Tag: X-Men

Movie Review: X-Men Days of Future Past

I’d be one of the first to sing the praises of Marvel’s cinematic arm from the rooftops. Their connected films have maintained a reasonable baseline of quality, with its weaker films still being decent or fun to watch. Unfortunately, movies of Marvel franchises outside of the actual Marvel Studios have had a rougher road. Spider-Man’s suffered through a very dodgy reboot, the Punisher’s outings have been divisive, and a lot of comic fans would rather not discuss Daredevil. As for the X-Men, Marvel’s team of mutant misfits has been around for quite a long time, and X-Men: First Class made a move towards rendering some of the rougher outings of Xavier’s gifted youngers superfluous. X-Men: Days of Future Past goes one step further, driving nails into the coffin of those movies best left unnamed.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Things are not going well for the X-Men. Incredibly powerful and highly adaptive robot killers called Sentinels, originally programmed to hunt mutants, now dominate the planet. All of humanity save for its very worst are oppressed and face extinction. Guided by Professor X and Magneto, the few remaining X-Men hatch a desperate plan. The theory is that if the assassination of the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask, by the mutant Mystique is prevented, the future will be altered. Therefore, one of the X-Men must allow their consciousness to be projected back in time to their younger body. The only mutant with the regenerative capabilities to survive this journey is Wolverine, and it is he who suddenly awakens in 1973, looking for Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr.

It should be fairly obvious that what we have here is retroactive continuity, or a ‘retcon’. This is the third X-Men movie directed by Bryan Singer, and the prevailing sentiment is that things have been inconsistent since he gave up the helm. X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are both held in largely universal contempt. The Wolverine had some good ideas, and X-Men: First Class was a welcome return to high-quality mutant storytelling. It seemed, at the time, that Matthew Vaughn was mostly interested in starting the timeline over – the Marvel universe, after all, has acknowledged the presence of multiple universes and timelines for a long time. Singer, for his part, has seized onto one of the most beloved tales from the comics and uses it to whip the mutant franchise back into line with his vision.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox & Empire
The more things change…

Unlike the bright color pallete of Matthew Vaughn’s film, though, Singer returns to his beloved barely-accented black leather as if it’s still 2003 and everybody is chasing the Wachowskis. He is so eager to push characters and elements of the story into position for his glorious return that he skims over a lot of details. This is especially true in his vision of the Sentinel-dominated future: some characters are barely introduced or characterized, others have powers that make no sense or have no explanation, etc. In other words, characters exist for the sake of the plot, rather than moving the plot of their own volition, which is a mark of lazy and lackluster storytelling. And while we’re on the subject, I’m still not sure how I feel about the overall use of Kitty Pryde and Mystique in the film. These are powerful, even iconic female characters in this franchise, yet they feel like they’re barely there, despite Mystique’s central role in the plot. I can’t point to any one aspect of their roles that gives me this disturbed feeling, but it hangs over the proceedings like a dark cloud.

However, it’s not all bad news. Not by a long shot. Continuing to be one of the most inspired casting choices since Christopher Reeves’ Superman, Hugh Jackman does a great job as Logan, breathing much-needed life and presence into what could have been a dull plod of a proceeding. Also returning are Michael Fassbender as the younger Magneto and James McAvoy as younger Xavier, and they still have the chemistry, intellectual fortitude and emotional pathos that made First Class so good. The scene between McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as his older self is amazing, and should have been left out of the trailers to make its already significant impact even more powerful. Our nominal bad guy, Bolivar Trask, is actually a nuanced character, and while he isn’t given that much to do, Peter Dinklage makes the most of every scene he’s in. Much like First Class, there isn’t a great deal of action, but what action we do get is staged very well, some of it carrying satisfying tension while one scene in particular is paired with a fantastic musical sting that actually made a ‘bullet-time’ gimmick fun to watch.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox & Empire
Like First Class, seeing these two interact is one of the highlights of the film.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is decent and enjoyable. It’s not as good as First Class, but the way it handles the other previous films gives me hope that Singer is moving away from the negative aspects of said films (see most of my criticism above) and towards plots and performances that let the characters guide the story, rather than the story pushing the characters around. Singer is attached to direct X-Men: Apocalypse, and it seems that he has some interesting ideas in that regard. Days of Future Past was a movie all about the restoration of hope, and it accomplishes this goal, not only for the characters, but also for the audience.

Movie Review: The Wolverine

You would think that a prospect like The Wolverine would not be considered risky. Wolverine is, after all, a well-established character in the Marvel universe, a member of so many teams that he risks overexposure. Yet it is that exposure that threatened this project from the outset. X-Men: The Last Stand is considered by many to be a failure, and Wolverine’s first solo film, X-Men: Origins: Wolverine not only suffered from colon cancer but from a solid concept taken horribly off the rails by incompetent writers. I think it’s safe to say that I, and many other X-fans, approached The Wolverine with trepidation… and breathed a large, collective sigh of relief when it didn’t suck.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Logan is wandering the earth following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, haunted by memories and visions of the woman he loved that is now dead. His past does catch up to him, but not how he expects. A young Japanese woman taps him to return with her to Tokyo. A dying media magnate lives there, a man saved by Logan from the devastation of Nagasaki during World War II. The mogul, Yashida, offers Logan a gift: mortality. Before Logan can make up his mind properly, he is caught up in the machinations of Yashida’s son Shingen, the plight of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko, and before he knows it, his healing powers have been stolen and he’s on the run from the Yakuza. He’s never been this vulnerable… or this dangerous.

Even at his weakest, Wolverine is a guy you don’t want to mess with, and Hugh Jackman, for his part, has definitely still “got it” as far as Logan is concerned. He doesn’t so much walk as stalk from place to place. Even at his most civilized, there is something bestial about him, an animal quality that Jackman conveys perfectly. He’s quick with sarcasm and deadpan lines that are delivered with ace timing, and his fight scenes look visceral and brutal. From the stunt work to the facial expressions to his furious cries, I cannot see any other actor bringing Logan to life the way Jackman does, and it’s a huge part of The Wolverine‘s overall success.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
If you run, he’s just gonna chase you.

Wolverine is familiar, though. To American audiences, the Canadian berserker anti-hero is a staple of comic book fantasy. Japan, on the other hand, is a world barely scratched by most American media. Thankfully, at no point does the setting feel caricaturized, satirized, or downplayed. Indeed, from Tokyo to the distant Yashida castle, Japan feels almost alien in its culture, customs, and populace. It’s subtle and understated, rather than shoved at the screen as if to say “Look how weird this place is!” and this tasteful representation of another culture is another plus in the movie’s favor. So much could have gone wrong in bringing Japan to this screen in this way, but the filmmakers nailed it.

This juxtaposition of the savage and familiar Wolverine with the civilized and alien Japan is a chemical mixture that explodes with character, potential, and wonder. Through the lens of Logan’s experiences, we see all sorts of things in new ways, from the character himself to the world he inhabits. That world feels dangerous, again, as well as lived-in. This was a sense conveyed in the original Wolverine comic mini-series by legendary writer Chris Claremont, and it is here as well. While the film doesn’t short the audience in terms of action, the story points and character moments are so good that it doesn’t feel action-heavy. It balances very well and strikes all the right chords from start to finish.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
He cleans up nice.

The Wolverine does have some flaws, in that the story is light in terms of intellectual investment. It’s not as complex as it might seem, and while the reveal at the end does color the events differently, the execution felt like more like a shell game or common wool-over-the-eyes trick than any sort of filmmaking magic. There’s also the fact that, rated PG-13 as it is, Wolverine’s fights are relatively bloodless, which is surprising considering how he goes to town on people with his claws. Still, there’s reportedly an unrated Blu-ray in the works, and you better believe I’ll be buying it.

Stuff I Liked: The fights are well done for the most part (see below). The final showdown is pretty interesting. Viper’s an interesting character. I like that Logan still doesn’t like to fly. The cameos of Famke Janssen were a nice touch. It feels like the X-Men films, including this one, are drawing closer and closer to the Marvel universe seen in The Avengers, and that’s a good thing.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I’m not a fan of bone claws. There’s some shakey-cam in a few of the fights. The ‘big mystery’ feels like a bit of a let-down at the end, more like information was being deliberately withheld from the audience to create false suspense.
Stuff I Loved: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. The Yashida cast and Yukio. The portrayal of Japanese culture. The fact that character moments felt just as interesting and involving as any of the fights. STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS – there’s a scene at the end that’s well worth the price of admission.

Bottom Line: This is the movie X-fans have been waiting for. The Wolverine delivers on every possible level without going completely over the top. A few minor quibbles hold it back from being entirely excellent, but it’s a far, far cry from what we had before. I’m even more excited now for Days of Future Past than I was before, thanks to The Wolverine.

Movie Review: X-Men First Class

Uncanny X-Men was one of the first comic books I read when I was growing up. It introduced me to the colorful world of super-heroic abnormal people fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them. Being a scrawny geeky kid, the appeal was obvious. The first two movie adaptations did an admirable service to the long-running title and its characters, even if it seemed to be somewhat ashamed of the ways in which the characters dressed themselves. Last Stand and X-Men Origins Wolverine are best left unmentioned, especially since one of the feats X-Men First Class pulls off is rendering both of those movies superfluous, if not wiping them out of existence entirely.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

First Class takes us back to the very groovy 1960s where a young Charles Xavier has just received his doctorate from Oxford and Erik Lensherr has begun a private search for the man who destroyed his family. While Charles is a child of privilege, Erik is a Holocaust survivor, but the two men are bound by their nature as mutants. Both of them want mutants to be free from persecution by normal humans, but Charles wishes to do this peacefully while Erik is convinced that human nature, being what it is, will leave mutants no alternative but to fight. They agree, however, that the dangerous mutants in control of the clandestine Hellfire Club must be stopped, and to do this they ally with the United States government to train some of the young mutants who struggle to control their powers. They are the first X-Men.

The first thing that may strike you about First Class is a pair of tonal shifts that really work in the narrative’s favor. Moving away from the dark visuals of the first two movies towards a more bright, diverse pallate helps capture the atmosphere of an earlier time, and harkens more honestly to the comic book roots of the material, as well as evoking memories of the Connery-era James Bond. At the same time, the story has grown more dark and mature. I won’t go into details because I don’t want to spoil any major turning points, but believe me when I say that the composition of this story has less to do with Saturday morning cartoons and more with classic tragedies crafted by the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
As it turns out, we DO prefer yellow spandex.

This isn’t to say that the writing in First Class even approaches that calibre. This is still a comic book movie and it’s not going to win any Oscars based on that premise alone. However, what the film gets right is something the unmentionable sequels got wrong. X-Men and X2 were similar to First Class in that their focus was more on characters than on spectacle. Granted, they spent a lot of their time on Wolverine, but that’s to be expected when you get a man like Hugh Jackman who completely inhabits a beloved character. It almost went unnoticed that Patrick Stewart did a very similar service to Professor X and Ian McKellan to Magneto. Watching the first two films now, you can see that these two veterans were hinting at a deep, rough and complicated friendship that stretched back for years, and now James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender bring the details of that friendship’s origin to life.

Prequels are often met with trepidation and suspicion, and rightly so. George Lucas proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s very easy to screw up an established universe by trying to expand on what has come before. Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn, however, wisely keep to the essence of the characters and the bits of information scattered throughout the movie and comic storylines to tell the story of Charles and Erik in a way that’s less bombastic special effects reel and more subtle romance. More than anything, it captures the deep respect and admiration they have for one another and underscores the tragedy of the events that drive the emotional and philosophical chasm between them.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
One of the best scenes in this film, and there’s zero action.

The downside to this powerful writing and these top-notch performances is that most of the rest of the events and players get overshadowed. Of the rest of the mutant cast, Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Beast are the only standouts while January Jones seems to have been told Emma Frost’s mutant powers are looking drool-worthy and a complete lack of ability to emote. The film also falls victim to some unfortunate tropes and is very concerned about driving home its civil rights message with lines like “Mutant and Proud!” and “They didn’t ask so I didn’t tell.” Now it might be the case that some anvils need to be dropped to make a point that might have been lost in the noise of those despicable sequels, but in contrast to the chemistry between the two leads it ends up feeling either unnecessary or just lazy. Tight storytelling does not belabor points like this. But it could be I’m just picking nits.

There’s more than enough good material, in spite of the shortcomings in story and some less dimensional characters, to make X-Men First Class worth recommending. It’s more than competent storytelling and while the characters take precedence over spectacle, I’m sure jaws will drop more than once over the course of the movie. It belongs on the same level as other recent Marvel movies such as Iron Man and Thor, the performances and chemistry of the leads comes close to that of the lead actors in The Dark Knight. It says a lot when a scene of two men in easychairs talking by a fireplace is every bit as electrifying as any of the action scenes in your movie. X-Men First Class is the X-Men movie fans have been waiting for every since the first sequel, and even if you’re not a fan, I think you’d enjoy it. Check it out and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. And yes, I know the comic book outfits looked silly, but First Class gives us a great compromise in the uniforms of the X-Men. It was really awesome, for me, to see an X-Men movie that looked like a damn X-Men movie and not some weird spin-off of Blade or the Matrix. Mutants are their own people, and they should be proud of that, even if it means wearing yellow and blue kevlar pressure suits instead of trendier black leather.

Mutant and proud? Crap, now I’M doing it.

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