“We’re not what you think………not all of us”
Against all odds, it worked; that just about sums up how most of us feel about the first, and long time coming, major film adaptation of a Marvel comic book property. Having been ten years since its release, the film’s strengths and weaknesses have been discussed to death and the only reason I will dredge any of them up again is to provide some positive solutions.
Looking back on the film, the biggest compliment I can give the filmmakers is that they were able to make an X-Men movie on a piddling budget of $75 million. That won’t even buy you a summer comedy blockbuster these days (see ‘Year One’). You could pitch a completely different film, on a more epic scale, that may serve as a better X-Men part 1; one where you see multiple mutants fighting on screen every ten minutes, with a team line-up including Beast or Gambit, or where Magneto is powerful enough to hijack nuclear warheads from a submarine and hurl them right back at Washington. I hope come the inevitable reboot that we get exactly that kind of picture. But right now I cannot suggest such things would have improved Bryan Singer’s film when he was able to make a good film out of a limited budget and rushed production schedule.
The basic spine of the film is the perfect introduction to the X-Men world and, with a little push in certain areas, it could have avoided the TV pilot mentality which brings it below the quality level of its immediate sequel. Watching the movie you feel that introducing the world, the characters, and sowing the seeds of plot lines that were intended to be developed in future films was the primary focus. There is nothing wrong with having the intention to make multiple films but each one must stand on its own legs. Marvel movies such as ‘Spider-man’ and ‘Iron Man’ don’t suffer from this problem because their primary goal is to tell a singular story with an ending that is satisfying enough that the audience is not obligated to see the second film. Of course having to only deal with one character makes this considerably easier. But then again, X-Men wisely did the same thing by putting the focus solely on Logan and Rogue, and how their lives are irrevocably changed by being dragged into the conflict between homosapiens and homosuperior.
But the real conflict is not between two races, but between two men divided by totally separate ideologies and the pawns they use to achieve their goals. Perhaps you don’t believe that Professor Xavier is anything other than the noble and gentle leader of the X-Men but that hardly makes for the most interesting of characters. Both Singer and Brett Ratner, I believe, understood that a fight to live in a world free of intolerance and hatred is still a fight and requires tough decisions to be made. Xavier, brilliant man as he is, cannot be a selfless individual who always make the right and inarguable choice. The chess scene at the end of the film between him and Magneto clearly suggests that they are both playing the same game, but from different sides of the board. Logan and Rogue are just the pieces that were moved around. That is what the first X-Men film is really about.
I feel the scene which introduces them at the senate hearing could have emphasized this a lot more. In a sequence which was deleted from the film, Jean Grey’s lecture on mutation and subsequent confrontation with Senator Kelly ends with her losing control of her powers, using her telekinetic powers to try and take his confidential document of unidentified mutant files. Without that scene it isn’t clear for the uninitiated until later that Jean is a mutant herself but having her exposed on the senate floor to people who thought she was just a homosapien campaigner would have left a much stronger impression. Jean’s credibility, being a mutant defending mutants, is destroyed. Kelly’s position on the threat they pose is strengthened and both Xavier and Magneto, watching it happen, realize this is the turning point. That moment exists in the film where Magneto leaves the hearing amid the cheers of mutant haters, ready to go to work and Xavier follows him, pleading with his old friend not to go down this path. The battle they have been dreading to fight but inevitably preparing for is about to begin.
The only element missing is an actual physical confrontation between the two characters but I cannot really complain about that. The filmmakers were drive into a corner by the fact that Xavier is too powerful to be brought into the climax of the film, given that he can simply control the minds of Magneto’s Brotherhood and end most of the conflict right there. Still, it would just be dramatically satisfying to run the whole gamut of their relationship and bring it to its logical conclusion; two friends who started with the best of intentions, driven by the need to protect their own kind, and being forced by to kill each other because neither is able to back down from their point of view.
Looking at what we get in the film, there is a certain pathos to seeing Xavier’s students (his children if you like) going into battle against the odds and without his protection but determined to fight and die for his beliefs. Which brings us nicely to Cyclops and Storm; woefully underdeveloped characters in a sea of otherwise perfectly nailed ones. Looking back, the reasons are obvious. Cyclops is supposed to be the leader of the X-Men but his only function in the film is to create a love triangle between Jean, Logan and himself. Storm just does not contribute in any way.
I think what bugs me about Cyclops is the scene where he confronts Logan about Jean. Logan asks if Cyclops is going to tell him to stay away from her. Cyclops, quite rightly, says that because she is his girl, he doesn’t have to…and then tells Logan to stay away from her anyway. It’s probably meant to be a humorous moment but it really hurts the character. I can understand why, for most of the film, we don’t see Cyclops in a leadership role as Xavier fulfills it and the X-Men have not yet been into battle. Once Xavier is injured in the third act, Cyclops steps up to the role but still doesn’t actually get to kick any ass. Once the team enters Liberty Island, Logan takes on Mystique and Toad manages to get the drop on the other three by himself. Cyclops’ only contribution to the action is to get kicked across the room and zap some slime from Jean’s face. Instead of Storm facing off against Toad I would have much preferred to see Cyclops unleashed in a fury of optic blasts determined to nail the scum that would dare to hurt the one he loves.
Most of my problems with Storm stems from the fact that the role was cast too young. I’ve always seen Storm as the wisdom, experience and strength of the actual team; the one who never shows weakness. In the film, she is just a blank space. And rather than showing just physical strength, her defining scene could have been the one she shares with the dying and recently mutated Senator Kelly. Given the confrontation she shared with him near the start of the film, Jean deliberately leaves Kelly to his fate, hinting at that malicious side that lies beneath the surface, waiting to be unleashed as the Phoenix in future films. It is Storm who would have the courage to look the living embodiment of bigotry in the eye and be at his side as he endures the living nightmare Magneto has inflicted on him. She chooses to help him, rather than being asked to.
The final element to address is the final five minutes of the film, which is what really cements that TV pilot feeling you leave the movie with. Even though Magneto’s plan is foiled, Mystique escapes to impersonate Senator Kelly and literally walks off the screen into film two while the issue of the Mutant Registration Act is relegated to the background as if it were never an important plot point when all it required as a stronger end scene to make it work; a final confrontation at the senate where the senator publicly retracts his stance. And rather than the X-Men finding out that Kelly is Mystique by pausing the television, Jean literally looks into the senator’s eyes and realizes what is really going on. A terrorist mutant is now in a major position of power and there is nothing the X-Men can do about it.
But while I may have issue with the details, the basic brush strokes of the film lead so brilliantly into the second film and X2 was the biggest wet dream a fan could ask for. But now isn’t the time to discuss that. Next week I will be looking at a film which had a more problems, for me, than any X-Men movie; 'Blade II'. See you next week.