Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Film Review: X-Men

"X-Men"  ** (out of ****)

I remember when this live action movie adaptation of the popular Marvel comic book series, directed by Bryan Singer, was released. I saw "X-Men" (2000) in a movie theatre.

At its time of release I didn't like "X-Men". I felt it was a complete waste of time. As a 17 year old teenager at the time, I didn't even want to see it. I was never a fan of comic books. My friends and I collected and traded Marvel comic cards but I never read one comic book growing up. Because of that I simply considered myself the wrong audience for these type of movies. I took no pleasure seeing these super-heroes come to life on the big screen.

I have said some truly awful things about comic book movies. Things like only the deaf and blind could enjoy them. You'd have to be brain dead to like these movies. But, I've tried to come around. I placed Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) on my top ten list at its time of release. Most recently I saw "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014) and enjoyed it. It got me thinking, maybe I haven't been fair to the super-hero genre. So, I thought I'd go back in time and re-watch a lot of these movies I so quickly dismissed. I picked "X-Men" first.

For years I had it in my mind "Spider-Man" (2002) was the movie which kicked off the super-hero movie genre. I distinctly remember after that movie was released an avalanche of super-hero movies rapidly followed. There were two sequels to "Spider-Man", plus a reboot of the series, the "Fantastic Four" (2005), "Iron Man" (2008), Christopher Nolan's "Batman Trilogy", X-Men 2" (2003), "Hulk" (2003), "Daredevil" (2003), "The Punisher" (2004) and many, many others. But, I was wrong. The movie that started this whole trend was "X-Men".

What I found impressive about "Captain America; The Winter Soldier" was it was socially conscience. The movie mentioned issues which society is currently dealing with. That is what made me re-consider my stance against comic book movies.

As "X-Men" begins I started to feel perhaps this would be another movie which addresses timely social issues. There is a lot of political talk in "X-Men" of humans being afraid of mutants and a senator who wants to pass a law requiring all mutant to register themselves. This closely resembles the immigration debate in this country. A few years ago giving illegal immigrants driver licenses was a hot issue. Some worried by bringing these people out of the shadows the government would now target them. What do you think is the line of defense against the mutant bill presented in "X-Men"? By requiring mutants to come out of the shadows they are exposing themselves which would allow the government to target them. Hmmm. Is it a coincidence?

This was starting to make me like "X-Men". Using a super-hero movie to thinly disguise itself as a social commentary. Interesting. Maybe "X-Men" would be about something. But, its not. And once again I must face the conclusion I am the wrong audience for comic book movies.

Even on its own terms, as a strict comic book adaptation and not a social commentary, the movie fails. I find the same flaws now that I did 15 years ago. "X-Men" does a poor job establishing all of its characters for those not familiar with the "X-Men" comic books. It throws too many characters into the mix which the movie can not sufficiently provide enough screen time for. In the end we are left with more questions than answers. There is no exciting payoff to the movie. It feels like a set-up for another movie. Which is exactly what happened.

The two main characters in "X-Men" are Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose real name is Logan and a young teenager Marie (Anna Paquin) whose nickname is Rogue. They are mutants. Neither understands why they are what they are. Rogue is not able to touch another person without nearly killing them. But, she doesn't understand why. Wolverine has blades which come out of his hands, near his knuckles, which appear when he is upset. He also has the ability to heal from wounds rapidly. The movie suggest Wolverine has a mysterious past, but, none of it is revealed. they had to leave some story for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (2009) after all.

Wolverine and Rogue meet Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) a mutant himself, who has the power to control other's minds, has started an Academy for other mutants. Prof. Xavier is also the leader of "X-Men", a group of mutants that would like to find a way to co-exist with humans. The other members of X-Men include Cyclops (James Marsden), a mutant whose eyes shoot out laser beams, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who, like Prof. Xavier can also control minds and Storm (Halle Berry) who can control the weather. All interesting characters and not one minute of background story is devoted to them. How did Storm get her gifts? I'm sure it could make for an interesting story. But, never mind.

The X-Men are in conflict with another group of mutants known as The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, headed by Magneto (Ian McKellan), who unlike Prof. Xavier, believes humans are inferior creatures and should be wiped out. The Brotherhood also consist of Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a mutant with the ability to shape shift into other people and Toad (Ray Park) who has the ability to walk on walls and has a long tongue (get your mind out of the gutter!) and Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), a mutant with resembles a feline. All of these fascinating characters are also given zero screen time to explain their origins except Magneto, who we learn was in a concentration camp as a child. The cruelty he experienced during this time is perhaps what has lead to his hatred of humans.

Some may want to defend "X-Men" to me by saying, "Alex, the movie can't explain the origins of all these characters in one movie. There wouldn't be time for a plot." Exactly! "X-Men" would have been better with fewer characters. Imagine if the story just focused on Wolverine and Rogue, looking for answers concerning who they are and they meet Prof. Xavier and learn about his school and the work he is doing. And then towards the end of the movie we learn more about the group "X-Men" and have provided a good set-up for the sequel. We could even have the Magneto character in the movie to provide the counter argument against Prof. Xavier.

This way "X-Men" hits on some social themes, has action sequences with humans trying to capture mutants, builds on the suspense of who Wolverine is, perhaps this within itself could provide more social themes to be explored and we have better character build-up. The viewer would now be able to understand who we are watching on-screen and be given a chance to care about this world and its characters.

But again some may argue and say, "but that's not X-Men", first of all, why do you think I care? And secondly, it makes for a better cinematic story and accomplishes the same things this failed final version does and improves on others.

I believe what explains why I have preferred some of the Batman movies or even "Captain America" is it deals with one focal character which the story allows enough time to establish as a real character with a background story and motives and create a human interest story which an audience can respond to.  "X-Men" cannot give these characters their proper due. And that's too bad. Comic book fans should have been disappointed by that. They shouldn't have been so easy to please. The movie grossed more than $150 million in the U.S. alone and nearly $300 million world-wide. They should have demanded more and want these characters' stories properly told.

"X-Men" has the benefit of some good actors; Stewart and McKellan among them and a hint of a social commentary which will keep an audience watching. In the end though, this is a missed opportunity. A movie that tries to do too much and ultimately accomplishes very little.