The Seasoned Ticket #51

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Dark Phoenix is the new X-Men movie, and it does just about everything wrong. So in these disappointed days, let us look back at the first couple of X-Men pictures, and what it was like to see them—before superheroes became the primary cinematic mode and before director Bryan Singer became persona non grata. The first review is from Film.com, the X2 piece is from the Daily Herald.

 

X-Men

X-Men has achieved nearly the perfect balance between straight-faced pulp action and amused wonder at the outlandish world of comic books. At one point in the movie, brainy Professor Charles Xavier leads the mutant known as Wolverine into a chamber to see something called The Cerebro, a device that allows him to locate anyone anywhere via souped-up brain waves, or something. It’s enough that Patrick Stewart, as Xavier, has enough aplomb to talk about “The Cerebro” with a straight face. But the coup de grace comes when Wolverine sidles into the awe-inspiring chamber and casually says, “This certainly is a big round room.”

The X-Men movie is full of sidelong glances at itself, with a sense of humor about superhero costumes, names, and such. Because the script for X-Men went through innumerable Hollywood typewriters before it came to the screen, one must give credit for the film’s cheeky attitude to director Bryan Singer, whose work here is even more assured than in his clever (and, truth be told, overpraised) The Usual Suspects. Strapped to a budget half the size of many summer blockbusters, Singer can’t deliver the big money shots, a reality that gives the film a slightly undernourished quality. But wit, interesting characters, and humor without camp make up for the missing firepower.

The good mutants, who resemble humans (but with special “gifts”), assemble under the leadership of Professor Xavier, who runs a school in Westchester County. The key mutants are Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin); he’s a hairy creature with steel claws, she’s an ultra-sensitive teen whose touch can destroy. Xavier’s lieutenant is Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a cool customer with telekinetic powers. Her civilized flirtation with Wolverine creates ripples with boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden), who shoots lasers out of his mod glasses. The triangle formed by these three is sketched so economically, yet with such well-played subtlety, it reminds you to what extent Hollywood has forgotten how to do this kind of thing—and this is with mutants, for crying out loud.

Xavier’s mutant nemesis, the Auschwitz survivor known as Magneto (Ian McKellen), is causing trouble. Instead of seeking solidarity with humans, he wants to get rid of them altogether. Since Magneto’s dialogue echoes Malcolm X, and one of the X-Men producers has suggested that Magneto and Xavier are like the Malcolm and Martin Luther King of their movements, it is tempting to find the racial subtext beneath the comic book trappings. There’s also a gay-rights subtext:  people talk about the mutants being the same as humans but outcasts in society, politicians specifically decry the thought of mutants “teaching our children,” and, well, Ian McKellen.

McKellen’s Magneto is stuck, in the tradition of evil geniuses, with the motliest henchmen, led by Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) and Frog (Ray Park), although he does have eye candy in the form of Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), whose fabulous body is painted blue. With McKellen and Stewart on board, the movie gets an automatic Shakespearian lilt, but even more excitement revolves around Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, a prickly fellow with one of those tragic unknown pasts that comic book characters thrive on. Jackman, yet another manly Australian actor, is right on the button in his blend of menace and surly, Bogart-style tenderness.

Bruce Davison plays a senator whose speeches sound like Pat Buchanan rants, emphasizing the cultural war between mutants and humans. Halle Berry is stuck with limited screen time as Storm, an X-Woman who can summon up bad weather. There’s some sense of crowding—the X-Men comics series has lots of characters barely referred to in the film—but Singer gets the most out of his particular crew, and leaves the door wide open for a sequel. In this case, that would be a pleasure.

 

X2

The original X-Men was a surprise hit in the summer of 2000—in those innocent pre-Spider-Man days, Hollywood wasn’t sure a comic-book movie would fly.

For X2, the creative team has more money to play with, and more special effects to expose. Predictably, it’s not as much fun as the first outing.

But the good news is, with director Bryan Singer back at the helm and the strong cast re-assembled, X2 is an entertaining summer movie. There’s enough cool humor to carry the movie over the problems of sequelitis and a needlessly pumped-up ending.

The world of Marvel Comics’ X-Men is populated by humans and mutants. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), “the world’s most powerful telepath,” leads the effort to assimilate mutants into human society. He runs the school where mutants with fearsome powers can learn to use their talents. He has always been at odds with Magneto (Ian McKellen), the leader of a more radical faction of mutants. Ah, but in X2, these two mutant brainiacs must pool their resources to combat a nasty human named Stryker (Brian Cox), who wants to destroy them.

Stryker’s story eventually includes Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the hairy and grumpy mutant with steel in his bones. Wolverine still has the hots for Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but she remains loyal to Cyclops (James Marsden), whose devotion to her is as strong as the lasers he shoots out of his eyewear. Since Halle Berry won an Oscar in the break between X movies, it makes sense to give her more to do. And yet she’s still standing around in a white wig most of the time.

Representing the younger mutant set is Rogue (Anna Paquin), now trying to figure out how to kiss boyfriend Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) without reducing him to rubble. And there’s newcomer Pyro (Aaron Stanford, the kid from Tadpole), who enjoys his flame-throwing ability a bit too much. Also new, and a great addition, is Nightcrawler, a reptilian mutant who can vaporize at will and “teleport” himself to different locations. Alan Cumming, done up in indigo makeup, fangs and a German accent, makes the most out of the role.

Speaking of makeup, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos returns in her blue-dyed skin (and not much else) as shape-shifting Mystique. When someone asks her the logical question of why a person who appears as freaky blue nudist with scales doesn’t simply change her appearance permanently, Mystique replies, “Because I shouldn’t have to.” That’s a pretty good answer.

The script isn’t quite as snappy as the first X-Men, but director Singer mounts some fine sequences. Stryker’s attack on the Xavier school is exciting, and Magneto’s escape from prison is a marvelous set-piece. With classy people like McKellen and the regal Famke Janssen around, X2 is easy to watch. There’s a general sense that you’re in good hands, which is not always true with these big franchise pictures.

All the same, there’s not a pressing need for another sequel, unless they turn things over to the young folk next time, with Pyro and Iceman battling it out over which has the greater superpower. Don’t bet against it, given the likely box-office haul this weekend.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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