How Days Of Future Past Remade The X-Men Series

“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”

Contains spoilers for X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Back in the late nineties, the superhero genre was struggling to survive on the big screen. Superman, Batman and Howard the Duck had all tried their luck in Hollywood, but while some went on to become cult classics with dedicated followings the majority were consigned to an eternity of dusty bargain bins and late night syndication. The Crow, The Rocketeer and The Mask made small advances, but they did so as horrors, period adventures and slap-stick comedies rather than straight superhero movies.

Blade too found an audience, and after a lull in TV movies re-established Marvel as a comic book studio with cinematic ambitions. It wasn’t until X-Men landed on the scene in 2000 that they gained any real traction, however, and with that one movie they defined what not just a Marvel movie but comic book adaptations in general were to be: spectacular, yes, but also funny, grounded and relatable. Mainstream cinema had mutated, changed irreversibly for the foreseeable future; the X-Men were superheroes and proud.

X-Men saw Professor X and Magneto resume their conflict from the comics, as analogues of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively. It opened during World War II, with a young Erik Lehnsherr taking out his frustrations on the gate of a concentration camp, before cutting to Mississippi where 17-year old Rogue accidentally put her boyfriend into a coma. Rogue (alongside Logan, a cage fighter calls himself Wolverine who she met in Alberta) join Charles Xavier’s X-Men, and fight alongside Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm when Magneto threatens an international summit.

X-Men

For more than a decade the genre flourished, as X-Men found favour at the box office and soon opened the floodgates to its superhero kin. Thanks to Bryan Singer superhero movies would cast real actors, explore current themes and continue to develop the use of special effects in cinema. Before long Marvel had stopped releasing films and started launching franchises; and the likes of Spider-man, Daredevil and Hulk were soon breaking box office records for rival studios Sony, 20th Century Fox and Universal.

Singer, however, stayed ahead of the game, and in 2003 released what was arguably (up until that point, at least) the greatest superhero movie of all time. X2 made X-Men look like test footage, upping the ante with a larger cast, considerably increased budget and thematic complexity that had never before been seen in the genre. New mutant Nightcrawler brought religion into the mix, while Iceman came out (as a mutant) to his parents and anti-mutant crusader William Stryker used his own son’s gifts to commit genocide — a sort of genetic cleansing.

X2 still holds up to this day, largely thanks to Singer’s direction. Although the focus is on Wolverine, a mutant with the ability to heal himself, and his search for answers pertaining to the adamantium plating that was previously applied to his skeleton, almost every member of the supporting cast gets something interesting to work with. Weatherwoman Storm is struggling to have faith, shape-shifter Mystique doesn’t want to hide anymore and telepath Jean Grey is finding it increasingly difficult to control her abilities. The latter sacrifices herself to save her friends, but a final sequence suggests that she is about to be reborn as Phoenix, as in the comics.

X2

Singer has always been good at endings, and X2 boasted one of the most exciting yet. Before post-credits stingers became a thing and each superhero movie insisted in teasing the next in line, X2 invoked one of the most celebrated storylines in comic book history: X-Men‘s Dark Phoenix Saga. With Wolverine having found his answers at Alkali Lake it seemed that it was finally time to shift the focus to a different character. Wolverine would still feature heavily given his feelings for Jean, but if it was to stay true to the story the sequel would also require beefed up roles for Professor X, the previously underused Cyclops and the as yet unintroduced Beast (discounting Hank McCoy’s brief television appearance in X2 of course).

It was not to be, sadly, as Singer then left the series to reboot Superman over at Warner Bros. A number of directors flirted with X-Men 3, including Matthew Vaughn, before Brett Ratner took over the reins. Unsatisfied with merely concluding the Phoenix storyline set up in the previous film, Ratner also attempted to adapt Gifted, another much-loved miniseries created this time by Joss Whedon and introducing for the first time a mutant cure. The results were famously disastrous, as the story — a plot-driven and disappointingly shallow affair starring Vinnie Jones as The Juggernaut, Bitch — called for the deaths of about half the cast and left much of the rest depowered by the end of the film.

There were positives, though they were admittedly few and far between. The introduction of Angel was surprisingly effective — we meet him in the bathroom, trying to file down his wings so that his anti-mutant parents wont notice — but he never felt like an integral part of the story. Similarly, the introduction of Kelsey Grammar as Beast and Ellen Page as Shadowcat were undeniably astute choices, and both did excellent work throughout the movie. And while Professor X and Cyclops may have met with ignoble ends Jean Grey and Mystique got rather more fitting send offs: the former was murdered by a distraught Wolverine while the latter was de-powered by a guard and quickly abandoned by Magneto.

X-Men The Last Stand

Things only got worse when instead of continuing the story (with a cast as high-quality as Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Halle Berry they were beginning to get quite expensive) 20th Century Fox announced a series of prequel spin-offs centring on Wolverine and Magneto. Only the former ever actually made it into cinemas, and it became immediately apparent why — Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine continued to sully the franchise’s once good name. Just as X-Men: The Last Stand had wasted a number of characters, X-Men Origins: Wolverine introduced a number of fan favourites only to leave them stranded in the past or butchered beyond recognition. Gambit, though ably played by Taylor Kitsch, was never to be heard from again, while Deadpool, a comedic character with incredible potential, was reimagined as a mute henchman.

In 2o11, 20th Century Fox released another prequel, this time centring on the formation of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters. Taking its subtitle from the comics, First Class saw Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) form an uneasy alliance against Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club. Having previously turned down The Last Stand, Matthew Vaughn took the reins for First Class, introducing a new team of X-Men that included Havok, Banshee, Mystique and Beast. Though ostensibly a prequel, Vaughn’s film also took a few liberties with continuity, like including a young Beast (remember: Hank’s still human as of X2) and having Charles meet Xavier before they meet for the first time in X-Men Origins, and before they meet for the first time again in the original X-Men.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was loathed by fans and mocked by critics, and to all intents and purposes it was ultimately dropped from canon by the studio. That didn’t stop Fox from pursuing a second Wolverine spin-off, however, and after intriguing talks with Darren Aranofsky broke down James Mangold signed on as director. Nobody was expecting a straight sequel from Hood’s film, but what was truly surprising was that The Wolverine was actually set after the events of The Last Stand, with Logan still haunted by the spectre of Jean Grey. Unexpectedly, The Wolverine was also quite good, and though it had little to do with the other films it took the time to explore Logan in more depth than ever before. With post-credit stingers now in vogue, it also teased X-Men: Days Of Future Past by reintroducing Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto, together for the first time in over five years.

The Wolverine

Stewart and McKellen weren’t the only original cast members to be returning for the film, which was tasked with acting both as a sequel to X-Men: First Class and X-Men: The Last Stand. Based on the time-travelling storyline from the comics, Days Of Future Past would see both ensembles united for one cross-generational adventure. X1 and 2 director Bryan Singer was also set to return, and many expected him to use the film as an opportunity to erase the subsequent instalments from existence, or simply to ignore them all together as he had once done in Superman Returns. But could Singer do it? Could he replicate the success of X2 while juggling two separate casts and simultaneously trying to erase the last five years from history? Or were the X-Men destined to die out; outmoded, outdated and out-evolved by The Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe?

The success of X-Men: Days Of Future Past comes from Singer’s obvious love for the franchise. This is not a vein attempt to reassert his dominance nor is it an attempt to dismiss the work of others, it is simply the continuation of a saga that is clearly close to his heart. The film opens with a long overdue and much missed Patrick Stewart voiceover, in which he muses about whether the future is truly set or whether it can still be changed. Singer knows the answer, and having — along with everyone else — witnessed his characters abused at the hands of Brett Ratner uses the opportunity to give them the send off they deserve. Sentinals have wiped out most of mutant-kind, but thanks to Shadowcat’s time-travel abilities the X-Men have managed to survive. Understandably unhappy with the status quo, however, Professor X and Magneto conspire to send Wolverine back in time to prevent their future from ever having happened.

Though not without its moments, X-Men: First Class suffered for its distance from the original series. Vaughn had for the most part been left with secondary and tertiary characters with which make up his team, and couldn’t take any real risks without upsetting the fans and jeopardising its place within the established canon. Not only does X-Men: Days Of Future Past inextricably link the two timelines, but having finally given the future team the send-off they deserve Singer could persevere with the prequel and rewrite history as he saw fit. In this respect X-Men: Days Of Future Past is in a similar position to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, only rather than threatening a fan culture that spanned ten movies, four television series and countless novels and comics Singer’s film would only erase five films, three of which had already been largely dismissed.

This rather unique situation had an unexpected side-effect. By establishing a new timeline Singer didn’t negate the other movies but validate them. By taking away their responsibility to uphold the main story, audiences could no longer criticise them for wasting characters or spoiling stories. They could be re-evaluated, assessed differently, and maybe even accepted as unremarkable movies that nevertheless had their place in the franchise. Singer facilitates this approach by featuring flashbacks not just to his earlier movies but to every film in the series. He also incorporates Ellen Page and Kelsey Grammar from Last Stand (not to mention the Sentinals first glimpsed in its Danger Room scene), and nods to X-Men Origins: Wolverine by giving the character bone claws in the past. What’s more, the ending arguably has more impact if you’ve seen The Wolverine.

Another of the film’s many successes is the way it shifts focus from Wolverine to the rest of the young team. Once in the past, Logan takes on something of a supporting role, sent back with a mission that is widely ignored by everyone he puts it to. Though he succeeds in convincing Charles and Hank to suit up, their plan to free Erik and reason with Mystique backfires when the former instead tries to kill the latter. It’s a shocking scene, and for the first time in the series puts Mystique front and centre. McAvoy and Fassbender do terrific work, once again acting as contrasts to Stewart and McKellen, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Raven who everyone will be talking about afterwards. In the original trilogy she was little more than Magneto’s right hand man, in X-Men: First Class she was Charles’ pet and Erik’s prize, but here she’s a force of change in her own right.

Having spent most of the movie trying to kill Bolivar Trask (an assassination which will directly lead to the events seen in the future section of the film), Mystique decides to spare him at the behest of Charles. No longer the killer that she was once destined to become, Mystique suddenly has a new fate to look forward to. She doesn’t stop there however, shooting Magneto in the neck with a plastic bullet and dooming him to a life in prison. The effect this is likely to have on the timeline is incalculable, as not only does it side Mystique with the X-Men rather than the Brotherhood of Mutants but it also takes Magneto out of action long before he can threaten the world in X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. She also changes Wolverine’s fate, rescuing him from William Stryker’s Weapon X programme and potentially saving him from ever having adamantium fused to his bones.

Ending the film here would have been impressive enough, but rather than finishing with temporal upheaval Singer instead chooses to depart on a far sweeter note. Waking in a new future, having succeeded in saving the world from Trask and his Sentinal programme, Logan finds that everything has changed. At this point Wolverine is the only character who knows the full story — knows that he was betrayed by his best friend, experimented on by the government and responsible for the death of Jean Grey — awakens to find most of that suffering erased from history. It’s a moment of incredible power and beauty, and continues to build as he sees Rogue, Iceman, Shadowcat, Storm, Jean, Cyclops and Charles all alive and well.

With X-Men: Apocalypse and an untitled The Wolverine sequel already announced, it’s clear that this isn’t the last we’ll see of the X-Men. Perhaps we’ll also get an X-Men 4, or a spin-off centering on Quicksilver, Gambit, Deadpool, Angel, Blink, Bishop or indeed any of the other characters under-served by the extant series. (Having written a small caveat into his latest film — revealing that time is like a current that has a way of re-establishing itself — he can really have his cake and eating it.) Right now, however, it’s important to take stock and to appreciate the magnitude of Singer’s achievement. Evolution has once again leapt forward; following Marvel’s The Avengers it seems that we have moved into a new age of superhero movies, and with X-Men: Days Of Future Past Fox has shown that they are still in the game. As I said in my review: Singer hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.

Films Of Future Past: Putting The X-Men Movies In Order

With The Wolverine currently in theatres, X-Men: Days Of Future Past on its way, and perhaps even an X-Force adaptation in the works, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men series doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Comprising an original trilogy, a prequel and two Wolverine-centric spin-offs, however, it’s perhaps easy to forget where we currently stand.

I’ve attempted to put the existing X-Men films in order, highlighting the key elements of each and working out exactly how they tie into the other movies. As such, this article contains spoilers for the extant franchise, and potential spoilers for the upcoming Days Of Future Past.

Without further ado: here’s the story so far.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

In Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr meet for the first time while trying to stop Sebastian Shaw from starting World War III. The film is set in 1962, and introduces Mystique, Dr. Hank McCoy and Moira MacTaggert. The film also features Xavier’s first contact with Logan, though it is so brief that it doesn’t register with either of them.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins Wolverine movie image Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber

This film actually begins in 1845, with the activation of Logan’s mutation. It tracks him through the American Civil War, both World Wars and the Vietnam War before starting with the story proper in 1981. Logan is betrayed by his closest friend, Victor “Sabretooth” Creed, and is approached by William Stryker, a shady figure who offers to help Logan exact revenge. Indestructible adamantiam is bonded with Logan’s skeleton, but the newly christened Wolverine winds up fighting Stryder’s Weapon X instead. The film also features Gambit and a young Scott Summers, while the closing scene sees Wolverine meet Professor Xavier once more. In a mid-credits sting, it is suggested that he has travelled to Japan.

X-Men

X-Men

Opening with a young Lehnsherr activating his mutant abilities in a concentration camp somewhere in Nazi-occupied Poland (essentially the same shot that introduces the character in First Class) , Bryan Singer’s X-Men skirts the events of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and sees an amnesic Logan looking for answers. He meets Rogue  in Canada, and together they become affiliated with the X-Men. While trying to stop Lehnsherr’s Magneto from artificially mutating various world leaders, Wolverine develops feelings for Jean Grey and is told that Alkali Lake may hold the answers he seeks. At this point the team includes Logan, Grey, Summers and Ororo “Storm” Monroe.

X2

X2

Having found little of use at Alkali Lake, Logan returns to the school to look after the students while the X-Men try to locate a teleporter who tried and failed to assassinate the President. Jean Grey and Storm travel to Boston to apprehend Nightcrawler, while Scott and Professor X visit Magneto in prison to see if he had any part in the plot. Wolverine’s old enemy William Stryker attacks the school while they’re away, forcing Logan to flee with the remaining students. They rendezvous with Jean and Storm, along with an escaped Magneto and his accomplice Mystique, and lead an assault on Alkali Lake where Stryker has imprisoned Scott and the Professor. Wolverine gets his answers, flashing back to the events of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but loses Jean, who sacrifices herself to save her friends.

X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men The Last Stand

Having left the franchise to make Superman Returns, Singer was replaced first by Matthew Vaughn and then by Brett Ratner. Picking up where the previous film left off, Logan and Scott are mourning the loss of  Jean Grey. In her place Rogue, Iceman , Shadowcat and Colossus have become fully fledged members of the X-Men, training in the Danger Room against Sentinels, and Dr. Hank McCoy has (re)joined the team. Grey, however, returns from the dead as The Phoenix, an all-powerful alternate personality that Xavier has been suppressing since they met. She kills Scott and Xavier, before joining sides with Magneto, leaving Logan with no choice but to kill her. The government, meanwhile, has been working on a mutant cure, and by the end of the film Rogue, Mystique and Magneto have been de-powered, though a post credits scene suggests that the cure’s effects are only temporary. Another scene sees Xavier awake in the body of another, nursed by Moira MacTaggert.

The Wolverine

Wolverine

Following the death of Jean Grey, Logan has taken a vow of pacifism and exiled himself in an uninhabited part of the Yukon. Flashbacks to the Second World War show him saving the life of a Japanese soldier (a period of history also shown in X-Men Origins) who offers up his sword as thank you. His penance is cut short when an employee of the aged soldier invites him out to Japan, where he attempts to steal Wolverine’s healing abilities. Logan survives, falling in love with the soldier’s granddaughter and finally making peace with Jean’s death, but loses his adamantium claws (although the bones regenerate) in a battle with the Silver Samurai. Two years after his return to America, he is accosted by a revived Professor X and a re-powered Magneto, who warn him of a lurking danger and invite him to join their cause.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Days Of Future Past

Although not due for release until May of next year, there are a number of things that can be gleaned about the upcoming movie. Based on one of the most popular story arcs in the X-Men comic book series, Days Of Future Past is envisioned as the perfect opportunity to unite the two timelines as represented by X-Men: First Class and original trilogy; as such it will essentially be a continuation of both. The film will pick up from The Wolverine, with the X-Men facing the aforementioned threat, and will incorporate both the Sentinels and Ellen Page’s Shadowcat from X-Men: The Last Stand. With the odds stacked against them, The X-Men must send Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to try and alter the timeline.

While for the most part the films in the series fit together nicely (at least, they can be put in something roughly resembling chronological order), there are a number of inconsistencies that have sprung up along the way. Nicolas Hoult’s Hank McCoy becomes Beast in First Class, is shown in human form in X2, and then appears again as Beast (this time played by Kelsey Grammar) in The Last Stand. Similarly, Emma Frost is shown as younger in X-Men Origins than she is in First Class, and — as you’ve seen — Wolverine has met Professor X for the first time on at least three occasions.

It is believed that as well as unite the disparate elements of the X-Men franchise, Singer is looking to undo a number of the contradictory threads as introduced by Ratner and Gavin Hood. The question is, however, can he right the canon without also retconning the more successful movies. X-Men and X2 are two of the finest superhero movies yet released, while The Wolverine was far stronger than anyone had any right to expect. Heck, even X-Men: First Class had its moments. It would be real a shame if Days Of Future Past undermined those too.

For now at least, that’s how the X-Men movie franchise stands.

The Wolverine (2013)

The WolverineFollowing the X-Men’s last stand in San Francisco, which saw him sacrifice the life of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in order to save the world from The Phoenix, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living in exile on the outskirts of a small Yukon town. He is sought out by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a clairvoyant who wishes to take him to Japan so that her employer — an ex-soldier Wolverine saved during the nuclear attack on Nagasaki — can repay his debt. Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) has the power to make Logan mortal, but his motivations are called into question when Logan discovers a plot for power involving toxicologist Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and archer Harada (Will Yun Lee).

It’s easy to forget that X-Men used to be a franchise worth getting excited about. A terrible sequel, and even worse spin-off and a pretty mediocre prequel conspired to undo Bryan Singer’s good work on the first two movies. With one of my biggest issues with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class being that it featured too much Hugh Jackman, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t expecting The Wolverine to be the film to put the series back on track.

Imagine my surprise, then, when within  minutes I was entirely on board with James Mangold’s far-flung sequel to Brett Ratner’s utterly woeful X-Men: The Last Stand. Tipping its hat to the original trilogy with a bedside cameo from Famke Janssen, the film quickly pays its dues — at least to  the extent that the previous few films deserve — before moving swiftly into new territory. Now with six appearances to his name, Wolverine ran a real risk of running out of fuel, yet Jackman somehow manages to breathe new life into the character of Logan — helped rather counter-intuitively by the script’s obsession with taking it away.

Featuring the smallest number of mutants of any film in the franchise — just Jackman’s healer, Fukushima’s clairvoyant and Khodchenkova’s viper — The Wolverine distances itself from the extant mythology its burdensome ensemble. The move to Japan only helps, giving the film a distinct look  that is visually very interesting and thematically a welcome change from the franchise’s default moral about self- and societal acceptance. It also adds to the sense of threat — you really fear for Mariko (and, when Wolverine’s made mortal, Logan too), giving the film stakes it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

The X-Men franchise  has always walked a fine line between The Avengers‘ comic-book pride and The Dark Knight trilogy’s denial. Realistic in its own way (the better films have possibly the strongest internal logic of the lot), the series has never been afraid of the occasional suspension of disbelief. Although injured, his adamantium skeleton renders Wolverine’s injuries flesh wounds at worst, and second act set piece atop a speeding train is as barmy as it is brilliant.  Even when the Iron Man-esque Silver Samurai makes an appearance towards the end, the battle leaves scars and retains an unexpected weight throughout.

A far better movie than anyone could have expected it to be, The Wolverine is a return to form for the franchise which has been struggling to find its feet since Singer left after X2. Thrilling, muscular and surprisingly thoughtful when it wants to be, this is a firm reminder that Marvel still has competition in the superhero arena. This is further supported by an air-punching mid-credits stinger, which teases next year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past to triumphant effect.

4-Stars

If 2011 Were A Movie…

In recent years we have seen Hollywood tap a variety of different resources in its ongoing search for new ideas. Stopping just short of sticking its hand down the side of the sofa and rummaging for loose inspiration, Tinseltown has instead chosen to adapt everything from the usual books, video games and television shows, to websites, theme park rides and – I still can’t quite believe it –  even board games. So, why not an entire year?

If 2011 were a movie, aside from reflecting such recent events as The Royal Wedding, the London riots, the Eurozone crisis and those pandas arriving at Edinburgh zoo, it would also have to reflect the trends and tendencies prevalent in the films it has seen released during its tenure. As such, it would most likely be a remake of a foreign language prequel, a motion-capture throwback and a steamy tale of friends with benefits, with no strings attached.

If 2011 were a movie it would star Michael Fassbender as a man haunted by an unsuppressable Irish accent, Ryan Gosling as someone who can wear clothes really well, and Natalie Portman in the midst of what must amount to the most productive pregnancy ever. Stellan Skarsgård would play a man with a hidden agenda, Felicity Jones’ character would ultimately win your heart and Justin Timberlake would appear as a surprisingly capable actor.

If 2011 were a movie it would be set in Rio de Janeiro, where endangered birds come to mate, the fast are as fun as they are furious, and vampires routinely honeymoon.  At least, that is, until Michael Bay crashes a Transformer into it, forcing our heroes to set sale, on stranger tides, in search of the secret of the unicorn. On a Zeppelin. It would see McLovin slay some vampires, James Bond team up with Indiana Jones, and Queen Amidala wooed by a bunch of carrots and a period mix.

If 2011 were a movie it would be called 2011: The Movie – Part II Of The Rise Of The Planet of The Apes Of The Moon 3D (in 4romascope). It would have more punctuation than characters, more dimensions than punctuation, and in all likelihood be prefixed with Green. It would be a kid’s film by Martin Scorsese, a superhero movie by Michael Gondry, a live action movie by Brad Bird and an animated movie by Steven Spielberg.

If 2011 were a movie it wouldn’t be as good as the book, the original or the trailer for Sucker Punch made it out to be. It would miscast Liam Neeson, boast too much Nicolas Cage, and at some point feature a fat character shaving his head and shitting into her dress. Worst of all, however, New Year’s Eve would kill the finale. And it would be inexplicably steampunk.

More importantly, however, if 2011 were a movie I would pay to see it. I would marvel at its melancholy, gasp at its production values and laugh unabashedly at its failure to kill Bono. It would be surprisingly heartfelt for a summer blockbuster, unexpectedly jaw-dropping for a low budget Norwegian flick, as funny as the TV show, and a fitting conclusion to a much loved franchise.

If 2011 were a movie, 2012 would have a lot to live up to.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Desperate to avenge his mother by killing the man responsible for her death, Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) travels the globe dispatching the Nazis who had served under Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) in the concentration camps of his youth. In England, meanwhile, Oxford graduate Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is recruited by the CIA to help avert a nuclear war. Travelling to America with operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and his childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier soon encounters Lehnsherr and Shaw, founding the X-Men with the former after saving his life in the field. Where Charles teaches his new charges tolerance and humility, however, Eric believes that they shouldn’t have to hide themselves from humanity, that they are the next stage in human evolution and should take their rightful place in the natural hierarchy. When events result in a stand-off between the U.S. and Russian naval fleets, our small group of mutant heroes must put their differences aside if they are to defeat Shaw and avert war.

I must admit to taking my seat in the auditorium with a small degree of trepidation, what with all the early chatter regarding retcons and cameos, I feared a film which jeopardised established cannon in the blind pursuit of narrative freedom; the excellence of the first two instalments (and the adequacy of the third) being somehow undermined by a nifty new beginning where Charles Xavier says “groovy” and the sun inexplicably rotates the Earth. I needn’t have worried, however, with X-Men: First Class proving far less revisionist than director Matthew Vaughn might have had you believe. While he may take a few liberties with the extant franchise, they are – and this is where X-Men Origins: Wolverine went catastrophically wrong – for the good of the story.

Having successfully deconstructed the superhero genre with Kick-Ass, it is interesting to see how Vaughn handles his superpowers. Reconstructing the opening scene from Bryan Singer’s first movie, Vaughn and screenwriter extraordinaire Jane Goldman have endeavoured to tell an X-Men origins story of their own, albeit one that beautifully marries the 1960s setting with an expanding array of new and returning mutants, successfully imbuing the story with a freshness not felt since we were last introduced to Professor X and his merry band of mutants. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender make the characters their own – no mean feat considering the talent which preceded (or is it superseded?) them – while Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, January Jones’ Emma Frost and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert provide delightful additions to the franchise.

Elsewhere, however, the newcomers are less impressive. While the original X-film was criticised for feeling like a teaser for adventures to come on behalf of its slim cast, it at least found the time to flesh out its ensemble (OK, maybe not Toad). First Class, on the other hand, feels overcrowded, with many mutants given little to do but change sides and fill out the two organisations – I for one don’t remember hearing Álex González’s Riptide speak once. With the most recognisable mutants still in nappies at this point, the buck falls to an array of dopplegangers and less-than-inspiring B-mutants to take their place. While Banshee, Havoc and Darwin have their moments, Azazel never escapes Nightcrawler’s shadow and Angel Salvadore treads foolishness as the wasp-like go-go girl with explosive vomit.

Other elements that don’t quite work are the split screen training montages (the entire third act rests on Beast having the most productive week ever), the plotting inconsistencies (Beast has created an antidote to his mutation that he doesn’t believe will affect his mutation, quite despite the fact that it is his abnormally prehensile feet that give him his abilities) and the relationship between Xavier and Raven. While this latter issue may resolve itself as they mature into a more organic friendship by movie’s end, the characters’ childhood introductions don’t quite sit right, whether due to scripting issues or the child actors themselves. It is a small gripe, but one that haunts the film’s opening act nonetheless.

First Class is a return to form, however, with the renewed focus on characters and a welcome prioritisation of substance over style (poor special effects can be forgiven, an over-reliance on set pieces cannot) acting as a reminder of how figuratively rich the X-series can be. In tying Nazi occupation and the Cuban missile crisis to a high octane superhero tale of world domination, Goldman has once again delivered a wholly fulfilling script with some well observed inter-character dialogue. That said, although First Class has commendable aspirations, the heavy-handedness with which the name-checking of literary behemoths Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde is dealt serves only to illustrate how derivative the medium can be; riffing off existing emotional truths rather than exploring its own. Now five movies in, the core messages of self-actualisation and societal acceptance – while timeless – are beginning to echo previous instalments. Far from the vacuousess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, at least it stands for something.

All in all, X-Men: First Class heralds an exciting new dawn for a franchise steeped in qualitative discrepancy. While some of the plot points might creak as the writers attempt to retrofit the narrative to the original trilogy, and although a few of the characters may fall by the wayside, there is enough wit, innovation and genuine exhilaration to justify a new franchise, even if one less radical than the overhaul befalling Star Trek. That this is largely down to Fassbender and McAvoy – although Lehnsherr may suffer a somewhat severe case of accent ambiguity and Xavier’s preoccupation with his hair might wear a little thin (ahem) – is a reflection not only of the filmmakers’ combined talents, but the quality of the source material from which they draw.

 

FILM NEWS: X-Men: First Class trailer is all kick and no ass

The first trailer for Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is live, and it has left me a maelstrom of mixed feelings.

Before I get my mind-dump on, I’m going to do a little scene setting for those of you who don’t know your X-Men from your Brotherhood. First Class takes place before The Statue of Liberty, before Alkali Lake and, crucially, before Brett Ratner. It is largely a prequel, though through some toying with continuity it is also a quasi-reboot; plucking Hank McCoy and Emma Frost from later movies for Vaughn’s own devices. Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film centres on the decaying friendship of Charles Xavier (who can manipulate minds) and Eric Lensherr (who can manipulate metal) as well as the formation of the titular X-Men.

While it is of course impossible to judge a feature film by its two minute trailer, I am going to do so anyway. When X-Men: Last Stand wasted a perfectly good Juggernaut on Vinnie Jones, proceeded to wipe half of its cast of superpowers and ultimately buckled under the franchise’s accumulative star power (Halle Berry, get your priorities right!), it was quickly evident that we had reached a clear dead end. With each new instalment granting Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine – one of the least interesting superheroes in the source comics – more and more screentime, the inevitable happened and the character was spun-off with an unwieldy X-Men Origins prefix to diabolical effect. Having outshone the majority of superpowered superheroes with his glorious Kick-Ass, the hiring of Vaughn heralded the end of lack-luster adaptations and a return to form for the X-Franchise.

The trailer for X-Men: First Class is an interestingly mixed bag, while the plot looks intriguingly stripped down and the focus correctly recentred on Professor X and Magneto –  both of whom had been done a complete disservice by trilogy’s end – the new cast fail to invoke such inspiration as the ensemble of Patrick Stewart et al. These are the characters we love but not as we know them, the darker tone suggesting that this franchise has been disappointingly Nolanised like just about every other property going.  The inclusion of Beast appears to play with continuity unnecessarily, there is a wealth of characters at Vaughn’s disposal and it is a shame we must distance ourselves from another incarnation – however laughable – in order to enjoy this first class.

This prequel remains atop my list of anticipation, however, as Vaughn has cut together some truly impressive and tributary footage which maintains the equilibrium between novelty and homage beautifully. Evidently aware of how well-received Nightcrawler’s introduction proved in X-Men 2, the inclusion of Azazel contributes to a greatest hits vibe as a number of the most interesting characters return to Xaviers School For Gifted Youngsters. The return of Mystique and the X-Jet in particular are unlikely to provoke much disagreement among fans.

I have faith that this will be worth the decisions made during writing, and that Vaughn will balance the trailer’s evident cool with enough warmth to bring these characters back to life. If the trailer proves one thing it is that this movie is still very much a part of the franchise which preceded it, and, if played right, this could be the X-Movie we have all been waiting for.  Just please, please Mr. Vaughn, remember the humour! I would like at least one butt and one joke to compliment my spectacular serving of levitating submarines.

Ten 2011 movies that can’t come quickly enough

Let down by such movies as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Despicable Me and Eat Pray Love following a deceitfully promising array of trailers, I have somewhat of a knack for anticipating the wrong movies. While the flip-side of this usually leaves me unsuspectingly stunned by masterpieces I never saw coming,  it is nevertheless interesting – for me at least – to compare my warped expectations with the crushing reality. As such, what follows is a list of the most promising movies of 2011 (my opinion) to be later juxtaposed with reviews when I finally get around to seeing the listed movies for myself. Some are obvious, and some are the result of my own guilty tastes so, tune in, buckle up and on your marks – in whatever order you so wish.

1. 127 Hours

Not too long to wait for this one, with Danny Boyle looking set to start 2011 with a tale of survival so hard to believe, yet so excruciatingly realistic, it is making people faint faster than they can felicitate. James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a climber who – no joke- was forced to amputate his own arm with a blunt pen knife after finding himself stuck between a rock and an entire canyon. Although claims that Boyle has over-directed his follow-up to last year’s Slumdog Millionaire might sway some, I have little problem with a little extra to admire – just so long as Franco doesn’t inconveniently find a snake in his trousers.

2. I Am Number 4

Scoff all you want but this latest children’s fantasy adaptation looks set to give Harry Potter a real run for his Horcruxes, with Alex Pettyfer leading proceedings as Number 4, and alien fugitive being hunted down by those that destroyed his homeworld. With the trailer promising brooding superheroics, that cheerleader from Glee going to town with a samurai sword and some impressive set pieces, I Am Number 4 could be the Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief we have all been waiting for.

3. Paul

When Simon Pegg and Nick Frost announce another collaboration, Santa must panic about what he is meant to get everyone for Christmas. First delivering Spaced, followed by the rather flawless set of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the two look no closer to disappointing with Paul, a road movie with a difference. With two British comic-book geeks encountering an extra terrestrial outside Area 51, someone finally seems willing to put Seth Rogen to good use as the voice of the titular alien.

4. Sucker Punch

Having owl-ed out with this last year’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Zach Snyder is returning to reality with a movie set in another one altogether. Focussing on the scheduled-for-lobotomy Baby Doll, the trailer teases an action adventure where your mind is once again the scene of the crime. Showing Inception what a slice of cheese can really do to your dreamscape, Sucker Punch promises to be the kind of balls-to-the-walls action movie that the director – owls withstanding – is known for.

5. Scream 4

Having left us to the likes of Scary Movie, Scary Movie II, Scary Movie III and Scary Movie IV, Wes Craven has dispensed with the unsatisfactory apology and announced an all-sins-forgiven return to form with Scream 4. Reuniting Neve Campbell, Courney Cox and David Arquette – and introducing a whole host of culture-relevant Ghost Face fodder – Scream 4 promises to make light of a whole new generation of horror while never losing sight of its own inherent wit and scariness.

6. Thor

With superhero movies quickly becoming old-hat, Thor promises something different – even in a world of Dark Knights, Fantasticars and evil ex-boyfriends. Adapting a Marvel property which is in itself an adaptation of a Norse myth, any director would be in for a challenging but ultimatly exhilerating production. That the studio has trusted Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh with one of their last remaining premiere league properties just goes to emphasise the creative priorities at play. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, Thor should be a very different superhero movie indeed.

7. X-Men: First Class

Before Brett Ratner went for bust with X-Men: Last Stand, the house that Xavier built was looking pretty sturdy indeed. With a strong allegorical subtext, interesting characters and sterling effects work, the X-Men franchise posessed and continues to posess much potential. Taking things back to basics, and under the direction of Kick-Ass‘ Matthew Vaughn, First Class promises to put the X-Men back on a map they never should have left.

8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Seven movies down and only one to go, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II really will end an era. Marketed as one half of “the motion picture event of a generation”, this one film will conclude the Deathly Hallows and the saga as a whole. Already having been teased as part of the original trailer, audiences have been bombarded with dragons, Horcruxes and a crumbling Hogwarts. Topping seven films of unwavering care and quality – and letting a plethora of loyal actors off the hook – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II promises to be spectacular.

9. The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn

A massive fan of Herge’s Tintin adventures as a child, I have been waiting for a Tintin adaptation for years. With Steven Spieberg directing the first instalment and Peter Jackson supposedly directing the next, you couldn’t ask for a better set of hands, ushering this beloved series into production. With the images released so far teasing an immersive and visually arresting world, the numerous character nuances present thanks to motion caption technology, I cannot wait to see what this looks like on the big screen.

10. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Pretty much willing to give or take the Mission Impossible franchise through films one and two, J. J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III won me over whole-heartedly. Well paced, exciting and visceral, the third instalment introduced an Ethan Hunt that could believably stand up to the likes of John McCain and Jason Bourne. With Pixar’s Brad Bird set to direct, and Abrams again on board as producer, we really could be in for something special – the dodgy title notwithstanding.