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X Marks the Thoughts

May 26, 2006

Some thoughts on the first X-Men, which I rewatched tonight, in anticipation of seeing X-Men: The Last Stand some time soon. As time goes on, I become more and more convinced that the X-Men movies are the greatest superhero movies ever–and this comes from someone who watched Batman everyday for two months after getting the video for Hanukkah in 1989. Yes, I’m a geek.

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ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MAKES THE X-MEN MOVIES SO GREAT is the way they avoid the credibility pitfalls of other superhero stories. In other superhero stories, the writers have to come up with reasons for (a) the good guys to be good and (b) the bad guys to hate the good guys. The best of the rest of superhero movies usually come up with serviceable reasons for one of these premises but never for both. Usually the the good guy becomes good because a close family member is killed by a petty criminal (think Batman or Spiderman), which, when you think about it, is not a very convincing reason for a person to become a superhero. In real life, Peter Parker wouldn’t turn to fighting crime if Uncle Ben got shot; he’d turn to Smirnoff and codeine.

The reasons for the bad guys to hate the good guys are typically even more contrived, usually relying on some coincidental misfortune that befalls the villain when the hero happens to be in the vicinity. In Batman, the Joker blames his disfiguring on Batman because Batman was there when he fell in the vat of green goo; in Spiderman, the Green Goblin just happens to be the father of a friend of Peter Parker’s; in Superman, well, crap, I think Lex Luthor was just devious.

But in the X-Men movies, not only does the animosity between the good mutants and the bad mutants make perfect sense, the good mutants don’t even fight crime. Unlike the Spiderman or Batman movies, which each have ridiculous scenes where the heroes stop muggings, the good mutants aren’t particularly concerned with crime in the general sense. The only crime they’re interested in is crime perpetrated by bad mutants. The X-Men’s motivation for doing good is reversed from typical hero/villain dichotomies, where the villain has it out for the hero. In the X-Men movies, the heroes have it out for the villains.

That’s because the only reason the good mutants do “good” is because they protect humanity from the bad mutants’ animosity toward normal humans. If the bad mutants weren’t seeking to destroy humanity, the good mutants wouldn’t fight crime at all. They’re actually quite shy about their powers and seem more interested in living in seclusion.

In the X-Men movies, the villains don’t even hate the heroes. They’re actually on a charm offensive to recruit the good mutants to their cause, and their respective leaders–Professor X and Magneto–are best friends.

Moreover, because the bad mutants’ motivation is so convincing, there is no simple dichotomy between the righteous good guys and the devilish bad guys. While we may be repulsed by the actions of the bad mutants, we also understand where they’re coming from. Who wouldn’t want to get back at a society that protests against your very existence? That seeks to register you for public safety reasons? That seeks to “cure” your gift?

In concocting a world where the heroes and villains embody natural, credible responses to the same social phenomenon, Stan Lee has created a premise with as much potential for thematic complexity and dramatic praxis as a great Shakespearean play.

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HAVE ANY SUPERHERO MOVIES BEEN AS WELL-CAST as the X-Men series? Since whatever age Patrick Stewart went bald, he was destined to play Professor X, who is the embodiment of patient wisdom mixed with a hint of paternalistic condescension (which pretty much sums up Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Magneto, meanwhile, needs to be someone of equal grativas who can also play rage (which I’ve never seen Stewart do convincingly). McKellen perfectly fits the bill. Even as Galdaf in the Lord of the Rings movies, he’s at his most interesting when his temper flares up.

Perhaps what keeps us equally engaged with the heroes and villains in the X-Men movies is the fact that McKellen is actually better at engaging our sympathies; Stewart is so remote and virtuous that we have a hard time relating to him, while McKellen’s anger and occasional displays of vulnerability bear a closer resemblance to our own emotions. It’s a classic dramatic trick: make the villain more human than the hero, and all of a sudden we’re torn between our aspiration to support virtue and our instinct to empathize with suffering.

Hugh Jackman is also perfect as Wolverine, suppressing his Australian accent for a slightly exaggerated masculine American tone, and arching his eyebrows in anger at all the right moments. In the smaller role of Cyclops, James Marsden captures Cyclops’ icy arrogance, while Famke Janssen has always had a knack for playing women who don’t know what they got, which is the essence of the Jean Grey character.

No other superhero movie has cast so many important parts so well. Christopher Reeve was born to play Superman, but, as good as Gene Hackman was, there were others alive at the time who could’ve been just as juicy as Lex Luthor (Telly Savalas comes to mind). Yes, nobody will ever be a better match of actor to comic book part than Jack Nicholson to the Joker, but others could have done Batman as well as Michael Keaton–and many could have done it better than Val Kilmer. Toby Maguire was fine as Spiderman, although the simple fact that the producers were ready to replace him with Jake Gyllenhaal in the first sequel shows you that his casting wasn’t inevitable. All the Spiderman villains, meanwhile, are fairly forgettable. (I love Alfred Molina, but any good actor could’ve played Doc Ock.) As for The Hulk? I don’t even want to think what happened to the casting director who came up with the bright idea of casting Josh Lucas as a villain…

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HUGH JACKMAN HAS A GREAT FIRST SCENE as Wolverine. The movie starts with a series of shots of a concentration camp where our view of the scene is obscured by various fences and gates. In that scene, we see a young Magneto try in vain to save his parents from the Nazi gas chambers. Two scenes later, continuing the visual motif of filming mutants through the latticework of fencing, we see Wolverine inside a cage in a roadhouse in northern Alberta. But for a good 20 seconds, we only see his back, and his occasional profile as he takes a swig of hard liquor. We don’t get a full view of him for another 30 seconds or so; all we see is him making swift work of a much larger man, followed by a puff on a cigar. In less than a minute, we know this about Wolverine: he’s dangerous, he has a well-earned persecution complex, he’s a drinker and smoker and he’s a loner. In other words, he’s cool as shit.

I will say this about Wolverine, however: I’m awfully skeptical of the plans to make a whole movie about him. I have a hunch that his sarcasm will wear real thin without the comic foil of Cyclops or the romantic interest of Jean Grey around. We gravitate to the Wolverine character for the same reason we gravitate toward Han Solo in the Star Wars movies; his cynicism is a good counterweight to the sincerity of the other leads. But without Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi around, Han Solo would just seem like a grouch. We like our heroes to have a mix of virtue and skepticism about virtue; without characters like Professor X to push Wolverine towards virtue, Wolverine’s skepticism would simply play as bitterness. Drinking, smoking, homeless, alone–he’d be little different than Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    May 27, 2006 7:34 pm

    Well said. I especially like the passage that may capture your baseline cynacism better than anything you have written yet on the site:

    “Usually the the good guy becomes good because a close family member is killed by a petty criminal (think Batman or Spiderman), which, when you think about it, is not a very convincing reason for a person to become a superhero. In real life, Peter Parker wouldn’t turn to fighting crime if Uncle Ben got shot; he’d turn to Smirnoff and codeine.”

    I do think you’re underselling the original Superman a bit, especially Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor. I think Superman has the feel of being a hero for a different time, too otherworldy, too irredemably good. It will be interesting to see how this summer’s installment copes with that. All that said, the 1978 version was a helluva flick for it’s day that holds up surprisingly well. Even the effects, while not of the quality we expect now, work well enough.

  2. bro permalink
    May 29, 2006 8:14 pm

    i saw x-men friday night, it was absolutely terrific. x-1 was a solid film with potential to be great but somewhat disappointing in the end, x-2 i loved, and x-3 actually manages to blow x-2 out of the water. who knew brett rattner could deliver a film with real emotion, real ideas, and stunning action. there’s no question that x-3 is the best comic book movie ever. i’m looking forward to seeing your opinion. by the way, the next best comic book movies are-

    2. unbreakable
    3. x-2
    4. batman returns
    .
    .
    .
    999. any comic book movie starring tobey maguire

  3. May 29, 2006 11:50 pm

    First off, I’m going to see X-Men 3 in about an hour, and I’m trying to keep my expectations in check, but after reading your praise, bro, I’m having a hard time from giggling like a school girl at a doctor’s exam.

    As for Superman, I didn’t mean to disparage the movie, because I think it is terrific, and Superman II may even be better (if only because it doesn’t include that turn-back-the-time sequence, which is so ridiculous that we may need to invent a new adjective for it). In fact, almost all of the movies I compared X-Men against are very good movies; I used them to show that X-Men is so good that it even beats these terrific movies. X-Men does what all the great superhero movies–Supermans I and II, Batmans I and II come to mind–do, but overcomes their few weaknesses. With the exception of Storm, who is underwritten and underacted to the point of mysteriousness, I can relate to and understand the motivations of every significant character in the X-Men movies, whereas Superman is so virtuous that he exists in a realm of gods and Greek heroes. Interesting, yes; entertaining, yes; credible, unfortunately, no.

  4. Brad Glaser permalink
    May 30, 2006 2:54 pm

    I actually think whether Superman is relatable depends in large part on how you read the Clark Kent portion of his personality. If you believe that this nervous nebbish is all an act to disguise his Superness, then it does little to humanize him. If, as I do, you think that this is a genuine facet of his personality, the kid from another place never quite comfortable in his surroundings when he isn’t saving the world/girl/bus full of school children, he becomes much more relatable. In this reading, the Superman personality and its attendant exploits become less an unattainable ideal and more of an aspiration.

    All that said, I’m not really trying to say Superman is better than X-Men, just that its merits may be underappreciated. I too am now ridiculously excited about seeing X3.

  5. May 30, 2006 11:26 pm

    That’s a fascinating perspective on Superman, not one I’d really considered. But it makes a lot of sense, especially considering the fact that when Jor-El is Superman, he’s almost devoid of personality. He’s not funny, he’s not charming, he’s just polite and quiet, all of which seems to suggest that Kent is a closer approximation of Jor-El’s real character–that Kent is actually a bit embarassed by this out-there alter ego. It’s sort of like Superman is a character that Kent plays, in the way that socially awkward people can become different people on stage.

  6. Brad Glaser permalink
    May 31, 2006 4:40 am

    It was well past my comic book reading years (and I was never much of a DC fan anyway), but it is for this reason I was displeased when they changes Clark’s backstory to make him the star quarterback and to make him more suave and sophisticated. Superman is a little too perfect, as is, but Clark, especially as wonderfully played by Christopher Reeves, was all too human.

    I think your comparison to the socially awkward performer is an apt one. To take it one step further, stutterers (stammerers to your vast British audience) can sing and act without a stutter. I think the Clark/Superman personas may operate similarly.

  7. Brad Glaser permalink
    May 31, 2006 4:47 am

    P.S. I can’t help but reminded of George and Jerry’s debate as to whether Superman possessed a super sense of humor, during which George says (and I’m paraphrasing,) “I don’t remember him cracking any jokes.”

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  1. My Own Worst Critic » X-Men 3: The Last Stand Between Ratner and Singer

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