Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Your basic X-Men rant

We all know the problems X-Men: The Last Stand faced even before anyone saw it: rushed production schedule, underfunded (for a summer special effects behemoth), questionable story (Dark Phoenix as Plot B?) and leagues of fans ready to pounce on it for any irregularities between comic pages and film. After seeing that, all of the above helped contribute to a sub-par movie, but I'm not ready to jump on the bandwagon saying it could have been a great movie.

Some potential existed, but I'm convinced more than ever that a 'Spiderman'-caliber X-Men movie cannot be made. The biggest challenge is that the X-Men universe has become so bloated over the decades -- with a ridiculous infusion of characters, villains, philosophies, etc. -- that it is near impossible to make a quality, focused film. What makes movies based on the likes of Superman, Spiderman and Batman so epic is that the formula is fairly cut and dry because their origins are a part of pop culture and the villains and dynamics are pretty well-known. In the case of X-Men, there is no great origin and the problems that face a superhero team are much different (and you could say less interesting) than those which confront an individual.

My great hope from the beginning for the X-Men franchise was that it would eventually adopt one of the epic storylines for a movie. I've always felt that the Days of Future Past saga was made for Hollywood (kind of a Terminator-meets-12 Monkeys story), sure it would have been a daunting production, but it would have been the kind of plot that would appeal to a large mass beyond the comic fans. Of course the other most well-known X-Men storyline is the sprawling Dark Phoenix saga, which was alluded to in X2 but then pushed away as a side story in X3, solidifying its stature as a rush job with little creative energy.

Making Dark Phoenix the primary plot would have no doubt increased the budget quite a bit, and it seems 20th Century Fox was unwilling to break the bank with X3. To deal with this, it seems the filmmakers decided to give viewers as many X-Men characters as possible, increasing the 'Hey!' ratio but lowering the overall product with flimsy special effects and a who-cares story. But even with the inclusion of a horde of X-Men past and present (who the hell was the antler guy?), there were many questionable no-shows. Chief among these was Gambit, who -- along with Wolverine -- seemed like the most obvious choice for an X-Men movie character from the beginning: he's a sarcastic charmer with a screen-friendly power, and has built-in connections to Rogue.

On the villain side, there was the strange choice to make Pyro (a perennial non-descript background character) as Magneto's No. 2. In order to set up a predictable battle with Iceman, they changed his character to an apparently young American (he's always been an adult Australian). To the surprise as no one, the Iceman-Pyro fight was a dud.

But there were some nice surprises in X3, I don't think anyone ever expected Juggernaut and Beast to be portrayed so accurately on screen as they were. I wasn't expecting Juggernaut's near-invincibility to be translate well, but it was one of the few successful effects in the movie (Super-Annoying Comic Geek Swipe: One scene that irked me was how Juggernaut was eventually overcome at the end, with his 'mutant' powers temporarily removed -- actually Juggernaut is one of the few X-Men characters who is not a mutant, his powers come from a magical gem inside his armor, which is why he is virtually unstoppable. And even if he was a mutant, wouldn't his mutant ability -- being unstoppable and invincible -- be something the government would want to harness or at least research?). Beast seemed like a character who would never look good on screen, but putting him in a suit and playing up his intelligence and diplomacy was perfect -- as was his graceful fighting at the end.

Unfortunately the excellent treatment of Beast and Juggernaut was overshadowed by several mis-steps, most notably -- and surprisingly -- with Wolverine. Whereas the first two films sometimes came close to showing Wolvie's true nature, X3 portrayed him as a mild-mannered uncle-figure, constantly trying to offer advice and generally just walking around the mansion playing it cool. What has made the real Wolverine one of Marvel's most popular characters is that he is a near-unlikable ferocious fiend who can rarely contain his anger. What happened to him? There have been rumblings of a Wolverine movie which will hopefully show us the true side of him.

Final swipe: The low budget of X3 was at times embarrassingly obvious, with the low mark coming at the beginning. Wolverine and Co. are battling a Sentinel (yes!) -- offscreen (no!!!) and all we see of this fantastic, towering character are a pair of glowing eyes and its head after Wolvie cuts it off. If there was ever a stage production of X-Men, this is how it would be done. Truly pitiful.

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