Apr 29, 2018
Franchise Evolution: Which X-Men movie is the best?
With Days of Future Past, the newest installment in the X-Men franchise nearly upon us, I thought I’d take a look at the film that kicked things off fourteen years ago, along with all the sequels/offshoots that came after.
Truth be told, the A-list superheroes have never been my go-to for comic book inspired entertainment. While I enjoy Batman for the most part, I just get a bigger kick out of the B-list guys like the Punisher, Swamp Thing, and super old-school guys like the Phantom and the Shadow.
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Hell, probably the main reason I enjoy the current spate of Marvel films is that they’ve essentially taken second-tier heroes (face it, before 2008, who gave a crap about Iron Man or Thor outside of die-hard fans?) and characters who have lost their luster (Hulk and Captain America) and made them enjoyable.
Much of Marvel’s success can be attributed to finding the right balance between telling a solid, serious story and remembering that at the end of the day, superhero movies should be fun. You can have the best, most expertly constructed dramatic script ever written, with the best cast and f/x that money can buy, but if you suck all the fun out of it, what’s the goddamn point?
And this isn’t even me taking a shot at the Dark Knight movies (well, maybe the third one) or Man of Steel; this is simply me speaking as a fan of blockbuster filmmaking who hates to see a perfectly enjoyable concept bogged down by a complete lack of humor. Christ, even something like Batman Returns, which is about as dark as a superhero film can get without going full-bore Chris Nolan on it, tries like hell to keep things somewhat amusing. It doesn’t always succeed, but it tries!
This brings us to our first movie. In a very real way, for all of its faults, X-Men paved the way for the superhero boom of the last fourteen years. It includes most of the tropes we’ve come to expect: an all-star cast, flashy f/x, and tons of action. Let’s see how it holds up.
Things begin with a nice voiceover about mutation from Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and we quickly segue into the backstory portion of our show. Thankfully, director Bryan Singer keeps things moving at a decent clip here, which is a good thing, since we’ve got a buttload of characters to introduce in this movie’s 104-minute runtime. Actually, it’s even less than that, since the credits last about nine minutes, so we really have 96 minutes or so to work with. So it’s no coincidence that one of this movie’s main issues is having a definite rushed feeling.
First up is Magneto, played as an adult by Ian McKellen. His backstory means this may be the only summer blockbuster to ever begin in a Nazi death camp (at least until First Class). After young Mags pulls a fence open with his powers, we cut to present day Mississippi (or as the caption puts it, the “not-too-distant future”). We’re introduced to Marie (Anna Paquin) as she inadvertently puts her boyfriend in a coma by kissing him.
Marie will eventually become Rogue, and she has the power to absorb the life force/mutant powers of anyone she touches. So to sum up, in the first few minutes we’ve seen a Nazi death camp and maybe the worst date you could possibly have.
Rogue runs off to Canada, where she meets Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and after an attack from the ferocious Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), they’re rescued by Storm (Halle Berry) and Cyclops (James Marsden), and the actual plot of the movie gets rolling.
While all this is happening, we’re introduced to a few more main players (the big problem with having a team movie this short is that there’s so little time for the actual story), namely: Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and the adult Magneto. They’re all at a congressional hearing where Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) is proposing the Mutant Registration Act.
Said piece of legislation is the key plot point of the film, as well as the purpose of an upcoming international summit to be held at Ellis Island. Magneto plans to use a machine he’s built to induce mutations in regular humans at the summit, with the idea that making all the leaders of the world into mutants will somehow solve the problems between mutants and humans.
Wolverine and the others find out what Magneto is up to, and after Charles is put in a coma when Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) infiltrates his school and sabotages his mind-reading machine Cerebro, the climax begins. It’s a fairly solid, spectacular finale with some great action, but much like the rest of the movie, it feels a little too rushed.
The cast is solid, as one would expect with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen leading their respective teams. Hugh Jackman makes for a fine Wolverine, James Marsden does well enough with the little he’s given as Cyclops, and Famke Janssen is good as Jean Grey. Bruce Davison is also pretty good as Sen. Kelly, but he ends up coming off as such a despicable piece of shit that his eventual death makes you sort of cheer, and I’m not sure that’s what the film was going for. I also enjoy Rebecca Romijn’s take on Mystique.
The film has plenty of cool moments: The interplay between Wolverine and Cyclops has some enjoyable stuff during the climax (steel claws and a metal detector make for some fun laughs). And even with the bad joke at the end, when Storm comes up from an elevator shaft to kick Toad’s ass, it’s pretty damn great. Also, McKellen has a blast as Magneto, and you almost find yourself rooting for the bastard at points.
And with the relatively modest budget of $75 million, X-Men still manages to look top-notch.
While the cast members mentioned above are just fine, there are some issues with the others. Halle Berry doesn’t really make much of an impression as Storm, Anna Paquin is just sort of there as Rogue (she’s actually the key to Magneto’s plan, but that sort of ends up making her more of a prop than a character), and Tyler Mane’s version of Sabretooth is really just dumb muscle, which is sort of disappointing when you look at how good Liev Schreiber is in the same role nine years later.
Like I said, the film seems way too compressed at times, with a bunch of characters that need intros, and as a result the main plot ends up coming off as sort of arbitrary.
As for the infamous one-liner when Storm offs Toad (Ray Park), I’m of two minds on it. On the one hand, considering the rest of the humor in the film works pretty well, one dud of a joke is hardly the worst thing in the world. On the other hand, a big superhero movie is probably not the best place to try out “non-humor humor”, and that joke is just plain bad.
Final rating: 7.5/10
In the sequel, the team is fighting against evil government operative William Stryker (Brian Cox), who plans to steal Cerebro, the machine Professor X uses to find mutants, and use it to kill them instead. Magneto and Mystique are also back, and a good portion of the film revolves around the two forces working together to stop Stryker and find out the connection between Wolverine and the villain.
With a larger budget and a 134-minute running time, the second film is an improvement over the first in many ways, and in a few ways slightly worse.
The film makes good use of its expanded scope, achieving a nice balance between the characters (though Cyclops still gets the short end of the stick) and making it seem like an actual team movie, which the first one ended up doing fairly well.
The action is even better, particularly with a raid on Xavier’s mansion by Stryker’s men which sees Wolverine get a chance to really let loose (in a PG-13 way, naturally), and also with a pretty good finale at the compound where Wolverine was essentially “created”.
Aside from the cast members I mentioned in the first film, the best actor here is Brian Cox as Stryker. Alan Cumming has a good first scene as Nightcrawler, but if you really look at it, he’s not here for any solid reason related to the rest of the film. It’s a fairly blatant bit of pandering towards the fan base, which is something the franchise tends to fall back on a lot.
Cox, however, does a solid bit of acting as Stryker, and while he’s a little too evil to be believed, the actor does his job well. Though, I’m not sure why every time the man plays an American he sports a Southern accent.
McKellen also has some great bits, mainly his prison escape.
While it’s true the film ramps everything up as far as the good stuff goes, the same can also be said for the stuff that just doesn’t work. The film is ridiculously heavy-handed at times, the worst bit being when Wolverine, Rogue, and Iceman/Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore), having escaped the raid on the mansion, hide out at Bobby’s house. His parents come home, and it’s here we get a cringe-inducing line where Bobby essentially “comes out” as a mutant to his folks.
Mama Drake: Have you ever tried not being a mutant?
Jesus, maybe it’s just the line reading the actress gives, but the only way this scene could be less subtle is if Wolverine suddenly broke into a song and dance routine. Hey, the guy playing Wolvy could do it, too.
I get that the whole X-Men thing is an allegory for tolerance and stuff, but come on! If Bryan Singer eased up on bludgeoning us with the plot sledgehammer a bit, this would be my favorite of the series.
I’m also not 100% wild about Magneto deciding, just for shits and grins, to try and get Professor X to kill all the humans as opposed to the mutants as Stryker planned. It’s not out of character, and he’s certainly enough of a vindictive shithead to do it, but for some reason it just feels like a tacked-on bit of business to extend the finale a few more minutes.
Final rating: 8/10
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The third X-Men film is a huge step down from the first two. Running roughly the same time as the first one, it clumsily tries to tell two different stories based on notable comic storylines: one, a tale about a “cure” for mutants, and the other, a dark tale of Jean Grey’s resurrection as an evil, uncontrollable force.
The film does have some good points amidst the general mess that is the screenplay. The action is solid as usual, with a nice final battle, and the spectacle of Magneto moving the Golden Gate Bridge is quite a showstopper. The cast is also solid enough, with Kelsey Grammer making for an enjoyable Beast. Ellen Page is also pretty good as Kitty Pryde.
There are a lot, so I’ll try to condense my thoughts down, hopefully with greater success than the script’s attempts to condense down the stories it’s trying to tell.
If we’re going to talk about the problems of this movie, there’s no better place to begin than with the script. While it’s entirely possible that the two storylines could have been combined into a compelling movie, the writers, apparently hampered by studio demands, ended up giving the darker storyline with Jean Grey short shrift. They only use it to set up the film, give Patrick Stewart a nice death scene (which of course doesn’t take), and apart from a few bits here and there, Jean is relegated to just standing and watching the final battle until it’s over, at which point she begins to destroy things until Wolverine kills her, in an admittedly effective scene.
As for the cure portion of the script, it’s done in a rather haphazard, superficial manner, with neither side really coming off as anything more than a plot construct. This has the unfortunate effect of taking a rather good story idea and rendering it essentially pointless.
Another side effect of the muddled script is there are far too many characters clogging things up. Rogue is more useless than she was in the second movie, where at least she flew the plane to rescue the heroes at the end of the movie. Storm is given very little to do in spite of Halle Berry requesting exactly that, and Cyclops suffers the ultimate indignity, with only two short scenes and an off-screen death. This was due to the actor being cast in Superman Returns, as if we needed more reasons to dislike that movie.
The villains are also affected by this, with Mystique being taken out of the plot after getting hit with the cure, and Magneto coming off slightly less balanced than before. He was an asshole in the other two films, but here, it’s nowhere near as subtle. Vinnie Jones as the Juggernaut is also sort of wasted, though it is fun seeing him get his ass handed to him by a 5’1” girl built like a twig.
At the end of the day, I can’t even blame director Brett Ratner for this. Sure, he wasn’t a fan of the comics, but to be frank, sometimes having a fan onboard only makes things worse. Ratner is really just a director for hire, though not an entirely incompetent one. His rep as a hack is not something I latch onto either, as I feel that term is grossly overused and a poor substitute for simply saying you don’t like his work.
Really, the blame has to be laid at the feet of the screenwriters, who bit off a hell of a lot more than they could chew, and ended up delivering a muddled mess of a story. It’s pretty to look at, but that’s about all.
Final rating: 6/10, because the f/x were good, and I’m a generous fella… and Ellen Page is cute.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
The first solo outing for Wolverine is really just a dumb, cheesy summer action movie. Wolverine’s origin is told here (I know, with that title, it comes as a huge shock), and it’s pretty much like every other superhero backstory: Less than ideal childhood, lots of angst, and an f/x budget that takes up half the film’s budget.
We follow our hero and his feral, sort of psychotic half-brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) through several wars, until they’re taken in by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston), who’s heading a special ops team full of mutants. After killing time with them for a while, Wolvy ditches them and makes a peaceful life for himself with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins).
Naturally, this lasts for about fifteen minutes until Victor comes looking for his brother, and eventually, Wolverine is injected with the metal that makes his bone claws into what we’re used to seeing. The rest of the film is Wolverine looking for revenge, not only against Victor, but also Stryker, who’s just using him as well as kidnapping other mutants.
Believe it or not, there are some. The title sequence with Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting in different wars is cool. Ryan Reynolds is amusing in his small role as the future Deadpool. Some of the action scenes are pretty damn good, and if you leave your brain at the door and ignore the comics, it’s actually fairly entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way.
I also sort of like Huston’s take on Stryker a little more than Brian Cox in the second film. It’s a little more layered and not as hysterically evil, though both performances are quite good. It also might be that given how “just sort of there” most of the performances are, Huston’s work is able to stand out from the pack.
As with any guilty pleasure, whether it be a film or otherwise, the simple truth is that what we’re gleaning entertainment from here is essentially crap. The story is not that great, the performances, as I noted, are just sort of there, the last act is actually pretty stupid, and the end result is something quite disappointing. Not unwatchable, mind you. But very, very underwhelming.
Final rating: 6.5/10
X-Men: First Class (2011)
After the massive letdown that was the third movie, as well as the substandard Wolverine film, a decision was made to make the next X-Men movie something a little different. Set in the early Sixties, X-Men: First Class sports a clever script, a decent pace, and a high-caliber cast and special effects.
First off, the script for this one is probably the best of the entire franchise. Inventive in the way it blends its story with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, it doesn’t strain itself trying to hammer home a message. Rather, it simply tells a good, entertaining comic book story, with a relatively serious tone that still remembers to have fun.
Performances are respectable across the board, with James McAvoy as Professor X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and Kevin Bacon as main baddie Sebastian Shaw all delivering the goods.
Outside of maybe a little repetition that’s inevitable when doing an origin story in a series that already had one, there isn’t a hell of a lot I can really gripe about. At least, nothing major.
Final rating: 9/10
The Wolverine (2013)
In his second solo outing, Wolverine goes to Japan to pay his respects to a man he saved during World War II. Many mutant shenanigans and betrayals ensue. Not really too much depth to get into, really. Not for lack of trying, but anyway…
The first ten minutes are pretty good. And also, um… Well, the day I saw this, I had two really good slices of New York-style pizza afterwards, so that’s a plus. One was buffalo chicken, which is just a brilliant thing to combine with pizza, which is already the perfect… Wait, what were we talking about again?
Oh, right, the movie! Actually, the film is somewhat better than the first Wolverine, mainly because the first one was such a washout. The story, based on a Chris Claremont/Frank Miller graphic novel, is pretty neat for the first third or so, with Wolverine being presented with a tempting offer of becoming mortal from a Japanese man he saved during the war.
It turns out to be something of a conspiracy, as the man Wolverine saved actually wants to take our hero’s regenerating abilities for himself in order to live longer, and is willing to do anything to get them, while Wolverine has to protect the man’s granddaughter Mariko from the Yakuza. The premise sets itself up nicely for some decent Wolverine action, and while we do get some, it’s not quite enough to make this a good action movie. The action is strong though, with a fun train fight and some other worthwhile bits here and there.
While the first act works well, the rest of the film sort of drags. Even with a quick pace and a goodly amount of action, the film seems a little on the tired side, with some bad CGI in the finale as Wolverine takes on a cheesy mechanical version of the old Silver Samurai villain. Also, there’s a freaky snake lady mutant named Viper who’s really just here so that Wolverine’s sidekick Yukio has something to do during the finale (besides looking like a live-action anime character).
Final rating: 7/10
And that’s the X-Men series. As a whole, the franchise is something of a mixed bag, to put it kindly. The first is a good starter; the second film is solid when it’s not smashing you over the head with itself, and the third installment manages to be disappointingly superficial.
The two Wolverine movies are equally mixed bags, though I have to say both are acceptable time wasters. Does this mean that First Class is the best of the entire franchise? Well, not having Bryan Singer at the helm shoving a message down our throats helped, and even at 132 minutes, it goes by in a flash and doesn’t bash you over the head with allegory and symbolism.
So yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and say First Class is the best of the franchise. It’s more focused, generally more easygoing, and a hell of a lot of fun.
As for Days of Future Past? We’ll see. The trailers look spectacular, but then, that’s the point of them. Hopefully, it’s worth the seven bucks I plan to spend on it.
The final ranking:
- X-Men: First Class
- The Wolverine
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine
- X-Men: The Last Stand