(Video On-Demand, July 2017) The X-Men series has been inconsistent lately, so it’s both a surprise and not a surprise to see Logan end up in the top tier of superhero movies. This third and far superior third volume in the incoherent Wolverine trilogy dares to provide an end for one of its iconic characters. It may be rebooted in a future film, but who cares: Logan is self-contained, definitive and exceptionally well-handled as a mournful future western with low and personal stakes rather than a save-the-world blockbuster. Hugh Jackman is, as usual, quite good as Wolverine—this installment asks him to do far more from an emotional standpoint as one of the last mutants on an Earth that is glad to see them gone, far less powerful than ever before as his healing capabilities are slow to regenerate after fights. For writer/director James Mangold, this is a bit of a quiet triumph, departing from the usual superhero clichés in order to dig deep into the human condition. The action sequences are perfunctory, the future barely sketched (although with some nice background detail, such as driverless trucks) and the film does rely quite a bit on previous material … but it’s well packaged and strikingly different at a time when even major superhero spectacles feel like rote repetition. Logan takes the superhero genre in a different and welcome direction—hopefully it won’t lead to a copycat trend. In the meantime, enjoy the putative end to Jackman’s Wolverine… I’m sure it won’t last.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) The behind-the-scenes context surrounding Deadpool (a passion project for Ryan Reynolds, his occasion to atone for Wolverine and Green Lantern; perhaps his last chance to establish himself as a blockbuster lead megastar; the risky bet of an R-rated superhero movie; the unexpected box-office triumph of the film; the provocative comparisons with Batman vs Superman; and so on…) is almost more interesting than the film itself … which is saying something considering how successful the result on-screen can be. Deadpool arrives at a perfect time in the evolution of superhero movies—a time when the basics have been covered, a time at which superhero fatigue is settling in and experimentation can be rewarded. Hence the success of a satirical (but not parodic) take on the usual superhero origin story, commenting on its predecessors, frequently breaking the fourth wall and delivering far more R-rated violence, sexual content and vulgarity than is the norm in mainstream superhero PG-13-land. Ryan Reynolds finally crackles and shines as the lead character, using charm and humour to enliven a character that could have been unbearable played by someone else. Morena Baccarin more than holds her own as the female lead, playing a more interesting character than usual for this kind of role. Deadpool is all about its irreverence, and it consciously dials down the scale and scope of its story in favour of finely tuned execution. It certainly works, what with structural backflips, taut editing, rapid-fire gags and enough satirical jabs to confound anyone who hasn’t been seeing enough superhero movies. It’s not perfect, almost by design: the profanity-laced humour doesn’t always avoid feeling juvenile, the lightweight story is familiar despite its successful execution and it’s very much a film made for the comic-book crowd. (More general audiences aren’t necessarily excluded, but trying to explain even short jokes like “Stewart or McAvoy?” can take a while.) Still, it’s a fun movie to watch, and it certainly meets the considerable expectations that it had to meet from its core audience. Unfortunately, there will be a sequel … and that one will have to try twice as hard not to become an ugly parody of itself. We’ll see.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) X-Men: First Class was such an unexpected breath of fresh air, combining decent superhero action with a fizzy sixties setting, that it’s no surprise if follow-up Days of Future Past doesn’t do as well with its time-hopping but mostly-seventies era. The one big thing that this installment does well is in melding most of the threads from existing X-Men movies so far, picking and choosing its actors in order to refresh its continuity in a big sprawling universe. It’s common enough practice in the comic book world, but it’s one of the first films to do so in such an earnest fashion. While some of the set-pieces feel a bit cheap, Days of Future Past does hit the high points we’ve come to expect from the series: Mutant powers well-exploited (the standout sequence here being Quicksilver’s high-speed combat sequence), themes of alienation decently approached, charismatic actors with decent material (Hugh Jackman, as always, but also Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Peter Dinklage) and a steady forward narrative rhythm. In an increasingly cluttered superheroe movie universe, Days of Future Past manages to distinguish itself via a competent execution of a familiar formula. It could have been a bit better, but it’s already good enough that there’s not much room to complain.
(In theaters, June 2011) I wasn’t expecting anything after the underwhelming Wolverine, but this X-Men: First Class is a return to the strengths of the original trilogy: Some thematic heft, good acting performances, clever sequences and an sense of cool that doesn’t fall into self-indulgence. Even as a prequel, it works just fine: There’s some dramatic irony at the way the characters come together and split apart, and the script is wildly successful at weaving the October Missile Crisis in the fabric of the plot. James McAvoy may be good as Charles Xavier, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show as Magneto, with plenty of good supporting roles for people such as Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Oliver Platt. (Meanwhile, January Jones -for all she brings to the film by parading around in white thigh-highs and gogo boots- seems unacceptably stiff). The initial X-Men trilogy worked well in large part due to its thematic ambitions about bigotry, normalcy and self-acceptance; if First Class doesn’t do much than rehash the same issues from “didn’t ask, didn’t tell” to “mutant and proud”, it’s still far more interesting than other recent meaningless comic-book films like Thor. The idea to set the film in the early sixties has refreshing stylistic implications (despite the anachronism of late-sixties fashion) that carry through to the Saul-Bass-tinged closing credit sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn manages to helm a surprisingly talky film with the right mixture of action and character moments, while giving some energy to the whole. X-Men: First Class may be a small victory for style over rehashed substance, but even in repeating itself it seems quite a bit better than the norm –and in presenting itself attractively, it makes itself difficult to criticize. Suffice to say that it’s an enjoyable film, and even one that may get viewers to watch the original trilogy again –something that seemed improbable after Wolverine.
(In theaters, May 2003) Faster, meaner and, yep, better than the often-tepid original, this is one sequel that assumes everyone’s seen the original and so dispenses with the usual load of dull exposition. The motif of bigotry is still present -and so is the unsettling political subtext-, giving weight to the film. Despite sometimes-unconvincing special effects, those action sequences are indeed spectacular, with particular props going to the opening sequence and a very cool sequence involving iron-enriched blood. The most spectacular part of X2, however, is how it can juggle a cast of a dozen (including three Oscar winners) without too many lapses. Hugh Jackman once again steals the show, endowing Wolverine with the most steadily engrossing presence. Others deliver mixed performances: Halle Berry is better than in the original, but she, like Famke Janssen, looks bored with what she’s given to work with. (And the least said about James Marsden’s Cyclops, the most appropriate.) As summer entertainment, X-Men 2 is a strong entry, even with the rather overlong third act which degenerates in a “sacrifice” that feels contrived. But by the time the credits roll, everyone’s had enough entertainment for their money. Until the third instalment, then…
(In theaters, July 2000) When all will have been said and done, the biggest measure of X-Men‘s success is how it didn’t disappoint the legions of fans and hordes of non-fans that went to see it. It’s incredibly hard to make a film about iconic figures, but X-Men manages to pull it off. The script wisely focuses on only a few characters, grounds the fanciful comic elements in reality (such as the black leather uniforms rather than yellow spandex) and plays around the ever-popular theme of discrimination, almost bringing some actual thought in the process. Director Bryan Singer does a decent job on most of the film, but his action scenes clearly show his lack of experience with special effects and action editing: They feel disjointed, don’t flow nearly as well as they should and rarely use wide-angle shots that would firmly establish the action flow in viewers’ mind. Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable, features a breakout performance by Hugh Jackman (as fanboy favourite Wolverine) and delivers value for the money. Not a bad performance for a summer blockbuster.