Random Thoughts: The X-Men Franchise

Against my better judgment, I saw X-Men: Apocalypse on opening night.  With so many reviews coming back less than positive, I was concerned that the film would be a waste of both time and money but I left pleasantly surprised.  Not because it was a great film--it's guilty of many of the same sins most third films are: too large of a cast, and attempting to accomplish far too much inside of a single film.  But largely because I've never thought all that highly of the X-Men as a film franchise in the first place.

Technically, Blade was the film that started the superhero movie machine.   I say technically, because Blade was more of a backdoor than anything else.  With strong roots in horror and all other typical superhero elements cut down to an absolute minimum, it was easy to pass Blade off as a more typical blockbuster film of the era and ignore the fact that he was a Marvel Comics character.

There was no such possibility with the X-Men.  With high-minded themes covered in easily conveyed mantras ("humans fear what they don't understand"), legitimate super-powers, and being at the time one of the most well-known properties in comic books--if you went to see the X-Men, you did so knowing full well it was a superhero film.

But, considering X-Men is the genesis of the blockbuster superhero film, I walked away disappointed.  Between Magneto's half-baked scheme, the lack of an origin for how the team met, and the fact that it ignored canon entirely, I felt more than disappointed...I felt like I wasted my money.  Add the fact that they ignored the X-Men's cool costumes in favor of the black leather uniforms, and I was even more annoyed.  It felt like the fantastic hadn't come to the mundane, but rather than the mundane had brought down the fantastic.

As the machine continued to perfect itself on its way to creating it's first major, great work in 2008's Iron Man, I avoided the X-franchise altogether.  I did my research though--reading up on the films and the events that went on in them, and nothing actually impressed me enough to win me back until X-Men: First Class.

Something of a reboot to the franchise, First Class was a markedly superior film to its predecessor of over a decade ago, and is actually one of my favorite superhero films of all-time--due in no small part to the acting talents of Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender.  It's a strong film that plays off the X-Men's roots as a 60's creation to create a smart period piece that places the focus right where it should be for the genesis of the X-Men: the ideological differences between Xavier and Erik Lensherr.

But even loving it as much as I did, there still managed to be...issues.  The movie is titled "X-Men: First Class" and I think every X-fan worth their salt knows that just isn't true.  Built around fringe characters like Banshee, Darwin, and Havok rather than Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, and Angel was a sticking point that I just managed to excuse.  After all, we'd seen half of these characters already in the previous trilogy--perhaps the casual audience wouldn't want to see them again so "soon", canon or no canon.
 
But then we got X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Another decent movie (though not nearly as good as First Class) that takes advantage of the X-Men's convoluted relationship with time travel and the success of the period elements of the last film to flip back and forth between the "original" X-Men team and the newer, recast actors.   I enjoyed the film for the most part, but found my head hurting at the central plot of the "omni sentinels" and their dubious origins.

Which brings me to why I don't have a problem with X-Men: Apocalypse.  Because I'm honestly just used to making excuses for this franchise.  While Marvel Studios actually makes attempts to get as close to canon as possible (with notable exceptions for things like Civil War and Guardians that took advantage of pre-existing large casts and dozens of issues of past continuity), Fox only ever puts forth a token effort.  For every one thing they nail, they botch another.   Xavier and Magneto being best bros is neat, but how many times is Magneto going to threaten literally everything and be responsible for countless lives endangered and/or killed before you say enough is enough?    It's great Xavier got his mansion up and running as a school, but it takes three films to get the actual X-Men out there??

X-Men: Apocalypse feels like more of the same, and I mean that in the most positive way possible.  They didn't give much backstory to the Four Horseman? True, but they gave plenty to Scott, Jean, and Nightcrawler. The Phoenix came out of nowhere?  Fair, but that Wolverine spot worked perfectly.  The problems with this film feel similar to the ones I've had with the X-Men as a franchise since day one. And I don't think anything short of Marvel getting it back would fix them, and even if they do get those characters back--I don't think film is the best spot for them when Daredevil is proving the power of a serial format applied to serial storytelling characters.

If I'm being honest, X-Men: Apocalypse is probably a shaky 6 at best.  But if I was willing to make excuses for the other two films in the trilogy, I might as well excuse some of the smaller issues this film had and once you do it's pretty good.  There are some pretty well-executed emotional beats and seeing Xavier's school in the early parts of the film reminded me of the feeling older fans say they got when they watched Christopher Reeves take to the sky in the original Superman.  This film really feels like the X-Men come to life when it's on point.  The only thing holding it back from being legitimately better than DOFP in my mind is about twenty minutes more screen time to develop the Horsemen, and a more compelling end fight scene.    So I bump it up on to a strong seven, and hope that Bryan Singer will one day leave the directing to Matthew Vaughn again.


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