Origin of Species: X-Men – First Class (2011)

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 Matthew Vaughn’s 2011’s prequel, X-Men: First Class

As prequels go, X-Men: First Class is a pretty great offering. As saviours of an entire franchise go, First Class is pretty much a miracle.

To suggest the X-Men franchise was in the doldrums at the end of the last decade would have been an understatement. The Last Stand, meant as a capper to the first two initial Bryan Singer helmed X-Men films, made a decent profit but was roundly trounced by critics and many fans, as indeed was X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 – technically both a sequel *and* prequel, intended as a character study for Hugh Jackman’s breakout mutant from the previous trilogy, it turned out a critical failure that set 20th Century Fox onto a path they had been toying with throughout the first trilogy of pictures: a film about the youthful origins of the X-Men. With no clear path forward, producer Lauren Shuler Donner started looking back, in order to gain a fresh perspective the franchise by this point sorely needed.

The result, First Class, turns out to be far more of an assured triumph than, off the back of the previous two films, it had any right to be. Matthew Vaughn’s film does not just go back to the origin story of characters who Singer introduced us to fully-formed and established in X-Men—principally Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr—but takes the franchise further back to its essential comic-book roots than ever. While the name First Class was grabbed by writer Simon Kinberg from a modern X-Men comic he chose not to directly adapt, the 1962, height of the Cold War setting, with a narrative underpinned by geopolitical tensions between the US and Soviet Union, very much calls back to Stan Lee/Jack Kirby’s original 1960’s comics—which debuted around the same time—filled as they were with anxieties about nuclear conflict and Communist fears.

In going back to the beginning, First Class is remarkably successful in charting a way forward that was inconceivable two films earlier.

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Star Trek: The Q Conflict (#1)

Tie-in fiction loves a good crossover event and Star Trek, in particular, is full of them.

Outside of recent Trek crossovers with Planet of the Apes, Transformers and Green Lantern, IDW Publishing most recently have tied into Star Trek: Discovery‘s narrative trends with a heavy focus on the Mirror Universe (particularly the untold on TV story of The Next Generation side of the Mirror coin) and now The Original Series with the newly launched Year Five, but The Q Conflict is a different animal. It is the kind of story that could only take place in tie-in continuity for a variety of reasons, and more specifically the comic as opposed to the novel. It feels mostly in step with Doctor Who events such as The Two Doctors, The Three Doctors or The Day of the Doctor; tying together in this case the legendary Starfleet Captains and crews across the four most popular Star Trek series from the last 50 years.

The Q Conflict is, consequently, a huge gimmick which hinges on the excitement of seeing Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeway, and key members of their crews, working together. How long that gimmick may last is open to question.

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War For the Planet of the Apes (2017)

There’s an almost laugh out loud moment in War For the Planet of the Apes in which several of our simian heroes, traversing a tunnel underneath a massive, fortified Army mountain base, find scrawled graffiti on the wall which reads ‘Ape-ocalypse Now’. The laughter doesn’t just come from the bad pun but how, frankly, that could have been an alternate title in a much sillier world.

War For the Planet of the Apes is about both the death of humanity but also the death of the American Dream. This is exemplified through the character of The Colonel, played with quiet steel masking hardened swagger by Woody Harrelson, who is a not so veiled homage to Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; he’s bald, he’s a stone cold military man, he has an almost hypnotic power of his troops and he’s very much gone off the reservation. The Colonel captures the madness of war, and the fear behind knowing you’ve essentially lost it.

After the critical and commercial success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves was swiftly recruited by 20th Century Fox alongside returning writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to continue and in many senses conclude the Apes saga began in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. While the series could continue beyond War, by the end you honestly wonder if it should. Sure, this could very easily lead into the original Planet of the Apes remade, but what would be the point? What story is left to tell? This feels like the definitive exploration of man vs ape as a complete trilogy.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

If Rise of the Planet of the Apes was about the hubris of man bringing on its own self-destruction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes switches the gears to focus much more heavily on ape society, and how unwitting leader of their new civilisation Caesar can rule and govern a world alongside what’s left of humanity.

Following the critical and commercial success of Rise in 2011, it was expected that Rupert Wyatt would continue and develop the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rising planet of the apes into the almost inevitable sequel. The plan between he and producer Rick Jaffa was to build back toward the story of the 1968 original Charlton Heston movie, in which his lone surviving astronaut ultimately finds himself on a future, post-apocalyptic Earth which apekind have inherited; indeed in Rise we see the launch of the Icarus, the very same space mission to Mars, more than suggesting we were heading back to a probable remake of Planet of the Apes – ignoring Tim Burton’s poor 2001 attempt.

Suddenly, Wyatt left the project late in 2012 when 20th Century Fox’s planned release date of May 2014 was deemed far too close to write, produce and direct what was already announced as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially considering the sheer amount of CGI work needed to put Caesar and his world on screen. Matt Reeves, still riding the success of sort-of indie, sort-of found footage, sort-of blockbuster Cloverfield in 2008 and at that point developing a Twilight Zone feature remake, was drafted in as his replacement. Reeves very much took the ideas Wyatt laid down in Rise and evolved them in a way one suspects differently from how Wyatt himself would have gone.

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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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