THE X-MEN SERIES (2011-2014)
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)
Director: Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass)
Starring: James McAvoy (Atonement), Michael Fassbender (Jane Eyre), Kevin Bacon (Footloose), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man)
During World War II, Erik Lensherr (Fassbender) is forced to be separated from his mother outside the gates of a concentration camp. As he reaches for her one last time, a rage fueled Erik opens the gates without even touching the gate. His power to move and control metal is witnessed by Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), a sadistic scientist. Erik vows to use his powers to get revenge on Shaw after witnessing him murder his mother.
Time has passed, and it is now 1962 in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Erik has come to the United States to track down Shaw. CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) is on the search for a U.S. Army Colonel. After following him into a nightclub, MacTaggart witnesses his sudden disappearance out of the room under the hands of Shaw and his mutant henchman. Shaw has not aged due to his energy absorbing powers. MacTaggart fears the rise of Shaw and tracks down Charles Xavier (McAvoy) who has recently done a thesis on mutation. Xavier agrees to join a special division of the CIA to shed light on mutation and bring down Shaw. After a failed attempt at capturing Shaw and his sidekick Emma Frost (January Jones), Xavier convinces Erik to join this division. Xavier admits to Erik the he is a telepath. They join forces and recruit fellow mutants like Raven (Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Hoult), AKA Mystique and Beast. They train and strengthen their powers to combat Shaw and Emma Frost.
When I first heard there was going to be another X-Men movie and it was going to be an origins story, I was worried. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) did not live up to the strength of the first two movies. After the cast was announced and the first trailer came out, my faith in the series was revitalized. I would rank this as number three in the series. As a whole, it’s a fun summer movie with big action sequences, fun characters, and special effects. While some of the special effects with the mutant powers come off a little hokey, it’s still a great ride. While I would have loved to have seen familiar faces like Cyclops, Storm, or Jean Grey, X-Men: First Class does introduce some new mutants to the story. McAvoy and Fassbender stand out amongst the cast. January Jones on the other hand is just awful. She brings nothing to her character, which is her usual style. Bryan Singer who directed the first two movies was involved in the story and produced this entry. His style and ideas definitely help bring the movie back to the tone of the first two. I really appreciate that the movie transitions well into the relationships and story lines we know from the first movie. Too many times prequels or origin stories don’t fit into the series well.
RATING: *** 1/2 (3.5 out of 5 stars)
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore
The fans rejoiced when it was announced that Bryan Singer signed on to direct the latest outing in this series. He got the series going with X-Men and then upped the ante with the stellar X2 in 2003. Unfortunately he departed the series and we were left with Brett Ratner directing X-Men: The Last Stand, which still leaves a sour note in moviegoers’ memories. Since the original trilogy, we have had two terrible stand-alone Wolverine films and a prequel called X-Men: First Class. I really enjoyed X-Men: First Class despite the horrendous casting of January Jones. Call me a purist, but I really think this series is best served under the hands of Bryan Singer. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, not only do we get Singer, but we get the best of both worlds as it reunites the original trilogy cast members plus the new actors that played their younger selves in X-Men: First Class.
A war carries on between the humans and the mutants. The humans have unleashed massive robotic killing machines called the Sentinels as their weapon. They were created in 1973 by Dr. Boliver Trask (Dinklage) who at the time was assassinated by the mutant Mystique (Lawrence). She believed if she killed him it would stop the Sentinels from being mass produced and given clearance to be used by the government. Her plan backfired as the assassination caused the mutants to become thought of as an even larger danger and threat to the public than before.
In the future as the mutant population continues to decline, Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) devise a plan to travel back in time in 1973 to stop Mystique from killing Dr. Trask. They seek the help of fellow mutant Kitty Pryde (Page) who uses her powers to send Wolverine’s (Jackman) consciousness back to 1973. When he arrives, he needs to find the Professor (now played by McAvoy) and Magneto (now played by Fassbender) to locate Mystique’s whereabouts.
Time travel movies can be tricky if the story goes back and forth numerous times throughout a movie. The story can become convoluted and confusing to the audience. When they work, the payoff is thrilling and it makes the movie all the more accessible. X-Men: Days of Future Past falls into the second category. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg keeps a majority of the story in the 1973 timeline. This helps enhance the character development that was started in X-Men: First Class as we learn more of where these characters are coming from and how their relationships have changed in the decades in between both settings. There is a clear shift in the relationship between Professor X and Magneto from where they started out in terms of their friendship or lack thereof. In this film, we see a very different version of Professor X. James McAvoy gets to play out the disheveled, addicted, and depressed side of him which is a far cry from the stoic leader we know of him through Patrick Stewart’s performance. The only downside to having a majority of the film set in the past is that we don’t see a lot of Stewart and Ian McKellen who are such fantastic actors. I’m sure their busy theater schedules and McKellen’s work in The Hobbit films made their availability limited or maybe that was always the intention of how the structure of the story was plotted out.
One of the great characteristics about the X-Men is how universally relatable they can be compared to some of the other Marvel Comics heroes. You may be thinking that idea is a stretch as no one has the ability to teleport, control the weather, or have claws come shooting out of their hands, but there is the underlying message of not being accepted for the way you were born. Many of these characters face adversity and discrimination due to their powers and fight for their voice to be heard or be accepted like any other human being. I think many people can relate to that concept in one way or another. Plus, who hasn’t once thought about what superpower they wish they had. Bryan Singer has a deep understanding of this theme and is able to bring it out with these characters while making it a fun, exciting, action filled comic book movie. With a majority of the story set in the past, the film poses a general reminder on how far our society has come in the last few decades regarding the acceptance and tolerance of others. We can look back, learn, and grow from history.
I think if people are hesitant about comic book movies, I would recommend the X-Men films to help them get on the bandwagon. X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fantastic return to form that has won the fan base over again. I get that giddy feeling seeing this huge ensemble of actors step away from the stage or other indie movies to play against a green screen and return to characters the audience has invested in over the years. Sometimes reunion type movies can feel hokey and contrived, but I never got that impression here. One of the highlights of the movie was new cast member Evan Peters (American Horror Story) as Quicksilver who has a funny slow-motion action sequence with a bunch of armed guards. The ending of the film will get fans excited for X-Men: Apocalypse, the third entry in this new trilogy, as there are cameos galore that pop up that further tie it into the timeline of the original trilogy. Good news, Bryan Singer is set to helm that one as well.
Is it worth your trip to the movies? The X-Men are my favorite in the Marvel Comics canon, and the return of director Bryan Singer has made it the best one since X2.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Ticket Stubs
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Evan Peters, Oliva Munn, Rose Byrne, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp
I thought it would be a slam-dunk no-brainer that the casting of Oscar Isaac in the latest and final film in the new X-Men trilogy would make it the best one yet. I now realize I was reaching a bit due to my love of the actor. In case you’re unfamiliar, he played the heroic Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the title character in Inside Llewyn Davis. Now he’s playing the mother of all X-Men villains, Apocalypse. The film opens in 3600 BCE in ancient Cairo with a transformation ceremony where he is given the gift of eternity. After a very CGI heavy opening sequence, he is sequestered into hibernation buried deep beneath a pyramid. Cut to 1983 and we pick up years after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is now running his school for gifted students. Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender) has started a new life in Poland where he has changed his name, has a job, and takes care of his wife and daughter. Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) has been off on her own helping other mutants she meets along the way. One of them is Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee) whom she brings to Xavier’s school.
Another character coming back into play is Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert, a CIA agent we first met in X-Men First Class. She heads to Cairo trying to find a connection to a mutant group who are believed to be dated back many centuries ago. That connection could lead to the very first mutant, Apocalypse. While she is there his powers are awoken and he is unleashed into the real world again. This time he has his sights set on total world annihilation in hopes of rebuilding it again. He recruits Storm (Shipp), Angel (Hardy), Psylocke (Munn), and Magneto to help him take down Xavier.
As with the other two films in the new trilogy, we are continuing to see the background and early days of the mutants we were first introduced to in Bryan Singer’s original trilogy when they were all adults. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who has previously been a writer and producer on the trilogy, brings in other fan favorites as well with Jean Grey (Turner) and Scott Summer/Cyclops (Sheridan) as students at Xavier’s school. Their budding romance comes into play, and Jean Grey’s telekinesis plays a big factor into the climax. Singer is back on board and makes this the fourth film he’s directed in the two trilogies. I’m a pretty big fan of the series overall as the X-Men were the Marvel characters I grew up watching long before I delved into the Avengers. It can be a bit daunting trying to keep everything together in your head from both trilogies, especially as timelines have been altered quite a bit throughout the six films.
There’s a scene in the film when Jubilee, Jean, Scott, and Nightcrawler are walking out of a movie theater showing Return of the Jedi and they comment on how the third film is always the worst. It’s as if Kinberg already knew that he was writing a mediocre script that couldn’t compare to the other films. I was already having that thought before this scene, and Kinberg’s analysis basically cemented that idea for me. Was he trying to be clever or just point out the obvious? It’s an extremely choppy script as he’s constantly jumping from one scene to the next to fit all the characters in and feel like they’re given ample screen time. The film begins with everyone literally all over the map so it takes some energy and effort to get them all back under one roof. All of this quick back and forth doesn’t give enough quality time with any one character or subplot to really feel any weight or emotion. Many characters often feel like they were added just to please fans without any decent justification. So much of the humanity and heart within these characters is missing.
One of the aspects I loved about the other films in the franchise is that the X-Men were treated like regular human characters who just happen to be gifted with special powers. They were placed in a real life setting where they had to learn how to control and use those powers for good. Take Days of Future Past for example, the ‘70s timeframe led to President Nixon being a character with the villain standing by him during the climax. The placement in reality is basically thrown out the window here. I’m not saying we need real historical figures to make that happen, but Apocalypse becomes so reliant on CGI that it tonally doesn’t seem to fit what has come before. I am not as familiar with the actual comic books, but this film definitely feels the most cartoonish and colorful film in the franchise. Is this all coming from the decision to use Apocalypse as the main villain? He is a core character, so it was only a matter of time before he came into play, but his swirling, shifting, spinning powers make the film feel more like Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy than an X-Men film. Maybe die-hard comic book fans will rejoice in how they treat the character, but like many CGI laden films watched through 3D glasses, it just looks cheap to me.
I mentioned my adoration of Oscar Isaac previously, but even he can’t save the title character. It just seems so odd to me as he becomes totally lost underneath a purple prosthetic make-up design. He’s downright unrecognizable and not given quality material to play with for an actor of his stature and the unique qualities he usually can bring to a character. There’s also some auto-tune done with his voice, which continually left me scratching me head in every scene. He’s too good of an actor to be buried underneath this character. There has been hype surrounding Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) who is also new to the series playing Psylocke, one of Apocalypse’s right hand associates. I feel like she could have been a cool character as she thrashes her purple electric whip around and uses an electric blade, but she’s basically reduced to evil stares into the camera.
The core to all three of these films belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy. While they are not completely wasted in this film, there’s this overriding feeling like maybe they are too big now for this franchise. Lawrence and Fassbender have multiple Oscar nominations under their belt with Lawrence having won as well. She has to give a few motivational speeches in the film to some of the other X-Men, but I winced a few times with the cheesy dialogue she is forced to deliver. Fassbender is given some nice moments with his family in the Poland scenes before he is forced back into his Magneto helmet. Evan Peters is back as Quicksilver, the comic relief of the film. He provides some good laughs and is given another slo-mo action sequence to capitalize on his powers. It’s one of the biggest and best scenes in the whole film.
This is the third superhero film this year following Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War. All three are well over the two-hour marker and all three are heavy on subplots trying to fit a plethora of characters together. X-Men: Apocalypse takes on way too much and just doesn’t know how to make it all work. Frankly, I found myself not caring most of the time, which is shame, as I really do love these characters and actors. Bryan Singer has been the original head honcho on this franchise since day one, and it just feels like a let down to see it come to this.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Sadly this film won’t win over anyone new to the characters.
RATING: 2 out of 5 TICKET STUBS