Monday, May 19, 2014

Children of the Atom, Part 1: X-Men (2000)

            Countdown to X-Men: Days of Future Past, Part 1…

            Make no mistake: we live in the age of the superhero, with no signs of it stopping any time soon. Every year there are dozens crying the death knell of the genre’s grip on Hollywood, and every year another comes out that breaks all the box office records. Where did all of this start? Well, I suppose you could go back to the first Tim Burton Batman, which showed that the superhero was a viable industry unto itself. Or you could go even further back, when Richard Donner proved with his majestic, A-level Superman that superheroes weren’t just the province of cheap Saturday morning thrills.  

            But those were different movies, from a different era - ones that don’t really reflect the superhero film as we know it today. You can mark the beginnings of this current era back to, fittingly, the year 2000, and the release of the first X-Men. Having said that, the superhero film has still come a long way in the last 14 years, so much so that Bryan Singer’s original film can’t seem anything now but hopelessly dated. But a few key decisions made therein helped pave the way for the films to come, and set in motion a handful of basic ideals that still define the genre to this day. Namely, a fealty to the source material previously not adhered to to such a degree, and the importance of character and story over set design and spectacle.

            The film opens about as pretentiously as you can get, yet still important when taken into context of what would come later (“later” not so much as the remainder of the film, but rather the development of superhero cinema in general): a young boy is being marched into a concentration camp with his family. After being separated from his parents, he stretches his arm out in desperation, and to everyone’s shock and horror, bends the metal fences down. This is Erik Lensherr, the future mutant terrorist Magneto and main villain of the X-franchise. On the one hand, this scene definitely helps to humanize Magneto’s character, and give him a basic motivation for what he does throughout the rest of the film. The best villains, after all, are the ones that the audience can relate to on some level or other, and its certainly very easy to see why Magneto goes to lengths that he does to protect his own kind, having witnessed Nazi Germany and the horrors of what happens when humankind is faced with an “other” that it fears and doesn’t understand.  But, as accomplished a scene as it is, it has no real bearing on the story proper - more paid lip service to than actually developed through plot and character - and thus feels disconnected from the movie that follows as a result, coming off as more of a hollow gesture than an integral part of the story.

            “Hollow gesture” might be the best way to describe the jumble of scenes and characters that the film throws at us afterwards, although the elements themselves are hardly without merit. When watching this first X-Men movie, it’s important to remember that this is a transitionary work - simultaneously adhering to and distancing itself from what had come before - and thus is bound to hit a few speed bumps along the way. First, we’ll start with what works: the focus on the characters themselves.

            Previously to X-Men (and, to a somewhat lesser but no less important extent, 1998’s Blade), all that was expected of the superheroes themselves was to answer their respective Bat-signals, don the way over-designed tights and take out the bad guys with their toyetic, very Trademark-able vehicles and gadgets. The focus was not telling a story so much as selling a product. But Bryan Singer and co. take an important detour and plant a flag in the ground in the genre, one that states they must be movies first, and advertisements second. The opening thirty minutes of the film sets up its characters carefully, from the dynamic between Professor Xavier and Magneto and the subsequent introductions of Wolverine and Rogue. Such set-ups are accomplished not through elaborate and effects-laden set-pieces, but rather quick and effective scenes that tell us all we need to know about these characters through minimal exposition. Consider the moment when Rogue asks Wolverine/Logan about his claws, and whether or not it hurts when they pop out. “Every time,” Hugh Jackman responds in a career-defining performance, and through that brief exchange we learn something about Logan that no amount of backstory or exposition could tell us.

            Also important is the faithfulness to the source material. The filmmakers change much in the transition from panel to screen, but underneath it all remains the core of what makes the X-Men special. The changes made don’t radically change the meaning and function of the original concept, but rather fit the needs of a different medium and wider audience. 

            With all that it does right, it’s just too bad the film never quite comes together. Despite giving the characters room to breathe instead of transforming them into action figures, many of their characterizations are reduced to broad traits and pithy one-liners. Wolverine and Magneto get the lion’s share of the attention, while characters such as Storm stand off in the background and don’t really leave much of an impression. Even those who seem to have a bit more meat on their bones still get the short-shrift (the filmmakers just don’t know what to do with team leader Cyclops, both here and in all subsequent installments). Couple that with the jumbled plot of Magneto scheming to turn members of the UN into mutants via a thoroughly unexciting device, and you wind up with an end result that is - quite frankly - lame. What action scenes there are alternate between clunky wire-work and dodgy CG effects, and all of it caps off in what has to be the least-exciting climax to an action blockbuster yet filmed, where not even the setting of the Statue of Liberty can do much to heighten the drama or stakes.
            But, if we are to choose between character-driven drama with lackluster set-pieces or elaborate set-pieces devoid of character, then the former is infinitely more preferable; as the most successful superhero movies of the last fourteen years would surely attest. All of them owing a debt to Bryan Singer’s X-Men.    


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