Thursday, May 5, 2011

Opening The Blockbuster X-Men With Style And Decent Casting

The Good: Interesting plot, Good social message, Decent acting and characters, Intriguing special effects
The Bad: Some stiffness with some performances, Forced humor, DVD branching does not work well
The Basics: With a positive social message, interesting characters and (mostly) inspired acting X-Men is an auspicious beginning for the comic-book-turned film franchise.

It's rare for a superhero blockbuster summer movie to manage to have a strong social message, but it's inarguable that the Bryan Singer-directed X-Men does just that, which no doubt paved the way for the film franchise to spawn successful sequels and - forthcoming - spin-offs. Every now and again, I do a review for the purpose of establishing standards (like my Pirates Of The Caribbean reviewed here!). I was surprised to find I had not reviewed X-Men and thought it would be worthwhile to do so.

While trying to be a normal young woman, Marie D'Ancanto finds herself nearly accidentally killing her boyfriend while making out and she comes to realize that she is a mutant. Mutants are simply genetically different people who seem to have extraordinary abilities. Marie flees, taking up the name Rogue, and finds herself in the Canadian wilderness. There she encounters a troubled cage fighter named Logan who she hitches a ride from. Soon, however, the pair is attacked by a massive mutant who is undeniably bad and rescued in the nick of time by other mutants.

Logan awakens in the protected facility of Charles Xavier, a mutant who can read minds. Xavier informs Logan of a conflict between his mutants who seek equality, social justice and cohabitation with the mundane humans, and the forces of Magneto, who seek for mutants to dominate humans and subjugate them. When Rogue is abducted by Magneto's forces, Logan must decide to join Xavier's team - the X-Men - or sacrifice Rogue because the fight is not one he wants to get involved in.

Okay, X-Men is not the most original movie in terms of plot. This is essentially the story of Rogue and Logan - who comes to be known as the Wolverine - learning to trust one another while Xavier and Magneto - who used to be allies - fall further away from one another as a result of incompatible ideologies. There's a remarkable sense of balance in the film on the character level that makes up for the almost ridiculously simple James Bond-like plot. After all, X-Men employs an over-the-top villain - Magneto - who has a dastardly plan to make a bold statement using violence - in this case, a device that mutates normal humans . . . with unstable results.

The only other thing that does not really work well - outside the branching to integrate the deleted scenes in the original DVD release - is that some of the humor in the movie is forced. Anytime a film begins with a boy being oppressed by Nazi's in a death camp, the viewer should not expect a lot of laughs. X-Men makes some legitimately amusing jokes throughout, like Wolverine commenting on the uniforms and Cyclops referencing the yellow Spandex outfits (from the comic book and animated series). But some of the humor seems forced, like some of Magneto's treatment of Sabretooth that seem like they are intending to force a laugh and fail.

For the most part, though, X-Men is a serious, intense film that keeps the focus on the characters and when it is not making a social statement, it takes a moment or two to use special effects that serve the story as opposed to overwhelm the viewer with plot. So, for example, Magneto's forces find themselves surrounded at one point by the police and Xavier uses one of Magneto's people against him. Magneto uses his power - which is to manipulate metal objects using magnetic fields - the threaten the police officers. As an example, he fires a gun, but holds the bullet off its target and the effect used to render this is impressive even by today's standards.

The characters in X-Men are interesting, if a bit sexist. Interesting in that the powers the X-Men exhibit are actually interesting. Unlike the villains Toad and Sabretooth, who are basically a man-frog combo and a big, dumb brute, most of our heroes are actually intriguing. Logan is powerful, has a strong healing ability and no memory of his past. Rogue's ability to absorb the life force or mutant power of others creates for an interesting and conflicted character, as she cannot touch another person. Bummer for her. Xavier is stunningly powerful with his mental abilities, but is confined to a wheelchair. Villains Magneto and Mystique - who has limited shapechanging abilities - are suitably impressive counters to the X-Men setting up for real conflict.

And the impressive thing here is the conflict is very real and very well conceived. Magneto's desire is motivated by the need to keep humans from eradicating his way of life, his very existence. Despite his villainy, his intent is good and his desire is to save his people, keep the minority from being exploited, catalogued or exterminated. These are surprisingly honorable goals from a villain.

Indeed, somewhat more villainous throughout X-Men is Senator Kelly, an ambitious American who seeks to pass legislation to define mutants and catalog their powers and keep them controlled and regulated. Kelly is motivated by fear, fear that is well justified as his high-profile attacks on mutants make him a target by Magneto.

Senator Kelly's political villainy lands him in a place and time that give Charles Xavier and his team a chance to show their true heroism. Xavier works to aid Kelly through understanding and peaceful coexistence rather than fighting his fear and hate with more of the same. Xavier is a man of peace and his character consistently fights the good fight in an above-the-board, honorable way. It's refreshing to see in a movie.

Of course, after years of watching Star Trek The Next Generation (series reviewed here!), it's hard to expect less of actor Patrick Stewart. For years, Stewart embodied a philosopher king, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, a man who fought only when he had to and tried to use reason and logic and humanity to decide a conflict as opposed to advanced weaponry. In this way, Stewart playing Xavier is not a stretch of his acting abilities. Instead, director Bryan Singer simply exploits Stewart's stature, commanding abilities and paternal performance instinct to embody Xavier. He could not have cast better and Stewart plays the character with more immediate good-nature than he played Picard.

The only member of the main cast to underperform is James Marsden, whose portrayal of Cyclops is bland and dull. Rumor is, the character is dull in other incarnations as well, but here he's just flat and affectless, which made his character inaccessible. On the flip side, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos proves that she's not just a good looking body with latex and body paint as Mystique. Romijn-Stamos emotes remarkably well in scenes with Ian McKellen and Bruce Davison to add some humanity to her potentially flat character.

Ian McKellen and Bruce Davison make for wonderful villains in X-Men. McKellen plays Magneto and it's wonderful to see such a powerful dramatic actor in the role of a supervillain. He is careful not to take his performance over-the-top, tempering Magneto's anger with his rationality. McKellen plays well of Davison in the few scenes they share and works quite well with Patrick Stewart. Davison plays Senator Kelly and the highest compliment I can muster for his performance is that he seems like a Senator, through and through. Perfectly cast, articulate and bearing some power, Davison is wonderful.

Halle Berry, Famke Janssen and Hugh Jackman round out the cast as Storm, Jean Grey, and Logan. They do quite well. But even their performances are not enough to overcome the inherent sexism written into their characters. I am not referring to Wolverine's brusque attitude or his attraction to Jean. I mean in the powers. X-Men have serious powers, X-Women might have impressive powers, but they get worn out from using them. Half the movie, I expected Berry to utilize her powers as Storm, then declare "Ah have tha vapors!" and fall down. This is a systemic flaw in the characters not unique to this incarnation of X-Men.

The one who steals the scenes and knocks the acting out of the park is actress Anna Paquin. Paquin is delightful as Rogue, seriously expressing an adolescent conflict with the desire to reach out with the inability to touch another. Rogue is instantly likable, empathetic and fun to watch given Paquin's soft, innocent and realistic portrayal of a young woman in crisis.

Paquin, and her part, help highlight the essential theme of X-Men with is the importance of diversity. It's easy to see why the lesbian/gay/bisexual community rallied around this movie. The mutants are judged and condemned, feared based on a single aspect of their nature and personality. The metaphor here is staggeringly easy to identify and appreciate and X-Men makes salient and open-minded arguments for diversity and treating one's fellow human being with humanity, even if it's using mutants as a metaphor.

The metaphor works and it makes the movie something other than action-adventure schlock and a worthwhile film to view and return to.

X-Men sets up X-Men 2: X-Men United and it generally does that well. It's too bad Singer decided to insult the viewer with one of the last shots of the movie to make it obvious and undeniable that much of this endeavor was the establishment of a franchise on the grow.

For other works featuring Sir Ian McKellen, please check out my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
Gods And Monsters


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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