Returning to X-Men for what must be the hundredth time in my life is to revisit characters and superpowers that held sway over my formative years as a teenager. I have lived through 14 seasons of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto, and quite unfortunately, Halle Berry as Storm. All the actors are older now, wiser, more comfortable, yet their characters seem stuck in development limbo, suffering the eternal strife of superhero growing pains.
That’s the problem with comic book adaptations. The characters on paper do not grow old, unless the artist draws them with greyed hair and wrinkles. In the real world, men and women are seeking cosmetic artists to immortalise them as if they were comic characters. The irony is touching.
Movies, to the dismay of comics everywhere, employ real people to portray ageless creations. The line is broken, and filmmakers understand the challenges that come with the territory. Directors exercise their cunning to try and blur the line; they use different actors, CGI to airbrush the wrinkles, little tweaks in the hair and mannerisms to suggest the passing of time. But when the star of a film franchise is an inarticulate goliath with metal claws and a personal history that extends possibly hundreds of years, and he cannot age nor die, what can really be done to keep him looking as spritely as the first day we saw him?
I pose this thought because I was struck by the youthfulness of Hugh Jackman in X-Men. He holds within him the innocence of a clueless kid, simply frozen in time, awed by everything that transpires, blind to future events. He’s smaller than Jackman is now, less built, leaner and looking more like a Hummer than a tank. You don’t notice the difference as you grow up with Jackman, but revisit X-Men. He is like a different man. The Wolverine of 2014 was a monster.
Seeing Jackman as Wolverine before Wolverine became Jackman reminds me that these inexhaustible X-Men movies are still going, still drawing in large crowds at the theatres, still leaving doorways open for yet more movies. Yes, Days Of Future Past (2014) was a worthy addition, but I beckon you to remember First Class (2011), a far superior X-Men movie that realised actors don’t live forever and shifted the gears of the series by employing new, younger faces. It was the best of the lot.
But enough of that. Let’s scoot over to X-Men, a movie that must be thanked for introducing the series, if not for anything else.
As a superhero movie, X-Men works. We meet many familiar faces from the comics, including Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), Toad (Ray Park), Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), Cyclops (James Marsden), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Rogue (Anna Paquin). They all come fully loaded with their superpowers, many of which are visualised with the help of computers. Mystique, in particular, is a triumph of both physical makeup and computer graphics; Romijn looks like she just stepped off a nude oil painting and somersaulted into the movie. The computers come in when she shapeshifts into other characters, a delightful process that resembles the blossoming of a flower in fast-motion.
As a movie of dramatic action and insightful storytelling, however, X-Men fails. There’s not a lot going on, except the ever resilient battle of good against evil. With so many characters, you’d think smart and exciting subplots would be formed, but no. Much of X-Men revolves around Magneto’s scheme to turn every human in New York City into a mutant, an idea that makes less sense the more you consider it.
Writer David Hayter also makes the fatal flaw of promoting Wolverine, the least interesting character, to Hero. Wolverine thrives on his physicality and ability to huff and grunt and growl and stab bad guys real good. So what? I can name a cavalry of other such characters, of whom all would be infinitely more fascinating. I would much rather learn more about Rogue. She is cursed with a mutation that prevents her from ever feeling the bare skin of another human being. How horrible that is! How does she cope with such a loss? Does she feel alone, entrapped by her own body? We’ll never know. X-Men doesn’t pause long enough to address such issues. It’s too busy enjoying Wolverine tearing up the scenery with his muscular claws. And he continues doing so for 14 years.
Best Moment | Mystique shapeshifting for the first time.
Worst Moment | “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else”. David Hayter was on holiday the day this line was written.