[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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.