by Steve Habrat
Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.
X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.
What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?
By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.
As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.
Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.
by Steve Habrat
I’ll never forget the jolt of excitement that I felt when I first saw the Superman Returns teaser trailer, the one with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El commanding the speakers and explaining to Kal-El why he has sent his only son to earth. It looked like Superman was in good hands, picking up shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. Director Bryan Singer worked overtime to make a film that captured the nostalgia of the original two films while also updating the character for modern audiences. I really can’t express how disappointed I was in the finished product of Superman Returns, a dull, lumbering, and bloated reboot that basically served no purpose other than to let us know that Superman now has a son and that he is still not with Lois Lane. It has been said that Singer cut fifteen minutes from this movie when he should have cut about forty minutes from it. For almost two and a half hours, we go in circles while Kevin Spacey tries his hardest to perk the film up. Even worse, you’d think that with all of our beefed up special effects, Singer could have conceived one thrilling action sequence but nothing ever rises above mildly attention grabbing. They almost seemed like they were in there just as an excuse to crank the volume up and wake the audience up from their naps.
After assuring the president that he would never abandon Earth again, Superman Returns begins by explaining to us that Superman (Played by Brandon Routh) has been missing for five years, searching the galaxy for the remains of his home planet Krypton. He apparently didn’t say goodbye to anyone he deeply cared about, which has really upset Lois Lane (Played by Kate Bosworth) and led to her writing an article entitled Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. Lane has also won the Pulitzer Prize for the article, an award that she has mixed feelings about when Superman suddenly returns to earth and makes a daring rescue. The Daily Planet is sent into a frenzy covering his return and Superman confronts the now engaged Lois, who also has a mysterious son named Jason (Played by Tristan Lake Leabu) about the article she wrote. As Superman tries to reignite the flame between Lois and convince her that the world does need a savior, the dreaded Lex Luthor (Played by Kevin Spacey) hatches a plot that elaborates on his destructive real estate scheme from 1978’s Superman. Luthor travels back to the Fortress of Solitude and steals multiple crystals that can allow Superman to grow massive landmasses that resemble his home planet. Luthor isn’t content with just growing alien landscape and he figures out a way to lace the rocky terrain with Kryptonite, which would prevent Superman from stopping him. Luthor plans to grow his new landmass in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, which would cause the sea level to rise and destroy the United States, killing billions of people.
My first complaint about Singer’s Superman Returns is that casting of the blank slate that is Brandon Routh, who has absolutely no screen presence at all. He barely even registers half the time and seems downright uncomfortable when he pulls on the iconic tights. He is expressionless and bland, cast simply because he has a striking resemblance to Reeve. Routh has so much make-up caked onto his face that at times he looks artificial, making him more creepy and off-putting rather than warm and inviting like Reeve was in Superman and Superman II. Singer twists him into more Christ-like poses and double underlines the idea that Superman is in fact Christ sent from heaven to deliver us from evil (Lex Luthor). He glides above Earth with his arms outstretched, listening to a world cry out for his help. His awkwardness does transfer well to the bumbling Clark Kent but he never pulls that side of performance off like Reeve did in the original films. I hate to compare Routh so much to Reeve but it is virtually impossible since he is picking up where Reeve left off. The best scene he does have is when he confronts a crook wielding a Gatling gun, smirking as a bullet bounces off his eyeball.
Then we have Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane, another small blip on the radar when she was such a firecracker in the other two films. Singer puts a heavy emphasis on her character, almost making her the centerpiece in all the apocalyptic mayhem. Bosworth is pretty enough and Singer doesn’t go to cheesy lengths to make her look like Margot Kidder, letting her physical appearance stand as it already is. At least she isn’t creepy like Routh. She is overly cold to Superman when he shows up for an interview and she is too torn between her fiancé Richard White (Played by James Mardsen), the nephew of Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White (Played by Frank Langella), and the alien savior. The finale is basically an extended sequence of Lane getting herself into one nasty situation after another, all there simply to reveal that her son may be the offspring of the Man of Steel. Luckily, the two bland leads are saved by Kevin Spacey’s inspired take of Lex Luthor. He steals the movie and holds our interest through the entire project. Going for a lower key interpretation of Gene Hackman’s over-the-top tantrums, Spacey owns the role until the final frame.
Superman Returns also doesn’t stray from the massive apocalyptic obstacles that the Man of Steel must overcome. Pointy alien rock formations poke out of the sea while lightning crashes down on Superman as he swoops in to pull Lois, Jason, and Richard out of harms way. Metropolis also sees its fair share of devastation as Luthor’s plot sends tremors right into the heart of the city. The Daily Planet globe tumbles off the top of the building while a damaged gas lines ignites a discarded cigar and sends flames shooting out of the sewers. The message here is quite simple in Superman Returns: Don’t smoke! Superman manages to keep everyone safe through the extended sequences of devastation—you never once fear that he won’t overcome what is thrown his way, which is the major problem of the film. Things do get a bit edgy when Luthor pummels Supes on his Kryptonite laced landmass. The best action scene has to be Superman’s rescues of an airplane that tumbles out of the sky, right towards a crowded baseball field. It is perhaps the most rousing aspect of the entire film. Luckily, all this CGI destruction looks great but it fails to ever really get our hearts pounding.
There was plenty of potential here for Singer to really make America fall back in love with the Man of Steel. He really tries hard but his choices in his cast are what really drags Superman Returns down. Nobody really grabbed me outside of Spacey and made me like them and trust me, I really did want to like these characters again. Singer is also quick to elaborate on the religious subtext made in Donner’s Superman, something that didn’t need to be rehashed to the audience. The lack of stunning action set pieces also really hold the film back and we know that Singer can do action, especially after watching his X-Men films. If Singer had provided a tighter runtime, a different thespian in the iconic tights, and a different villain to annoy Supes, Superman Returns would have been a much better film with a hell of a lot more flavor. Singer’s nostalgic nod had its heart in the right place but there is nothing here justifying Superman’s return, which is a real shame because it would have been nice to have him back.
Superman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.
Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.
Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.
In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.
X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.
This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.
The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A
X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.