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X-MEN (2000)
X2:  X-MEN UNITED (2003)

X-Men  Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen. Director: Bryan Singer.  Screenwriters: David Hayter
X-Men was a pretty big hit in the summer of 2000; not being the biggest X-Men fan on the block, I didn’t see it, but the positive buzz finally got me to rent it.   And I found it puzzling.

So puzzling, in fact, that I actually watched it a second time when I had it rented.  And I still found it puzzling, because for such a big hit, there didn’t really seem to be anything “there” in the film.   I’m not talking about substance or meaning—I wouldn’t have expected those anyway.   I’m talking about really interesting stuff on screen.

Well, let me amend that.  If you’re a Wolverine fan, this may strike you as the greatest movie ever made.   As for me, I find Wolverine pretty boring.   He’s a hot-head who can’t control his temper, and that seems to be the limit of his character.   Yeah, there’s lots of stuff about his mysterious past, blah blah blah.   Give me a break.  Who in the Marvel universe doesn’t have a mysterious past?   Mostly he strikes me as a one-note jerk who, by and large, creates most of his own problems by having a hugely inflated opinion of himself.  If I were to pick a favorite X-Man, I’d probably pick Cyclops or the Beast.  Both of them are intelligent and articulate, and have a tragedy to their characters that is not brought about by their own thick-headed self-centeredness.

Be that as it may, it wasn’t the Wolverine-centric nature of X-Men that made it seem hollow to me.   No, it was the fact that this is the first film I think I’ve seen which seems designed to start a franchise--and nothing more.   It doesn’t really stand on its own—it’s looking forward to its own sequels to provide quality and interest.   It’s as if the producers thought, Well, we’ll make a mediocre film and see how it does, and if it’s a hit, we’ll make a good movie next.   The lack of drama or interest in this one really did make it seem like a badge on a jacket.  “Hello, my name is X-MEN, how do you like me?   Enough to listen to my sales pitch?”

This seems to be common now with comic book movies.   The first Spider-Man movie was also a mediocre “let’s introduce the characters, then take a nap” movie, and other Marvel properties (Hulk, Fantastic Four) have had their initial offerings take the same road.   But I think X-Men was the film that started it all.  

Given the previous box-office history of Marvel properties, one can hardly blame the producers for their hesitation.  Before this film, most films based on Marvel characters were pretty bad, and did terribly at the box office.  So, yeah, I can see a bit of hesitation before committing the big bucks.   But for all the other characters, too?

I don’t want to make it sound like the film is a complete waste of time.  As mentioned, if you’re a big Wolverine fan, you’ll probably like it.   Some of the action scenes were pretty good (though the fights got awfully repetitive), and old hands like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are always professional.   Hugh Jackman did a good job as Wolverine, while Famke Janssen turned in good work as Jean Gray (it must stink not to have your own cool character name, but one suspects “Marvel Girl” was way too un-PC to fly).   Rebecca Romijn-Stamos was intriguing, but mostly what she did was glower.   The rest of the mutants were pretty bland—not that they got much screen time to start with, what with Wolverine hogging most of it.

And just to put in my two cents:  I realize the Wolverine-Cyclops-Jean Gray triangle comes from the comics, but it’s boring, distracting, and just doesn’t work.  You’d think if they were going to change stuff around (naked Mystique, several characters younger than they were originally), they’d know what worked and should be kept.   I’m surprised they didn’t go with Wolverine’s bright yellow tights.

I don’t recall any standout scenes that I can recommend to you, other than Toad grabbing a bird with his tongue, or Bruce Davison’s face squeezing through iron bars.   Not what I would call huge, spectacular, “Man, you’ve got to see the part where” show-stoppers, but nicely odd islands in a sea of blandness.

The film also sports one of the dumbest “Got ya” lines I can ever recall, uttered by Storm as she dispatches Toad:  “You know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?  The same thing that happens to everything else.”   Wow.  Just…wow.  Not even a lame pun or anything!   It’s like the writer thought, “I can’t think of a clever quip, but I’m sure one will come to me before filming.”  Then it was the day of the shoot, and he’d forgotten all about it!  Unless toads, are, somehow immune to lightning, but I think that's something I would have heard about.

In sum, an "okay" film, probably best seen with its sequel.  And so we shall….

X2:  X-Men United  Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen. Director:  Bryan Singer. Screenwriters: David Hayter, Michael Dougherty,  Dan Harris.
As mentioned in the previous review, the first X-Men film seemed designed more to generate a sequel than to be a good film on its own.   How well did it accomplish this?   Well, the sequel got made (there’s a third to come out this summer) and, gosharootie, it’s better than the first one.

It still falls a bit short of what a potential X-Men film should be, and it isn’t as good as the animated series from the early 90’s, but it’s not a bad action film in its own right.

Of course, it helped that the first one was a success so that the producers could unclench and breathe a little easier, and put some more money on the screen.   It also helped that bland villains like Toad and Sabretooth were replaced by the more interesting General Stryker and his mutant son Jason.   The conflict between mutant and human is more involving than simply seeing two bands of mutants battle it out; one has the feeling that there is more at stake, and that, instead of being pawns for the victor, humans are taking an active role in the conflict.   It also helps that Brian Cox is a strong, charismatic actor, so that even though he’s the villain, you can empathize with him.

First, the bad stuff:  the Cyclops-Wolverine-Jean Gray triangle is still here, and still uninteresting.  It’s given even more screen time than the last time out, and shows no sign of improving.   Magneto’s I’m-going-to-kill-everyone bit at the end seemed like a tired retread of the first film’s climax.   Speaking of the climax, when a wall of water is descending on our heroes, one wonders why a token effort wasn’t made to involve the mutant who has a super-freezing ability.

Minor nit-picks would involve the very unsubtle attempts to equate mutants with gays (“Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”), some ill-thought-out motivation (Iceman’s brother), and what’s either the thirstiest cat in the world or a mother who’s drinking fish juice.   I also think the good guys tend to trust Magneto a little too readily, considering the fact that he tried to kill them all in the last film.  You might think they’d keep a sharp eye on him; instead they go all Super Friends.

Nevertheless, the good stuff outweighs the bad this time around, and there aren’t any really boring slow parts (other than the Triangle stuff).   Alan Cumming is a very good Nightcrawler, and it’s cool to see Colossus in action.   The action scenes are plentiful and very well paced.  Magneto’s escape from his all-plastic prison is particularly memorable. 

Am I looking forward to the third?  Not really, and that’s not just because Bryan Singer isn’t returning.  Directors and writers for these sorts of movies aren’t all that important.   The problem is that they’re going to introduce more and more characters (Angel and Beast are slated, for example), but I bet they’re still going to focus on Wolverine.  As in the first film, Wolverine gets tons of screentime here.  So I’m sure there’ll be another dull Wolverine fight, like the one here with the colorless Lady Deathstrike.  (Why don’t they just do what they obviously want to do and make a solo movie for him?   Sheesh.)   As noted, it still doesn’t seem like they’re trying to reach the potential they have with the Marvel mutant universe.  With the wide variety of mutants available, they ought to be able to do much more than people slamming each other into walls and such.   Still, they've found a successful formula, and when has Hollywood ever deviated from a successful formula?   Before the fifth or sixth sequel, that is, when the grosses start going down.

Still, this is an enjoyable enough movie and I don’t want to end on a downward punch.  As an action movie it succeeds quite well—so well, in fact, that there’s really not a lot to say about it.  Like a well-oiled theme-park ride, it’s exciting while you’re riding it and may provide a couple of memories, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that.