From the Ashes: X-Men – The Last Stand (2006)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Brett Ratner’s third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand

If you ever needed proof of the law of diminishing returns, you could look no further than X-Men: The Last Stand.

Over the years, X3 (as it was never officially known but we will call it for expediency) has developed what could be charitably described as a bad reputation amongst fans of comic-book cinema and indeed fans of Marvel’s X-Men comics themselves. There is no question – The Last Stand is a profound step down from the preceding two films, particularly the strong and layered X2. Brett Ratner’s film is emptier while being crammed with more plot, and more mutants, that you can shake a stick at it. The script is unfocused and at times obnoxious, while Ratner’s direction has none of the poise and subtlety Bryan Singer brought to the previous movies. Several of the key, well-developed characters from X1 and X2 are unceremoniously dumped and numerous key journeys and arcs across those two films are ditched or given short shrift. If X2 was X-Men’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is a poor man’s Return of the Jedi, with 2009’s execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Yet… yet… there is something about The Last Stand which prevents it from being a complete and utter failure. It is perhaps the purest invocation of the kitsch pulp Stan Lee & Jack Kirby gave us in the earliest 1960’s X-Men comics, far more so than the updated, modernised take across Singer’s movies. While churning through at times underwhelming material, key actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are comfortable in the skin of their characters and are visibly enjoying playing them. The Last Stand, in how it pits the X-Men against the Brotherhood of Mutants by the climax, is one of the first major comic-book blockbusters to pit a whole team of super-powered heroes and villains against each other, something we would by now come to expect in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films; indeed, The Last Stand introduces the post-credits teaser sequence before Iron Man in 2008 goes on to steal it and make it a staple of the MCU.

Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand is not a good X-Men film, or indeed a good comic-book movie. We have, however, seen much worse.

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Shock and Awe: X2 – X-Men United (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

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Mutated Anxiety at the Millennium: X-Men (2000)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We start with Bryan Singer’s original, 2000’s X-Men…

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

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Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.

Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.

The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.

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Tomb Raider (2018)

If ever a cinematic franchise in the making deserved the reboot treatment, it was probably Tomb Raider. The adventures of British Lady, Lara Croft, she of pixelated bosom, cut glass accent and frightening wealth, who so entranced video gamers in the late 1990’s, have not to date had the most auspicious history on the big screen.

For half a generation, Lara Croft was epitomised by Angelina Jolie. The bosom came naturally, the accent less so, but she certainly gave it her best shot in two pictures adapting Eidos’ massively successful female replica of the Indiana Jones series – firstly 2001’s slick, hollow Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, in which Jolie-Lara fought Ser Jorah Mormont who went looking for a magical triangle to stop time (or something) and later in 2003’s slick and, yes, hollow Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, in which Jolie-Lara again teamed up with (bellow it) GERARD BUTLER! to stop Mance Rayder (in yet another Game of Thrones connection) from unleashing Pandora’s Box. Not figuratively, you understand, but literally. *The* Pandora and her Box.

Suffice to say, despite fairly decent box office, neither of these films did anything to successfully lift the long-held ‘video game to movie’ curse which has swirled around adaptations of computer games to the big screen since their inception in the 1980’s. The rot undoubtedly started with the fetid 1993 take on Super Mario Bros (arguably the biggest game of the 80’s) and has festered ever since through a cornucopia of cinematic versions of beloved games, some of which were tackled by half-decent directors with fairly strong casts. Assassin’s Creed last year, helmed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender (both fresh off a great new take on Macbeth), was considered the Great Video Game Hope but, alas, it was critically panned. Mind you, I think that film is seriously underrated. But that’s another story. Back to Lara and her tombs…

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Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk and his Cinematic Ideology

Across the last week, since the release of his latest movie Dunkirk, much has been written about Christopher Nolan, as always happens whenever he puts a picture out. Nolan may be the most divisive mainstream, heavyweight filmmaker working in cinema today. Some believe he’s a genius. Some believe he’s Stanley Kubrick reborn. Some even believe he’s a rampant Conservative and his films are nothing more than ‘Tory Porn’.

You would do well, incidentally, to read the writing of my friend and super-talented pop culture writer Darren Mooney on Nolan recently, as its insightful, filled with wisdom and there’s every chance he’s not done on the subject yet, simply because the gaggle of voices weighing in on Nolan once again has reached fever pitch. Is Dunkirk a masterpiece? Or is it yet another piece of super-overrated cinema from a filmmaker who can’t see past his own delusions of grandeur? For me, it’s the former, but this is coming from someone who has always considered Nolan to be, if not the greatest living cinematic auteur, then at least among the top five.

What interests me is the accusation he is a Conservative filmmaker when a titanic weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Do read the above linked article with the accusation, much as partly I’m loathe to link to it – despite having been written by someone very pleased with their prose, someone with visible disdain for modern film criticism and a level of bitterness toward politics in general, it nonetheless outlines an argument with a level of brevity. Frankly it’s not a piece worth dwelling on and picking apart because some of the arguments are lunacy, but what it does is raise an interesting question: just where does Nolan, and his films, stand on the political spectrum?

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

One of the most interesting cinematic franchises of the last fifty years, Planet of the Apes makes a vibrant and fascinating return in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which classes itself as a reboot while holding true to the spirit of the original movies and charting its own modern day course.

Rupert Wyatt’s reimagining charts a very similar course to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes from 1972, the fourth of the original five film series after Charlton Heston famously shouted down those “damn dirty apes” in 1968’s seminal Planet of the Apes. In Conquest, the world’s pets have been destroyed by a lethal virus in the early 1990’s (here the series’ past, but the filmmakers’ future), which leads humans to begin domesticating apes as a replacement. The film even features an ape named Caesar leading a rebellion and the shouting of the word “NO!” as the first human word uttered by an ape.

Pointedly, Rise is not a remake of Conquest. It seeks to take certain essential pieces of that film’s DNA and place them in a contemporary context. This was deemed a necessary step after the critical and commercial failure of the first attempt to reimagine the franchise in Tim Burton’s awfully misjudged 2001 remake, Planet of the Apes, which sought to re-tell the Charlton Heston film for a new audience. Burton should have known better but his film fell in that strange nether zone of Hollywood blockbusters which was the early 2000’s, in which big budget cinema seemed locked in an awkward transition between brainless 90’s fare, the advent of popularised CGI, and a dearth of talented filmmakers wielding serious cinematic money.

A lot changed in 2005 & 2006 with both Batman Begins and Casino Royale, respectively. Those films, one made by an auteur and the other a stalwart, helped fashion the blockbuster landscape into one where talented filmmakers seemed to have a handle on quality scripting as well as major set pieces and computer generated effects. Rise took a big cue from Begins especially in quite how Wyatt, fresh of the low-budget but critically impressive The Escapist (2008), imagined reimagining the Apes universe and grounding the concept in more of a natural storytelling perspective than a high-concept vision of the like Burton tried and failed to achieve.

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