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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When did Humans become the Black Hats of Modern Fiction? Westworld, The Walking Dead & Encroaching Dystopia

When did we become the bad guys?

When I say we, I mean it in the Royal sense. A collective *we* referring to modern society. Humanity. For decades in cinema, television and half a dozen other entertainment mediums, we were the good guys. Human beings, men and women, we understood right from wrong and saved the world from monsters – demonic, alien and who knows what all. In the last few years, particularly, something has changed. Westworld is just the latest returning show in a line of hugely popular TV shows that make this very clear.

We have become the monsters we always imagined we were fighting against.

Westworld is all about the relationship between man and machine. In a near-futuristic theme park setting, where android ‘hosts’ play out narratives for human gamers (with money) so they can indulge their basest desires, the first season of Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s original 1970’s movie was all about the confluence between machine and consciousness, tied up with the moral treatment of what are considered hardware, but steadily come to realise they are much much more. Westworld plays out as a high-concept genre thriller in the making, with philosophical overtones, but the message within Nolan & Joy’s take on Crichton’s cautionary tale is clear: we are *not* the heroes of this story.

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The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron is an unusual director, in many ways, and The Abyss underscores this quite keenly. Despite the fact Cameron has made some of the biggest motion pictures of the last almost four decades, you consistently still feel the pull of his Roger Corman-training, his B-picture origins on movies such as Pirahna after spending years as a Corman student, helping put together his beloved but schlocky contributions to cinematic history.

Cameron took plenty of those lessons, those touchstones, and threw them into his movies across the 1980’s & 1990’s with such arrogant bravura, such relentless chutzpah, that he crafted movies which by all accounts probably shouldn’t have been as critically successful as they were. The Terminator in 1984 is a B-movie with the style, smarts and cutting wit to rise above its origins, while Aliens saw Cameron perhaps at his egotistical directorial best, remarkably for only his third picture. The Abyss feels like his first attempt to make a film which can’t be defined, clearly, as a James Cameron movie, and it’s probably why it’s amongst the worst of his efforts.

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Waterworld (1995)

Excess is probably the word to best associate with Waterworld. The excess of Hollywood in the 1990’s. After the blockbuster formed at the tail end of the 1970’s thanks to the efforts primarily of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the 1980’s saw the phenomenon largely dominated by Olympian action heroes or stars whose names towered on the poster above the title – Schwarzenegger, Ford, Willis, Stallone, Snipes. Alternatively, sequels and franchises began to form and dominate – Bond continued making money, joined by Indiana Jones, Star Wars of course, Star Trek back from the dead, and a whole surfeit of sequels which evolved into trilogies, and continued the trend into the 1990’s. That decade, nonetheless, added an extra dimension.

Waterworld is indicative of the mega-budget ‘high concept’ which had crept in over the last decade and really bore fruit during the 90’s. A high concept movie, essentially, was a picture you could boil down in one, easy for a movie studio executive to understand soundbite. Waterworld’s, without question, would be ‘Mad Max on water’. Simple, clear, readable. Everyone had heard of Mad Max, a successful trilogy itself early in the 80’s. The idea of trying to replicate the success of George Miller’s desert-based post-apocalyptic action series would have seen the bean counter’s eyes kerching with dollar signs. Waterworld smacks of a high-concept, money-making exercise, taking this one-line idea and bulking it out into an event blockbuster.

The irony, of course, was how expensive Waterworld ended up being. A year later, Independence Day revitalised the alien invasion B-movie with a high-concept, simple idea which, schlocky as it may have been, reaped the rewards in dividends. Though chock-full of CGI, some of which at the time was stunning to audiences, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as Kevin Reynolds’ fourth collaboration with star Kevin Costner, given the amount of water-based sets which needed to be constructed in order to adequately sell the idea of a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted, consigning the ‘ancient’ world we live in now to the sea bed. Though a picture designed to make big bucks, Waterworld ultimately became one of the biggest critical and financial disasters of its decade, or indeed any decade.

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