By MrMazz 0 Comments
This is the start of another project of mine. In which I will write an essay dealing with the X-Men film franchise in particular X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X3: The Last Stand, First Class, and The Wolverine. Looking at each film as part of the greater franchise, their role in the franchise and in relation to the greater superhero genre.
The Basic Plan
1) X-Men - Explainging a world: Exposition and world building and this isn't an origin story
2) X2: X-Men United - Agressive Expansion, Going Deeper - Sequels
3) X3: The Last Stand - Agressive Expansion in the wrong direction: Or How It All Went WRONG
4) X-Men: First Class - The Reboot and Genre Mixing
5) The Wolverine - Seperate but Apart
NOTE: I did not mean to write so goddamn much, I came up with a series of questions to anserw and use to forumlate this essay and this is what happened. It seems doubtful X2 will be as long and more in line with my BatmanBatmanBatman piece of like 1800ish words.
In this modern age of comic book cinema, where most franchises fail on in their third film and reboots and connected universes are all the rage. X-Men, the franchise, has been a constant. It has seen it all: solid first film, excellent sequel, terrible threequel (and fourth film), a genre mixing reboot, and soon, the new hottness: the crossover. X-Men is the bedrock franchise for the superhero film genre.
I-This Isn’t An Origin Story
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” is how the saying goes. So it is not surprising that most first steps in superhero film franchises often deal with the origin of the hero. X-Men sidesteps this and jumps headfirst into the world of X-Men. For the simple reason there is no “origin” in X-Men, these characters were all born this way. This does not mean characters backstories and motivations are not explained and explored, it just isn’t the over arching plot used to structure the film. Lacking the necessity of the origin story plot allows X-Men to age a bit more gracefully.
Batman Begins is the perfect origin story film for me. It runs like clockwork. Iron Man also uses the same formula, but with a little less clear sectioning. By now everyone knows how the origin story stuff is going to work and that makes the first film in a franchise a bit boring. It’s expected. No matter how much chemistry Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have they didn’t need to bother telling the origin story again in Amazing Spider-Man. X-Men doesn't go this route; instead focusing on character motivations and world they inhabit.
From a plot perspective X-Men, has more in common with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone than Batman Begins or Iron Man. In both X-Men and Harry Potter, an individual discovers that they are unique and finds a hidden world, journeys to a school, and becomes involved in a shadow war with the fate of both worlds at stake and the plots rely on a McGuffin to function. Compared to an origin story where an individual is transformed into something else and more than themselves and must learn to protect more than just themselves.
Origin stories are all centered on a single character transforming into something elses; something more than human. Bruce Wayne puts on the mask and becomes a legend. Tony Stark turned himself internally into Iron Man before building an exoskeleton to match. Peter Parker was a meek, nerdy, high school kid before he was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spectacular Spider-Man. These transformations also match emotional growth of the character. Wayne gets over his fears. Stark becomes less conceited and more philanthropic. Peter Parker learns that with great power comes great responsibility.
None of this is applicable to X-Men. Mutants are simply born that way. When Rogues’ mutation surfaces it only confirms that she is a mutant. She isn’t a human who turned into a mutant, she always was one. There is not a transformation. However, it pushes her into the mutant world of X-Men, mirroring that of the uninformed audience. Wolverine does become a bit more selfless, but is still the same as he started a mutant amnesiac that by the end of the film has a couple of friends.
Like the first Potter film, X-Men must explain and introduce a fantastical world to mass audiences and introduce a large cast of characters. For Bryan Singer this means introducing and presenting the not too distant future world of X-Men as one in crisis. It is dealing with “the mutant problem”, and the question of what are the proper governmental responses to this new sect of humanity. That statement hangs over this film. X-Men is more about exploring the world and introducing characters to audiences than telling a straightforward superhero story. Singer does this by showing us a world that is not unlike our own, that is, until the fantastical happens.
II-Explaining the World Visually
X-Men is a film that lives and dies by its mise en scene, (the world of the film or, everything from cinematography and editing to costume and set design). Brian Singer treats the world of X-Men with a level of realism that most superhero films did not in the gold rush to put possible tent pole franchises into production. He presents his world, taking place in a not too distant future, as is. It appears to be like our own, it looks like ours, feels like ours. Mixing in short genre scenes to further accumulate and explain the world. The world of X-Men is one anyone can understand quickly. It isn’t until it becomes fantastical at the drop of a hat that we can no longer understand it. This sort of tempo shift underscores the pacing of first two thirds of X-Men.
The first shot of X-Men pushes the viewer through a doorway putting us into their world, The first scene is a drab near monochrome memory. Everyone and the world itself is gray save for the blazing yellow Star of David on their coats. It’s a clear homage to Schindler’s List. The content of this scene would fit very well in that film. A young boy is shuffled into concentration camp by Nazis. A quick point of view of the boy emphasizes the branded nature of the Jews in WWII. All because they were born different, made the other, by those in power. The boy is soon torn from his mother and father. The mother wails made more haunting as the sound becomes nearly non-diegetic, making the anguish of the moment and memory as a whole far greater. The boy tries to rejoin his family, but is grabbed by guards. Still all you would expect from a setting like this all perfectly normal. It isn’t until you hear the loud creek and jutting of the metal gate do you realize the fantastical is starting to happen. The fantastical is happening, the boy, Erik Lehnsherr, seems to be both drawn to the large metal gate like a magnet while simultaneously pulling it down. The barb wire tops bend with the movement of his fingers. The guards are overwhelmed and don’t seem to understand or know what is happening. Until another guard take the butt of his rifle hamming it into little Lehnsherr head, knocking him out. This little incident is lost to history and the film returns to the typical and expected.
X-Men transitions to another well known scenario, the teen romance, soon after. In the not too distant future a young totally normal looking Marie explains her plans for an adventure through North America. The boy in her room appears to be half paying attention; he has something else on his mind. The lighting is soft, sunlight breaking through the windows. The colors are just a bit too warm, a stark contrast to Eric’s early life. All of which is still keeping in the mise-en-scene of the teen romance. The two teenagers even share an awkward kiss. It isn’t until they are kissing and CGI enhanced veins stream across the boy’s face do you realize something is different. It is the blood curdling scream from Marie (Anna Paquin) that tells you something is wrong. The scream echoes that of Eric's mother, but is far more present. Cutting back to the room, the boy is now convulsing on the bed in a seizure. Marie huddles in the corner utterly distraught and afraid of anyone who will touch her.
The introduction of Logan aka Wolverine is not classical Hollywood or tied to genre as seen previously. A POV shot of Marie, now going by the name Rogue, puts us into a Canadian dive bar of Laughlin City. Her gaze is drawn to the mysterious figure with odd hair standing in a cage. For once we have someone who looks a little different. The way the camera favors and hangs on him tells you he is important, but not why.
The Wolverine, as he is introduced, quickly dispatches another local toughman. Singer employs sound to further signify this figures oddity. Sharp metal clanks follow every strike Wolverine lands. Playing off the sound of the futile attempts of the tough man's strike against the adamantium laced skeleton with the thudding of metal. Extreme reactions of pain come from the tough man. No such reaction from the Wolverine. This Wolverine is very different from the people around him. He is clearly mutant.
Post fight, the Wolverine sets into another bout of drinking. Rogue stares at him curiously - both share looks that connect them visually though they do not realize their mutant commonality. The defeated tough man wants his money back. Brushed off, he retaliates with a pocket knife. The Wolverine has knives of his own. Aggressive behavior, but not uncommon for a dive bar.
In one fluid motion the tough man is pinned to a wooden column by Wolverine and he reveals his foot long claws. Two claws trapp the man’s neck in place. It’s a single motion and pair of shots that go from barstool to column. Both shots are set at different times. The initial turn is speed up. The cut to follow the action is slower as Wolverine presses the man in the column. It is a lot of the fantastical elements very fast so the scene is elongated to breath with a slow reveal of the third middle claw, tipped right at the center of the tough man's neck. A quick but seemingly slow reactionary montage of patrons follows:, the truck driver suddenly awakes at the disturbance. The montage ends on a sound cue, the cocking of a shotgun, pinned to Wolverines head. “Get out of my bar freak,” the owner orders.
In an even quicker motion Wolverine’s second set of claws are revealed. Not that you actually see them. Just the effect they have on the world. The shotgun is sliced apart, black powder and shot spill to the floor in slow motion. The briefest of seconds hold just a little longer than they should. Now Wolverine is staring down two men, gives a snarl and sheaths his claws and leaves. Returning the world back to its normal state. Like the two prior scenes, the sudden event is not worthy of great note. In the not too distant future of X-Men, they have become common place.
The pattern of disruption continues but at quicker pace. After Wolverine or Logan discovers Rogue stored away, he begrudgingly lets her into the camper. They share some awkward dialog, both not used to the company of others. You have all the makings of a Canadian road movie. That is, until, the camper crashes into a tree. Wolverine goes flying head first out of the cab. Stopping dead after skipping like a stone. The crash is a disruption but not fantastical, they hit a fallen tree. A common occurrence one might expect. The fantastical is seeing all the deep gashes in Wolverine’s face heal and close within seconds. Rogue is amazed and shocked expression is elevated by genre typical fantastical music.
Sabertooth suddenly leaps from the bushes giving us the real cause of the disruption and more fantastical happening. All prior scenes of disruption involved mutants disrupting normal daily life. There had not yet been actual mutton on mutant disruption. Soon the X-Men (Cyclops and Storm) appear out of nowhere along with the X-Men theme composed by Michael Kamen, compounding the weirdness. The titular heroes save Logan and Rogue, unfortunately, Logan’s camper and what amounted to his life have gone up in a ball of fire. And that’s the first 15 minutes. All this world building by showing the difference in the world compared to ours by disrupting us with sudden mutant acts.Giving a bit more understanding why some would want the Mutant Registration Act passed.
The opening 15 minutes were about Mutants disrupting normal humans everyday lives in aggressive fashion. Once the film reaches the school the disruptions continue, but are shown to be accepted and unaggressive. For mutants someone teleporting down the basketball court is just another day at the Xavier School for gifted youngsters.
The train station sequence is the most public moment of the fantastical disrupting the mundane. Prior disruptions were small scale or highly segregated moments. Here we have the first real clash between humanity, the X-Men, and Brotherhood. Taking place in three distinct areas, separated from one another. The ceiling of the train station is soon taken out by Cyclops’ optic blast. Sabertooth is blasted out of the station by a lightening bolt from Storm. Normal people are sent running for their lives once the powers come out. Rogue and Logan are segregated from this action on the train and easily dispatched by Magneto, who rips the train asunder in the most powerful display of his powers at that point.
Once the first team of X-Men is taken care of the Brotherhood marches out of the train station like bank robbers and are greeted as such - surrounded by policemen, guns drawn. “Homo-sapiens and your guns” Magneto distastefully utters. The Master of Magnetism launches a pair of patrol cars into the air and smashes them in a show of force. There is a second team of X-Men we and they do not know about. Professor X and Jean Grey are hidden in a car. Professor X uses his telepathy to possess Sabertooth and Toad. The former puts his claws around his master’s throat, the latter slowly walks away with Rogue over his shoulder.
Cornered Magneto takes control of all the guns, turning them on the officers. Singer once again slows everything down at this point. Ian McKellen delivery becomes much slower and quieter. He’s speaking to Charles now not the people in front of him. Warning his old friend that mutant kind will suffer the same fate as European Jews under the Nazis, trying to goad Professor X into killing him, he says “Don’t believe me? Kill me and find out!”. Still alive, he goes a different route. Much cocking and arming of weapons is heard in unison. A few beats of silence BANG! A single 9mm bullet is released and presses into a policeman's forehead. Still spinning as it presses into this mans skull. He groans in pain. Magneto lets on that he doesn't think he can stop them all, forcing Charles to release Toad and Sabertooth. The bad guys get away.
The train sequence sets up the big final act fight sequence on Liberty Island. Plot-wise it pushes it along with the abduction of Rogue and the need to get her back. It’s also a moment of revelations. The X-Men and Brotherhood are revealed to humanity in the public. No more time to show the world and disrupt it in fantastical ways, it’s been permanently disrupted.
The final third act fight sequence is my least favorite part of the film. On one hand it’s been setup correctly with Magneto’s McGuffin machine being revealed in the ‘C’ plot (Senator Kelly’s section) and crosses into the ‘A’ plot (the X-Men). And is the only real time in the movie we have extended mutant on mutant action. The lack of people is what makes it feel so dead and disinteresting. The train sequence was a few disrupting the lives of hundreds in real dangerous ways. The McGuffin machine has the possibility to do the same. Only the humanity that would be disrupted is nowhere in sight; segregated miles away on Ellis Island. Only used for brief cut aways to show the proceedings and reaction shots once the machine is activated. Liberty Island has been completely neutralized by the Brotherhood. It’s on big empty playground for some admittedly solid action set pieces to occur. At that point in the film X-Men transitioned from being about world and character and on delivering on plot and action levels.
Once we reach Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and the film transitions deeper into the world of mutants and character. There is a shadow war going on between Professor Charles Xavier and his former friend Erik Lehnsherr, who now goes by Magneto. Professor X dreams of an egalitarian utopian society where homosapien and superior move beyond prejudice and fear and work together in harmony. Magneto seeing first-hand the suppression of minorities by the majority has taken a more militant stance on protecting mutant kind.
It’s in the mansion that X-Men becomes far more upfront and typical in how it dispenses exposition. Most of which comes from Professor X himself, in the form of giving Logan a tour of the schools upper and lower grounds. Expositional dialog is just another way of explaining the world in film and a useful one at that.
In screenwriting, writing good exposition is hard. You have to explain something to the audience without making it obvious that you are just dumping exposition. The worst occurs when you have a conversation about something two characters should know, it stands out as illogical. Here writer David Hayter (yes Solid Snake) contextualizes this exposition dump correctly. In the beginning Rogue appeared to be an audience surrogate and through line for the film. She is a young woman who discovers she is a mutant and enters a section of society she had not previously known. This does not last, after the Sabertooth attack Logan becomes the main audience surrogate and through line for the entire X-Men franchise. Logan is a much better surrogate and character to dump exposition on than Rogue. He is a blank slate. A mutant that has no memory of who or what he was for the past 15 years. As he enters into this shadow war between the X-Men and Brotherhood he will need to be brought up to speed.
Now just dumping exposition on the new guy is right contextually but too much and it becomes bad once again. This tour of the grounds allows Hayter and Jackson to also characterize Logan at the same time. Laughing as Professor X name checks Scott Summers aka Cyclops and Ororo Munroe aka Storm. “And what do they call you? Wheels?” he snarkily retorts to all this. It’s a moment of levity and one that helps characterize Logan as the Han Solo type, showing us his cynicism and disbelief at all of this. Crazy as the world is, it becomes a bit much when you pile on spandex wearing secrete groups fighting a secret war and flying around in a jet, housed underneath the basketball courts.
X-Men does continue to visually explain the world. In a voiceover montage by Professor X, he explains how mutants use anonymity. We see a group playing basketball, one of the players suddenly teleports down field, disruption on a much smaller and less aggressive scale. Another segment is a foot-race, one of the participants is running across water. The montage reinforces the idea that this is actually a school showing both in classroom moments featuring Rogue and more physical ones like Cyclops shooting disks propelled by Jean Grey. Montage has always been a quick and effective way to inform the audience and compress time to progress plot.
X-Men has an extremely large cast of characters. With six main X-Men (Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey, Logan, and Rogue) and four Brotherhood members (Magneto, Mystique, Sabretooth and Toad), along with all the side characters like Senator Kelly. Since X-Men isn’t an origin story most of the characters have already become who they are and with 104 minute runtime, time is precious. The majority of the cast of characterize become broadly characterized and largely archetypical. It’s the best and most effective course of action.
Rogue and Wolverine are audience surrogates, with Logan becoming the main one throughout the franchise. It’s a smart move. He doesn't know himself or the X-Men. It allows Hader and Jackman to play Logan as a swaggery rogue type ala Han Solo, a loner who gets by but is suddenly drawn into a larger conflict by giving someone a ride.
The rest of the X-Men don’t get to go on any sort of arc. Cyclops is there to lead and be part of an implied Cyclops-Jean Grey-Logan love triangle. There is an extended scene in the special features for home release that gave James Marsden a bit more to do and shows him more as a leader of men, but was cut from the theatrical release. Halle Berry, who would now be considered the number two star in the franchise wasn’t yet HALLE BERRY. That would come a year later with Monsters Ball. In X-Men she gets to be the one to see Senator Kelly die, sense everyone else had already interacted with him, and rhetorically ask “What happens to a toad when it is struck by lightening?” Like Cyclops, Jean Grey is there more for implied romance with Logan and to help the Professor then go on a character building journey. Though she is actually shown doing things in novel fashion as the resident doctor, something Cyclops and Storm don’t get. Brian Singer had to introduce people to a new world and lots of characters fast. Selling audiences on the world of X-Men was the harder and more important task. This is why the second film in a franchise is considered better and deeper; the groundwork had already been laid. X-Men is from an arch perspective clear centered on Wolverine. He becomes a man attached to something more than himself by the end, which cliche as it is, is effectively composed and executed.
The villains are a different story. As the antagonist they get less time be characterized since whenever they are on screen they are antagonizing our protagonists. Magento received all the characterization needed with the spectacular first scene. Sabertooth and Toad are both killed off so their function as henchmen and heavies makes sense. Where the real characterization for the villains comes is in the costuming from costume designer Louise Mingenbach. Sabertooth lives up to his name and looks extremely feral and wild, covered in pelts with a human mane of hair and big cat eyes. Toad is covered in dark greens and has a bit of makeup that gives him a toad like appearance. And then there’s that bit where he eats the bird in a single bite. Yep all you need to know there.
The real star of quick effective characterization is Mystique. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos says maybe 10 lines in the entire film. It is the way she carries herself, seductively and sexually, that does the job. The cinematography reinforces her sexuality by hanging on her exposed blue form and zooming around her as she poses. If physical appearance isn’t enough whenever she is on screen or hinted at being on screen it is accompanied by a sly mysterious theme constantly modulating like herself and sounding vaguely middle eastern. It draws you in and clues you into what she is: a femme fatale in the most literal sense. The theme encapsulates Mystique perfectly. All of this makes you want to watch her more.
X-Men has to sprint in introducing characters much less putting them on arcs for the end of the film. The point though was to put them on screen and give them just enough that they could feel unique and belong. The majority just never got more than a single layer of paint. Singer and his producers did their best though using multiple techniques to do so. The villains that weren’t set to be around next time were explained with costume. Mystique had nice audio cues. The X-Men didn’t get to stand apart in costume design but are contextualized in how they work as a team. They made a lot out of a little.
X-Men is the film that kicked off modern comic book cinema. Since then we’ve seen this genre stumble and fall and pick itself back up and reach heights one could only imagine. It was born from an era where the source material wasn’t taken seriously by production, which shows in the spat of films post Spider-Man. Singer might not be a dyed in the wool comic fan but he understood what would make the X-Men work filmically.
Has it aged especially well in the ensuing 13 years? Visually it’s fine. The CGI driven special effects stand out as being outdated, but it doesn't stop the impact of seeing Magneto levitate above the Statue of Liberty. Everything else, the production design, costuming, mood, hold up. Most of all it is the characters, Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and Mystique and even Rogue hold up. It isn’t the greatest thing ever but you can see how it influenced and shaped the films that would follow it. It’s the first link in the evolutionary film chain.
If for some reason you made it down here know that Michael Mazzacane can be found many places on the internet but mainly onTwitter@MaZZM and on Tumblr weekntv.com where he links to TV stuff and maybe posts a GiF