Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bryan Singer retrospective - X-MEN (2000)

After the brilliant USUAL SUSPECTS and the interesting but directorially rather anonymous APT PUPIL, Bryan Singer hired himself out for the first in the X-MEN franchise. The resulting movie was slick, full of spectacular special effects, and had a convincingly dark and brooding look and feel. It established a high water mark for comic book reimaginings that would only be broken by Christopher Nolan's BATMAN BEGINS. To that end, X-MEN represented a return to form, and proof that Singer could handle different types of material - carefully balancing commercial and critical requirements. That said, the movie still had its flaws - namely that the plot is smothered by the need for spectacle and the amount of time it takes to establish the back story of all the different characters. 

To quote my review of LAST STAND: the basic idea "is that there are a bunch of people in the world who are mutants, with special psychic or physical abilities. The world of "normal" people is understandably nervous at having such powerful people in its midst. The mutants react to this fear in one of two ways. The "good guys" try to control their powers and use them only in ethical ways. They are led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). But another group, led by Magneto, take a more Werner Herzog view of the world. They believe that the natural order of human-mutant relations is aggression and cruelty. The conflict between these two camps forms the back-bone of every X-MEN movie, usually triggered by some half-assed action on the part of bigoted "normal" humans." In this film, the half-assed bigoted action is requiring all mutants to register with the state - a move that spooks Magneto (Ian McKellan) - who lost his family in the Holocaust. In turn, Magneto decides to abduct Rogue (Anna Paquin)- a teen mutant who can leach other's powers - and use her in a bid to turn all the world's leaders mutant, thus rendering their discriminatory policies unthinkable.

Bryan Singer was brave to take on this movie. X-MEN books are some of the biggest selling of all time, which means that there's a vocal and rabid fan-base just waiting for you to trip up. BUT you have to balance the fan-base's desire for accurate details with the demands of the non-fans who still need to understand and engage with "another" summer blockbuster with spectacular action set-pieces. A second challenge - and certainly a bigger challenge than re-imagining BATMAN or SUPERMAN, is that X-MEN has an unwieldy cast of characters, each with their own particular back story that needs to be fleshed out, underneath the wider umbrella mythos. And a third challenge is that X-MEN is intellectually richer than most comics - explicitly discussing bigotry, political accountability and - and that doesn't always sit well with the special effects set-pieces and compressed run-time of your typical summer blockbuster.

Given these triple challenges how did Bryan Singer fare? Well, on the first call, the movie garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success. He pleased fans by remaining loyal to the original books - characters made it to the screen largely in tact and the screen-writers mined the rich history of the books for plot lines. The movie went on to spawn two sequels and rumours of an X-4 and WOLVERINE spin-off. To that extent, Singer established the franchise against all odds. The second challenge was to fill in the back story of the book and make all the characters intelligible to the non-fans looking for summer thrills. Here, I'd say that Singer only half succeeded. He successfully established the basic idea of the X-MEN but establishing the back stories to all the significant X-MEN takes forever and they are more or less short-changed by a cramped script. Only Wolverine comes out with anything like the appropriate screen time. As to the third challenge, the intellectual substance of the book has little room to play out given the pressures of establishing character and still fitting in a spectacular end-sequence. Nonetheless, it's clear that we are dealing with issues of prejudice and McCarthyism and than Magneto and Xavier present two reactions to that - broadly speaking an activist/passive stance that some have likened to the difference between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Singer wasn't fully successful on this count either but had at least succeeded in setting up an interesting debate between both sides of the argument.

X-MEN was released in 2000.

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