With the impending X-Men: Apocalypse just around the corner it seems like the perfect time to look back at what the world’s finest mutant franchise has offered us over the years. Today we have Sophie Wing, Kambole Campbell and Patrick Taylor arguing their corners with Tom Bond moderating.
Tom: Who wants to kick us off? What’s the best X-Men film and why?
Sophie: We might as well start with the granddaddy of the superhero mega-genre: X-Men. Without it, there would be no other films to discuss. In the same way that the current MCU hung on whether Jon Favreau could pull a convincing Iron Man together in 2008, the entire gamut of franchises as we know them today would still be a gleam in Kevin Feige’s eye if Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine and Rogue hadn’t captured that sliver of free space in the audience’s imagination way back in 2000.
Kambole: My vote has to go to First Class. The most colourful and fun X-Men film there’s been yet – they even have the yellow uniforms! First Class has the best use of the franchise’s newfound penchant for period storytelling – actually incorporating historical events into the plot, rather than using it as window dressing like in Days of Future Past. There are amazing origin stories for both Charles and Erik, captialising on the charm and charisma of the two main actors to create a tragedy that I honestly didn’t expect from this film.
Patrick: I’ve gone for X2. For me, it’s the most complete X-Men film to date as it manages to balance some weighty subject material without ever losing touch with the sillier elements of the franchise – it’s a comic book film, after all. It also successfully incorporates some personal character narratives which never feel incompatible with the plot; rather they help raise it above many of the other films in this genre.
Tom: Let’s jump back and talk about X-Men for a minute. Patrick and Kambole, is it fair to say it kickstarted the current wave of superhero films?
Kambole: I don’t know about that. It’s definitely true for the early 2000s when things like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man were riding on the coattails of this film’s success – but I’d say for the current wave that honour belongs to Iron Man.
Sophie: Iron Man is the kick-off point for the MCU and the kind of ambitious, multi-thread franchises as we know them now, but I think you have to step back and ask where Iron Man would have been without X-Men. Because in 2000 a superhero movie was a big risk. A huge one.
Tom: It definitely started something with superheroes in this generation. Did it do things differently to what we’re seeing on screen now? Better? Worse?
Kambole: It certainly made superhero films bankable, but I don’t think it’s left much influence today in the approach to the films themselves. Fans still complain about the black leather and the hesitance to embrace the comic book icons in the same way the MCU and even the (not so great) DC Synderverse films do today.
Sophie: It’s funny because I was literally about to make the opposite point about influence – I think X-Men still lives on in all successful superheroes films. What did it bring that previously successful superhero films – I’m thinking ‘70s Superman – hadn’t? The move to an ensemble and to emotionally complex villains with motives we can understand. Where are Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes without Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr? Where are the Avengers without the X-Men?
Patrick: Personally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I think X2 is more of a high-water mark for the genre. It’s got all the core ingredients of the others, but it blends them together in a very satisfying way.
Kambole: I agree – X2 is my favourite behind First Class, it definitely feels more polished than the first. It’s aged a lot better – and I can’t remember a line that makes me wince as much as the “toad struck by lightning” from X-Men.
Patrick: It’s funny, Joss Whedon wrote that.
Kambole: Yeah! He’s been blaming Halle Berry for that one for years!
Patrick: I think X2 takes what X-Men established and builds on it with more depth to everything. First up, it’s got a few very personal storylines at its core. The exploration of Logan’s past, and his coming to terms with it, affords Hugh Jackman time and space to give (to my mind at least) his best performance of the series. And let’s face it, where would the series be without him? He pops up in practically every instalment.
Kambole: Yeah, Hugh Jackman is amazing in this one – the most compelling the character has ever been, balancing the trauma of his past with his DGAF attitude and some seriously cool berserker action when Stryker’s goons start kidnapping the students.
Sophie: That’s a scene that lives on in the memory.
Patrick: And as much as it’s got scenes like that which are just damn good fun, the story also came from a very natural place. Despicable as he is, Stryker’s motives make a lot of sense when you consider what happened with his son and wife. And Brian Cox just knocks it out the park.
Tom: Let’s close off that little thread and start talking about First Class. As Kambole said, it’s certainly a lot more colourful. Does it take a different tonal approach to the original X-trilogy?
Kambole: The basic ingredients for an X-Men film are certainly there (paranoia, civil rights), but it captures the charm and insanity of the source material in a way that only X2 could match. Also, its setting in the past absolutely clicks – the Cuban Missile Crisis showdown is great stuff, and Magneto’s turn has some punch despite the expectations placed on it by the film’s status as a prequel. There’s a lot more fun to be had than in the previous instalments, but also a larger sense of tragedy.
Also, Magneto’s costume at the end is so gloriously accurate to the comic books that I’m still mad that Matthew Vaughn didn’t come back to the franchise. His eye for high-concept comic book action and drama as seen in X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass and Kingsman is something that I really think the X-Men need.
Patrick: A fine case Kamblole, but I should say at this point that First Class is my least favourite of the core X-Men films.
Kambole: You dislike this one more than The Last Stand?!
Patrick: It’s a close call!
It’s fair to say that I’m not overly fond of Matthew Vaughn’s films. Kick-Ass did absolutely nothing for me. In fact, I actively dislike that film. But that’s for another time. With First Class, I must confess that I was just bored.
Sophie: I find First Class to be pretty thin; it expects rewards for its ensemble without earning them. We don’t spend adequate time with any one character before we’re asked to care about them, and then we’re suddenly thrust into this bonding exercise at Xavier’s mansion with none of the groundwork put in.
The epitome of this is the relationship it tries to portray between Charles and Erik, which to me is lazily executed. They spend what seems to be ten minutes on screen together and then we move to the two of them playing chess and musing like they’ve been friends for years. It expects us to accept McAvoy and Fassbender off the back of Stewart and McKellen, when it should be concentrating on building that relationship from the ground up.
I just can’t enjoy an X-Men movie when I prefer Erik having a boy’s-own Nazi adventure over his interactions with Charles.
Patrick: That’s exactly how I felt. It’s no doubt been said before, but Magneto Nazi-hunting feels like a poor man’s rehash of Inglourious Basterds. I also found James McAvoy incredibly irritating in this film. He seems to spend most of his screentime holding two fingers to his temple to make it REALLY clear that he has super brain powers. I’m only just over the experience.
Tom: Throwing my two cents in briefly, I think First Class is possibly one of the most haphazard entries in the series, but it’s also probably the closest to the X-Men I pictured from reading the comics in many ways. I think tonally, the original trilogy is just a bit too dark. X-Men has its very serious themes, no doubt, but I felt the comics always delivered with a light touch and a sense of humour rather than the angst of the original trilogy.
Kambole: First Class is very similar to a lot of the MCU in the way that the audience’s relationship with the characters leans a bit/a lot on intertextual reference. But yeah, I’m with Tom. The original trilogy to me is like Man of Steel to Superman in places.
Tom: I’m going to throw out a slightly cheeky suggestion now. There’s a bit of an age gap, however slight, between you all. Patrick and Sophie are 25 and 26, and Kambole is 20. Does that small age gap, and therefore the ages at which you first saw the original trilogy and the later ‘reboot’, affect how you think of them?
Patrick: Yeah, I’m old. Thanks Tom.
Kambole: I don’t remember seeing X-Men in the cinemas, so that could factor in for sure!
Sophie: I was actually going to bring it up myself because there’s a big nostalgia element there which might not exist for these young’uns who’ve grown up with superhero movies.
Patrick: I have definitely found it difficult to separate Stewart & McKellen’s take on their respective characters when watching First Class and DoFP.
Sophie: See, here’s the big thing: I remember going to see X-Men at the cinema with almost perfect clarity. And it was a total revelation to me.
X-Men was released the week I turned 11 and I lied to get in because it was a 12. There was nothing like that before. It was just a wilderness.
Kambole: I can definitely see how First Class feels like a lesser rehash to you when to me it’s the first good X-Men film I saw in the cinemas!
Sophie: No doubt that’s a large part of it. Have you ever been to the cinema and seen something which totally blew your mind; that was like nothing you’ve ever seen or heard of before, and you leave feeling total and utter heart-bursting joy?
Patrick: Inside Llewyn Davis.
Kambole: Fast and Furious 7.
Sophie: Also, and this may or may not inform these films for you in any way, but Rogue was a total game-changer for little 11-year-old me. How many other superhero films have you seen that bring you into the story through the eyes of a young girl? The answer is a big fat zero. There won’t even be a female-led superhero film until 2018.
Kambole: I totally agree about Rogue, she’s so different to pretty much every comic book character we’ve seen to date. And yeah, I’m super disappointed about Captain Marvel being pushed back. I thought Wonder Woman was out next year though? Or am I wrong?
Sophie: Oh, that. I don’t like DC films if you hadn’t guessed…
Tom: I’m not going to waste anyone’s time discussing Origins or Last Stand – Patrick’s taken that bullet for you all elsewhere. Any brief comments on Days of Future Past before we move onto final statements?
Kambole: Part of me is bitter towards DoFP both for excluding Rogue and for throwing all of First Class out the window. But the film is fun enough for me to forgive that.
Sophie: I think it embodies the problems I have with how the new movies handle ensembles by literally killing off main characters on a piece of paper.
Kambole: DoFP had the Quicksilver sequence which was cool I guess. Also more of Magneto being a notorious dick, which was entertaining to behold. I do miss Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique though.
Tom: Sweet, let’s go to final statements now as we’ve been going for a while. Do you stand by your initial favourite and why?
Patrick: X2 is my favourite of the series because not only is it the most fun, able to nod slyly to the audience every now and then, but it also manages to flit seamlessly back to its serious subject matter. What’s more, for my money, Bryan Singer is also able to extract the best performances of the series from his lead actors. It’s certainly Hugh Jackman’s best turn in the role, and Patrick Stewart also gets to express his considerable talents in a way which the other instalments don’t allow. Oh and Ian McKellen gets to wear a cape again. That’s always nice.
Kambole: Despite the battering it took from these two, I stand by my love of First Class. It introduced some actual colour into the proceedings, and dived headfirst into the screwy continuity and sci-fi weirdness of the comics that I love so much. That said, X2 feels like the winner here – it really is the one time Bryan Singer absolutely nailed it. Black leather aside, we get to see the X-Men operating at full throttle, and also that action sequence with the goddamn Wolverine. This one feels like it stands head and shoulders above everything else. I stand by Patrick in saying that it has the best performances by any ensemble in this series.
Sophie: I’m even more convinced by X-Men, having debated it today. I think the initial arguments stand, that it’s the root from which every subsequent superhero – across Marvel, DC, Sony, even TV shows like Misfits – has been able to grow. That basic DNA – of ensemble, teamwork, complex villains and moral dilemmas – came about from what X-Men tried and succeeded in doing.
X-Men has the whole package: big setpieces on national monuments (hello to you, Statue of Liberty), intelligent questions about society and humanity’s fear of anything different, epic bro-angst between Xavier and Magneto (carried with gravitas by two veteran actors), love stories, allegories, female protagonists who get to do and say intelligent, exciting things… and I still think it’s the simplest and yet cleverest of all the superhero films.
And there’s no argument as to whether it’s still relevant today, because more than fifteen years later, who can’t see X-Men‘s Senator Kelly and his Mutant Registration Programme in a certain Republican presidential candidate?