by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


If Batman & Robin signaled the death of the Comic Book Movie, then X-Men (2000) is undoubtedly its rebirth - a reverent, star-studded extravaganza that rang the box office bell in ways very few people expected. Sure, there were attempts to revive the genre in between - Blade (1998) springs to mind, starring Wesley Snipes, or Mystery Men (1999), with Ben Stiller and William H. Macy. But those were low-key adaptations of lesser-known characters, not the big-budget, big-name properties fans took to heart.

Consider, too, how the biggest Comic Book films up to that point, Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (1978) and Tim Burton's Batman (1989), seemed to spawn only Batman and Superman sequels. X-Men opened the floodgates for future box office spectaculars including Spider-Man (2002), Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), reboots of the Batman and Superman franchises, plus Marvel Comics' Cinematic Universe, culminating in The Avengers (2012) - currently the third highest-grossing film of all time. Superman '78 may have set the template for comic book verisimilitude (Richard Donner was an executive producer on X-Men), but it was X-Men that permanently whet the public's appetite for cinematic superheroics.

Created in 1963 by Stan "The Man" Lee (who never met an archetype he didn't like) and Jack "King" Kirby, the X-Men are a team of super-powered mutants banded together to aid humanity. (The "X" stands for the "extra" gene which gives all mutants their powers.) Led by their founder, Professor Charles Xavier (who has the power to control minds through telepathy), the original team included Cyclops/Scott Summers, Iceman/Bobby Drake, Angel/ Warren Worthington III, Beast/Hank McCoy, and Marvel Girl/Jean Grey. Wolverine (created by Len Wein and John Romita, Sr.) came later, as did Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, Gambit, and villains the Brotherhood of Mutants and the Hellfire Club. Though initially considered a flop (X-Men was cancelled in March 1970 after 66 issues, only to be resurrected five years later), the series' underlying themes of bigotry and prejudice eventually caught on with readers, and helped it become one of Marvel's most popular titles. This led to Alpha Flight, The New Mutants, X-Factor­, Classic X-Men and dozens of other spinoffs. 

X-Men the movie would face similar challenges on its way to the screen. Stan Lee and writer Chris Claremont spent the better part of 1989-1990 in talks with James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens) to produce an X-Men film adaptation. Cameron, however, left to work on Spider-Man instead (which, thanks to legal tangles between Carolco Pictures and Sony Pictures, fell by the wayside). Interest picked up again in 1994, following the success of Fox's animated X-Men TV series. Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) wrote a draft of the film script, as did Joss Whedon and Michael Chabon. When director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) was hired in 1996, he brought Christopher McQuarrie and David Hayter on board to write a new screenplay (final screen credit went to Hayter, based on a story by Singer and producer Tom DeSanto). Filming began on September 22, 1999, in Toronto and Ontario, Canada - with a $75 million budget.

Even with Singer's dream cast in place - including Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Ian McKellan as Magneto/Erik Lensherr, Halle Berry as Storm, Oscar-winner Anna Paquin as Rogue, and newcomer Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (replacing actor Dougray Scott three weeks into filming) - the production was scrutinized by studio executives and finicky fanboys alike. Twentieth Century Fox repeatedly slashed the budget and moved up the release date by a full four months, from November to July 2000 - giving Singer precious little time during post- production to complete the film's 500-plus F/X shots. Fans lambasted the producers' decision to clad the X-Men in black leather costumes rather than their gold-and-green comic book counterparts (prompting Cyclops' line, "What would you prefer, yellow spandex?"). They also objected to casting the 6'3" Jackman as everyone's favorite adamantium-clawed anti-hero, who stands 5'3" in the comics. Hardly anyone, it seemed, had any faith in the project at all.

X-Men, however, earned a staggering (for its time) $54.5 million during its opening weekend - one of the biggest non-sequel debuts of all time. It went on to become the ninth highest-grossing film of 2000, with $157 million in North America and another $139 million internationally. Thanks to Singer's respect for the source material (plus a dogged determination to make the film accessible to non-fans), X-Men proved without a doubt that there was money to be mined from the genre yet. It is unique among Comic Book Movies - treats its subject matter seriously, and bases the fantastical in a reality we recognize as our own (unlike, say, Warner Bros' Superman series, in which everyone except for the hero is playing a cartoon, or Burton's Batman, which seems to take place in an alternate universe of some sort).

2003's X2: X-Men United was an even bigger hit (grossing $407 million worldwide), and affirmed what Singer could do with a larger budget and limited studio interference. It juggles so many characters so well, and raises the stakes for the mythology so high, that X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) can't help feeling like a crushing disappointment; Brett Ratner took over the franchise after Singer defected to Warner Bros for Superman Returns, and the final product feels rushed and impersonal, with "shocking" twists that infuriated many fans. Still, X3 managed to rake in over $459 million at the box office, meaning our X-powered mutants would live to fight another day. X-Men Origins: Wolverine followed in 2008, and then X-Men: First Class in 2011 - both prequels to the initial series, and the only way, presumably, to undo The Last Stand's most drastic creative choices. Then again, the X-Men have always been open to change.


The Original: X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000)

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Ray Park, Tyler Mane, Shawn Ashmore

Plot: In the not-too distant future, a race of genetically-superpowered human beings battle each other for supremacy.

How It Set The Tone: The rebirth of the modern-day Comic Book Movie officially begins here. After Batman & Robin soured the reputation of superheroes the world over, Twentieth Century Fox bounced back with this $296 million-grossing adaptation of Marvel's seminal comic series. That's small potatoes compared to other top money-earners of its day (Paramount's Mission: Impossible II banked a whopping $549 million that same year), but you have to understand the level of excitement it caused in the industry. Imagine: with just the right balance of tone, plus a proper respect for the source material, you could turn a once-frowned-upon commercial genre into a franchise-making crossover hit. Director Bryan Singer brings a welcome touch of reality to the plot (unlike Warners' Batman and Superman series, which seem to take place in parallel universes), and doesn't skimp on the rich thematic subtext that defined Stan Lee/Jack Kirby's original comics. (That Ellis Island climax, by the way, is nicely symbolic of the mutants' plight; for what are the X-Men, if not outsiders trying to find their way in?). And while Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan add gravitas to X-Men's pitch-perfect ensemble cast, the runaway star here is Hugh Jackman as the adamantium-clawed Wolverine, whose laconic line readings ("What's a Magneto?") and charismatic bravado channel a young Clint Eastwood.

Room For Improvement: Production on X-Men was rushed to meet its target July release date, and it shows - with some special effects shots that seem curiously unfinished (a shot of the X-jet landing at Ellis Island looks especially fake) and a truncated plot that plays like the first act of a larger story.

Grade: B-

Sequel: X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003)

Returning Cast: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Shawn Ashmore

New Cast: Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu

Plot: Enemies become unlikely allies when a hawkish military general, bent on revenge, targets all of mutantkind for extermination.

How It Compares: From the heroic strains of John Ottman's opening title music (Die Hard/Lethal Weapon auteur Michael Kamen wrote the score for X-Men #1), you can tell X2 will be a different kind of animal, majestic and confident and thrilling where the original felt hasty and compromised. That's true of the splendid introductory sequence, in which the lusty, ethereal Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) BAMPF!s his way through White House security, to the siege at Xavier's manson, to Magneto's rousing escape from his plastic prison - scenes which constantly have us switching allegiances, rooting for our mutant protagonists (good or bad) to rise up against their human oppressors. (The plot, this time, is more or less adapted from God Lives, Man Kills, Chris Claremont's 1982 graphic novel.) Yes, there are more characters than you probably care to shake a stick at, but mostly everyone gets their moment to shine, and the concept, as ever, is ripe for subtext (my favorite: a "coming out" scene with Bobby Drake/Iceman and his parents). And despite the movie's punishing 40-minute (!) climax, Singer and company leave some tantalizing breadcrumbs for sequels to come.

Grade: B+

Sequel: X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, 2006)

Returning Cast: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Romijn, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, James Marsden

New Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Ellen Page, Vinnie Jones, Ben Foster, Michael Murphy, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Josef Summer, Bill Duke, Dania Ramirez, Olivia Williams

Plot: When a "cure" is found for the controversial x-gene, followers of Charles Xavier's School for the Gifted and Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants are forced to fight for their cause.

How It Compares: X-Men took so many people by surprise - including the executives at Fox, who couldn't make heads or tails of it - that Bryan Singer was able to rally the support and the budget he needed to make X2, one of the biggest and boldest of all superhero sequels. So it's doubly disappointing to report that X3 fails to fulfill any of its predecessors' most spectacular promises. Two years of production woes certainly didn't help: studio politics forced Singer to exit the franchise in 2004, so he could prep Superman Returns at Warner Bros; his replacement, Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) dropped out in June 2005 for personal reasons; and finally, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) was hired just two months before shooting began, and re-worked the script to fit his own personal vision. To his credit, Ratner does a fine job copying the look of everything that came before him (in fact, with the sound turned off, you'd be hard-pressed to guess there was a change in directors at all). The plot is another matter, trying too hard to stay topical (as many critics have pointed out, protestors of the "mutant cure" might as well be picketing abortion clinics) and cater to audience demand, with our first fleeting glimpses of Beast, Angel, the Danger Room, even the Fastball Special. (And those "shocking" character deaths don't help.) Hardcore fans, on the other hand, may wonder why Chris Claremont's Dark Phoenix Saga is reduced to a minor subplot; like so much of the movie, it rarely, if ever, takes flight.

Grade: C

Sequel: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009)

Returning Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart (cameo)

New Cast: Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Taylor Kitsch,, Dominic Monaghan, Kevin Durand, Ryan Reynolds

Plot: Two brothers, both virtually indestructible, become mortal enemies through the machinations of a hardcore military colonel.

How It Compares: Hugh Jackman's mutton-chopped mutant hero gets his first solo adventure - to the surprise of absolutely no one, since he basically dominated the previous X-chapters anyway. Too bad they saddled him with this misguided mess of a movie, so intent on "humanizing" its subject that he loses all his ferocity and fight. (Talk about anti-climactic!) And that's just for starters: I could go on about its obtrusive character cameos (Ryan Reynolds' wisecracking Deadpool and Taylor Kitsch's ragin' Cajun Gambit - finally, Gambit! - barely have time to register at all), its stunning over-emphasis on cheap action clichés (motorcycle-versus-helicopter chases, fistfights in high places, dudes walking slo-mo towards the camera while explosions go off behind them), insipid dialogue (somebody actually says, "His brain may heal... but his memories won't grow back"), or that it makes any number of steely-eyed professionals (director Gavin Hood, screenwriter David Benioff) look like Hollywood hacks in search of a quick buck. Jackman gives it his all, but the amnesia-heavy climax only helps punch up the fact that, sometimes, the past is best left forgotten.

Grade: D

Sequel: X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

Returning Cast: Hugh Jackman (cameo), Rebecca Romijn (cameo)

New Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Oliver Platt, Nicholas Hoult, Zoë Kravitz, Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Till, Álex González, Jason Flemyng, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside

Plot: Two powerful mutants - one who can control minds, the other who can manipulate metal - team up to stop a villain bent on starting World War III.

How It Compares: You can read my initial thoughts on the movie here, but for the most part, my reaction remains the same: X-Men: First Class is a worthy and welcome re-introduction to Marvel's mutant universe, despite some glaring continuity gaps between sequels. Director Matthew Vaughn (attached, for a time, to X-Men: The Last Stand, until family issues forced him out) brings a touch of the personal back to the series, mixing equal parts Connery-era James Bond adventure, swinging 60s fantasia, and Cold War conspiracy thriller (right down to the Dr. Strangelove-inspired set design). Though essentially a bromance between two polar opposites - Charles Xavier (egotistical, idealistic to a fault) and Erik Lensherr (embittered and hell-bent on revenge) - it is also a helpful reminder that the best superhero stories don't always require characters with adamantium claws. X-Men is perhaps the most durable of all film franchises, with actors you can rotate in and out of each chapter at will (much like a TV show, in which different cast members take the spotlight each week). By the end of First Class, I had a feeling its makers were beginning to get the idea.

Grade: B

Sequel: The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)

Returning Cast: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen

New Cast: Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Brian Tee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Will Yun Lee, Ken Yamamura

Plot: Wolverine is summoned by an old acquaintance to modern Japan, and finds himself embroiled in a blood feud that will test his immortality.

How It Compares: Now this is more like it. It isn't perfect, and it won't change the way you think about Comic Book Movies at all, but the second solo effort for Len Wein and John Romita Sr.'s iconic creation does justice
to the character in ways that X-Men Origins, for all its pedestrian storytelling and contemptible cameos, did not. A long-time dream project of Jackman's (who's in fine form here, both literally and figuratively), this sorta adaptation of the seminal Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic arc carts Logan off to the Land of the Rising Sun, where he fights ninjas, falls in love, and learns to embrace his inner X-Man. (He also continues to channel his inner Eastwood, which is fitting, since the movie basically plays like a low-key version of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, later remade as A Fistful Of Dollars.) Director James Mangold adds yet another genre to his ever-expanding résumé, after proving himself a pro at biopics (Walk The Line), romantic comedies (Kate & Leopold), even the occasional action flick (Knight And Day), and here he acquits himself well, even if the expected CG summer pyrotechnics do go a bit overboard at the end. And while there are still too many superfluous characters (Svetlana Khodchenkova's Viper is a bit of a non-entity, though I could have used more of Rila Fukushuma as Logan's katana-wielding sidekick), that end credits stinger is a doozy.

Grade: B-

Sequel: X-Men: Days Of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014)

Returning Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Daniel Cudmore, Lucas Till, Anna Paquin

New Cast: Peter Dinklage, Evan Peters, Omar Sy, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Josh Helman

Plot: In a post-apocalyptic future, remnants of the X-Men band together to send Wolverine back to 1973, to prevent the assassination of a military scientist whose martyrdom will lead to humanity's destruction.

How It Compares: At last, some consistency! After nearly a half-dozen directors, multiple casts, and countless conflicting plotlines, Bryan Singer returns to the genre he made famous 14 years ago, mixing the old guard with the new for the most exhilarating X-Men adventure to date. Minor quibbles aside (it's never explained, for example, how Future Xavier got his body back, or how Kitty Pryde is suddenly able to warp people in and out of the space-time continuum), it's a kick to see so many actors back in the roles they originated, and the movie itself is confident and energetic in ways most Comic Book Movies are not, with set pieces and character interactions unlike anything since X2. As with First Class, though, this is still McAvoy and Fassbender's show, vying for the soul of their most prized possession (Lawrence); even Jackman, as good as he is, is merely the catalyst for the action, not the crux of it, which is just as it should be. (Fan favorites like Quicksilver and Colossus may get the short shrift, but this, too, is in keeping with the comics, in which characters often show up for a single panel or line of dialogue.) Simply put, this is franchise filmmaking at its finest, righting the wrongs of the past and opening up the series to all sorts of exciting new possibilities. And that's no X-aggeration.

Grade: A-

More To Come?: Was there ever any doubt? Coming 2016 is X-Men: Apocalypse, based on Louise Simonson and Jackson Guice's infamous characters. Bryan Singer has been confirmed again as director (despite his recent legal troubles), with members of First Class's ensemble expected to return.


Part Three of a superheroic series of Franchise Face-Offs. Up next: With great power comes even greater box office returns. Also click on the following for previous entries: Frankenstein, Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Rush Hour, Men In Black, Paranormal Activity, Lethal Weapon, 48HRS., Harry Potter, Transformers, Leprechaun (you heard me), The Matrix, Halloween, and our introductory segment, starring Alec Baldwin/ Harrison Ford/Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan. Please comment!

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