X Marks The Spot: Reviewing A Franchise, Part 1

In the buildup to the release of Logan, Hugh Jackman’s much-touted swan song as the Wolverine, I decided to rewatch the entire X-Men movie franchise. Reviewing it wasn’t part of the plan, but I found myself spontaneously writing one off-the-cuff for the first film. After that it only seemed fair to do the same for the others. Here they are collected in one place. Spoilers abound, if you need the warning.

 

X-Men (2000)
I wasn’t into it when it first came out like everyone else was. Didn’t even see it in theatres. Of course I’ve come to appreciate it since and I even own the original trilogy on Blu-ray. On every rewatching, I’m always pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s a solidly good film. Expertly crafted and designed with all the right actors and a satisfying script. It’s no surprise that the movie spawned not only its own sequels, but the emergence of superheroes into everyday entertainment.

Key to that ripple effect was Hugh Jackman’s performance as Wolverine. I have a theory that every film franchise needs a “hook” character in order to survive at the box office; that’s really what draws people back. Wolverine is that character and I don’t think anyone would give me an argument!

We meet him through Rogue’s eyes, and the extended introduction tells us just enough to keep us intrigued. He’s clearly tough and macho, but also willing to help a stranger in need; he isn’t sentimental, but he is a good man. The now iconic piece of dialogue (“When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”) along with the rundown camper van manages to suggest his inner pain…but also increases the mystery. Who is this lone wolf that wanders the earth?

It turns out that even he doesn’t really know, and this search is what keeps him moving. And ultimately propels us into the sequel…

 
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Like most sequels, this one goes bigger. Unlike most sequels it isn’t with bigger effects and explosions. Instead it goes bigger with the characters and with the stakes.

Wolverine was undoubtedly the main focus of the first film, and while here his past is the narrative’s primary impetus, there’s a lot more going on. Apropos of the subtitle this is much more of an ensemble piece. Everyone (or almost everyone) has their own little subplot and backstory, sometimes more implied than explicit. And for the most part everyone has very personal motivations for what they do; especially Stryker.

Ultimately, the real villain of the piece is not so much a person as a concept: war against the “other”, against anyone you can make unhuman and different. Both Stryker and Magneto may commit terrible acts–but they do so out of fear of each other and pride in themselves, not true evil. In the end the world stands at a crossroads with the future uncertain. That’s brave territory for a superhero film to explore, and I like it a lot.

And it’s all about the details in this movie. The claw marks on a pillar as Logan walks into the lab where he was ‘made’; the attack on the White House, which is much more about editing and precise shots rather than effects; even Deathstrike’s demise strikes a note of sadness and she doesn’t even get a word of dialogue in the entire film. That’s just sheer craftsmanship. No wonder it’s considered the best of the franchise.

 

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
I normally try to find the good in things. That includes books, movies, and other entertainment. Usually the people who produce such things have good intentions and it’s possible for those good intentions to shine through even if the end product fails to satisfy.

This movie has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Everything that X2 was, The Last Stand is not. That film gave multiple characters their own little arcs while Wolverine’s story provided the narrative ‘glue’. Here it’s as if there are no characters, only plot devices. People don’t act consistently with how we’ve come to know them, they only act the way the plot needs them to act.

The chief victim of this character assassination is Jean Grey–ironically it happens just as she’s resurrected. While Dark Phoenix is supposed to be one of the greatest storylines in the comics, you’d never know it from this movie. She comes back from the dead as the Phoenix to…literally stand there. And kill a lot of people including Cyclops and Xavier. But mostly just to stand there doing nothing until it’s time for her to die, her minimal service to the plot having apparently been accomplished. Just what that was remains a mystery.

If the overall narrative fails to please, surely there might be at least a few brief moments, lines of dialogue perhaps, where those good intentions can shine? No. Every joke feels contrived and hokey. Every moment that should carry some weight only falls flat. And all of it is about as subtle as the Juggernaut ramming through walls.

The air’s been let out of the balloon on virtually every level. Such a waste.

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