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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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach. This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.

This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal. While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.

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Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther feels as much like a moment as it does a movie. There has been something transformative about the response to what, in another time and place, might have just ended up as *another* Marvel movie. It’s yet again proof that Marvel are expanding their reach, upping their game, and doubling their odds.

Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adapting the successful if not widely known outside comic-book circles story of King T’Challa of Wakanda, is the second picture in a row from the comics studio, after Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, to feel like the true work of an auteur filmmaker. This has been a balance Kevin Feige’s game-changing franchise has previously struggled with since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man changed the course of blockbuster cinema in 2008; you only have to point to the wreckage of films such as The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World as good examples of how it took Marvel a while to truly embrace a filmmaker’s singular vision alongside the beats and overarching universal frameworks Marvel have spent a decade building toward, which will reach a conclusion with Avengers: Infinity War this year and its untitled 2019 sequel.

Could it be that the reason both Thor: Ragnarok and now Black Panther are such strong entities within the Marvel family is precisely because they didn’t have to particularly fit that framework? That’s a strong possibility. All Waititi had to do was position Thor in a space whereby he could be slotted back into Infinity War – beyond that he had carte blanche to re-imagine the world of Asgard as a neon, Guardians of the Galaxy-esque, 1980’s retro-futuristic blend of mythology and Antipodean eccentricity, and for the most part it worked beautifully. Coogler has perhaps even greater freedom with Black Panther, allowed as he is to truly develop the internal mythology and world of Wakanda around what isn’t a traditional origin story for T’Challa, given his previous introduction in Captain America: Civil War, but something deeper: a liberal-minded tale of colonial rejection, imperialist globalisation, and the haunting embers of black persecution.

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Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

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