random thoughts after rewatching the x-men movie series

[extreme stefon voice] This series has everything… [/extreme stefon voice]

Looking for something pleasant and familiar to watch in the background recently I decided to dive back in to the X-Men film franchise, beginning with the 2000 original and running through 2019’s Dark Phoenix but not including the Deadpool, Wolverine or New Mutants off-shoots.

Some of the movies like X-Men and X2: X-Men United I’d watched a number of times. Others, including The Last Stand and Dark Phoenix, I’d only seen once before. But watching all seven of the core franchise films was a fascinating experience, especially given how the primary narrative around many series these days is how planned and connected everything is.

the movies themselves

First let’s talk about the movies themselves and how they hold up.

X-Men: It’s a little surprising how creaky this movie feels over 20 years after it came out. There’s some good stuff in here, of course, but all the flaws that were apparent in 2000 (Halle Berry being given nothing to do, wooden performances from Paquin and others) are even more so today. Of course the Stewart/McKellan scenes are still great, and Joss Whedon’s script-doctoring saves more than a few scenes.

X-Men Wolverine GIF by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment - Find & Share on GIPHY

X2: X-Men United: Still a slick, impressive sequel that improves on almost every aspect of the original. Janssen is a standout for how much more assured her character is, and the addition of Nightcrawler and a couple other characters, especially Brian Cox as William Stryker, helps spread the action a bit and adds some depth to the universe. It also has an all-time great ending that’s completely undermined by the lackluster…

Ian Mckellan Magneto GIF by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment - Find & Share on GIPHY

X-Men: The Last Stand: It’s the worst of the original trilogy but, upon further review, not the worst of the overall series. That being said, it is simply bad in just about every respect, from Brett Ratner’s directing to Hugh Jackman being openly bored to how it abjectly fumbles the Phoenix storyline. Ratner is borderline amateurish and isn’t helped by a script that is a perfect example of how to jump from plot point to plot point without earning or validating each step. I mean…if you cut Kelsey Grammer reciting the St. Crispin’s Day speech while wearing blue fur and makeup, what kind of filmmaker even are you?

X-Men: First Class: The tightest of the seven movies by a fair margin, thanks in part to director Matthew Vaughn’s knack for pacing while also sprinkling in solid character moments. Yes, there’s a bit of fluff here and there and I still can’t tell you what the names of half the characters are because they’re so incidental, but it all keeps moving and it doesn’t matter. Where the previous movies had Stewart and McKellan the easy professionalism, this one has McAvoy and Fassbender offering more kinetic performances as Xavier and Magneto, setting the tone for the whole film.

First Class Students GIF by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment - Find & Share on GIPHY

X-Men: Days of Future Past: What even is the point of this movie? Upon rewatch I have to say it’s the worst of the series because of how convoluted and messy it is. Nothing makes any sense, none of the performances are coherent or mean anything. This all despite it introducing Evan Peters’ Quicksilver in one of the best sequences of the entire series. It’s particularly marked by Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence both already looking like they regret the contracts they signed.

GIF by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment - Find & Share on GIPHY

X-Men: Apocalypse: For whatever reason this entry held up slightly better than it has in the past, but it’s still all over the place and, for as long as it is, doesn’t amount to much. Aside from the fact it’s hard to take Apocalypse seriously when you see his leather pants wrinkle and stretch, the worst thing you can say about it is that it’s forgettable. Also, the very cool reveal of the X team in something akin to their classic uniforms at the end goes absolutely nowhere because the story then jumps another 10 years and they’re in their New X-Men costumes by the time you get to…

Olivia Munn Apocalypse GIF by X-Men Movies - Find & Share on GIPHY

X-Men: Dark Phoenix: Better on second viewing than it was initially but still there’s so much going on that defies belief or explanation:

  • It’s remarkable that, given the opportunity to not make the same mistake twice, writer Simon Kinberg does just that. I’m talking specifically about having the story involve Xavier intentionally putting a mental block in Jean Grey’s mind to keep her from accessing her full power. It was more than a little problematic in 2005’s Last Stand and it’s even more so in 2019.
  • Because of that, the storyline plays very much like “men are afraid of powerful women because as soon as they’re no longer under men’s control they will destroy the world.” Which was not the point of the original Dark Phoenix story. Even the animated series did a better job.
  • Jennifer Lawrence is so checked out it looks like she’s wearing a Party City Mystique costume. And that’s before she dies in the first act.

Dark Phoenix Ok GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

other random observations

It’s honestly remarkable that they made seven X-Men movies, three Wolverine movies, two Deadpool movies and one New Mutants movie and never once actually addressed the issue of civil rights, prejudice, racism or any of the other themes that were the whole damn point of the comic books.

The series really offers the full range of potential performance types, including but not limited to:

  • Casual Elegant (Stewart, McKellan)
  • Trying So Hard (Rose Byrne)
  • Bored Bored Bored (Hugh Jackman in Last Stand)
  • Totally Not Paying Attention (Evan Peters)
  • Scenery Chewing (Brian Cox in X2)
  • Mugging For the Camera Because You Die Offscreen (James Marsden, Last Stand)
  • Actively Plotting Your Agent’s Demise (Fassbender in Apocalypse)
  • Owning It (Kevin Bacon, First Class)

It’s even more the polar opposite of the MCU in so many ways than the DC films. In the MCU the characters are almost always in motion. By comparison in the X-Men movies characters spend large chunks of each movie standing stock still and engaging in mid-tempo dialogue.

Also, the MCU movies are almost all examples of characters over story. The plots are largely the same (especially for the solo origin stories) but that doesn’t matter because the characters are out in front. The X-Men movies are all story and the characters fall to the wayside, given little to do but endlessly explain to each other what the story is.

You do have to respect, though, how so much of the action and stunt work in the movies is done practically instead of through elaborate CGI, as is the cast in almost every other super hero film since 2002.

Frequently reminded of how there was an X-Men Origins: Magneto in development at one point.

How do you not get Emma Frost right? How?

I don’t know who to feel more sorry for, the actress who played Kitty Pryde in the first two movies and then got pushed out for Elliot Page, or Elliot Page who’s given nothing to do in Apocalypse but grunt in Hugh Jackman’s face?

Poor Olivia Munn.

Poor…well…every actor playing a female character because clearly no one involved was interested in the female characters.

By my count, the U.S. government goes back and forth from fear to acceptance to fear of the X-Men like five times and that’s just in the four First Class-era movies.

No, seriously, like 45% of each of the movies is the characters just standing in a line together.

Like everyone else, I’ve tried my best to make the timeline of all seven movies work but it can’t be done. It just can’t.

Dark Phoenix – Marketing Recap

You can read the rest of my recap of the marketing for Dark Phoenix at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

Minimal effort has been put into the movie’s official website, which just sports the standard marketing content and little else.

Media and Publicity

While there had been conversations about the movie for a while, ever scene production of Days of Future Past, the first actual publicity beat hit in December of last year in an Entertainment Weekly cover story that explained what the story would be, a bit about the source material and more. It included first look photos, concept art, comments from Lawrence about her role.

Chastain also spoke about her secret role in the movie and how she got involved, a process that included finding the script to include something other than the usual female characters and roles. Some of those involved in the movie also admitted to the shortcomings of X-Men: Apocalypse, which was not reviewed well, and how this movie is meant to celebrate the team’s female characters. It was also revealed in that story that Genosha, an island created by Magneto as a mutant-only nation, will appear.

Empire had another set of stills offering glimpses of more characters.

Immediately after the second trailer – which Chastain debuted when she appeared on “The Tonight Show” – was released in late February, Kinberg was interviewed about why a notable character’s death was shown – or at least hinted at – in the trailer, saying it was in part to show the audience the movie would feature significant stakes.

Shipp was interviewed about the movie, commenting on how it finally gives the female characters in the X franchise something interesting to do.

The end of “Game of Thrones” also provided a hook for interviews like this with Turner where she reflected on what’s next for her – including this movie – now that she’s free of the pressures of being on a show.

Kinberg also spoke one more time about being responsible for bringing the series to a close and how he managed not having all the cast locked in during pre-production. Another interview with the director talked about how he approached handling what he knew was going to be a finale for the series.

“Jimmy Kimmel Live” hosted a joint appearance by many of the cast’s biggest players, including Turner, Chastain, Fassbender, McAvoy and others.

Overall

The question has emerged whether it was Fox or Disney that has been responsible for the movie’s campaign, particularly in the months since that deal was finalized. Who crafted the direction of the marketing is unclear from the layman’s point of view, but it mostly smells like a Fox production, with the tone and focus similar to how previous entries in the X-Men franchise have been sold. It’s also unlikely that a Disney campaign would include so much emphasis on the history of these movies, particularly since the future of the characters is still being determined.

dark phoenix gif

Picking Up the Spare

Lots of details about production have emerged since the movie hit theaters, including reports the filmmakers initially planned two movies covering the whole story and how extensively poor test screenings contributed to reshoots and changes to some character’s fates. That included the studio and others involved seemingly having learned all the wrong lessons from the troubled production of Apocalypse as well as attempts to move the movie out of the way of Alita: Battle Angel and other releases. 

There’s also been lots of discussion about the character played by Chastain, one that was kept secret in the pre-release publicity for no real reason, it seems. 

Red Sparrow – Marketing Recap

red sparrow posterWith so much conversation in the news about Russian intelligence operations and related issues, a movie about an undercover spy might seem a bit too real. But that’s exactly what we’re getting with this week’s Red Sparrow. Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a young ballerina who is recruited into a special division of Russian intelligence called “Sparrow School” that specializes in turning young women into operatives capable of using any means at their disposal to achieve their objectives.

Her first mission is to target Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA officer on his first assignment charged with managing the assets planted most deeply behind the Iron Curtain. When she arranges coincidental meetings between the two of them what starts out as pure manipulation and suspicion soon leads to something else that may have consequences not only for the two personally but the countries they’re proxies for.

Continue reading “Red Sparrow – Marketing Recap”

mother! – Marketing Recap

The official synopsis for mother! reads thusly:

A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.

I’m not sure anything I could write could expand on that considering, as we’ll see, the marketing of the movie has kept the story under wraps. So let’s just note it comes from writer/director Darren Aronofsky and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as the couple and Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer as the uninvited guests. Let’s dig in.

The Posters

The first poster, which was revealed on Mother’s Day, is messed up. It’s not a photo but a painting that shows Lawrence wearing a white dress and standing in a magical, overgrown garden and sporting a serene look on her face. That all is in stark contrast to the fact that she’s holding her own heart in her hand after clearly pulling it out of the still-open wound in her chest. That’s…just not right, but what do you expect from Aronofsky? A second poster is a similarly artistic image showing Bardem sitting on a chair while being engulfed in flames.

What seems to be the theatrical poster just showed Lawrence in extreme close-up. That seems normal enough until you notice her skin is cracked and chipped like a glass vase. The names of the leads as well as the director are prominently displayed, with Aronofsky’s role as the director of The Black Swan also mentioned here.

The next poster is focused on the remote, odd-looking house that the couple in the story move to. A lone figure is seen in the doorway to the faraway house but more noticeable is Lawrence’s face, which looms behind the house like a setting sun.

A new mirror-image poster was revealed by Aronofsky during a reddit AMA session that underscored the mind-bending nature of the movie’s story.

The Trailers

The first trailer starts off with scenes of domestic bliss between the main couple, despite their age difference. They’ve moved into a new house and she’s making it their own. Things begin to get strange when a couple they don’t know comes to stay with them, which leads to more and more mysteries that go deeper and deeper. There’s sex and violence and tunnels being dug and a general sense of looming terror.

Ummm…yeah. This is a full-on horror movie Aronofsky appears to have made, though it’s not as if his other movies aren’t disturbing in their own ways. There’s a lot going on here but it’s great to see Lawrence being given room to stretch a little. Also, the promise of her and Bardem acting against Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer is too great.

Another short trailer came out a bit later that doesn’t show a whole lot, at least not until the end, but still features plenty of dialogue that’s creepy enough when contrast with Lawrence walking around the house coldly.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website is focused on selling tickets and even has “tickets” in the URL. If you try to take that out you’re redirected to the Facebook page for the film.

There are only a few other bits of content on the site outside of the message to buy tickets. “Message Me” encourages you to sign up for text alerts when new marketing materials are released. “Videos” has the official trailer. Finally, “Synopsis” gives you the same short, vague recap of the story I included above. At the bottom of the page are links to the movie’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles.

When Aronofsky revealed the poster during the reddit AMA mentioned above it didn’t take long for people to realize there was a hidden website address on the image. That website, YoullNeverAnswerTheDoorAgain.com, kept the twisted nature of the poster going with a series of images that when clicked and highlighted revealed clips and other clues as to the story that hadn’t been hinted at in the campaign to that point.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV advertising kicked off with a series of sequential commercials during the recent “MTV Video Music Awards that definitely sold the movie as a twisted domestic drama, one that will mess with people’s minds.

That clip that was mentioned above was used for ads that ran as pre-roll on YouTube.

Promoted posts were run on Twitter as well. With at least one of them, this one, there was a call-to-action to Fav the Tweet, promising something in return if you did. As soon as someone liked that post there were sent a response with an exclusive new clip.

Media and Publicity

The movie was announced as one of those that would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it picked up very good buzz that focused around the madness of Aronofsky’s story and the performances of Lawrence and Bardem.

Right after the first trailer popped up a huge feature interview with Lawrence in Vogue, which was accompanied by four variant covers, hit where the actress talked about this movie, albeit in vague terms so as not to give away too much. It also obviously covered a lot more of her career and was generally part of the continued to position her as the most relatable actress of her generation.

That was followed by an interview with Aronofsky in Entertainment Weekly’s fall movie preview issue where he talked about how even he was still trying to figure out what the movie was all about. A few new stills came along with that story. Another interview had the director trying to prepare audiences for the craziness of what the movie was going to present to them and how intense Lawrence’s performance is.

Domhnall Gleeson talked about his still-unknown role here and how he met with Aronofsky before taking on the part. At the same time, at the Venice Film Festival, Aronofsky and the rest of the cast talked about the movie and the divisive reactions it created in the audience who saw it.

Another promo video offered more fast-cut visuals for fans to dissect and try to find meaning in.

Lawrence did plenty of press in the last few weeks, including an interview where she talked about the feminist message of the story and appearances on late night talk shows where she continued to sell her image as America’s most awkward actor.

Overall

Well I certainly don’t think Aronofsky or his stars have spilled many, if any, of the secrets and twists of the movie. There’s been plenty of discussion about those secrets, but it’s always in the context of why they exist and what the director was trying to accomplish with them. Other than that the focus was on creating a sense of mystery and tension in the audience with tight spaces, fast cuts, building music, dramatic visuals and other tactics.

All of that means it has what would appear to be little chance at anything approximating mainstream success. Unless word of mouth from this weekend is extraordinarily positive and it becomes a must-see status-symbol type of phenomenon, it will go on to become fodder for film geeks to discuss as they weigh Aronofsky’s career of off-putting and difficult-to-process movies. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but considering the festival reviews seem to tag it as an incredibly divisive film, it doesn’t seem likely to break out of the niche audience.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

Writer/director Darren Aronofsky made the subtext of the divisive film the text in a keynote address at SXSW, laying out exactly what he was going for, apparently hoping it will get people to revisit or rethink their initial opinions.

Before Atomic Blonde: Selling Female Action Heroes

Last week Universal Pictures pulled out a number of stops to sell Atomic Blonde, an action-packed spy thriller starring Charlize Theron. Set during the Cold War 1980s, Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an agent of MI6 who must go into Berlin and evade enemies, friends-turned-enemies and other dangers to retrieve some form of Macguffin before it falls into the wrong hands, as these things are apt to do.

A good chunk of the marketing for the movie focused around how Theron was not only willing to do but capable of doing her own stunts. Interviews covered her training regime, featurettes showed her working out the fight choreography and more. While the formal campaign emphasized the sleek, stylized world of spycraft Theron’s Broughton operates in, the rest of it made sure audiences knew it was the actress herself who was doing the punching that’s seen on-screen.

That focus almost made it seem like this was the first time a movie campaign needed to sell the idea of a female action hero. The implied message seemed to be some version of “Women : They’re just like men.” which was…strange for 2017. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve been asked to see a woman kicking just as much hinder as a man would in a movie. It’s not even the first time this year (cough, Wonder Woman, cough). And it’s not the first time Theron has been at the center of the action.

To prove that point, let’s look at six other ways female action heroes have been positioned as the main value proposition for audiences.

The Young Adult Chosen One

If you’re not familiar with the name Katniss Everdeen, I’m not sure what to tell you. The Hunger Games made Jennifer Lawrence a household name after she was cast in the film adaptations of the popular young adult novels. While the Divergent series didn’t reach those box office heights (the final novel’s adaptation is rumored to be going to TV), it too positioned a young girl (Tris, played by Shailene Woodley) as the bright light leading the way out of a bleak, dystopian society. The trailers for the movies in both franchises featured the young women at the center of the stories engaging in equal amounts action and inspirational speeches. Both campaigns proved that fighting the good fight wasn’t just about inciting rebellion and disrupting the status quo but also shooting arrows and throwing punches when necessary.

Sci-Fi Queens

Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley weren’t the first actresses to lead their own science-fiction franchises. Before them came Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich, who took lead roles in the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises, respectively. The marketing of both these series has heavily featured the stars engaging in all sorts of special effects-driven action, whether it’s taking down Lycans or fighting against the evil Umbrella Corporation.

Angelina Jolie: Action Star

Jolie has become more political and socially-conscious with her films of late but the 2000s had her taking on a number of action roles. Between 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and 2010’s Salt, she starred in a number of movies that had her exercising her stunt muscles on-screen. Salt had her on the run after she’s accused of being a Russian spy (which may not even be illegal anymore) and the trailer pulls heavily from the scenes of her evading arrest by running, jumping and more. She’s positioned more as the sexy mentor in the trailer for 2008’s Wanted, but is still capable of curving a bullet if she needs to. She’s deadly and dangerous in the trailer for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where she plays one half of a married couple who don’t know the other one is also a spy.

Unstoppable and Out For Revenge

Anyone compiling a list of cinematic grievance has to put “That we only got one Haywire movie” somewhere near the top. The trailer shows Mallory Kane (MMA star Gina Carano) as a government operative out for revenge after she’s betrayed by those in power. Similarly the trailers for both parts of the Kill Bill films makes it clear The Bride (Uma Thurman) has been wronged and it out to address her grievances with those she formerly called teammates. That quest ends with a confrontation with Bill (Keith Carradine) himself, but not before Thurman has shown herself quite capable at swordplay.

Solo Action Stars

It’s not as if the female action hero is a new innovation. In 1993 Bridget Fonda starred in Point of No Return, the American remake of La Femme Nikita. As the trailer shows, Nina (Fonda) is a force to be reckoned with, even before she received the training to become an assassin. The trailer for the French-language original takes a different tack that’s much more dramatic than action-packed. And we can’t go without mentioning the one-chick hit squad that is Foxy Brown. The trailer features enough jive talk that you might need Barbara Billingsley to translate, but the message that Foxy is not to be trifled with comes through loud and clear. Finally, there’s this year’s Wonder Woman, which had an entire campaign that wasn’t about Gal Gadot’s training regime but about how compassion and love spur the hero to enter the world of men to fight for the helpless.

The Alien Gold Standard

No, the female action star is not exclusive to the years post 1990. Foxy Brown predates it, but the mold of this particular kind of hero was cast in the Alien franchise (pre-Prometheus, of course) with the iconic Sigourney Weaver. The trailer for the 1979 original may not show very much of Ripley as it’s more focused on the general chaos on board the alien-infested space craft. But by 1986 with the trailer for Aliens things had changed and Ripley’s combat skills come to the forefront. She’s more the inspirational leader and the one who warns of danger in the trailer for Alien 3, but that was a very different movie, going back to being more about hidden terror than mech-suit battles. By the time Fox was marketing Alien: Resurrection Ripley was positioned as a creepy artificial construct, not a hero with her own agency.