Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Film Appreciation - Evolution Leaps Forward

Cody Hamman displays tolerance and Film Appreciation for X-Men (2000).

"In the not too distant future", humanity comes to realize that some members of our species are entering the next stage of evolution. These people are referred to as mutants, and they are each gifted or cursed, depending on how you look at it, with some sort of superpower. Their mutations typically appear at puberty, their first manifestations usually triggered by moments of stress or excitement. Though they had no choice in the matter, when they reveal their mutant abilities they're often met with hostility and violence. Regular people tend to fear them, believing mutants can't be trusted. Some of these mutants are amazingly powerful, and if they can't control their abilities, or if they use them to commit crimes, they could be very dangerous. Citizens are demanding that their governments do something about this mutant phenomenon, and politicians share their concerns. For example, in the United States Senator Robert Kelly is proposing the Mutant Registration Act, which is just as it sounds; all mutants must register with the government and be completely open about their powers, essentially being put on a watch list and opening themselves up to the possibility of discrimination and hate crimes. Kelly isn't worried about how a mutant's neighbors might react to them, if he had his way he'd "lock 'em all away".

Two factions arise among the mutants in response to society's negative reaction to them. One side is led by Professor Charles Xavier, whose mutant power is high-level telepathy. Professor X runs a school for "gifted youngsters" (mutant children), and his approach to the issues is one of patience and peaceful reasoning. His hope is that people will come around to accepting mutants. He has trained some of his best and brightest students to use their powers for good, becoming superheroes called the X-Men, with a high-tech base located under the schoolgrounds. On the other side is a former friend of Xavier's, Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto, who can generate and control magnetic fields. Lehnsherr knows the evils humans can commit against those they see as different from themselves, as a boy in 1940s Poland he and his family were put in a concentration camp. He sees a war coming between humans and mutants and will not let something so horrible as the Holocaust happen again, this time to mutants. He plans to make the first strike against humans, aided by his own team of villainous mutants called The Brotherhood.

Soon, New York/New Jersey's Ellis Island will be host to a UN world summit, set to be the largest gathering of world leaders in history, where when one of the main topics is likely to be how to deal with mutants. This gathering is Magneto's target. He has devised a machine which emits a radiation that will trigger mutation in any normal human in its path. These world leaders have a problem with mutants, Magneto is going to turn them into the very thing they fear.

Two mutants meet each other by chance in the snowy Canadian countryside - a teenage runaway calling herself Rogue, who briefly absorbs the lifeforce and powers of any human or mutant she touches with her bare skin, therefore making prolonged contact with anyone impossible for her unless she's willing to kill them, and an amnesiac man nicknamed Wolverine, whose regenerative healing factor is so strong that he's nearly unkillable and who doesn't know much about his life other than the fact that his name is Logan and at some point in the past, somehow, his bones were encased in a metal called adamantium, turning the claws that pop out of his hands into razor sharp blades. One of them factors into Magneto's plan, but it's not clear to them which one he wants to force into helping him. He needs them because his radiation machine feeds off the energy of the mutant standing in its center, and to generate enough radiation to pull off the Ellis Island attack it will kill that mutant. He intends one of them to be an unwilling sacrifice to his cause.

Unbeknownst to Magneto, his mutant sacrifice won't be the only one dying. His machine won't just turn the world leaders into mutants so they can see how the other half lives. Since their mutations will be occurring unnaturally, their bodies will reject them, their cells breaking down. The mutation will quickly kill them, as an unlucky test subject finds out over the course of the film.

And so, the stage is set for our heroes, including, in addition to those already mentioned, telepath Jean Grey, the weather controlling Storm, and Cyclops, who blasts energy rays from his eyes, their intensity regulated by the ruby-quartz visor he wears, to take on Magneto and the members of his evil Brotherhood - the agile and long-tongued Toad, the Wolverine-esque Sabretooth, and shapeshifter Mystique - in a climactic battle with many lives hanging in the balance.

Directed by Bryan Singer, the live action adaptation of the X-Men comics is the end result of the project languishing in development hell for a decade, being presented to different studios, passing through the hands of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, the script going through several drafts by multiple screenwriters, including Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), Joss Whedon (The Avengers), James Schamus (Ang Lee's Hulk), John Logan (Skyfall), Michael Chabon (Spider-Man 2), and Ed Solomon (Men in Black). It was Singer and producer Tom DeSanto who crafted the pitch that got things rolling into production, with Singer's The Usual Suspects collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, uncredited on Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) and Metal Gear Solid voice actor David Hayter handling the final drafts of the script, Hayter getting sole screenwriter credit on the finished film.

I was all the time reading rumors of an X-Men film throughout my childhood, seeing fan cast suggestions in magazines, artwork imagining certain actors in the roles. It always seemed like a pipedream. Even when Singer's version started coming together, there was a lot of doubt going around on the internet. There were questions of how good the script could be after being worked on by so many different people. The images that came out of the heroes in black leather costumes screamed "Matrix wannabe". The schedule was very rushed. When production began, the release date they were aiming for was winter of 2000. When the studio told Singer that the date had been moved to summer, his first reaction was to make the logical assumption that they meant summer 2001, giving him an extra six months or so of post-production. Instead, the date had been moved up to July 14, 2000. Filming began at the end of September 1999 and ended in early March 2000, allowing just four months of post-production on a movie that required a large amount of special effects.

Some of the worries about X-Men came out of the fact that the '90s had not been a very good time for superhero properties. Franchises crashed and burned, characters hadn't been done justice, most attempts were low level. And in particular, beyond the Incredible Hulk TV show, Marvel didn't have a very good track record with live action adaptations. At least DC's biggest characters had some hit movies under their belts. 1998's Blade had been a success for a Marvel character, but that was a different type of comic book movie. X-Men was going to be the first big budget, summer blockbuster studio release for Marvel superhero characters. It had a lot to prove.

I had my concerns when I went to see the movie on opening weekend. I didn't think the effects were going to look very good, and when I peeked into the screening room as the showing before the one I would be attending was nearing its end, I saw the "mutation radiation" spreading across the screen in the form of squiggles of white light. Not exactly awe-inspiring. But I was still openminded about the whole thing, I was staying mostly optimistic. The X-Men movie was finally here, and I really wanted to like it.

And I did.

The comic character Juggernaut may not be in the film, but Bryan Singer's X-Men was the beginning of the comic book superhero movie juggernaut that has rampaged through theatres for the past thirteen years. In many ways, it is the template for a lot of the most successful comic book movies that have followed, starting with the hiring of Singer when he was fresh off the critical success of the low budget crime drama The Usual Suspects. Now superhero and action franchises pulling their directors from low budget critical successes is standard practice.

It's interesting looking at and listening to the special features on the X-Men DVD now, after so many comic book movies have followed, as Singer and company talk about how they wanted to prove with their film that comic book movies didn't have to be goofy, that superheroes could be taken seriously, that such fantastical characters could still be relevant to our reality. Singer and his collaborators did a great job grounding the proceedings in real world issues of oppression, bigotry, and civil rights. Many superhero movies since have taken a similarly down-to-earth approach.

Marvel characters doing gangbusters at the box office is a regular occurrence now, at this point they've made over a billion dollars worldwide not just when combined, but individually in some cases. The Avengers crossed the billion dollar mark and, more surprisingly in the grand scheme of things, so did Iron Man 3. The idea that the third entry in an Iron Man series would be so successful would've been unthinkable just six years ago. But it was X-Men, after being kicked around Hollywood for more than ten years, that paved the way, with Spider-Man following soon after. The 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk aside, X-Men also features what was the start of Stan Lee's cameos in live action Marvel movies. He has done many more cameos since.

Most of the cast around Stan Lee were fine fits for their roles. Patrick Stewart was both the obvious and the perfect choice for Professor X, Ian McKellen is a great Magneto, there are a couple Bond girls on the X team with Famke Janssen (GoldenEye) and Halle Berry (Die Another Day), Rebecca Romijn looks good blue and naked as Mystique, Ray Parks removed his Darth Maul facepaint from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and put on the greenish-yellow facepaint of Toad, Sabretooth is played by former wrestler and future Michael Myers Tyler Mane... Of all of them, the biggest casting coup was when Hugh Jackman signed on as Wolverine. Jackman wasn't the first choice for the role. Russell Crowe had turned it down, Dougray Scott had been cast but his turn as the villain in Mission: Impossible II caused a scheduling conflict. The movie had already been filming for a month and a half before Jackman was hired. At that time, the Australian actor was a total unknown, I had never once heard his name before the casting announcement. Although a foot taller than the comic book version of Wolverine, he turned out to be the perfect actor to bring the character to life.

Some fans complain that the film is too Wolverine-centric, but he's one of the most popular characters in the Marvel universe and I think it was absolutely the right choice to introduce audiences to the world of the X-Men through his eyes. He was always one of my top favorite comic book heroes overall - given my proclivity toward watching slasher movies, it should be no surprise that I loved reading about an unkillable guy with blade-claws - and certainly my favorite X-Men character, so Wolverine being at the center of the film is not a problem for me. From the moment he's first brought into the film, making money by cagefighting in a seedy bar, I had a feeling that they were going to pull Wolverine off properly, and I wasn't let down from there as he went on to kick ass, smoke stogies, call people "bub", and shake up the clinical, intellectual world of the X-Men with his tough, irreverent attitude. He has some great interactions with the other characters, growing into being a caring, mentor type toward Anna Paquin's Rogue, flirting with Janssen's Jean Grey, and butting heads with James Marsden as Cyclops. The Wolverine-Cyclops interplay provides one of my favorite moments and lines of dialogue, when Cyclops makes him prove that he's really himself rather than Mystique taking his form. Wolverine replies with his opinion of Cyclops: "You're a dick." Test passed.

The film may not be perfect, the rushed post-production did result in the finished product having some dodgy effects, but I think everyone involved did great work getting the X-Men onto the screen. I was entertained and satisfied, glad to be seeing Marvel characters done big and done right. It may seem a bit quaint these days, but in 2000, X-Men represented a leap forward for superhero movies.

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