X-Men

Mutant Theory (The X-Men Franchise) – Part 2

Part two of my look at the X-Men franchise. Here’s part one and my look at the first film.

Mutant and Shameful – X-Men: First Class (dir. Vaughn, 2011)

Ridiculous from a historical and political perspective, but that’s not my expertise, check out Jack Graham’s post for a more educated opinion on these topics. I’d like to go back to what I was saying in my Last Stand post about Magneto being a more sympathetic and interesting character than Xavier and any of the X-Men, and there’s no better example of this than this movie. We are introduced to Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as children. Xavier is in his mansion, whining because his mother won’t make him a sandwich while Magneto is at Auschwitz, having his mother shot in front of him by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a sadistic maniac who wants to experiment on him. Twenty years later, Magneto is on the hunt for Shaw and the other Nazis that slaughtered his people. That’s right, Magneto is a badass Nazi hunter on a just cause to make evil men pay for their crimes. Meanwhile, Xavier is chugging lager at his toffee-nosed university and attempting to manipulate women into sleeping with him by raping their minds, which apparently we’re supposed to find highly amusing. Magneto is on a heroic mission, and we sympathise entirely because we’ve seen the hardship he’s been through and Shaw is a genuinely evil man who’s trying to destroy the world. Yet we’re supposed to side with Xavier, judging from his position of privilege, when he tells Magneto not to kill Shaw? When Shaw is attempting to kill Magneto, I might add. And Why? Because it’ll send Magneto down an inescapable dark path? His logic makes no sense to me. I mean, is anyone really hoping that Magneto spares Shaw’s life? No, I didn’t think so. If you want an audience to side with your hero, make sure their cause makes sense, and cutting out any mind rape might help too.

A badass, and just an ass.

One thing that doesn’t make sense to me about Magneto’s cause, though, is why after he’s killed Shaw does he want to kill all humans? I understand sending the ships’ missiles back at them, that’s perfectly reasonable, they started it. But why all humans? Shaw was a mutant. The man responsible for all his suffering was one of his own kind, so why decide to carry on his cause and wipe out all human life? Magneto’s hatred for humans made sense in the original trilogy; they killed his family, his people. Making the author of his pain a mutant really confuses things. But apart from that, he’s totally badass, and I’ll support anyone with a theme this cool.

Sadly, although Magneto remains a badass, his previous (or future, depending on which way you look at it) ally, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), has lost all her edge. There’s an attempt to give her depth by showing her at odds with Xavier’s more passive attitude, as it won’t allow her to show her true self, but what it all boils down to is she turns evil because Xavier doesn’t fancy her. Just one example of the atrocious gender politics in the movie. This, along with the mind rape and the female cast being perennially dressed in their underwear, really doesn’t support the series’ central theme of equality. Neither does the one black character being fridged halfway through.

Entertaining because of Magneto (Fassbender’s performance, especially when he’s interrogating the Swiss Bank Manager, makes him my favourite for the next Bond), but one day I’d really like to see him win, or at least see the series add some ambiguity and sympathise with his cause more while highlighting Xavier’s hypocrisy and immorality.

What Kind of Monster Are You? – The Wolverine (dir. Mangold, 2013)

A competent action movie, an immeasurable improvement from Origins, but not really that interesting. Wolverine, mourning the loss of Jean in Last Stand, must prove to himself that there’s injustice worth fighting. He does this by going to Japan and finding and saving a new love interest. It’d all probably be a lot more effective if the love story held any weight, but it’s pretty standard fare. In fact, I can’t even remember the name of the love interest, can’t even picture her actually, and I only watched it a week ago. The plot doesn’t really make any sense, but you don’t notice when watching, only if you start deliberately pulling it apart afterwards, and it ends with your typical showdown with the ‘Big Bad’. Perfectly enjoyable stuff, though. Clearly a concerted effort’s been made to add a bit of style and class to proceedings and to return some mystery and respectability to the tormented hero after the embarrassment of his previous solo outing, and that’s something to be praised.

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A Darker Path – X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Singer, 2014)

Here we go again. Killing truly evil people will send you down an inescapable dark path to damnation. Blah, blah, blah. This time, it’s Mystique who must be saved from killing the bad guy. In the comic, the bad guy is Senator Kelly. In fact, he’s not a bad guy as such, he’s described as “a decent man, with what he feels are legitimate concerns about the increasing number of super-powered mutants in the world”. A man who has the power to change, who the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (they really need to speak to their PR guy about that name) plan to kill, which will result in the public turning against mutants and electing a president with extremist views, which results in an apocalyptic future. Sounds like something worth fighting against. In the movie, the bad guy, Trask (Peter Dinklage), is bad, in fact, he’s pure evil. He’s a monster, a psychopath who experiments on, tortures and kills people without reason or remorse, and he plans to enslave an entire race and give them the same treatment. The thing is, if Mystique kills Trask, it’ll turn the government against mutants, she’ll be captured, and her DNA will be used to develop the Sentinels; robotic, mutant killing machines that will threaten to end the world. Well, the right path is clear isn’t it. Kill him without being seen or captured! This would solve everything! The Bastard deserves to die! Sorry, but I can’t help thinking this as there’s nothing redeemable about him. Let him live and he’ll carry on being evil. He deserves to die, and Xavier and Wolverine are hypocrites for stating otherwise. “It was the first time she killed”, says Xavier, “it wasn’t her last”, says Wolverine, bitterly. You monumental hypocrite! You kill three people as soon as you’re sent on your mission to stop Mystique, and how many have you killed in the past in defence of yourself and your people? And what more is Mystique doing than defending herself and her race? What more was Magneto doing when he killed Shaw? Perhaps if the X-Men’s deeds were shown to change Trask, I could appreciate their perspective, but he’s beyond help, so screw him, and these passive, sissy hypocrites. Magneto was right.

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Sparing Psychopaths – Deadpool (dir. Miller, 2016)

Simple themes – love conquers all, it’s what’s inside that counts, you can’t run away from your problems, stick by the one you love – a nice restrained plot (no apocalyptic threats), and a story that’s not preachy or pretentious (although sometimes it thinks it’s a lot funnier than it is and verges very close to cliché considering how subversive it thinks it is). Its greatest moment comes when Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) holds a gun to the villain’s head, Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) gives a big speech about what it means to be a hero, and then Deadpool just shoots the villain in the head. This criticism of the X-Men films’ ridiculous, trite moralising is the highlight of the film, and if the sequel concentrates more on this kind of genre subversion and satire while avoiding cliché, we’ll be onto a winner.

If wearing superhero tights means sparing psychopaths, then maybe I wasn't meant to wear them.

If wearing superhero tights means sparing psychopaths, then maybe I wasn’t meant to wear them.

The Third One’s Always the Worst – X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Singer, 2016)

“The third one’s always the worst”, says Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) as the young X-Men leave a showing of Return of the Jedi (dir. Marquand, 1983). This is supposed to be a dig at Last Stand, but the joke has backfired, as this third in the First Class trilogy approaches X-Men Origins: Wolverine levels of badness. There is no debate here, just a series of unmemorable action sequences as the X-Men attempt to stop Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), the ‘Big Bad’, from destroying the world (the most cliché of all movie villain motivations), and mutant after mutant is introduced (so they can show off their powers in the trailer) without any of their characters being developed in any interesting ways. True, we’re used to underdeveloped characters in this series, but X-Men: Apocalypse goes one better (or worse), it destroys the series’ most sympathetic character. Yep, they turned Magneto into a pussy. He’s given a family just so they can be fridged, which apparently justifies him bending to Apocalypse’s will. At first, I thought Apocalypse must be brainwashing him, but no, the main plot revolves around Apocalypse trying to steal Xavier’s psychic abilities, so clearly Magneto freely chooses to follow Apocalypse, without question. This just makes him look stupid, weak, and completely robs him of his agency. The one character left in the series who had any! There was always reason behind Magneto’s motivations, however wicked the end results, but not anymore.

These are not the only problems. The dialogue is atrocious, reminiscent of Colossus’ speech in Deadpool, which was meant as parody. Like Origins, it’s more interested in needlessly joining the dots together so everything fits neatly with the rest of the series than with telling a proper story. The tone is all over the place. A prime example is a sequence played for laughs where Quicksilver (Evan Peters) saves students from the X-Mansion before it explodes being followed by jarring seriousness as it’s revealed he failed to save Cyclop’s (Tye Sheridan) brother, Havoc (Lucas Till) – a character killed off for convenience in a far less delicate manner than anything in Last StandXavier is worse than ever. Not only is Cerebro corrupted by the bad guys again and its morality is still not brought into question, but the honourable Professor commits his worst case of mind rape yet. This time, on the woman he supposedly loves! He robs Moira (Rose Byrne) of her memories without permission because he thinks it’s best for her! He is never judged for this, in fact, it’s joked about, and when he tells Moira, her response is to passionately kiss him, and we’re supposed to go all gooey over this romance! Boring, cringeworthy, and insulting.

I think I rolled my eyes more than Apocalypse.

I think I rolled my eyes more than Apocalypse.

Mutant Theory (The X-Men Franchise)

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 Wolverine 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. Here Wolverine 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.”

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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?

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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 as man is. 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’, the comic contains 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 it and the rest of the series. We have the ‘cure’ debate at the centre, just like the ‘registration act’ and threat of ‘mutant/human war’ before, which provides the film’s moral centre. 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?

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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’s 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 has 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 possibility for adding 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.

I hate the X-Men for doing this. Look how sad he looks, bless him.

I hate the X-Men for doing this. Look how sad he looks, bless him.

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 because she spends most of her time naked, but also because, along with Magneto, she is one of the only characters with any purpose; a goal that 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 thinks constitutes good storytelling. Just awful in every conceivable way. So bad, it often feels like parody.

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Contradictory Causes (X-Men)

X-Men (dir. Singer, 2000) features a supposedly heroic character, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), leader of the X-Men, who commits the exact same crime he claims to be fighting against.

The film’s opening sequence features a Jewish child, Erik Lehnsherr (Brett Morris), being separated from his parents as they are imprisoned in Auschwitz by the Nazis. During this incident, Erik realises his mutant ability to manipulate metal, almost pulling apart the cast iron gates of Auschwitz as they shut behind his parents.

In later life, Eric, now known as Magneto (Ian McKellen), comes to believe he and all mutants are superior to other humans and sets about trying to exterminate them. Magneto is presented as the villain of the film, and with comparisons being drawn between his actions and those of the Nazis, he is clearly being criticised for becoming the thing he hates most. The film’s major failing is the fact that its hero, Charles Xavier, is guilty of the exact same crime and this is never acknowledged, with Xavier being constantly portrayed as an honourable character.

One of the main plot points of the film is the X-Men’s attempt to prevent Congress passing a ‘mutant registration act’, which would mean every mutant would be forced to reveal their identity. Xavier is against mutant registration, believing mutants have a right to anonymity, yet he uses a machine he has built called Cerebro to locate and identify mutants without their permission. His ultimate goal is to locate mutants in distress, but none of these mutants asked for his assistance, and during his search, he identifies many more mutants who are not in need of help. Despite his belief that what he is doing is for the greater good, he’s still invading people’s privacy.

In fact, Xavier goes even further, by using his powers to violate people’s thoughts and control their actions; taking away their free will. Plus, he reads Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) mind without his permission to gain information that he uses to manipulate him into joining his cause. None of these actions is ever criticised, and it seems the film’s makers are completely unaware of the glaring moral contradiction within their film. The message the film inadvertently gives is that it is perfectly acceptable to use immoral means to triumph – as long as you’re the good guys.