threaten the President, sort of.

It's hard to ignore the continuity glitches between these first two movies and the most recent three than Lucas created in his Star Wars films (which, yurgh), and I'd like to hear something other than "fan theories" as to what happened there.

"Not giving a @#$%" is a totally reasonable answer, but, man, it really makes you appreciate how seldom this sort of thing happens in the Marvel U proper movies across however many dozen movies they've got now.

Unrelated - I am surprised Famke Janssen didn't blow up a bit more after her turn as Jean Grey, but she does have some solid parts on legit TV shows to her credit from the past decade or so, so it's not like she's living out of a cardboard box somewhere.  I just don't watch the shows she's on.

Anyway, it's fascinating to see how fast superhero movies were changing once Singer pulled the plug off.  I still think he was operating with terrifically good intentions as per "superhero characters as characters" with Superman Returns, but somehow he forgot "they have to punch something, too".

*I refer you to that one scene in Batman Returns again to point out what could have been.


Simon MacDonald said...

I remember liking X-Men but thinking Hugh Jackman was too tall for Wolverine but I guess you can't have everything. It introduced us to Sir's Patrick Stewart and Ian MckEllen who brought a certain amount of gravitas to what could be a really silly movie.

Then X2 came out and I was blown away. So much good stuff in that movie and the camp was turned down so we didn't have to suffer through Sabertooth and Toad from the first movie. As you said they really didn't do much with Lady Deathstrike but William Stryker was a terrifying villain for mutant kind.

Also, it is the best representation of Wolverine ever to make it onto film. The scene in which Stryker's goons attack the mansion and Wolverine has to protect the kids while mowing down soldiers is one of my favourites. Not because I glorify in the violence of it all but it seems really true to his character. As it is an homage to X-Men #133 "Wolverine Alone", well that doesn't hurt one bit at all.

Too bad they've really never recaptured that glory of X2 for Wolverine. Pretty much every other movie he's used in he's kinda wasted/neutered. I am cautiously optimistic for Logan but I'm not holding my breath.

The League said...

Hugh Jackman is about as good of a Wolverine as we were likely to get in a movie, I suppose. They were never going to cast a Tom Cruise-heighted person, and of course he'd need to be more handsome than the comics suggest, but he was more like Wolverine in spirit (and without extra layers of cheese the cartoons pour on) than I expected. And as much as Wolverine became over-exposed and mucked about with, it was nice (and still is) to see a version that's basically intact and gets at why the character works to begin with.

But, oh my God, does Wolverine kill so many people in these movies.