X-Men Films

Tagged: Film

A series of sf Superhero films based on the Marvel Comics series X-Men originally by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with many subsequent authors (see below). As a sequence, the films fall significantly short of narrative coherence or due balance, due to contractual, directorial and casting issues as well as the seismically unstable foliation of the underlying Marvel Comics universe. Retcons, general prequelitis and more random inconsistencies follow inevitably; as well as a tendency to indulge, without humour, in the sin of incompossibility – the impossibility of two events logically existing in the same reality, very noticeable in number 6 below – intensifies a sense that normal Hollywood opportunism has left the rails.

But as individual films viewed in isolation generate even more severe confusion, with few reliable narrative signposts to guide late-coming viewers, we present the X-Men films here in order of release. It should be remembered, however, that the pleasures afforded by the series, in lieu of any aesthetic joy gained in attempting to grasp the overall structure, tend to manifest themselves in the form of vignettes and self-contained episodes. These pleasures can be considerable.

1. X-Men Film (2000). Twentieth Century Fox in association with Marvel Entertainment Group. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by David Hayter, based on X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cast includes Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin and Patrick Stewart. 104 minutes. Colour.

Surprisingly successful at distilling forty years of Comics mythology, X-Men discards the more fanciful adventures of the Superhero team, and attempts a relatively serious plot free of post-modern whimsy, albeit retaining the ridiculous genetic mutations that mark the characters as the brainchildren of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

X-Men pares its titular team down to the bare essentials, while keeping their spirit. In a Near Future America, increasingly powerful Mutants prompt calls for their forcible registration from a fearful population of "normal" humans. One such mutant, Wolverine (Jackman) becomes surrogate father to teenage runaway Rogue (Paquin), and together they find shelter with the wise and powerful mutant leader Charles Xavier (Stewart) and his students. The film then presents the two opposed philosophies of the mutants. The "X-Men" believe in peaceful coexistence with ordinary humans, while the followers of holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr alias Magneto (McKellen) want to assert mutants' rights decisively and violently.

Opening with a chilling flashback to a Nazi concentration camp, X-Men is a little heavy-handed in its parallels between mutants and existing real-world cultural minorities, and fails properly to address an upsetting inference readily derivable from this feel-good parallel: that real-world cultural minorities are in fact biologically distinct from "normal" humans. But its attempt to grapple at all with such issues helps make it a more sophisticated work of science fiction than most Superhero films. The leads are in the main well cast and played, and add a much needed sense of gravitas to the fairly silly, if well directed, set-pieces – including modestly exorbitant climactic scenes set at the Statue of Liberty, which has been emblematically threatened with destruction. While not a masterpiece, X-Men is successful both in transferring the comics to the screen and in establishing an interesting world ripe for expansion in sequels. The routine novelization is X-Men (2000) by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. [JN]

2. X2 Film (2003; vt X2: X-Men United, X-Men 2, X-Men 2: X-Men United). Twentieth Century Fox presents in association with Marvel Enterprises, Inc, The Donners' Company and Bad Hat Harry production. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, David Hayter, based on X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cast includes Halle Berry, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. 133 minutes. Colour.

In this longer, more expensive and more ambitious sequel to 1: X-Men (2000), the X-Men are threatened by rogue military scientist Colonel Stryker (Cox), who seeks to eradicate all of the Mutant kind. The misunderstood heroes ally themselves with their nemesis Magneto (McKellen) and defeat Stryker before making a plea with the US President for tolerance between human and mutant.

Having completed the exhausting business of introducing the numerous stars of the franchise in X-Men, the creators are free to attempt a more complicated plot, loosely based on the Graphic Novel God Loves, Man Kills (Marvel Graphic Novel #5, April 1982) written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Brent Anderson. As in the first film, there are too many characters to give each one enough plot to justify their presence. This gives the movie a somewhat disjointed feel as it jumps from character to character, although each plot strand is individually well crafted. The theme of difference is again examined, but whereas X-Men's story suggested a parallel with racial minorities, X2's social allegory suggests similarities with alternative sexualities. One character has a witty "coming-out" scene with his parents: "Have you tried ... not being a mutant?" his mother plaintively asks, while another father rejects his mutant son as an abomination.

Like the first film and numerous Pulp-magazine sf stories, X2's plot relies on a Pseudoscientific deadly machine capable of killing billions; making it more plausible as social than as technological science fiction. Although the special effects don't draw attention to themselves, they are very strong throughout. The movie was a success both with general audiences and fans of the comics – as whatever liberties taken with the X-Men mythology were made up for by the multitude of cameos and in-jokes for aficionados. The novelization is X-Men 2 (2003) by Chris Claremont. [JN]

3. X-Men: The Last Stand Film (2006). Twentieth Century Fox in association with Marvel Entertainment presents a Donners' Company production. Directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn, based on the Marvel Comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cast includes Shawn Ashmore, Halle Berry, Ben Foster, Kelsey Grammer, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn and Patrick Stewart. 99 minutes. Colour.

After the well-received 2: X2 (2003; vt X2: X-Men United, X-Men 2, X-Men 2: X-Men United), a seemingly unbeatable recipe – the series' outstanding cast let loose at last on two of the strongest storylines in the X-Men canon (the "Dark Phoenix" saga from John Byrne's run on the title and the cure for mutation from Joss Whedon's), with a screenplay from two of the most able and experienced comics adapters – became a massive disappointment as a result of hasty writing and production to make the studio's release date and work around the availabilities of its increasingly busy cast. After Bryan Singer left to make Superman Returns – he would eventually return to the franchise he created with 6: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Whedon was approached to direct, but declined, in part because of the intimidatingly rapid production schedule; Matthew Vaughn signed on but withdrew during pre-production for the same reasons (he would later do the same on Thor [2011], only to make 5: X-Men: First Class [2011] to an even tighter schedule); Ratner stepped in very late and was unfairly pilloried for the film's manifold failings, which were entirely institutional and structural. Penn and Kinberg (neither of them habitual collaborators) had originally been hired to write competing drafts, but joined forces in united resistance to the studio's sense of what the film needed, which did not initially include the Dark Phoenix storyline at all – though even the writers felt obliged to scale down its original cosmic grandeur to match the tone of the franchise. Despite their efforts, the film became something of an object lesson in how not to manage large ensemble franchises; Marsden's very limited availability saw fan favourite Cyclops killed off early (offscreen), provoking widespread fan outrage, while Paquin's Rogue was marginalized from the main story for similar reasons. New players Grammer, Page, and Foster (as Beast, Kitty Pryde, and Angel) refresh the Mutant team agreeably, but the two storylines signally fail to knit together in the climax in a much battered San Francisco (see California), with Janssen's Phoenix bafflingly inert (and silent) while the Magneto story is in play. The novelization is X-Men The Last Stand (2006) by Chris Claremont. [NL]

4. X-Men Origins: Wolverine Film (2009). Twentieth Century Fox in association with Marvel Entertainment presents a Donners' Company/Seed Productions production in association with Dune Entertainment. Directed by Gavin Hood. Written by David Benioff and Skip Woods. Cast includes Lynn Collins, Danny Huston, Hugh Jackman, Ryan Reynolds, Liev Schreiber and Patrick Stewart (uncredited). 107 minutes. Colour.

In this version of the Wolverine origin story, a prequel to the original X-Men film trilogy, Wolverine/Logan (Jackman) and Victor Creed/Sabertooth (Schreiber) are Mutant brothers, born in the 1830s, who leave home after Logan's Superpowers contribute to an Oedipal tragedy; they fight side by side in the wars of that century and the next, ultimately ending up as mercenaries in the employ of William Stryker (Huston) alongside versions of other mutant characters from the X-Men universe, before Logan retires in disgust at the killing of civilians and lives in obscurity as a lumberjack with Kayla Silverfox (Collins). When Kayla is apparently killed by Victor, Logan allows Stryker to weaponize his skeleton and talons with adamantium so that he can take revenge; Victor and Kayla turn out to be in league with Stryker, who has collected young mutants including Scott Summers/Cyclops to build the supermutant Deadpool (Reynolds) from one of Logan's former comrades in arms.

After cast contracts ran out on the original X-Men film series (see 3 above: X-Men: The Last Stand), Fox set a number of plates spinning to keep the franchise active, including a slate of prequels focusing on individual characters under the "Origins" banner: first a solo outing for proven favourite Wolverine, to be followed by films spotlighting a young, recast Magneto and the thitherto unexploited Deadpool. Benioff's early drafts of the Wolverine script began in the present day and made Victor merely a serial exterminator of mutants, but the concept was significantly expanded to add a non-canonical sibling relationship, a century and a half of pre-credits backstory, and a higher-profile supporting cast from the comics, with a new ending built somewhat awkwardly around Deadpool. Jackman gives his best performance of the franchise, inhabiting his signature role with impressive command and charisma, but the expansion of the Immortal character's pre-Amnesiac history back to the 1840s presents challenges that a mere credits montage cannot easily deal with, and the dialogue is often profoundly inadequate. As a solo vehicle, it misses the deft ensemble plotting and dynamics of its parent series, and the film's lukewarm reception saw elements of the Magneto film merged into the new team franchise 5: X-Men: First Class (2011) and 6: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and the Deadpool film returned to development limbo; but Wolverine himself survived as a sub-franchise, though only one further film has so far appeared, The Wolverine (2013) (see Darren Aronofsky). Except for a short epilogue trailing 6 below, this film made no reference to the main franchise. [NL]

5. X-Men: First Class Film (2011). Twentieth Century Fox in association with Marvel Entertainment and Dune Entertainment. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz, and Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman; story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer. Cast includes Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy. 132 minutes. Colour.

After the X-Men Origins prequel brand's shaky start with 4: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), a follow-up Magneto vehicle was merged with an originally separate team-prequel project by original 1: X-Men (2000) and 2: X2 (2003) director Singer, only for Singer to leave the project and Vaughn (who had previously walked from 3: X-Men: The Last Stand [2006] late in pre-production, after storyboarding the entire film; see Thor [2011]) recruited to fix the script and shoot the film with barely a year to the locked-down release date. The resulting film is a mess, but carries it off quite well. An origin story weaving the team's establishment into a secret history of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, it revisits the historical moment of the modern Superhero's creation in a narrative that traces the coming-together of its disassembled constituent elements from cold-war spy mythology, mid-century sf fantasies of next-step Evolution (see Superman), and the Sputnik-era fetishization of Technology. As an X-Men film it is hobbled by the constraints of continuity with the original trilogy's present-day setting, which left most of the canonical characters from the lineup unavailable (in contrast to the unrelated Marvel Comics miniseries of the same title from 2006-2007, which featured the original 1963 team). The film consequently centres on younger versions of Professor X, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast with a supporting cast of D-list figures from the edge of canon, in a highly assembled plot that bears the familiar scars of heavy development by multiple hands in not enough time. But the execution is stylish and the performances solid, and the rejuvenated casting in pursuit of a younger demographic brings it closest of the films to the series' original teenage nucleation. [NL]

6. The Wolverine Film (2013). Twentieth Century Fox in association with Marvel Entertainment and Dune Entertainment presents a Donners' Company production in association with Ingenious Media [check against poster]. Directed by James Mangold. Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. Cast includes Rila Fukushima, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Svetlana Khodchenkova and Tao Okamoto. 126 minutes. Colour, 3D (converted).

Haunted by the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a reluctant Logan is invited to the Tokyo deathbed of a Japanese tycoon whom he saved from the Nagasaki A-bomb, only to find himself embroiled in an elaborate conspiracy centred on the tycoon's granddaughter.

Following Marvel's own success in establishing a lucrative Shared World of crossover franchises (see Marvel Cinematic Universe) culminating in The Avengers (2012), rivals Fox were keener than ever to monetize the value locked up in their long-held rights to Marvel's prime property, and cannily used this version of the solo Wolverine vehicle, which had been originally developed by Darren Aronofsky as a sequel to X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and briefly dangled to Guillermo Del Toro, to reintegrate the three divergent strands of the X-Men film franchise: the original trilogy initiated by Bryan {SINGER} (1-3 above), the abandoned "Origins" series of solo spotlights including 4, and the reboot 5, here picking up the Immortal Wolverine's story after the end of the trilogy and seguing into the events of the Time Travel-driven 7 below. The storyline lightly traces over Wolverine's Japanese adventures in the famous 1982 arc by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, and the predominantly Japanese locations and cast freshen up the franchise, though with only minimal embrace of the opportunity to explore an international perspective on the emergence of Mutants, and with limited actual success in the Asian market. Jackman, who had previously worked with Mangold on Kate & Leopold (2001), continues to mature in the role, but here at the price of an oddly-judged series of hallucinated scenes with the deceased Jean Grey (Janssen) which seek to get inside a character whose interior is better left unplumbed; while the secret villain's master scheme with its Mecha payoff is so baroquely convoluted as to undermine such seriousness as the film attempts. [NL]

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Twentieth Century Fox in association with Marvel Entertainment and TSG Entertainment. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Jane Goldman; story by Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn. Based on the "Days of Future Past" storyline in The Uncanny X-Men (issues 141-142, 1982) by Chris Claremont and others. Cast includes Shawn Ashmore, Halle Berry, Mark Camacho, Adan Canto, Daniel Cudmore, Peter Dinklage, Bingbing Fan, Michael Fassbender, Josh Helman, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Jackman, Evan Jonigkeit, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Evan Peters, Booboo Stewart, Patrick Stewart, Omar Sy and Lucas Till. 131 minutes. Colour.

The size of the cast list above, which includes stars from more than one X-Men story arc, strikes a warning note (one that viewers will not initially be able to register, as cast credits are given only at the end); and X-Men: Days of Future Past does indeed attempt to fit a passel of Superpowered Mutants who seem never to have met before into a single storyline. Except for aficionados familiar with the entire X-Men universe in its Comics and film iterations, the congested narrative that emerges is perhaps best coped with if the viewer focuses on the basic Time Travel plot that engineers the whole, and which is in fact surprisingly easy to follow. Based on the excellent and compact 1982 "Days of Future Past" storyline in The Uncanny X-Men comic, X-Men: Days of Future Past describes an attempt to cancel a direly Dystopian future in which, by the year 2023, a tyrannous army of Robot Sentinels, responding like killer hounds to the scent of their DNA, is about to eliminate all mutants from the face of the Earth.

As scenes of CGI mayhem fill the screen, various figures from director Singer's earlier films, 1: X-Men (2000) and 2: X2 (2003) – they include Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Blink (Fan), Colossus (Cudmore), Sunspot (Canto), Bishop (Sy), Iceman (Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Page) – all succumb to the dread Sentinels. As the mayhem mounts, Charles Xavier (Stewart) delivers a gravidly intoned voiceover, which (as he remains alive to deliver it) reassures viewers that all may not be lost; but which also hints that director Singer may have found Chris Claremont's original 1982 storyline perplexing to convey (though Claremont's original is remarkably clearcut). Slowly it does become clear that there is only one hope for the world: someone must travel back to 1973 and persuade Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) not to assassinate Dr Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), anti-mutant inventor of the first primitive Sentinel, because the outrage caused by his death, plus DNA samples from the captured Shapeshifter Mystique, clearly inspired the further development of his dread Weapon. Neither Xavier nor Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr (McKellen) can stand the superhuman pain caused by the transmission of their minds into the past, so the mind of Wolverine/Logan (Fassbender), whose powers include the instantaneous recuperation of his body (which remains in 2023), is sent instead.

In 1973, Wolverine awakens to find that the Identity Transfer has been successful (we are not told what happens to his younger self), and searches out the young Xavier (McAvoy), who is in a Drug-induced funk; the mutant school is in ruins. The plot thickens almost irretrievably at this point: Wolverine must persuade Xavier to pull up his socks (and does); with the help of Quicksilver (Peter), Magneto's seemingly unacknowledged son, he must free the young Magneto (Fassbender), who has power over metals, from a concrete bunker in the heart of the Pentagon, where he had been imprisoned for accidentally causing the death of JFK in 1962; in Vietnam Mystique impersonates Colonel Stryker (Helman, previously played by Brian Cox in 2 above), and escapes with a squad of 1973 mutants who are here unnamed. Magneto's desire for revenge on normal humans is eventually once again thwarted at the last moment; young Xavier comes to his moral senses and persuades Mystique to feel better about herself and the universe and commit the pyrrhic victory of killing Trask; and Wolverine, only seemingly drowned in the Potomac, awakens into a saved future, where the Sentinels do not exist but the mutant school is thriving, and with old Xavier settling down to be filled in; it may be from this Alternate World which is now the real one that he performs his initial voiceover.

At the level of moment-to-moment action, X-Men: Days of Future Past is dazedly parataxic, deeply lacking in narrative grammar, and its fetishized inward-gazing complexities are an object lesson in how desperately insular a long-running franchise can become in the hands of corporate owners. To attempt to analyse the fraught contractual relationship between Marvel (now owned by Disney) and Twentieth Century Fox is beyond the remit of this encyclopedia, though in simple language it does seem to be the case that X-Men: Days of Future Past was filmed so that the latter firm could retain its franchise. The situation thus created, with characters and venues seemingly namechecked so a corporation can maintain rights to them, is unlikely to generate an aesthetic triumph; and does not here.

But the action sequences throughout are highly competent. Mystique's shapechanger dances are eerily beautiful to watch. President Nixon (Camacho) is cunningly plausible, and his moment of apparent heroism is almost immediately shown to be false. The 1973 mise en scene is occasionally verisimilitudinous, though a Comics-derived insolent flouting of historical realities (neither the Sentinels, which briefly turn into Mecha under Magneto's control, or DNA mapping are remotely possible in that world) must sadden any viewer looking for the creative attention to history that time travel stories classically embody. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen gaze at each other bewilderedly, as though half-remembering some other life in which they might not be discovered playing age-seamed manikins for moolah. In the end, after endless clashing of story arcs in the night, the film stops short, like a centipede that has forgotten how to walk. [JC]

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