Friday, April 1, 2016

X-Men (2000) (Movie Review)

      Of all the popular comic books, and of all the famous superhero’s out there, “I love me some X-Men” more than any of them. Other individual hero’s and famous superhero teams like the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and the Justice League all have their place, but there’s a deeper undercurrent with relevant themes and subtext at the core of the X-Men that make them my personal favorites. The previously mentioned teams of hero’s have faced countless threats, but are always cheered by the crowd and rewarded by the world they save. The X-Men however are far less fortunate, they save the world too, but the world never really excepts them in return, in fact it’s actually worse than that. The X-Men are shunned, outcaste and rejected by everyone else, but that doesn’t stop these hero’s from protecting the innocent people who hate and fear them. This in a nut shell makes them feel more noble, heroic and more human than other teams. Their goal isn’t just about protecting the people of earth from the comic book villain of the week, there also about uniting diverse classes of people into one whole. Themes of prejudice have always been relevant, and for all the progress our country makes, it’s still a vital point of discussion, which the X-Men have always stood for and conveyed subtly without being too preachy. With both “X-Men Apocalypse” and “Deadpool” coming out this year, it’s seems like the right time to have a whole month dedicated to my favorite superhero movie franchise, which means individual reviews of all the theatrical X-Men movies. So let’s kick things off with the one that started it all, the year was 2000, a new millennium had begun, and the big comic book movie that paved the way for modern superhero films is “X-Men”.

      The creators of the 2000 motion picture “X-Men”, didn’t know much about the comics and didn’t set out to create a big blockbuster comic book film, they set out to make a genuinely good movie with sharp narrative focus on the analogies of prejudice and discrimination that the X-Men characters have always stood for. The movie is still faithful to the comics it’s adapted from, and is packed with just enough action to keep fans satisfied, but this really doesn’t come off like a traditional comic book adapted film, it feels more like, well ... a movie. It’s not trying to “wow” us with special effects, the passing is a little slower and the film puts more emphasis on characters and internal struggles before spectacles. Over the years, other superhero films including “The Dark Knight” and “Spider-Man 2” would follow the same example, and admittedly do a better job, but regardless “X-Men” was a highly influential film in the early 2000’s, and set a template for other films to fallow and aspire from. In many respects, “X-Men” has become a classic film, not just among comic book movies, but a note worthy stepping stone in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genera.

      Now when the concept of the X-Men first came about, the co-creator Stan Lee suggested that instead of having people hit by gamma rays or bitten by radioactive Spiders, let’s have a comic revolving around characters that were just born with their powers. Yeah, in this universe select people are born with mutated powers that remain doorman in a human, until awakened in a state of heightened emotional stress. Humanities fear of these so-called “mutants” leads to hatred and conflicts soon arise between the two factions. One particular mutant called Magneto rallies his own brother hood of mutants to fight against their human oppressors. Meanwhile, another mutant called Professor X teaches his own small team of mutant hero’s to find a more peaceful solution as they aim to unite both races. Caught in the middle is a mutant outcast named Wolverine, a savage wild man with a forgotten past and no future. However, Professor X see’s the potential in him to be a better man, and sets him on the path, while also helping him discover the secrets of his mysterious past.

      Before I continue, let me just say that X-Men is not an easy comic to adapt. There are so many characters, lots of back stories, and lots of information that needs to be conveyed to audiences, but you know what, the filmmakers made all the right choices with how they introduce this crowded cast of characters and told this story. It was a stroke of genius to make Wolverine the main character as he’s the most interesting of them all, and has the deepest story arch. He was always my favorite of the X-Men, and has always been the most famous of the group. His image, healing powers, and his indestructible claws are every bit as iconic as Spider-Man and his web swinging. However, Wolverine was never the main character of the comics or even the TV shows, so this was his chance to really shine and become an iconic movie superhero. The ace up this characters sleeve is that he’s played by Hugh Jackman, whose frikin amazing in the role. He doesn’t even feel like an actor playing a part, when I see him on screen, I see Wolverine alive and in the flesh. This was actually Hugh Jackman’s very first movie, and he would become the biggest reoccurring actor in the series, in fact he’s played Wolverine more times than any actor has ever played a superhero on film. It’s a performance that’s just as iconic as Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones or Sean Connery as James Bond. Sir Patrick Stewart, famous for playing Captain Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is also outstanding in the role of Professor X. He’s a mutant boned to a wheel chair, but has telepathic powers that make him more powerful than most. Patrick Stewart captures the wisdom of the character, but also the fatherly warmth, which allows him to separate this performance from that of his Captain Picard portrayal.

   While the movie is mostly centered around Wolverine, it doesn’t ignore the other iconic X-Men characters that fans know and enjoy. Wolverine’s interactions with the team allow the audience to get to know them individually, and while they aren’t developed as much, we’re given just enough to want to see them in further sequels. The character Storm is another iconic X-Men character, and has powers that revolve around weather. In this movie she’s played by Halle Berry, who looks great in the role, but her character is probably given the least amount of attention. Regardless, she does the character justice and has some awesome moments. Famke Janssen plays Jean Grey, a mutant who can move objects with her mind, and is Wolverines secret love interest. Their chemistry is subtle enough to work, and the character stands out. Then there’s Cyclops, the honorable team leader who can fire a single energy blast from his eyes.
Personally, I never liked this guy, even from the comics and the show. I always saw him as just a really boring character who always got in the way of Wolverines iconic status. Thankfully for me he’s not in the movie for that long, and will never have that big a role in these films. My apologies to fans of the character, but at least you guys have the “X-Men Evolution” TV series that did him justice.

       At last we have the young academy award winning actress Anna Paquin playing the character Rogue. A 17 year old runaway who needs to keep some distance from other people because her touch can take a person’s life force, memories, and even mutant powers from other characters. This has the regrettable side effect of leaving the people she touched in a nasty coma, and her powers are very difficult to control. Rogue is the character that plays to our emotional sides the most, and has the strongest connection with Wolverine, because both can relate to being outcasts that can’t get close to anyone. There’s an excellent scenes in which the two bond while riding a train, and it’s a perfect example of how this movie puts characters before action. Bryan Singer directed this film, and he’d be the reoccurring director throughout most of the series. This is a guy who knows how to capture the characters in the moment, and make the smallest scenes with them stand out.

      I really like the look and feel of Xavier’s mansion, which actually looks and feels like a school. In both the comics and the cartoon shows, we’d see the X-Men training, but there were never any classes, and no one was actually teaching. This film definitely conveys the feel of a school for superhero’s and I love all the individual moments were we see students using their powers. It’s also a great time for fans to spot all the little cameo’s from students like jubilee, Pyro and shadowcat who can walk through walls. We see a few scenes with a character called Iceman who can do various ice related things. He doesn’t do much in this film, but over time he’ll become one of the main reoccurring characters. X-Men co-creator Stan Lee makes a cameo, as does George Buza who was one of the main voice actors in the 90’s X-Men cartoon show. Michael Kamen composed the music, and he just hits it out of the park with a music track that fits right in with the X-Men, and elevates each scene. The opening title screen for example is one of my favorite title screens of all time, with awesome visuals mixed with Kamen’s sensational score. I also like that the film has a subtle sense of hummer, and even makes fun of how silly some of the characters and their names may come across to anyone not familiar with the comics. The costumes too have a nice modern day look, as opposed to the overly colorful designs from the comics and TV shows. 

      Now any team of hero’s will eventually have to clash with a team of villains and in this movie they come in the form of the Brotherhood of evil mutants. Their leader is a super mutant called Magneto who can control metal objects. In my opinion, villains don’t get any better than Magneto, he’s powerful, methodical, tragic, heroic, complex, frightening, intimidating, vengeful, and just about everything you need for a great character. He’s like the Shakespeare villain of all comic book movie villains, and is every bit as sophisticated and classy as his characters too.
The most frightening villains always seem the most human, but are always hiding something sinister. Shaped by the atrocities of world war II, Magneto’s contempt for human kind is far more vengeful, and makes his goals to liberate mutants from their human oppressors all the more personal. Magneto is scary both as a metaphor, and as one who believes he’s taking the right actions against others who in his mind should be branded as villains. Even his relation with the hero’s is interesting as he doesn’t hate them the same way other villains just want to see their adversaries dead. Ian Mckellen’s performance as Magneto has achieved iconic movie villain status, right up there with the Joker and Darth Vader. How he ranks among them is up for debate, but for me personally, he isn’t just my favorite comic book villain, he’s my favorite villain I’ve ever seen in a motion picture series.
At his side is a brutal, sadistic and all around beastly mutant called Sabretooth played by Tyler Mane. In the comics, he was Wolverines personal arch nemesis, and while they both have their exciting clashes in the film, they don’t have any connection or chemistry with one another, and that’s really my only nit-pick with the film. I will say that he makes for a really cool evil henchman, and it’s always exciting when he confronts our heroes. Speaking of cool evil henchman, lets look at the second most marked villain of the series, the blue skinned shape-shifter called Mystique. This is Magnetos second in command, and while she doesn’t say much, her actions speak volumes. She’s like a silent predator lurking in the shadows waiting to strike, and her shape-shifting powers are awesome visual spectacles to behold. Plus, I don’t know why she’s naked throughout the film series while her comic counterpart was always clothed, but actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos has one heck of an attractive figure. Smaller brother hood members include nasty mutants like Toad who has a long tongue and can leap high. He's played by Ray Park, the professional stunt actor famous for playing Darth Maul in "Star Wars" and the Headless Horseman in "Sleepy Hollow". While he has his moments, Toad is not one of the stand out villains of the series, and it's one of Ray Parks less impressive roles.  

      Now before I saw this movie, I really hadn’t seen too many action or Sci-Fi films, and I hadn’t yet been blown away by movies like “The Matrix” or “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. Because of this, little moments like Mystique’s transformation scenes, Wolverines slow-motion spin on the Statue of Liberty crown, and professor X using his mutant-location machine Cerebro all came off like jaw dropping spectacles. The action scenes too were unlike anything I had seen before, but are extremely tame by today’s standards. Looking back, you’d probably expect the action to be more bombastic and huge considering the movie is about a team hero’s with a variety of powers, but I really admire the simplicity these fight scenes. I like how all the action takes place on actual sets, with props that the characters use and destroy, and I like how the surroundings play into the fight choreography. There are no obvious green screen backdrops, but there are just enough effects that work for the characters needs without becoming distracting. Granted, I’d like to see bigger scale action scenes in the X-Men films, but for a first movie, this is perfectly serviceable.

       The finally is set on Liberty Island, where Magneto has set up a device that will mutate all the people of New York, and more importantly all the united nation leaders who gathered on Elis Island. This way all the world leaders will be mutants, and hopefully usher in a new era of peace. The catch is that Magneto isn’t aware that his machine has a nasty side effect of killing anyone exposed to its radiation. This was a great idea as it made Magneto a threat, without making him your typical cartoon villain who simply wants to kill off all humanity. He also needs to transfer his power to Rouge in order to fuel the machine, which will regrettably take her life too. So the stakes are definitely high enough, and it’s here that we finally get some cool mutant vs mutant action. We see Jean Grey fight Toad, we see Mystique battle Wolverine, and the highlight is the final dual between Wolverine and Sabertooth.
This is personally one of my favorite action scenes in the whole series, and the head piece of the statue of Liberty is the perfect setting for these two characters to duke it out. More than anything, I love how this climax resolves. Our hero’s succeed in destroying the machine, but they were too late to save Rogue. So Wolverine gives up his life-force in order to save her, proving once and for all that he really is a hero willing to make sacrifices. I love the way this scene was shot, with a somber, yet beautiful musical score, and the image of Wolverine lying beaten and near death on the floor is far more powerful than your typical money shot of the hero standing triumphant.

       So, is there anything I didn’t like about this movie? Well, yes there is, this film has one of the worst extended cuts of a movie I’ve ever seen titled “X-Men 1.5”. In this version when watching the movie, a little icon pops up on screen, and when selected by the DVD remote it’ll play a deleted scene that would have fit into the spot. I suppose that’s better than nothing at all, but wouldn’t it have been so much nicer if the deleted scenes were actually edited back into the film? The extended cut of “Spider-Man 2” titled “Spider-Man 2.1” actually had all the deleted scenes edited into the film, allowing us to just watch it like a movie, that’s exactly how it should have been done with “X-Men 1.5”. Now exactly how relevant are the missing scenes from “X-Men”, well, the movie is still great without them, but there are some really nice additions. For example, there’s several scenes in which many of the supporting X-Men like Storm and Jean Grey get some much needed screen time, and there’s even some conversations that would have added a little more to some of the characters if they were kept in the film. I always prefer to go with an extended cut of a movie, but that’s just me personally, and this just felt like a missed opportunity to have a proper extended cut of one of my favorite movies.

Before I get into my final verdict of the film, let me first explain what this film meant for my childhood. Back in the early 2000’s I was crazy about the X-Men, I watched the various cartoon shows all the time, had lots of the action figures, and of course read lots of the comics, and this film brought my fandom of the series to new heights. However, this film did a lot more for me then just living up to fan expectations, it got me fascinated in the art of filmmaking, and it’s one of the phew films that really got me excited with talking about movies in depth ... like a reviewer. So “X-Men” will always stand out as a benchmark in my personal history of movie going experiences. However, showing a movie of this sort to someone today may come off as very “wow-less”, especially when compared to big blockbusters like “The Avengers”. But that’s the strength of “X-Men”, it’s not a movie for the easily entertained action crowd, it’s a film for anyone who just wants to sit down and see a genuinely good film. The characters are all brought to life respectively from both cast and crew, it has a subtle amount of subtext underneath its comic book exterior, and just enough excitement to keep it from being boring. Earlier superhero movies like Tim Burtons “Batman”, and the 1978 “Superman” were also good movies and can be regarded as classics in their own right, but “X-Men” was the first superhero classic of the modern age, and a perfect example of how a summer blockbuster doesn’t have to resort to mindless action and spectacle. Now the door is open for sequels, and we'll see what new direction the films take starting with "X2: X-Men United", but that review is for next time. 

     Normally, I’d rate of film of this sort with four stars out of five, but for me personally, I’m going to go ahead and give “X-Men” 5 stars out of 5.

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