Over two years ago, I posted about X-Men (dir. Singer, 2000), pointing out the contradictory cause of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is against the government’s mutant registration act but sees no problem with using his machine, Cerebro, to keep a register of all humans and mutants against their will. With the release of the latest X-Men film, X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Singer, 2016), now seems like as good a time as any to give my opinion on the rest of the series.
Behind Ice – X2: X-Men United (dir. Singer, 2003)
The best of the series. Slickly produced, well-staged action sequences (the attacks on the White House and the X-Mansion, and Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) prison break standout in particular), and a solid story arc for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who must learn that the actions he takes in the present and his loyalty to the X-Men are more important than uncovering the secrets of his past. This is effectively shown when he confronts Stryker (Brian Cox) during the attack on the X-Mansion, and his past is separated from him by a wall of ice, like the secrets that lie beneath Alkali Lake. He is given the choice of staying to discover these secrets or leaving to help his friends. He chooses the latter.
WOLVERINE: “Go, I’ll be fine.”
ROGUE: “But we won’t.”
This scene is later mirrored during Stryker and Wolverine’s confrontations at Alkali Lake. Twice Wolverine is given the chance to follow Stryker instead of his friends. At first, he does abandon them to pursue answers, but returns to help them when the dam bursts.
STRYKER: “Come with me, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know. You can’t help your friends. They’re as good as dead.”
During their final confrontation, Stryker tempts Wolverine again, but he chooses to leave with his new family, who hold the real answers he’s looking for, symbolically abandoning his past by leaving his army tag with Stryker to drown.
STRYKER: “Who has the answers, Wolverine? Those People?”
Despite these qualities, the film definitely has its downsides. Cerebro being corrupted by the bad guys to serve their cause is a prime opportunity to retcon the attitude of the first film and draw attention to the immorality of the device, but this is glossed over. The biggest issues for me are the changes from the source material, the classic graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills (Claremont, 1982). Now, I’m in no way a big comic geek or purist, I’ve read a select few, ones I’ve seen hailed as the best or featured in top ten lists, this just happens to be one of the few, and there are many examples of how X2 has watered-down the material. God Loves, Man Kills draws attention to religion being perverted for hateful causes (a continually relevant theme), the main villain, Stryker, being a televangelist on a mission to wipe out all mutants, who he believes are the seed of Satan, as they’re not made in God’s image. Stryker killed his son at birth, not understanding his mutation and thinking he was a demon. His hate for mutants and belief that religion is on his side is born out of feelings of guilt and a need to justify his actions. This offers far more depth than the movie’s simple anti-prejudice message and more complexity than the movie Stryker’s basic, undeveloped prejudice and stereotypical evil military man characterisation (nothing against Cox’s excellent performance). In the comic, as in the movie, Stryker attempts to gain control of Xavier’s mind, but instead of using a cliché ‘creepy child’, it uses horrific hallucinatory imagery. Xavier is placed in a sensory deprivation chamber by Stryker and experiences visions of himself crucified, being tormented by demonic X-Men, who rip out his heart. He’s repeatedly visited by a messianic Stryker, to whom he must give his hand and thus hand over his obedience and power. This imagery shows Stryker acting as a false God, manipulating religion and people for his own selfish gain. I can understand why the studio would choose to exclude this edgy, politically loaded material from a commercial blockbuster, but I don’t have to like it.
Under Fire – X-Men: The Last Stand (dir. Ratner, 2006)
I don’t understand the hate towards this one. Not saying it’s great, not at all, but I really don’t see a huge difference in quality between this and the rest of the series. We have the ‘cure’ debate, just like the previous ‘registration act’ and threat of ‘mutant/human war’, providing the film’s moral dilemma. We also have a character arc for Wolverine that eclipses the other characters’ stories, as his tragic love story with Jean (Famke Janssen) comes to an end. But, on the whole, the film is just a series of effects-based action sequences, featuring superhumans fighting and blowing stuff up. So business as usual then. The only reasons I can see for people not liking it quite so much are the action sequences aren’t quite as memorable as in X2 (although some are pretty damn good), and the regular cast is quite liberally disposed of throughout. But apart from Cyclops (James Marsden) – and who gives a toss about Cyclops? – they all get epic send-offs, so what’s the problem?
Just like the other films, though, there are a number of things that could have been done to make it more interesting. There is an X-Men: The Animated Series episode called The Cure, in which Rogue (Lenore Zann) is faced with the dilemma of whether to take the mutant cure or not. In the end, after using her powers to help others, she realises how important her difference is, and doesn’t take the cure. In Last Stand, Rogue (Anna Paquin) moans a bit about being different, then takes the cure, and it’s really unclear what point, if any, is being made. Again, Xavier’s morality is brought into question, as it is revealed he’s been suppressing Jean’s abilities. Magneto accuses him of trying to control the X-Men to serve his cause, telling Wolverine he’s tamed him. Now Magneto has a really good point here, as this is exactly what Xavier did in the first film when he read Wolverine’s mind without his permission to gain information that he, does indeed, use to manipulate him into joining his cause. But this great opportunity to add some much-needed ambiguity to the series is ignored, in favour of the continued characterisation of Xavier as a pure and noble father figure and Magneto as the purely evil villain.
Finally, Mystique’s (Rebecca Romijn) fate is another huge missed opportunity. Now Mystique, as played by Rebecca Romijn, is a character I have quite a fondness for. This could be partly to do with the fact she spends most of her time naked, but it’s also because, along with Magneto, she is one of the only characters with any purpose; a goal she is actively trying to accomplish. This is incredibly important for getting an audience to get behind and support a character. I mean, who’s interested in passive characters who just let things happen to them and make no attempt to change things? Not me, which is a big part of the reason I find myself supporting Magneto and his Brotherhood in all these films. They’re fighting for change, and often for good reason. While Xavier and the X-Men just sit back and let stuff happen, trying to defend their stagnant behaviour with trite moralising. Plus, Xavier is a manipulative arsehole who invades people’s minds, controlling and wiping them without permission. I feel far more sorry for Magneto and Mystique when they lose their powers than I do for Xavier when he’s killed or for Wolverine when he’s forced to kill Jean. How about you? Anyway, back to Mystique’s fate. When Mystique loses her powers, she quite boringly and predictably decides to turn against and betray Magneto. From what we know of the character, I find this quite unbelievable. After despising humans all her life and believing unequivocally in mutant superiority, would she abandon her beliefs so easily? Wouldn’t it have been far more interesting if she didn’t abandon them, and stayed loyal to Magneto, perhaps sacrificing herself for him, even though she’s turned human and he’s turned his back on her, proving to him that it wasn’t her mutant ability that made her who she was? A far better way to put the film’s point across, surely?
Koo-Koo-Ka-Choo Got Screwed – X-Men Origins: Wolverine (dir. Hood, 2009)
Nothing good to say about this one. It’s unfair that Last Stand gets lumped together with this as the nadir of the series. Again, not saying Last Stand is an underappreciated classic, but at least it had understandable character arcs (mostly), and there was some sort of debate going on. This exists solely to introduce as many new mutants as possible so they can show off their powers in the trailer (admittedly, Last Stand had a bit of that too, but not to this extent). Wolverine’s past is needlessly revealed so it joins up with the previous trilogy, which really spoils the mystique (no pun intended) of the character instead of adding to it. And it’s all told in the most cheesy way possible, with a fridged love interest, cliché action movie dialogue, embarrassing CGI, and a series of ridiculous plot twists that some idiot working on this obviously thought constituted good storytelling. Just awful in every conceivable way. So bad, it often feels like parody.