The current craze in superhero movies can be directly traced to X-Men (2000). Sure, Richard Donner gave us the brilliant Superman (1978) and Tim Burton hit paydirt with Batman (1989), but those were flashes in the pan, with diminishing returns plaguing those franchises both creatively and at the box office until they petered out with the woeful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Batman and Robin, respectively. Neither series successfully kick-started a cultural obsession with comic-book icons on the big screen like X-Men did.
When Bryan Singer brought mutant warriors to the multiplex at the beginning of the new millenium, superhero films were dead. Although 2002's Spider-Man solidified public interest in the genre, it was X-Men that first brought it back to life two years earlier with a smart screenplay, engaging characters, and excellent acting. The action was underwhelming and often awkward, but the groundwork was laid for something really special.
2003's X2: X-Men United, unburdened from the needs of an origin story, took what worked from the first film and improved on what didn't. It expended the story, dug deeper into meaningful themes, and delivered stellar action. Best of all was the cliffhanger ending that promised to adapt what is, I'm told, one of the best arcs in the history of comics (Jean Grey becoming Phoenix). It's an engrossing sequel that is, to this day, one of the all-time-best superhero films.
This is where things get dicey for a lot of fans. Singer is a die-hard Superman fan and, based on the strength of his X-Men films, was offered the long-awaited reboot of the character. He took the job, taking his writers with him to create Superman Returns, a film that many people hate but I kinda like. 20th Century Fox, unwilling to wait a little while for Singer to come back and finish what he started, hired the considerably less-talented Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) to close out the X-Men trilogy.
The result was another film that a lot of people hate, but I kinda like. X-Men 3: The Last Stand(2006) is more cartoonish and less gritty than its predecessors. It's not as well-written or smartly-structured, so in that sense it's a dissappointment. However, it features some impressive action and visual effects, the performances are solid (if a bit melodramatic at times), and it brings the trilogy to a satisfying resolution, in my opinion, both thematically and emotionally. I find it to be the least of the first three movies, but not a bad outing overall.
Many fans passionately disagree with me, however. The largest complaint I hear is that the film wasted the potential of the Phoenix storyline found in the comics. Being a film buff, not a comic afficionado, I have to take their word for it. Still, for a whole lot of people, X3 was a bitter letdown that undid much of the fine work Bryan Singer did with the first two films. Many have wished Singer could come back and redo it. Turns out, he's going to get to… sort of. More on that in a minute.
With the third film wrapping up plot threads and character arcs, the studio tried to keep the money rolling in by looking backwards, delivering a prequel starring the most popular character. Even casual fans of the third film, such as myself, agree with the general consensus that X:Men Origins: Wolverine(2009) took the series to such a low that it almost killed it. With zero subtlety or intelligence this bombastic movie assaulted audiences with ludicrous action, hollow characters, unintentional humor, eye-rolling plot-twists, and utter disregard for continuity with the previous films.
In 2000's X-Men Sabretooth is a brainless, nearly-mute brute; in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine he's verbose, cunning, and Wolverine's half-brother. Huh?
The future of the series looked bleak. Fans were abandoning ship. What to do? Bring back Bryan Singer, in this case as producer, with Matthew Vaughn (Stardust) directing. X:Men- First Class (2011) proved that the series had a lot of life left in it (read my full review here), delivering a nicely-crafted origin story for several major characters. The film was also a thrilling piece of revisionist history, rewriting the Cuban missile crisis with Magneto, Xavier, Mystique, and Beast in the mix of things. With some terrific performances by Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre), James McAvoy (The Conspirator), Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games), Kevin Bacon, and Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, Jack the Giant Slayer), strong action, a fun 60's setting, and smart storytelling, First Class began to steer the series back in the right direction. It is, at this point, second only to X2 as the franchise's best film. But what next? Will the X-Men once again drop the ball just as they've got a full head of steam?
WHERE DOES THE SERIES GO FROM HERE?
July 26th sees the release of The Wolverine, a stand-alone feature that wisely abandons previous plans to build off of the tepid 2009 Origins prequel, focusing instead on Logan's adventures after the events of X-Men 3. Based on a much-loved graphic novel that finds the troubled hero in Japan, what has me most excited is that it's being directed by James Mangold. For those who don't know, he's the talented jack-of-all-trades who gave us the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, the underrated action-romance Knight and Day, and the stunning Western 3:10 to Yuma (which, it so happens, is my favorite movie).
Mangold describes the film as “a drama, a detective story, and a film noir,” as well as “an intense psychological and action-packed character piece, that’s much more about Logan getting lost in this very unique and insulated world of Japanese culture, gangster culture, and ninja culture.” Sounds like a pretty smooth cocktail to me, and Mangold has proven that he can handle various genres with aplomb. Plus, word is that the film returns Logan to his gritty and aggressive roots.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Mangold gave some insight into where he's taking the character: “I felt it was really important to find Logan at a moment where he was stripped clean of his duties to the X-Men, his other allegiances, and even stripped clean of his own sense of purpose. I was fascinated with the idea of portraying Logan as a ronin – the definition of which is a samurai without a master, without a purpose. Kind of a soldier who is cut loose. War is over. What does he do? What does he face? What does he believe anymore? Who are his friends? What is his reason for being here anymore? I think those questions are especially interesting when you’re dealing with a character who is essentially immortal.” Heck, I'm sold. After Hugh Jackman's much-deserved Best Actor nomination for Les Miserables, I'm glad Mangold is giving him some interesting places to go with the character.
Of course, if that's not enough to get wayward fans excited again, this should do the trick. After a four-film hiatus, Bryan Singer is returning to the directors chair for X-Men: Days of Future Past, coming in 2014. Based on a time-bending story in the comics that opens up alternative timelines and parallel X-men universes, Singer is working off of a screenplay by screenwriters Simon Kinberg (Sherlock Holmes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Matthew Vaughn ( Stardust, X-Men: First Class). The real exciting thing is that the story allows for actors from both the original trilogy and the excellent prequel to share the screen. Also, for those of you who dislike X-Men 3, this “alternative timeline” story allows Singer to go back and “fix” some things, as well as bring characters back to life (Singer gives a great interview about it all right here). This all begs the question…
Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier and James McCavoy as young Xavier (both confirmed)
Ian McKellin as Magneto and Michael Fassbender as young Magneto (both confirmed)
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (confirmed)
Ellen Page as Kitty Pride, Anna Paquin as Rogue, Shawn Rashmore as Iceman (all confirmed)
Jennifer Lawrence as “young” Mystique (confirmed)
Nicholas Holt as “young” Beast (confirmed)
Halle Berry as Storm (confirmed)
Daniel Cudmore as Colossus (confirmed)
Famke Jansen as Jean Grey, James Marsden as Cyclops (rumored at this point)
Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler (rumored at this point)
All in all, it's a really good time to be an X-Men fan, in my opinion. What do you think, dear readers? Are you excited again for these mutant adventures? Did you never stray? Or could you not care less? Let me know in the comments below!
For your amusement, here's a little skit we did in Divine Comedy about the “Y-Men.” Instead of mutants, they're BYU students who don't quite fit in on campus. I play Logan, a transfer student from UVSC (now UVU), whose mascot is, you guessed it, a wolverine…
And because I couldn't resist, here's the opening credits to the classic early 90's X-Men cartoon…
Licensed marriage and family therapist. Husband. Father. Film critic.