The Los Angeles Times has posted a lengthy sit down interview with director Bryan Singer and producer Lauren Shuler Donner, in which they discuss the possibility of Singer’s return to the X-MEN film franchise. Singer directed X-MEN and X-MEN 2, which helped jump-start the current wave of comic-book-to-film adaptations and established Marvel Comics characters (Spider-Man, Iron Man) as worthy big-screen rivals to their more famous rivals at DC Comics (Batman, Superman). In his X-MEN movies, Singer also established a relatively serious tone that was a welcome relief after the campy BATMAN sequels directed by Joel Schumacher in the ’90s (BATMAN FOREVER, BATMAN AND ROBIN).
The Los Angeles Times interview is supposed to be an opportunity to examine the impact of X-MEN (2000), but the conversation quickly turns to talk of the future, with producer Donner offering Singer two upcoming X-MEN projects. The first is X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which would be a prequel. The second is a more nebulous X-MEN 4, which would continue the present day storyline from where it left off with X-MEN 3. Of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which will be based on the 2006 comic book series written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Roger Cruz, Singer has this to say:
Singer says the film will find its axis in the relationship between Professor X and Magneto and the point where their friendship soured. It will also detail the beginning of the school for mutants and have younger incarnations of some characters with new actors in roles of Cyclops, Jean Grey, the Beast, etc. (He only shrugged when asked if Hugh Jackman might appear as Wolverine, the one character who doesn’t age at the same rate as humans.)
The premise has compelling elements to it, Singer said. “Just doing younger mutants is not enough. The story needs to be more than that. I love the relationship between Magneto and Xavier, these two men who have diametrically opposite points of view but still manage to be friends — to a point. They are the ultimate frenemies.”
Less is said about X-MEN 4 except that Singer had lunch with Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), who is trying to talk Singer into directing the film, which is supposedly to be set in Japan, with a 2011 release date planned.
Singer turned to Shuler Donner and said of “X-Men 4”: “Hold that one off for just a little, I’m fixated on the other one right now.” She nodded and answered, “I will, I will … I’m holding it open with high hopes. It’s totally different [from ‘First Class’] and it will be so interesting for you.”
If Singer takes on either or both of these for 20th Century Fox (he will have to wait until finishing JACK THE GIANT KILLER for Warner Brothers), it will be a welcome relief after the disappointment of X-MEN 3 and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE.
Hugh Jackman dons the adamantium claws once again for this prequel revealing the back story of Wolverine, but even his considerable charisma and thespian skills are no match for an ill-conceived scenario that buries its intended emotional resonances beneath an avalanche of typical action-movie antics, and then further aggravates the situation by tossing in a multitude of mutants that contribute little to the story. The serious tone established by Bryan Singer in 2000’s X-MEN is almost completely obliterated, reducing the film to the level of any another by-the-numbers franchise entry.
Some of the special effects and fights are fun in an over-the-top comic-book kind of way, but X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE feels too much like a typical Hollywood action flick with more emphasis on brawn than brains. Having Logan take out a helicopter (after being blown in the air by one of its missiles) is so blatantly ridiculous that you almost have to cheer its chutzpah, but it reduces the film to the dumb level of “it’s only a movie” (exactly what the first X-MEN movie studiously avoided).
Needless to say, lots of mutants are included whether or not they have anything substantial to offer; they seem included mostly as a sop to fans who will be familiar with them from the comic book (and of course they provide merchandising opportunities for action figures, etc). In fact, the film is so over-crowded with super-powered characters that it includes not one but two three-way fight scenes, neither of which explores the mathematical possibilities in an interesting way (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, this is definitely not).
In one case, the script can barely be bothered to explain why one of the Mutants (Gambit) is fighting Logan (Jackman); he simply jumps into the fray, apparently because he does not want to guide Logan to the place where his brother Victor (that is, Saber-Tooth) is hiding. Coincidentally, at the very moment Gambit intercedes, he prevents Logan from killing Victor – which would of course have removed the necessity of leading Logan to Victor’s hiding place. The irony (if Gambit had not been so eager to avoid being Logan’s guide, he would not have needed to be Logan’s guide), goes unremarked. Acknowledging it would have not saved the script, but it would have shown a welcome glimmer of self-awareness.
The screenplay is so contrived it almost establishes its own aesthetic standards. You can bet that everyone who tries to help Logan will die in order to fuel his quest for revenge – or simply to justify the next action scene. And if they survive, it will only be because their death’s were faked as part of some arcane plot. And of course the prequel nature of the story requires its own brand of convolutions in order to maintain continuity.
For example, Logan-Wolverine cannot be allowed to remember any of the Mutants (or anything else for that matter), necessitating a memory wipe that pushes dramatic license so far over the line that it should be revoked. (It all depends on firing a bullet into Wolverine’s self-healing brain in just the right place to take out his memory cells; part of the unintended campy charm is that the character who comes up with the bright idea takes it for granted, as if this display of shooting skill were the easiest thing in the world, barely worth mentioning.)
Hugh Jackman displays his usual charm as Logan; you can tell he wants to play a character, not just a generic action hero, but X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is obviously unworthy of his talent. Leiv Schreiber is a good actor, but even in a thick coat and with sharpened eye-teeth, he does not look like a dangerous predator who will grow up to be Tyler Mane. Danny Huston does his dependably dependable work as Colonel Stryker, even if the script paints him as a rather incompetent villain (he turns Logan into an unstoppable force, without apparently having considered the possibility that this unstoppable force might not follow orders).
As if the prequel nature of the storyline were not open-ended enough, W-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE ends with a tease promising a sequel. (A sequel to a prequel? The mind boggles!) If this is the best the filmmakers can do, then they should end the franchise now, before completely running into the ground.
The single-disc edition DVD, released in September, defines “bare bones.” Although Fox found room to squeeze an unbearable number of trailers that run before the DVD Menu shows up, they could not find room for a single worthwhile bonus feature. That did not stop them from placing a “Special Features” link on the Main Menu, but all that offers is an irrelevant anti-smoking Public Service Announcement and a couple more trailers (I LOVE YOU BETH COOPER and DOLLHOUSE SEASON 1 on DVD and Blu-ray). Audio is in Dolby Surround sound with options for English 5.1, Spanish, and French, and with subtitles in Spanish and English for the Hard of Hearing.
The film was also released in a two-disc DVD set and a two-disc Blu-ray set, both of which include a digital copy and loads of extras, such as two audio commentaries (one with director Gavin Hood and one with producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winters), which could easily have been squeezed onto the single-disc. There are also four deleted scenes and an alternate ending. Additionally, the Blu-ray includes pop-up tracks and a BD-Live feature that allows you to look up details on IMDB. X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (April 2009). Directed by Gavin Hood. Screenplay by David Benioff and Skip Woods. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Will i Am, Lynn Collins, Kevin Durand, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, Daniel Henney, Ryan Reynolds, Scott Adkins.
Over at USA Today, Scott Bowles points out that Summer 2009 is loaded with blockbusters that feature origin stories. The motivations for this a fairly clear: Hollywood likes familiar franchises, but audiences are getting tired of sequels rehashing the same old plots. Prequels allow filmmakers to fill in the back story; more than that, an origin story also offer a chance to reboot a franchise entirely.
Consequently, this season is offering films like X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and STAR TREK, which take us back to the beginning in different ways: WOLVERINE is a genuine prequel; STAR TREK is a reboot. Even TERMINATOR SALVATION, which opened today, is a prequel of sorts: although set in the future, because of the series’ time-travel plot, it tells us the back story of John Connor and Kyle Reese, which was referenced in THE TERMINATOR (1984).
Bowles quotes Lauren Shuler Donner on her strategy for WOLVERINE:
“You have to start somewhere,” says Lauren Shuler Donner […]. “An origins story is like getting to know somebody. When you meet someone and like them, you want to know where they came from. It grounds your franchise.”
Producers credit BATMAN BEGINS with launching the current craze for franchise reboots:
“Batman Begins really showed how much a back story can free you up creatively,” says Chris Aronson of 20th Century Fox, which released Wolverine. “You don’t have to confine yourself.”
This is true, but in a way I think SPIDER-MAN was the proto-type for this approach. Though not technically a reboot (unless you remember the old live-action television series), SPIDER-MAN showed what you could achieve with an origin story showing a character make the transition from normal human to superhero – which is the basic formula that BATMAN BEGINS used so well.
I would also add CASINO ROYALE to the list, or as I liked to call it “Bond Begins Again.” that film was a perfect example of reinvigorating an old franchise by throwing out the old baggage and starting over like new – something that this year’s STAR TREK took to heart. Although J. J. Abrams’ film retains the old mythology, it uses a time travel plot device to create an alternate time line that will allow sequels to warp in a new direction instead of building toward story lines we already know – a problem that killed the STAR WARS prequels.
Whatever the reasons, this summer’s sequels are trying to sound less like knock-offs by avoiding numerals in their titles: ANGELS & DEMONS, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS. Only HALLOWEEN 2 is a hold-out. (Hey, Rob Zombie – how about “Halloween: Second Season” instead?)
Meanwhile, the prequels are proving potent at the box office. WOLVERINE achieved this year’s biggest opening ($85-million), and STAR TREK made a debut twice as big as any previous movie in the franchise.
At this rate can 1992: HAL’S BIRTHDAY ODYSSEY, DAWN OF THE MATRIX, PLANET OF THE APES: EVOLUTION, and THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING be far behind? Oh wait, they already did that last one…
Science fiction and fantasy films had launched the summer box office season to a great start thanks to STAR TREK and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, but this weekend they were passed up by the debut of ANGELS & DEMONS, director Ron Howard’s sequel to his 2006 blockbuster. Not to worry: both TREK and WOLVERINE posted strong numbers, keeping genre titles at the top of the weekend’s ticket sellers.
In second place, STAR TREK added $43-million to its awesome two-week total of $147.6-million. The newest adventure of the Starship Enterprise seems poised to become the summer’s biggest winner if it continues at this warp speed.
Mutating at #3, WOLVERINE was far behind with $14.8-million, raising its three-week total to $151.1-million.
As for other science fiction and fantasy holdovers…
GHOST OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST was in fourth place with $6.8-million, yielding $40.1-million after three weeks.
17 AGAIN dropped one nottch to sixth place weith $3.4-million for a five-week total of $58.4-million.
MONSTERS VS. ALIENS actually went up a notch, from #8 to #7, earning $3-million. Eight-week total is $190.6-million.
This week, science fiction, fantasy and horror DVDs are dominated by theatrical releases; that is to say, the opening of X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE this weekend and the upcoming debut of the new STAR TREK film have inspired some cash-in-while-we-can home video releases. This include a Blu-ray version of the first season of the original STAR TREK, and two animated X-MEN movies on DVD. The other high-profile release is the disappointing horror film, THE UNINVITED, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray.
STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES – Season 1 was previously available on HD-DVD; in its new Blu-ray incarnation the episodes are available in their original versions and in the enhanced versions from a few years ago (which updated the special effects with relatively unobtrusive computer-generated imagery). The discs is filled with bonus material, much of it ported over from the HD-DVD, plus some new features, including an option to hear the soundtracks in the original mono or in 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. There is also pop-up trivia and picture-in-picture commentary, an interactive tour, and home movie footage filmed on set.
X-MEN VOLUME 1 and VOLUME 2 (Marvel DVD Comci Book Collection) are geared to appeal probably more to fans of the comics than the feature films. THE UNINVITED should appeal to viewers who enjoy genteel thrills and are not too concerned about coherency.
If you’re looking for something of the cult variety, there is THE SHE-BEAST, the first feature film from director Michael Reeves, who went on to make the 1967 classic WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Unfortunately, SHE-BEAST – despite the presence of Horror Queen Barbara Steele – is a weak, low-budget effort, only of interest to fans who feel they have to see the complete ouvre of either genre figure. There are a few traces of the talent that would bloom in WITCHFINDER, but that’s about it.
Steele’s fans can also check out TALES FROM THE TOMB, one of those 10-disc DVD sets filled with public domain titles. The cover promises films starring Vincent Price, Steele and others; we’re betting Price’s entry is HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL or LAST MAN ON EARTH, and Steele’s is NIGHTMARE CASTLE.
Also out this week:
Of interest for just plain weirdness if nothing else is ONE-EYED MONSTER, about the cast and crew of a porn film who must fight off an alien menace. Ron Jeremy stars.
A British television version of NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR, featuring the late horror star Peter Cushing, gets a DVD release.
Nagisa Oshim’as EMPIRE OF PASSION – the art house director’s one kaidan (ghost story) gets the Criterion Collection DVD treatment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The thing about home video is it’s like some kind of all-powerful voodoo spell that continually resurrects old titles, bringing them back from the grave with all the inevitability of Amando de Ossorio’s Knights Templar saddling up for another night-time ride in pursuit of sacrificial victims. In this case the fateful event prompting the return is the upcoming release of X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE on May 1, which has prompted 20th Century Fox to re-issue the existing X-MEN trilogy on Blu-ray. Eagerly awaiting the arrival of his own Blu-ray box set, the Blood-Spattered Scribe himself – Andrew Fitzpatrick – takes a look back on the X-MEN series so far….
Although many credit Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Beginsas the beginning of the modern era of comic-based films, it was, for the record, Bryan Singer who first picked up the mantle last carried by Richard Donner more than 2 decades earlier and brought comic book films into the real world. By working with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to help craft a storyline that dared to take itself seriously, Donner’s Superman famously brought verisimilitude to a genre that had been abandoned in camp territory along with the feature version of the Batman television show in the ’60s. In spite of some outdated special effects, Superman still stands today as the high watermark for comic book adaptations, easily shaming Tim Burton’s stiff, overly gothic Batman films of the ’80s. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that someone figured out how to translate the style and energy of modern comic books into film; unfortunately, it was at the service of a character that wasn’t particularly deep (or well known). It would be 2 years later when director Bryan Singer (a hot property after The Usual Suspects) would tackle one of the most beloved comic properties of all time – a daunting task considering that The X-Men universe is one of the largest in the format’s history, with dozens of characters, hundreds of plot threads (some going back decades) and even alternate universes to contend with.
After going through a full decade of drafts and directors, Bryan Singer was finally given the nod to direct the film in spite of the fact that he had never actually read the comics. While Singer went to work immersing himself in X-Men lore, 20th Century Fox began doing all they could to subvert the project; the original budget was slashed, resulting in the removal of several characters (all of whom would appear in the subsequent films) and pushing the opening date up from Christmas to June. Compounding this was the last-minute loss of Wolverine actor Dougray Scott due to the scheduling change. Casting a then unknown Hugh Jackson was just one of several dozen things that Singer and company did right from that point on, producing an amazing piece of work on what had to be considered a threadbare budget for a proposed summer blockbuster with complex effects. Not burdened with the decades of intertwining storylines, Singer was free to root the film in the loneliness and self-imposed isolation of the mutants, whose abilities make them outcast and unwelcome – a minority group with potentially deadly superpowers. His other masterstroke was in setting up the leaders of the two mutant camps to reflect the beliefs of two real world counterparts in the struggle for the rights of minorities: the patient, conciliatory Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart being handed the second sci-fi franchise that he never expected) is the Martin Luther King counterpart; Xavier’s former ally Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen who had just worked with Singer in the sadly overlooked Apt Pupil), who sees violence as the only path to mutant acceptance, is – you guessed it – patterned on Malcolm X. These are weighty concepts to burden a comic book adaptation with, but thanks to Singer and the superb performances, the show stands up under even heavy metaphorical assault. One of the film’s weaker links is Halle Berry’s performance as Storm, displaying little of the character’s strength and independence, but it also falters in its depiction of the evil mutants; we love the self-satisfied smirk worn by Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique, and her unwavering loyalty to Magneto is clearly more than simple obedience, but with so many fantastic characters to choose from, why lead the pack with farm-league baddie Toad and a dull-witted Sabertooth (who does have an interesting history with arch-nemesis Wolverine that is simply ignored here)? Read a full review of the film here.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Rocketing to the top of one of the world’s shortest lists – sequels that are better than the original – X-Men 2 is one of the 2 or 3 great comic book films ever made. A realistic budget and shooting schedule allowed Singer to flesh out the characters carried over from the first film; Stewart gets to play some new sides of Xavier (loved his flash of impatience at Pyro) and McKellen has a grand time twirling Magneto’s figurative mustache. Both also get to share screen time with fellow British theater vet Brian Cox as the mutant-hating Col. Stryker – moments which elevate the material tremendously. Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman gets more to do this time around, thanks to a romance with Anna Paquin’s Rogue and the introduction of future nemesis Pyro (a suitably jerky Aaron Stanford). Several new mutants are introduced as well, with fan favorite Nightcrawler (a terrific performance from Alan Cumming) making a strong impression. Singer has always known to get out of his actors’ way and give them the room to play with their roles, and with many players back for a second time, the vast majority seem to own their roles securely, allowing them to continue to turn in terrific performances even without Singer in the director’s chair (which would never, ever happen.) Individual set pieces are also emphasized here to much greater effect; Nightcrawler’s opening scene assault on the White House set to Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem is a stunning sequence (and an utterly believable application of mutant powers in a real-world setting), Mystique’s (and the screenwriters) legitimately ingenious plan to break Magneto out of his plastic prison, and the geeky thrill of finally seeing Wolverine fighting in berserker-mode (“Oh, look – I guess they didn’t know he was home” we excitedly whispered while seeing it in the theater).Read a full review of the film here.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Not quite the catastrophe that its harshest critics made it out to be, but in announcing the hiring of Brett Ratner (after Singer departed for Superman Returns) was, as it always has been, tantamount to saying “just shoot it as quickly and cheaply as possible and leave your auteur bag in the car.” The third installment is saved from being a total mess by the groundwork laid in the first two films by Singer, allowing Ratner to once again stand on the shoulders of giants (his Red Dragon is notable as being based both on a book and a film). The plot, about the mutant’s reaction to a serum that can reverse and “cure” their condition, was inspired by Joss Whedon’s “Gifted” storyline in the Astonishing X-Men comic book series and offers much in the way of ponderable material. Some mutants – like Rogue, whose abilities prevent her from coming into physical contact with others, feels that the “cure” offers a chance at a normal life. But most feel that the serum, created by pharmaceutical giant Warren Worthington II and the distraught father of a son born with feathered wings and the ability to fly (Angel, played by Ben Foster). While Magneto, believing that the government will make the drug compulsory rather than voluntary, marshals his evil Brotherhood to assault the manufacturing facility – reluctantly protected by Xavier’s team. Some of you might notice that we’re skipping over a large chunk of plot there, a chunk that would be impossible to discuss without giving away some twists, and as the film isn’t the embarrassment of riches that constituted the earlier films, it needs all the tricks that it can muster. Ratner simply doesn’t bring anything new or personal to the material; the themes of alienation were obviously important to Singer, and while Ratner certainly should know what it feels like to be an outcast and alone, he doesn’t have the wit to translate it to the screen. There are some good moments, like Angel’s last minute refusal to take his father’s cure (in an interesting side note, Worthington the elder is played my Michael Murphy, who also costarred in 1970’s Brewster McCloud, Robert Altman’s bizarre tale of a young man who fashions a pair of gigantic wings in the hopes of flying) but they’re far outnumbered by the cringer ones (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”) Read a full review of the film here.
All three X-MEN films are being released on Blu-Ray in a box set and individually (a thoughtful move since Fox had already released the last film as part of their initial wave of Blu-Ray titles). Each film comes as a whopping 3-disc package – one for the feature, one for supplements, and a third SD-DVD containing a digital copy of the film. All extras from the previous versions appear to be included (though we’re not sure about seamless branching to include scenes deleted from the feature).
Cashing in just a little bit more, Fox also offers a “Blu-ray Comic Book Hero Bundle,” which includes X-MEN, the director’s cut of DAREDEVIL, and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.
Also out this week:
Sin City– the ground-breaking collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller gets the Blu-ray treatment. Reviewed here.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser gets a Blu-ray release. Also, there is a $50 3-disc Hellraiser boxed set that includes all three films plus three hours of bonus material. The packaging is worth the price alone: it is in the shape of the Lamont Configuration, which slides open like a puzzle box to reveal the discs within.
Despite the pre-release concern among fans (due to RUSH HOUR’s Brett Ratner taking over as director) and a slightly diminished critical response, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND turns out to be a pretty decent summer flick. It has a more interesting premise than its predecessors (involving a cure — possibly involuntarily) for mutants, and the action is even more fast and furious than before, creating an exciting, fun-filled event that works as simple entertainment while still retaining the dour subtext about an oppressed minority trying to come to terms with the entrenched “normal” characters. The result is far from perfect, but it does manage to move more in the direction of a crowd-pleasing thrill ride without completely lobotomizing itself.
A brief prologue shows Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) in their younger days (when they were still friends), as they reach out to a young Jean Grey, whose tremendous powers portend of serious consequences if not held in check. Years later, the film proper begins with an announcement that a pharmaceutical company has found a cure that will turn “mutants” into normal human beings. This ignites a debate in the mutant community: should they take the cure and assimilate, or is taking the cure the equivalent of betraying their mutant comrades? Magneto uses this as fuel to the fire of his quest to overthrow humanity, predicting (correctly, as it turns out) that human will weaponize the cure and use it against them. Meanwhile, Cyclops (James Marsden) heads out to the lake where Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was engulfed while saving her comrades at the end of X-MEN UNITED. She resurrects, but her formerly suppressed superpowers now manifest themselves in the form of an alternate personality called the Phoenix. Magneto recruits her to his cause, and along with his army they set out to destroy the drug company’s headquarters, situated on Alcatraz. The remaining X-Men (whose numbers seem to have dwindled to Wolverine, Storm, and a few teen-agers) mount a defense, stopping Magneto’s army. But who can stop the unleashed power of Phoenix, who is capable of obliterating entire squads of human beings with barely a thought? Perhaps Wolverine, with his incredible powers of regeneration (not to mention a romantic attachment to Jean Grey, which may make her hesitant to kill him)…
The movie begins stronger than it ends. The first half is filled with lots of plot threads and ideas, so much so that the story almost seems overcrowded, but all of it is so interesting that it seems to be tying together in a satisfying way. It’s not enough that Magneto is back raising an army to stop the mutant cure; we also get the return of Jean Grey, who has become a sort of schizophrenic, with a second personality given over to the dark side.
Unfortunately, once all the separate threads are introduced, they are never satisfactorily woven together; instead of an intricate tapestry, we get a bit of a mess in the third act, as if the script cannot quite figure out what to do with all the characters and their relationships. This is most obvious in the way some of them keep disappearing for large chunks of screen time, as if they have been forgotten. Even when they are on screen, the script often leaves them on the sidelines, like a half-remembered after-thought. Thus, we have Phoenix/Jean Grey mostly standing around during the “last stand” climax — at least until our heroes defeat Magneto. Only then does the Phoenix unleash her awesome, destructive power — leaving us to wonder why she didn’t do so when it could have helped her new ally, Magneto.
This short-circuits the drama, as the action crowds out the story. After hearing Magneto chide his old friend Xavier for trying to suppress Jean Grey’s power, the ending should have featured a life-or-death confrontation between Magneto and Jean Grey in her Phoenix persona. Instead, all we get is a feeble “What have I done?” from Magneto, who conveniently slips away in the confusion (so that he can be back for future sequels).
The other problem is that the film (or at least is marketing) pretends to be RETURN OF THE KING – that is, the final chapter in a trilogy – even though the story has no definite conclusion that would make it feel like a permanent ending. Instead, the script casually disses several characters, either killing them off or deleting their powers. This works for a while, fooling the viewer into thinking that anything can happen because the filmmakers are not saving the characters for the next sequel. But in the end, even this strategy turns out to be a ruse: the film has not one but two scenes at the end that restore/revive certain characters, clearly leaving the door wide open for the franchise to continue with no continuity problems at all.
In a truly spectacular special effects extravaganza, Magneto gets his minions to Alcatraz Island by using his magnetic powers to bend the famous San Francisco Bay Bridge to reach the isolated piece of land. Perhaps less obviously spectacular but no less fun, the film contrives to get the two ethnic female mutants, Storm (Halley Berry) and Calisto (Dania Ramirez) into a knockdown, drag-out fight during the climactic finale. It’s probably the best scene of its kind since Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin in TOTAL RECALL.
The character of Nightcrawler, who was introduced and prominently featured in the second film, is absent here, without explanation. There were several reasons for this, having to do with the actor’s reluctance to done the makeup again and the difficulty of fitting him into the story. Co-screenwriter Zak Penn explained, “The makeup was hell of Alan Cummings, and he was not excited about coming back. We had this enormous cast that we had to deal with, so we had all these different contingencies. With Alan, given that he didn’t really want to do it and we didn’t have a great [story for him]…I love the character, and we didn’t want to give him a throw-away cameo. It ended up falling by the wayside.” Co-screenwriter Simon Kinberg added, “X2 had completed the arc of Nightcrawler. Also, Nightcrawler’s relationship to the main plot, the cure, [would have been] very similar to the Beast’s relationship or Storm’s relationship. It started to feel like there were political redundancies.” SPOILER ALERT: Like CONSTANTINE, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND contains an epilogue that runs after the credits: a brief piece of footage consisting of single shot and a couple of lines of dialogue that deliver a surprise “tag” designed to send a thrill of joy through the crowd. Early in the movie, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) gives a lecture on medical ethics to a class while showing a televised image of a brain-dead patient in a hospital. Xavier is later killed by Jean Grey when she resurrects and turns to the dark side as the Phoenix — her almost unlimited power beyond any control. The epilogue takes us back to the hospital bed, where the patient is lying — and we hear Stewart’s voice from beneath the bandages, implying that Xavier’s mind has transferred itself into the empty receptacle. X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Directed by Brett Ratner. Screenplay by Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn, based on the Marvel comic book characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Rebecca Romijin, Micheal Murphy.
This is a slightly disappointing sequel to the first X-MEN movie, which helped revive Hollywood interest in adapting comic books into big-budget productions. The same seriousness of intent is plainly visible, as everyone involved strives mightily to make a comic book movie that is much more than just a comic book movie. To a large extent they succeed, but at a fairly severe cost – the film’s higher aspirations sometimes weigh the action down, creating a story that is interesting but not always engaging, lacking the exuberance that could have made it truly exciting.
The script follows the narrative thread left open at the end of the original, with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) seeking to solve the mystery of his origin. Along the way, the film, typical of sequels, gives much of what we saw before – only lots more of it. The plot holds some interest, with the two rival band of mutants (Dr. Xavier’s good-guy X-men and the bad-guy duo of Magneto and Mystique) teaming up to fight a common foe (one of those military-industrial complex types, played by Brian Cox), but the dramatic possibilities of this uneasy alliance are never fully explored (the audience is left to imagine much of the tension, based on the conflict seen in the first film).
There are lots of interesting highlights and memorable moments, such as when the villainous Mystique (Rebecca Romijin) attempts to seduce Wolverine by changing her appearance to that of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). The beautiful Romijin also gets to appear without her full-body makeup for a scene in which Mystique plays a credulous guard for a fool, knocking him out and injecting him some kind of liquid mettle (in order to facilitate Magneto’s escape from a non-metal prison cell that his powers cannot affect). Wolverine gets to duke it out with a female alter ego, Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) with powers and abilities similar to his own – a cool fight scene even better than the confrontation with Sabertooth in the previous film. And of course, Jean Grey gets a wonderful martyr’s death as she uses her psychic powers to protect her comrades from a wall of rushing water after a dam explodes. (A final helicopter shot over the resulting lake that engulfs her, showing the shadow suggestive of a bird, leaves no doubt that she will be returning as Phoenix.)
The big strength of X2: X-MEN UNITED is also its most dangerous pitfall: the attempt to play the story for drama helps elevate the story above its comic book origins, but it also drags the film down, preventing it from reaching the giddy heights of entertainment seen in the SPIDER-MAN films. In the end, it’s a noble effort but not an entirely successful one.
X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by David Hayter and Michale Dougherty & Dan Harris, from a story by Zak Penn and David Hayter & Bryan Singer, based on the Marvel comic book characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Rebecca Romijin, Alan Cumming, Bruce Davis, Kelly Hu.
This multi-million dollar, star-studded movie adaptation of the Marvel comic book characters is a solid entertainment even for filmgoers who know nothing about the X-Men. Unlike many summer blockbusters in general (and comic book adaptations in particular) actually shows some thoughtful signs of intelligence instead of wallowing solely in visual effects and mind-numbing action. Yes, the comic book action is there, but it serves the story (credited to exec producer Tom DeSanto and director Bryan Singer), which introduces us to the titular team of mutants, and that story is brought to life by a diverse crew of actors who somehow make the whole thing seem almost believable for a couple hours.
Not that the film is perfect; in fact, it gets off to a rocky start, with not one but two prologues. In the first, we see Magneto manifest his power as a young boy during the holocaust; in the second, we see Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatized over the discover of her power (which saps the lifeforce from those she touches). Both scenes have a slightly cheesy feel to them, presenting their ideas and emotions without conviction, and the movie looks to be on the verge of toppling over like a wounded elephant before it’s barely started walking. Fortunately, things pick up with the introduction of Wolverine, and the movie stands on sturdy feet for the most part after that.
Thematically, the X-Men mythos is about intolerance, prejudice, and fear of the `other.` These concepts are standard fare in science-fiction, fantasy, and especially horror (in which misshapen monsters elicit both a gasp of fear and a tear of empathy), but usually this concept is dramatized through the story of a single individual. In X-MEN, the movie, the issue is enlarged to envelope all of society, which provides a backdrop of political witch-hunting against `mutants` (evolutionary anomalies with strange powers that make them hated and feared by normal humans). This leads the mutants to join up with one of two factions: one advocating non-violent co-existence (Professor Xavier’s academy) and one advocating violent confrontation (Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants). What elevates the melodrama above the usual good-versus-evil dichotomy is that Magneto (Ian McKellen), the villain of the piece, has a righteous reason to oppose the society that seeks to oppress him and his followers. This turns the conflict between him and Xavier (Patrick Stewart) into an intellectual confrontation between two opposing but valid viewpoints.
Unfortunately, although the script uses this concept to add a layer of subtext and depth, the film fails to maximize the potential. With screen time spent devoted both to illuminating the back story and to showcasing some exciting action, there is little left to portray the world at large; consequently, the theme of racial prejudice is confined almost completely to a single individual, Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who (we are to assume) represents a majority of public opinion. As a result, the film turns out to be actually small in scope, confined mostly to Xavier’s academy, with only occasional excursions outside and a climax set on Ellis Island (chosen for its symbolic importance – the entryway for outsiders to become part of America). Thus, in spite of good intentions, the story slips into a basic narrative structure: the bad guy attempts some evil scheme, and the good guys launch a mission to thwart it. The outcome is not based on whose philosophy is more persuasive, but on who can throw the fastest punch. That’s not a very damning complaint to lodge against an action movie, but it does underline the point that X-MEN has intellectual aspirations that are never fulfilled. After the film is over, other flaws, overlooked in the excitement of the action, rise into consciousness. To name one, the Brotherhood of Mutants is a rather small brotherhood, with only four members. One wonders why more mutants are not joining up with Magneto, out of fear of persecution. Certainly, a more dramatic story would have focused on Xavier and Magneto vying for the loyalties of the unaligned mutants? It would not have hurt to leave at least some doubt as to whether newcomer Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) would join the Brotherhood or the Academy. And lastly, if Magneto’s cause is so righteous, why are all his henchmen vicious thugs who seem to be in it for the mayhem and violence? Why doesn’t it bother him that he’s hiring exactly the kind of mutants that make Senator Kelly’s paranoia seem justified?
Perhaps we should overlook these flaws and simply enjoy the fact that the script uses its political subtext to lend gravitas to the fantasy storyline, creating a film that does touch upon interesting issues while serving up fight scenes, special effects, and even clever dialogue.
Unlike many art-house directors, who drown in budgets and bureaucracy when they move to large-scale Hollywood projects, Bryan Singer manages to keep his head above water while crafting a film that satisfies the audience appetite for enjoyable thrills. The effects work is a seamless combination of physical effects and CGI that maintains an organic, realistic feel, seldom lapsing in the cartoony imagery that often undermines computer-generated imagery.
The acting is solid, the cast engaging. Although the narrative structure pushes most of the X-Men into supporting roles, the actors add some charisma that keeps you wanting to see more. Stewart and McKellen make for an excellent set of adversaries; you really can take the film seriously because of them. And Jackman is an instant movie star as Wolverine. As the outsider being introduced to the group, he stands as the eyes and ears of the audience, helping to introduce us to this strange new world. His lupine good looks, physical presence, and canny acting ability sell the character completely, and he even manages the tearjerker, sentimental moments without sinking into bathos.
When the eagerly anticipated X-MEN movie hit theatre screens in 2000, it turned out to be a rarity: a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of a comic book that pleased both fans and newcomers. The main strength was its storytelling integrity. Director Bryan Singer never fell back on the comic book origins as an excuse for camp, instead striving for believable treatments of the characters. In the great tradition of Hollywood popular entertainment, the film took on heavy issues like intolerance, and examined them in the context of a rousing fantasy film with a broad appeal to a mass audience. In short it seems like the perfect film to enjoy again and again, relishing every nuance, every fight, every explosion.
Unfortunately, repeat viewings reveal the film’s lack of spectacular action and excitement. As the first film in the franchise, X-MEN spends much of its time establishing its premise; in fact, the first hour is mostly exposition that introduces the characters, Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted, and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants. The action sequences are few and far between – and not terribly overwhelming when they arrive. High-octane excitement does not kick into gear until the second half. This weakness is not enough to ruin the film, but it does become clear that X-MEN falls short of being a classic that can be enjoyed over and over again. It is better than average for its genre, but it is not great, serving mostly as an introduction to set up the sequels.
This film includes some funny inside jokes. Two examples:
Ray Park’s Toad, for no visible reason, re-enacting Darth Maul’s swordsman routine.
Cyclops’ reply to Wolverine’s expressed distaste for his new black leather X-Men outfit: “Would you prefer yellow spandex?”
Unfortunately, the initial DVD release of X-MEN was a slight disappointment, a one-disc presentation that left the door open for a later, improved two-disc set that arrived just before X-MEN UNITED reached theatres.
The single-disc DVD presents the film in a letterboxed widescreen anamorphic format. The sound options include English Dolby 5.1, and Dolby Surround Sound in English and French. There are also subtitle options for English and Spanish. The Dolby 5.1 mix isn’t as impressive as it might be. The rain sound effects of the opening scene really do seem to surround you, but later moments are less effective. (When Wolverine races through the School for the Gifted, Professor Xavier’s whispered hardly seems to come from any and all directions; it just flutters back and forth between the left and right channels.)
The disc opens with a montage of other Fox DVD releases. In a clever touch, the standard warning about video piracy is interrupted by static, then replaced by a close up of an eye-scan as seen in the film, followed by the CGI menu, which portrays the interior of Cerebro.
Here, you can play the movie, select specific scenes, check out special features, or select the language. The twenty-eight chapter stops have titles such as “The Mutant Problem,” and each is illustrated with a film clip running on a loop. You would think this would be more than enough to help you find your favorite moments again and again, but the clips are misleading; the most you can hope for is to find an overall sequence, not a particular moment, and even that can be in doubt. For example, the “Attack Plan” chapter stop features a clip of the X-Men’s plane in flight; selecting this chapter actually takes you to the moment when they are inside their headquarters, looking at their 3-D map of Ellis Island – the plane doesn’t show up until the end of the chapter.
The Special Features button offers several interesting items: an “extended, branching” version of the film, an interview with director Bryan Singer, a Fox special called “The Mutant Watch,” Hugh Jackman’s screen test, theatrical trailers, and TV spots, an Art Gallery, Animatics, and a button marked “THX.”
This last option runs you through a series of tests to insure that your sound system is perfectly set up to capture the glories of Dolby 5.1 sound, but you should select this option last, as you really can’t get back to the Special Features directly from here. (You have to go back to the Main Menu and then select the Special Features button again.)
The Art Gallery contains two sections: one for character designs and one for production designs. In the character section is more interesting, you will see the evolution of the characters’ on-screen look, which sometimes varies wildly from the final version in the film.
The animatics offer simple computer-graphic renderings of the train fight and the climax on the statue of liberty. These modern-day versions of old-fashioned storyboards provide a better sense of a scene’s pacing for those working on the film (especially useful for complicated action and effects), but they are of limited value to consumers, except as a curiosity. The computer graphics are resemble a video game with little facial expression; their purpose is only to act as a guide for live-action and effects filming. Still, they provide a glimpse at the development process, revealing noticeable differences from the finished film.
The two trailers and three TV spots mostly recycle the same footage. There is also a promotional spot for the film’s soundtrack CD.
The Bryan Singer interview is excerpted from the director’s appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. Divided into five sections, the interview shows Singer explaining why he made the film; he also talks about comics-to-film adaptations, about directing actors, about learning from actors, and about the challenges of handling a studio production. It is a good interview, but Singer’s answers tend to be a bit general, and they aren’t substantial enough to stand in for what’s most obviously missing on this disc: a director’s audio commentary. In one amusing moment, he says that he has as much to learn from his actors as they do from him—and then adds “if not more,” as if suddenly realizing that he has put his own relatively brief experience in the entertainment field on the same level with that of seasoned veterans like Stewart and McKellen.
For fans, the most interesting feature is the “Extended Branching” version of the film. This option (which seemed to be in vogue a few years ago before fading away in favor of fully revised “director’s cuts on DVD) displays additional or alternate scenes inserted at appropriate points during the film; or you can view the extra scenes separately, one by one.
The six additional or alternate sequences include:
Storm teaching class;
Wolverine noticing Jean and Cyclops holding hands, followed by Bobby and Rogue in class;
an Extended Bedroom scene (just more dialogue, folks);
Bobby walking Rogue to her room, followed by Xavier and Jean in Cerebro;
Xavier and Jean in Xavier’s office, and a scene in the Ready Room before the X-Men take off.
Except for the footage of Bobby and Rogue, these scenes deepen the characterizations, adding interaction that may not advance the story but does establish a foundation for better material that is in the final cut. Their excision saved the film only a few minutes of running time, and the film probably could have benefited from their inclusion.
The two-disc X-MEN 1.5 Edition DVD improves upon the single-disc version in several ways, most obviously with an audio commentary from Bryan Singer. Besides the deleted scenes, the first disc also includes seventeen behind-the-scenes featurettes, but the real treasure trove for fans is Disc Two. Beginning with an introduction by Singer, this includes:
The Uncanny Suspects pre-production featurette
X-Factor The Look of the X-Men Costumes
The Special Effects of the X-Men
Reflections of the X-Men
Footage from the world premier at Ellis Island
Multi-angle scene studies
Three trailers, fourteen TV spots, twelve Web interstitials, and more
X-Men 2 sneak preview
X-MEN (2000). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by David Hayter, story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer, based on the Marvel comic book characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijin, Bruce Davis.
This news sounded suspect, having first broken on April 1, but since it has been reported by both the BBC and CNN, I think we can trust it. Apparently, a work pint version of X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE – which does not open in the U.S. till May 1 – has been leaked to online file sharing websites. The copy is said to be of high quality, without the usual signs of an unfinished film (i.e., a timecode or a studio watermark):
The movie is incomplete, with some special effects still in need of fine tuning and green screens and wires attached to actors still visible.
[…] Since being uploaded to file sharing websites on Tuesday, more than 75,000 copies of the film have already been downloaded and reviews by users have started appearing online.
One user wrote on aintitcool.com: “The CGI is missing and the movie looks horrible without it…..”
Collidor.com has posted a reponse from 20th Century Fox regarding the piracy of their blockbuster:
Last night, a stolen, incomplete and early version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was posted illegally on websites. It was without many effects and had missing scenes and temporary sound and music. We immediately contacted the appropriate legal authorities and had it removed. We forensically mark our content so we can identify sources that make it available or download it. The source of the initial leak and any subsequent postings will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – the courts have handed down significant criminal sentences for such acts and the last person who committed such a crime is still in jail. The FBI and the MPAA also are actively investigating this crime. We are encouraged by the support of fansites condemning piracy and this illegal posting and pointing out that such theft undermines the enormous efforts of the filmmakers and actors, and above all, hurts the fans of the film.
CNN notes the difficulties in tracking down the source of the leak and also in preventing the spread of the bootlegged version. Even though the website that first posed the workprint of X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is shut down, the file has already spread to thousand of people who can make copies and share it with friends. There is concern that this could affect the opening weekend box office:
Steve Zeitchik, who covers the film industry for The Hollywood Reporter, said the studio’s biggest concern may be that having people view a rough cut “completely throws the studios off their game” of building a positive buzz for the movie.
“If people see this movie, and they don’t like it, and they tell their friends, and their friends blog about it, and it just spreads throughout the blogosphere, there are a lot of people that don’t even get near a pirated copy of this film, who don’t go see [the movie in theaters] because of this leak,” Zeitchik said.
However, the fears may be ungrounded. CNN quotes 25-year-old movie reviewer Kent Lundbald, who got a copy of X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE from a friend, and his response was positive:
“Even in this rough form, it’s much better than the last ‘X-Men’ outing or anything Fox has given us in a long, long time,” Lundblad said…
Reviewboard Magazine has also posted a positive response that called the film “superb” and promises “a plot twist…that may or may not surprise some fans.” Writes Edmund Torbet:
X-Men: Originsmaintains positive air surrounding the X-Men films. While its cast of mutants isn’t nearly as spectacular and there’s a certain charm missing without Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, X-Men: Origins manages to hold its own and even emerges as one of the finest action/fantasy films of 2009.