X Marks The Spot: Reviewing A Franchise, Part 2

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: First Class (2011)
Prequels are tricky things. On the one hand they can be illuminating glimpses of beloved characters’ backgrounds that deepen our appreciation of what made them who they are. Or they can just as easily devolve into cheap fan service that in the process alienates those same fans from the franchise.

Coming off of a certain Wolverine movie that shall remain execrable and unnamed here, the Executives In Charge remarkably decided to stay on the prequel route and brought back Bryan Singer as producer to ensure the continued health of the X-universe. Who better to reinvigorate the series than the man who gave it birth?

Though he passed on the director’s chair, handing the honour to Matthew Vaughn, Singer’s influence is probably why First Class reminds me so much of the original film. Again a mutant organizes his posse to declare war on ordinary humankind; again Charles Xavier tries to bring a loner with a painful past into a community. That parallel is actually quite remarkable when you think about it.

Now on my third viewing, I noticed this time around how much of the story deals with shades of grey. How much really separates good from evil? A few lines of genetic code separates human from mutant. A swastika is easily reversed into the X of the opening title. America and Russia are portrayed as but two sides of the same coin. And it only takes a small nudge to push Erik over the thin line that separates him from Shaw.

There’s an elegant poetry in that scene, my favourite in the movie. Erik kills Shaw and because of Charles’ psychic link to Shaw, he feels the horrible pain. His long and agonizing scream is possibly more than just physical; it beautifully illustrates how, in that act of base revenge, Erik is hurting Charles as much as he’s hurting Shaw. The tragedy is that Erik becomes the very person he has spent his whole life abhorring. He becomes exactly like Shaw in goal and in method.

There are obviously other things going on, but that was the main thing that struck me on this viewing.

 

 

The Wolverine (2013)
The first positive thing to say about this first solo Woverine movie (no, that other one doesn’t count…no, it doesn’t…SHUT UP) is that it’s beautifully photographed. More than once we’re given some very compelling images to linger on, frames that could be taken out of some illustrated book…like a comic or something. And in every action sequence, there’s never any doubt as to who is where and what the fighters are doing despite how fast it’s all moving. Too many of these films use too many quick cuts to give a false impression of speed, only generating confusion. The Wolverine nicely avoids that trap.

It was nice to see Logan’s trademark gallows humour in full swing. Whether it’s a quirk of personality or a defense mechanism he uses to keep people at arm’s length I’m not really sure, but the character wouldn’t be the same without it.

However, as I reflect on this second viewing, I realize this isn’t the truly definitive exploration of Wolverine’s character that we could have. The arc he’s supposedly given seems a bit muddled, at least to me.

The weak spot is Mariko. Logan has no purpose or direction but has plenty of guilt; he meets and falls in love with Mariko which gives him purpose and ultimately allows him to let go of Jean and thus the guilt. The problem is I never really buy him falling in love with Mariko. It feels contrived and devoid of emotion. Indeed the scene where they suddenly decide to hop into bed comes virtually out of nowhere. In a film that actually passes the Bechdel test and also features a majority non-white cast, having the male lead sleep with the woman he’s reluctantly protecting feels like traditional Hollywood asserting itself. Ultimately, it hurts Wolverine’s character arc, and thus the movie as a whole.

This is one of those times when you can see what could’ve been but isn’t, and it’s a little disappointing. But the movie still manages to be entertaining overall.

 

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
For fans and critics alike, the bar for the franchise was pretty much set by X2 back in 2003. Eleven years later…the series more than meets its own standards.

I’m going to come out and say it: this is the equal of Bryan Singer’s previous contribution. It might even surpass it.

The usual superhero stakes are taken to extreme heights: it isn’t just the world or people’s lives but history itself that needs saving. A war spawned by hatred and fear must be stopped before it ever began, and that leads to the element where Days of Future Past truly succeeds. Because it’s the emotional stakes that are higher than they’ve ever been. There’s a saying that if you want peace you must prepare for war. This movie makes the case that in fact you have to stop war from ever being prepared.

For me there are two lynchpin scenes that really ground the story. The first is the beautifully realized moment when Charles meets Charles. James McAvoy proves he can hold his own with Patrick Stewart as the older man, trapped amidst the rubble of a ruined world, actually shines his hope into the younger version of himself. That Xavier can still choose hope even while Sentinels tear down everyone he cares about is powerful. Indeed I think it brings home the fact that it’s Xavier and his dream for a better future — for mutant and human alike — that really holds the whole series together; it’s inspiring and life-giving. And makes for a very moving dialogue between the same character.

The second scene is when the younger Charles, now inspired by that glimpse of a better future, shares his hope with Mystique while she has a gun trained on Trask. He shows her the truth of what she faces: a choice of futures. In the end, what stops the war and saves the world isn’t Logan and isn’t Charles. It’s Mystique and her choice to drop the gun. If you want peace, you must first win the battle over people’s hearts long before they decide to prepare for war. I think Jennifer Lawrence did a great job of selling that inner struggle even through the heavy prosthetics. Which is good because the whole story depends on it.

And of course it’s wonderful to hear John Ottman’s awesome theme again, to admire the intercutting between two climactic battles, and to be awed by the setpiece of Magneto’s prison break. But the emotional force of the characters is what really makes Days of Future Past such a worthy entry in the franchise.

 

 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
When En Sabah Nur (also called Apocalypse) first enters Storm’s living room in Cairo, there’s a clip from an old show playing on the TV. Being an incredible nerd for that show I immediately recognized it as a scene from the Star Trek episode “Who Mourns For Adonais?”. That episode tells of an all-powerful being who was once worshipped as a god and wants to be again. It’s an elegant allusion across geek culture that directly mirrors the scene playing out in Storm’s living room. It speaks to Bryan Singer’s keen eye for subtlety.

So it’s a shame the rest of the movie displays almost no subtlety whatsoever.

I wrote about the emotional force of Days of Future Past. Unfortunately it’s here replaced with brute force. For all his mutant strength and ambition, Apocalypse is a rather unmemorable bad guy. He only wants one thing — absolute naked power — and it’s something he already possesses in spades. So he doesn’t need a scheme or a plot or even other people’s help; if someone has something he doesn’t, he just beats it out of them.

The result is that our heroes have no recourse except to try to punch him. Over and over again. They can’t come up with any clever plan of their own to counter his because he has no clever plan. There’s no battle of wits, no contest of willpower, no moral dilemma or ethical quandary. Just a WWE championship match…and because we know who the heel is, we know who’s going to win before the opening titles roll. It makes for a somewhat dull and plodding film, where the attempts to bring some genuine character arcs end up getting lost.

And don’t get me started on the whole Stryker subplot. That just came out of nowhere and did nothing except give us a useless Wolverine cameo. How that was left in the script is beyond me.

Not that there’s nothing to like. Some very clever and even powerful dialogue comes to mind, including an awesome callback to the last lines of the very first film. But overall, this is the weakest entry since The Last Stand. Harsh judgment, I know. But that’s how I see it.

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