Directors: Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner
By Roderick Heath
The recent release of Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class has tried to capitalize on not just the 50-year-old comic book source, but also the intricate allure of the franchise first built by Bryan Singer. Aficionado as I am of fantastic cinema, willing to take a bet on most any example of it, I still avoided the series at first. That’s partly because I had little investment in the source material, and I also because I was uneasy at Singer’s premature canonisation as director because of The Usual Suspects (1995), a fine film that nonetheless seems to have kicked off an insufferable Hollywood obsession with trick narratives, and to a certain extent the feeling I had that Singer was essentially a slick professional with a thin veneer of post-Tarantino indie chic has been proven essentially true over the years. But when I finally did sit down and watch the X-Men films, I was pleasantly surprised at how much character and class Singer managed to transfer to them.
The first two films were imbued by Singer with a definitively chic, minimalist visual style and a correspondingly nimble sense of their characters and ideas. They were also exceptionally well-cast, possessing a balance of both character-based and satiric humour, and emotive and symbolic awareness. Moreover, since I caught up with Singer’s debut, the little-seen, interesting and curiously affecting, if pretty slapdash parable Public Access (1992), I started appreciating his growth, which is both obvious and coherent. His consistent interests are apparent in the effervescent frosting of elegance and abstraction in the visual design, his acute thematic awareness of outsider angst and interest in political diatribes that mask hidden agendas, and his fondness for vividly chiselled leading men. As such, the X-Men films are one of the most successful examples of a former independent director negotiating his way through broad-appeal fare.
Moreover, Singer and screenwriter David Hayter established a series rather unique among comic book adaptations, by taking them seriously as worlds unto themselves, in which the powers of the heroes are not merely devices used in otherwise relatively conventional action, but as intrinsic to the story on all levels: the question of mutation is both the starting point and the consistent motivator. This makes the films close to legitimate science fiction. Another challenge for Singer and McQuarrie was to develop a coherent and intimate story out of the over-busy Marvel comic book series they were adapting. They did it chiefly by focusing on characters, and the series is essentially driven by three of them, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), around who swirl other interesting personas whose gifts and faults complement and contrast each other.
X-Men commences portentously with a nadir of humanity: Jewish victims being led into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. One of the young men panics as he’s separated from his parents, and, as he’s wrestling with guards in a screaming frenzy, the gates of the camp seem to buckle spontaneously in obedience to his gestures. The boy is Eric Lensherr, who survives and grows into Magneto, a ferociously talented and brilliant manipulator of metal, and one of the emerging class of mutant people with the so-called X gene that gives them extraordinary, but unpredictably diverse, powers. In “the not too distant future,” Magneto determines to resist a growing push to track down and register mutants. He believes, not without some good cause, that a war is brewing, and he decides to push it along. He’s opposed by his former colleague and fellow defender of the oft-abused and outcast mutant population, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school that takes in mutants to educate them and train them to master their powers.
Some were offended by the use of the Holocaust for grounding this free-flowing fantasy, but can such fantasies be easily separated from the intense, real-world anxieties that fuel them? In any event, Singer and McQuarrie obviously stress such realistic likenesses for the material, apt considering the series was begun as a parable for the Civil Rights movement, and evolved to take in any disaffected social faction, including the gay experience. Such a point is repeatedly stressed by the need for rejected youths with problems that first manifest at puberty to find a home with den father Professor X and his understanding community.
Into that community stumble two new figures. Marie (Anna Paquin) finds herself afflicted with a particularly alienating mutation, the capacity to draw energy from anyone who touches her; she can absorb the gifts of any mutant, but if she touches them for too long they die, meaning she can’t have any kind of physical relationship. As per mutant custom, she gives herself a new name, Rogue, and flees from her suburban home to Canada, where she falls into the company of Logan, or Wolverine, a bristling tough guy who makes money winning cage fights. Wolverine and Rogue are attacked by a fearsome mutant, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who seems to want to capture one of them, but they are saved by two of Xavier’s teachers, Jean, a potentially powerful but fretful, unstable telepath and psychic, and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), whose eyes emit powerful rays that have to be controlled with special glasses. The mutant school’s staff is rounded out by Ororo “Storm” Munro (Halle Berry), who can control weather.
The asocial Wolverine flits about the edges of this stable world: he possesses incredible healing capacities and an artificial metal skeleton with deadly claws that spring from his hands for battle, but no memory of how he got these claws. The story of their origin is crucial to X2, where Magneto’s worst nightmare is embodied by William Stryker (Brian Cox), an army bigwig who has sought to control and utilize mutants. He exploited Wolverine’s healing gifts to try to create a perfect soldier, and lobotomised his own mutant son, who killed his mother with psychic projections. Stryker blames the mutation for this, but father and son are both cut from the same psychopathic cloth. Magneto’s efforts in the first film mirror Stryker’s in the second—to exterminate the species they fear and detest with electronic augmentation. Stryker gains traction for his extermination plans by brainwashing lone German mutant Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Alan Cumming) into attacking the U.S. President (Cotter Smith).
The running confrontation of ideals, perspectives, and methods between Magneto and Xavier, backed up by the relish the two stalwarts bring to their parts, is a great part of the fun of the films, which put surprisingly little emphasis on spectacle and special effects except in controlled bursts. The emphasis on Xavier and Magneto’s former friendship and shared ideals lends a proper dramatic tension to their conflict, rather existing for simple generic necessity. Both possess the same traits in different mixtures, as Magneto’s genuine, empathetic angst is immediately established, underpinning his rage and contempt for the human world, and Xavier’s expedient choices in regards to Jean eventually lead to a grandiose tragedy. McKellen’s knowing, yet fierce playing of Magneto’s dramatic self-importance, which is entirely justified by his increasingly godlike powers, sees the actor transfer his persona from Richard III (1995) intact into a blockbuster.
The good casting extends right down the line, as various subplots and percolating themes evolve, such as Wolverine’s attraction to Jean, and hers to his hunky bad-boy appeal, in spite of her relationship with the cool, but too well-adjusted team player Cyclops. Jackman and Marsden’s mutual loathing is nearly as good as Stewart and McKellen’s, enacted in tossed-off insults and catty confrontations. Interestingly, and rare in such fare, it’s the female characters who keep the drama grounded, thanks largely to the restrained, mature performances, particularly Janssen, who makes her difficult character work well. Storm, signalled eventually as Xavier’s successor, maintains an intense slow burn that counterbalances Jean’s unsure brilliance. Berry’s Storm possesses a subtle, but noticeable African accent in the first film, as per the character’s Kenyan origin in the comics, but Berry drops this as well as Storm’s early glaze of weirdness in the second film, and her characterisation consequentially becomes less original. Still, I was more persuaded as to Berry’s acting talents by her here than by all the sweaty acrobatics of Monster’s Ball (2001).
On the opposite side of the camp is Rebecca Romijn’s lithesome Mystique, a shape-shifter and Magneto’s perpetual aide-cum-concubine who constantly overwhelms and surprises opponents with her capacity to change appearance and kick ass. As Brian de Palma did with Romijn in Femme Fatale (2002), Singer amusingly exploits her ability to imbue a sinuous wet-dream-incarnate sexuality with potent anger and predatory grace. It’s Mystique who really throws down the gauntlet of outsider rage when she kidnaps pompous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), the main proponent of the Mutant Registration Act in the first film, spitting, “It’s people like you who made me afraid to go to school,” before knocking him out with her talented feet.
Simultaneously, the younger generation is developing its own hang-ups. Although the series never really works out what to do with her, Paquin’s Rogue is the character who seems most mythic (at least until Jean turns into a goddess of wrath), and reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Rappacini’s Daughter in possessing a physique that is inimical to all erotic experience. Like a gorgon, her cursed nature is suggested by her hair, as is Storm’s. Rogue’s relationship with Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), who can freeze anything, is inevitably frigid, and he seems to fall under the sway of Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (well-played by Ellen Page in the third film, after brief appearances of other actresses in the first two films). Meanwhile, their mutual friend John “Pyro” Allerdyce, who, naturally, wields fire, eventually gives into his aggressive streak and joins Magneto’s team.
If there’s a problem with Singer’s X-Men diptych, it’s curiously indivisible from its strengths: Singer’s too-cool handling and spare action means he never approaches the overheated delights of Guillermo del Toro’s glorious Hellboy films, and doesn’t quite possess the personal warmth that lit up Sam Raimi’s erratic Spider-Man series. None of the episodes is entirely satisfying on its own, demanding to be watched in close proximity with the others. On the other hand, this franchise was more complex and dramatically integrated than its many rivals, and where Raimi’s studied naiveté eventually grew excessive and repetitive, here the characters and their interactions grow more interesting the more familiar they become. It helps that the series went back to the original comic books for their best storylines. The chief source for the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand was the Phoenix cycle of the late ’70s, regarded as one of the greatest in comic book history. X-Men, on the other hand, feels limited by its very standard save-the-prestigious-event climax: the first film falls into the trap of basically setting things up to be knocked into the hole later.
Fittingly, X2 is the series highpoint, introducing the likeable, if fierce-looking Nightcrawler, and building to a lengthy, well-sustained finale, as the heroes try to save Professor Xavier from Stryker’s plot to fool him into psychically killing every mutant on Earth. X2 is full of excellent little set-pieces, particularly Magneto’s escape from his all-plastic prison, accomplished because Mystique injected tiny metal fragments into one of his guards during what he thought was a drunken hook-up, which Magneto is then able to suck out of his body and use to smash his cell. Wolverine’s discovery of his origin as part of a grotesque experiment and his shady personal history lead him into a battle with Stryker’s second, more obedient super-warrior, Yuriko “Lady Deathstrike” Oyama (Kelly Hu). Lady Deathstrike sprouts long, mandarinlike fingernails of steel, and the two well-matched animals slash and hack each other in a mean tussle that could theoretically last forever.
Singer sets up an elegant visual contrast for Stryker’s son, now a crippled, obedient, yet still obscene monster, with the little girl he projects into people’s heads to get them to do what he wants, and switches between reality and false vision. The episode concludes with Jean sacrificing herself to save her friends from being washed away by the waters of a collapsed dam; Singer pays obvious stylistic and thematic tributes to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), including having the familiar introductory quote by Xavier read by Jean before the final fade-out. Jean is reborn in X-Men: The Last Stand as a schizoid monster called “Phoenix,” an escapee from Xavier’s attempt to compartmentalise the unstable part of her personality and its awesome power. She returns from her watery grave at the mercy of this alternate personality and kills Cyclops in a lover’s embrace, a moment that finally fulfils the theme of deadly intimacy introduced by Rogue.
Singer’s interest in excoriating demagogues, rhetorical fear-mongers, false visionaries, and his penchant for wandering antiheroes, in evidence since Public Access, likewise recurs through the series, though no longer all packed into the same person. The series is worth comparing to the thematically similar Harry Potter series: in the latter, the unusually talented kids are accepted into a school that disciplines them and immediately normalises them, at least on a social level, whereas in the former, the emphasis remains clearly on the consequences and the immutable nature of their exceptionalism. Even the most successful and open-minded adults, like Storm and Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), are beset by a gnawing mix of resentment and alienation, even when trying their best to be proactive. One of the series’ best sequences comes in X2 when Stryker’s goons invade the school, shattering the cosiness of that environment, falling foul of some unusual mutant gifts, and forcing Wolverine to take up the mantle of defending the children in lieu of the absent teachers. As predictable as it is, the evolution of Wolverine from a fierce, somewhat masochistic, crude and brutal rebel into a functioning, responsible, but still lovably gruff member of the team, is an affecting and amusing strand throughout the films, until the unhinged Phoenix can taunt him with the observation that Xavier has tamed him.
Singer jumped ship on the franchise after this to try his hand at reviving another great superhero franchise with Superman Returns (2005), with very mixed results: whilst his ability to handle the infrastructure of a big action series had grown, his sense of what he wanted to achieve seemed to have disappeared. The third X-Men film was handed first to Matthew Vaughan, who, distressed by the studio’s rush to production, passed it on to Brett Ratner, whose name was already supplanting that of Joel Schumacher as an emblematic Hollywood hack. Ratner had made that claim for himself with his Rush Hour films and his unnecessary (and how!) remake of Manhunter (1987), Red Dragon (2002). Ratner kept most of the cast together however much some of them seemed to be going through the motions in virtual cameos, and did a passable job of sustaining Singer’s style. The result is somewhat better than it’s often regarded, but it’s hard not to notice that Ratner swapped Singer’s visual concision and ear for dry dialogue for a lot of clichéd bombast, trailer-ready dialogue, and a much less refined sense of pace and style. X-Men: The Last Stand also casually tosses away some of its by-now iconic characters, which does at least give it an unpredictable edge, and sports some overly obvious in-jokes.
Whereas Singer employed his outsider parable adroitly, here Ratner embraces it with cartoonish obviousness by introducing a young mutant, “Angel” (Ben Foster), who sports wings. His father, Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), has developed a “mutant cure” with his pharmaceutical company, hoping to save his son. Angel is glimpsed in a prologue as a kid, desperately trying to saw off his wings in the bathroom whilst his father bangs on the door, an admittedly cunning conflation of the theme of protean adolescent shame with the fantastic. But Angel finishes up flying away in a tribute to Tony Kushner by way of Melissa Etheridge.
The third film does, at least, accomplish the job of bringing the many strands of the first two episodes to a head and leading to a suitably epic showdown. Jean/Phoenix falls under Magneto’s sway as he leads resistance to Worthington’s cure made possible by culling the genes of a young mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), whose immediate presence completely nullifies mutations. Both Leech and the infrastructure for making the cure are housed on Alcatraz Island. Magneto, after putting together an army of disaffected mutants, decides to assault the island, and pulls off the trick, impressive by any standard, of levitating the Golden Gate Bridge and planting it between the island and San Francisco. This sequence is fun to watch, but less impressive than an earlier one in which Phoenix, enraged, turns her powers on Xavier when he and Magneto track her to her family house. She causes the entire structure to levitate, and, amidst a blizzard of debris and with Wolverine crawling across the ceiling, Xavier disintegrates, and the house crashes back to earth. It’s one of the most exciting and dramatic special-effects set-pieces of recent years.
Indeed, for all his bad choices, I can’t help but feel Ratner wielded his effects with more confidence than Singer. The big action climax, for once, delivers, too, as Iceman and Pyro duel, Magneto falls prey to the cure and faces (horror!) life as a normal human, and Kitty saves Leech from one of Magneto’s goons, the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), in a very funny little vignette that finishes up with the iron-clad villain, taunted by Kitty, knocking himself out cold when he tries to bash his way through a wall in the vicinity of Leech. Finally, Phoenix is let off the leash by a suddenly regretful Magneto, who bleatingly quotes Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai as Phoenix starts annihilating everything in sight. Wolverine has to shoulder the duty of taking on Phoenix, being the only one who can survive her pulverising telekinetic powers long enough to kill her, a coup de grace that Jean, momentarily back in control of her psyche, begs for. This ending offers proof that delirious melodrama and extraordinary colour aren’t only the province of Hong Kong cinema.