Saturday, June 14, 2014
Assuming you’ve been conscious and paid even the remotest attention to popular culture during the last decade, you might have come to the conclusion that your local multiplex exists solely as a delivery system for Marvel films, that there has been an overwhelming glut of superhero movies. But the superhero movie has been with us a lot longer than that; and when Bryan Singer gifted the world with ‘X-Men’ fourteen years ago, the genre was on pretty shaky ground.
Tim Burton’s gloriously stylised ‘Batman’ (1989) and ‘Batman Returns’ (1992) had, under the less-than-guiding hand of Joel Schumacher, devolved into the by-the-numbers tiredness of ‘Batman Forever’ (1995) and the flat-out awfulness of ‘Batman & Robin’ (1997). Superman spent the 90s mired on the small screen and it wouldn’t be till 2006, in the bloated ‘Superman Returns’ that he’d see the inside of a movie theatre again. Meanwhile, ‘The Shadow’ (1994) peddled a nice 30s vibe but failed to engage audiences, and ‘The Phantom’ (1996) gave us Billy Zane in purple and a poster with smeared with the useless tag line “slam evil”.
Then came ‘X-Men’ (2000) and the superhero genre got its shot in the arm. Singer had already made a name for himself with ‘The Usual Suspects’, the outright best of the half-decade long slew of post-‘Reservoir Dogs’ cooler-than-thou crime capers. His follow up, an adaptation of Stephen King’s psychologically chilling novella ‘Apt Pupil’, was perhaps too aloof in its execution, but it saw Singer working with Ian McKellen for the first time, and if there was a better actor he could have cast as Magneto in ‘X-Men’ … but what the hell am I talking about? McKellen is Magneto.
‘X-Men’ starts off in grim, muddy fashion – you can tell the director of ‘Apt Pupil’ is at work here – as a seemingly endless line of bedraggled prisoners are shepherded into one of the Nazi death camps. A young boy is separated from his family. He fights as much as his strength will allow as a cluster of guards drag him away. Then another kind of strength erupts from him: as he flings out his hand, almost like a demented conductor, the huge iron gates twist and buckle. A rifle butt lays him out, but the damage is extraordinary. And unnatural.
Put simply, this was about as far from George Clooney’s Batman and Chris O’Donnell’s Robin skating through Mr Freeze’s hideout as it was possible to get.
The next scene is an exercise in contrast: a leafy, privileged surburban home, an all-American girl – Marie (Anna Paquin), later to take the name Rogue – flirting with her boyfriend. They kiss; she almost drains the life from him. Disconsolate, outcast, Marie hits the road. She finds herself in a bar at the arse-end of nowhere. A bar where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is picking up some ready cash cage-fighting. The fight over, the cash pocketed, Wolverine hits the road in his pick-up truck. (Rootlessness and marginalisation are strong themes throughout much of the franchise.) Rogue hitches a lift. En route to nowhere in particular, they’re attacked by Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who turns out to be in the pay of Magneto (Ian McKellen).
Magneto and his blue-skinned henchwoman Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) have a plan to strike back at a government initiative – spearheaded by the oleaginous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) – to further disenfranchise a mutant population already regarded with fear and suspicion by the general populace. Magneto’s plan involves Rogue’s particular “talent”.
Long story short – and ‘X-Men’ packs a lot of characters and exposition into its slender (100 minute) running time – Wolverine and Rogue end up at an academy run by wheelchair-bound Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), former comrade of Magneto. From the off, they’re opposite sides of the same coin: Xavier the idealist and Magneto the reactionary. Singer’s genius was in casting Stewart and McKellan – their chemistry is palpable, the way they play off each delightful to watch. The script (by Singer, Tom DeSanto and David Hayter) is literate and wryly funny. The pace is brisk even as great chunks of information are lobbed out.
And yet … and yet …
For all that I love ‘X-Men’, it’s never seemed entirely complete. In some respects, it feels like it ought to be an origins story (the concentration camp scene certain piques that expectation), bringing the team together and establishing the Xavier/Magneto conflict, yet only Magneto is given any real backstory. That Xavier is basically thrust onscreen as a fully-formed character is something that only works because of Stewart’s gravitas as an actor. Elsewhere Wolverine and Rogue seem to be the principle focus by which the viewer is guided through the groves of Xavier’s academy, with the likes of Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) given only the briefest of introductions before they’re thrown together to combat Magneto.
It’s worth mentioning that the franchise’s increasing focus on Wolverine can be plotted against how little it does with Rogue (she becomes less and less interesting as a character throughout the arc of the initial trilogy), which seems an absolute waste of Paquin’s talents. It’s also worth mentioning how tin-pot Magneto’s operation seems to be – far fewer resources than Xavier has at his fingertips, and even less manpower – and it says everything about McKellan’s performance that he makes Magneto a genuinely dangerous character despite only having a nude polymorph, a brainless thug and a couple of abandoned buildings to work with.
Nor does the film particularly trade in big action set-pieces: sure there’s Magneto flipping police cars with a dismissive gesture of the hand (I love the way McKellan orchestrates scenes of chaos and destruction as if he were conducting a delicate piece of chamber music), and some hand-to-hand in and around the Statue of Liberty, but on the whole ‘X-Men’ is more interested in character. Which, ironically, emphasises the inadequacies in characterisation that render Storm, Jean Grey and any number of others as ciphers rather than integral members of the team. Janssen does well with virtually no material, already establishing the dynamic between her relationship with Cyclops and the immediate attraction to Wolverine which will inform the next instalment; but Berry looks lost much of the time. The unlikeliest candidate for a good performance – former model Romijn-Stamos – ends up walking away with every scene she’s in: her Mystique is serpentine, calculating, seductive and sexually mocking in a way that Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t yet been able to capture in the franchise’s new timeline.
It’s not often you can say of a tent-pole superhero movie that it could have done with being longer; such is the case with ‘X-Men’. It’s entertaining, stylish and freighted with a cast who, for the most part, gel very effectively given how much of an odd mix they present. But it still seems like three-quarters of a movie: a curtain-raiser that kept back its final act for development as a sequel.