Counting to X: X-Men

And so, here we are at the end game again. This week, Dark Phoenix will bring the era of 20th Century Fox X-Men movies to an end. They’re a weird, fractious, wildly variable collection of films but as we reach the end it’s worth returning too the beginning to see how far they’ve come and whether they still hang together.

A note before we continue; the Wolverine trilogy won’t be included here. Logan is a modern classic, The Wolverine is fun and Origins also happens but none of them are core projects. This is just X-Men up through Apocalypse only. And yes I will be voluntarily watching both The Last Stand and Apocalypse again because my commitment to Sparkle Motion is never in doubt.

So, first off, X-Men released a frankly horrific 19 years ago. David Hayter scripts from a story by Tom DeSanto and director Bryan Singer and before we go any further, we need to talk about him. The allegations about Singer are a matter of public record at this point and you should, if you can,
educate yourself. From a critical point of view they won’t be discussed, but Singer’s directorial style, or lack thereof, certainly will be.

This is the trailhead and it makes a bold choice, early on, of giving us two outsider characters as viewpoints. Anna Paquin’s Rogue accidentally hurts her boyfriend, going on the run and meeting Wolverine as played by Hugh Jackman. The movie becomes, fundamentally, a story about these two loners trying their best to fit in and its no accident that the film’s best sequences are these two, alone, talking. Which is good because outside these scenes, Paquin is given precious little to do besides scream and run away a lot. Even then she’s good, her natural presence holding your attention even when the script doesn’t. Jackman, visibly nervous and refusing to back down, is perfect casting for the world’s most over-exposed X-Man. Wolverine is ubiquitous, and that causes problems for the franchise further down the line, but not here. This is Wolverine not as unassailable pinnacle of manliness but as a feral, damaged and cautious man trying to do what’s best for him and slowly realizing he can’t. It’s a really smart, star-making performance and it’s also worth noting Jackman’s physical presence shines through the startlingly ropey wire work in the third act in particular.

The other core dynamic here is that flagship of ships, Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier. Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart simply do not know how to turn in bad work and this is no exception. McKellen snarls and prowls his way around the movie like a bespoke tailored apex predator, alternately kind and nurturing and brutal. Stewart is far calmer but is given two chillingly effective moments. The first sees him try and talk Erik down by possessing his henchmen in the middle of a standoff with armed police. The second is a moment right at the very end where Stewart lets the mask drop and shows Lensherr, and us, that Charles Xavier loves getting his knuckles bloody just as much as his best friend. Both are great, both are just part of two excellent performances and if you’ve never seen this movie before, see it for them.

The bad news is this is where the script drops off and keeps dropping. The other X-Men are cast brilliantly and yet given so little to do you wonder who they annoyed. Halle Berry has maybe ten lines in the entire movie. Future Musical MVP James Marsden has about twenty. It’s not just limited to X-Men either as Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants all get shockingly short shrift. Tyler Mane’s Sabretooth is the one with the closest to an arc but even that’s predominantly different rooms for him to growl in. World class martial artist Ray Park gets exactly 8 seconds of fight scene. Rebecca Romijn is least well served of all, required to spend the entire movie near mute and in body paint as with a straight face we’re told Mystique is naked all the time. Who knew the color of exploitation was. blue, not red.

The problems extend to the world building too. The script never goes in too deep and for all the political machinations of the plot the world seems oddly empty and ordered as the characters skate across the surface, only encountering other people when they need to. The ending is a great example of this problem, with Magneto planning to mutate the world leaders meeting on Ellis Island via a device placed in the Statue of Liberty. We see one perfunctory guard boat as the X-Men’s Blackbird slips by and that’s it. The attempt to keep the world of the X-Men separate is laudable but it means the films are often friction-less when they should be anything but.

Worse, the direction has aged abysmally badly. Singer cannot block out action to save his life and the ending here is a series of one on one fights, because that’s all he knows how to shoot. It’s not a bad thing, the Wolverine/Mystique fight especially, but it makes the movie feel oddly flat. That’s not helped by a last minute budget and time increase adding in some extra elements which are fun on paper but look very much like bad special effects on the screen. Along with the narrow focus and odd choices, that ages the movies and ages it badly. Worse, this is a mistake Singer would never learn from, it almost becoming a house style of shorts.

Yet for all that, there are moments of wit and grace here that still impress twenty years later. Sabretooth’s hair rising as Storm’s lighting forms. Cyclops being responded to very differently by two generations of the same family. The brilliant second act grace note that completely upends what you think Magneto’s intentions are and that every subsequent movie ignored. All of them impressive and all of them part of this unique, incomplete and still entertaining film. A trail head for the future, a sketch of what was to come, the first length of a path we’re still walking today, with no signs of slowing down. Especially as the next movie in the series does all of this, and more, far better.