X-Men at 20: A Look Back

Twenty years ago today, Bryan Singer’s X-Men arrived in theaters and it’s not hyperbole to call it one of the most influential pictures of the 21st century. The 20th Century Fox release found the comic book genre at a rather low point at the end of that said century. While Blade was a nice size hit in 1998, the years prior found at a lot to be desired with the quality of the genre. 1995 brought us Judge Dredd and 1997 saw the release of Batman and Robin, which found the Caped Crusader with Bat nipples and bad reviews.

X-Men, though it’s hard to remember now, was released at a time where the idea of superhero tales was an uncertain box office prospect. This is two years before Spider-Man broke all kinds of financial records. This is five years prior to Christopher Nolan reinvigorating the Bat franchise with his Dark Knight trilogy. And this was eight years before Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man, officially kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In the summer of 2000, X-Men was by no means a guaranteed hit. It did, however, have credibility with the behind the scenes talent and cast. Bryan Singer was known for his heralded The Usual Suspects. Acclaimed actors Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen (fresh off an Oscar nod for Gods and Monsters), Anna Paquin, and Halle Berry were among the onscreen players. And it was another casting decision that provided its most enduring legacy. Russell Crowe, who headlined that summer’s Oscar winner Gladiator, originally turned down the part of Wolverine. Dougray Scott was then cast in the role, but had to drop out when his role as the villain in Mission: Impossible II (also out that summer) prevented him from filming. So it was the unknown Hugh Jackman who donned the claws. He would go on to make it his signature role as he played Logan/Wolverine in numerous sequels and spin-offs (including three stand-alone projects of wildly divergent qualities).

Let’s back up. Before the 2000 release, X-Men was in development for over a decade and a half. At one point, James Cameron was slated to produce with his then wife Kathryn Bigelow attached to direct. Later on, Robert Rodriguez turned the project down. A gander at the pic’s Wikipedia page is an entertaining read (Mariah Carey was in the mix for Storm at one juncture and Angela Bassett was first choice). X-Men was rushed to make its summer release date 20 years ago today after it was originally intended for Christmas 2000.

That rushed feeling does show on up on screen a little, but the overall end result speaks for itself. What occurred two decades ago is a major mark in the comic book movie renaissance that continues to this day. The franchise has certainly had its ups and downs. X2: X-Men United was the first sequel in 2003 and it is generally considered a high point. Three years later, Brett Ratner took over directorial reigns with The Last Stand and (while a huge hit) the quality took a dip. Matthew Vaughn would reestablish critical kudos in rebooting the series in 2011 with First Class (bringing Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence to the screen playing younger counterparts to key characters). Jackman’s first spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine faced deserved backlash while 2017’s Logan was lauded and landed an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. And a cheeky and R rated offshoot called Deadpool with Ryan Reynolds would dazzle audiences and critics alike. Last summer’s Dark Phoenix didn’t do any dazzling and was another low ebb in the series. Spin-off The New Mutants has seen release date changes that began in 2018 and it’s pretty much a running joke as to whether it will ever come out.

That long road began in 2000 and has shaped the cinematic universe since. And if you had to mark a spot for the comic book landscape today as it stands now on the screen, it started that day.

Hercules Movie Review

For all the partially deserved fanboy flack that Brett Ratner gets for his middling X-Men entry, 2006’s The Last Stand, the truth is that the guy knows how to create fairly passable entertainment. I would apply this to everything from Red Dragon to After the Sunset to Tower Heist. His latest is Hercules. This is not a re-teaming with Eddie Murphy focusing on Sherman Klump’s nephew, but a significantly loose reimagining of the Greek god tale with its tongue often firmly planted in the strong cheekbones of its star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If taking on this well worn story sounds like a big undertaking and effort for Mr. Ratner (if only there were a term to better describe that), he doesn’t embarrass himself even if the final product is just mildly satisfying.

Johnson is a natural choice to play the son of Zeus (or is he?) and we find this version of Hercules as a for hire mercenary with a band of merry misfits. They include his young nephew who hates that his legendary uncle won’t let him fight. We have a knife thrower and a dude who doesn’t speak, but we know he will eventually at an “important moment”. And we also know the nephew will get his chance to show his bravery. The most interesting of the Herculean back up group is played by Ian McShane who can apparently see his the details of his own demise. The pic has a little fun with this detail. Rounding out the team is basically Xena, Warrior Princess.

We soon arrive at our hero and team’s latest mission which is to save a village led by a Lord played by John Hurt and his daughter (Rebecca Ferguson) with her young boy who shall be king one day. That is if Hercules and company can save them. Family issues are also front and center with Hercules himself and we learn details of his tragic history relating to why he was banished from Athens.

Our nemesis is someone who may or may not be a centaur and we have a couple of laughs from that detail as well. We get a series of battle sequences and inspirational speeches as the beleaguered village must learn war tricks from the title character. Training montage included. It’s all familiar territory with the one welcome difference being that the screenplay doesn’t take itself seriously like most efforts in the genre.

The vibe gets a bit more toned down in the third act and by that time, these proceedings begin to wear out their welcome. It’s actually the early battle sequences that are most impressive before becoming a little repetitive (some occasional dodgy creature CG doesn’t help). Like Ratner flicks before it, passable is an apt word for description with Hercules.

**1/2 (out of four)

X-Men: Days of Future Past Movie Review

Some apologies are more sincere than others and X-Men: Days of Future Past may just have the distinction of being 20th Century Fox and Bryan Singer’s most expensive apology ever. Why? Essentially, the seventh X-Men installment (counting the two Wolverine one-offs) renders a lot of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand moot. That picture sent comic book fans into a frenzy with how sub par it was after Brett Ratner took over the directorial reigns from Singer, who made the high quality first two flicks.

In order for Singer to pull off his most miraculous trick since Kevin Spacey started walking straight almost 20 years ago, the franchise must incorporate time travel. That means we get to see the cast from the original trilogy and those who populated 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which triumphantly reinvigorated the series.

At the center of it all is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, who warps back and forth between 1973 and the near future. In the “sort of” present, giant robots called Sentinels are exterminating Earth’s mutant species. Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Erik/Magneto (Ian McKellen) have actually formed a truce (maybe) to fight them. The solution involves having Wolverine go back 40 years to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Trask (Peter Dinklage), the Sentinel’s creator. Once Wolverine is among the glorious 70s fashion, he has to find younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and convince them to work together (no easy assignment) to alter history. Even President Richard Nixon is part of the action, though it’s never established if any of the future dwellers helped him out with that whole Watergate thing.

Along the way, we’re introduced to a new character that inspires the coolest sequence in the picture. That’s Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose super fast abilities allow for a rather jaw dropping action scene. His presence in the upcoming sequels will be welcome I trust.

To set the future right, Charles can only truly help by giving up a nasty drug addiction that renders his telepathy useless, but allows him to walk. Only by embracing his paralyzed status can he enter the Cerebro chamber and do his Professor X thing. In essence, he’s sort of like the cinematic Bizarro equivalent of Lieutenant Dan.

Besides the company already mentioned, other X-Men favorites (and not so favorites) return. There’s Beast and Shadowcat and Iceman. Halle Berry returns as Storm and, just like in the original trilogy, she doesn’t add much to the proceedings.

For all the time travel gobbledygook, Future Past works best as a highly entertaining action pic spent with old friends. Singer proved himself a great choice for the X material (unlike with Superman) in 2000 and 2002 and that holds true today. We already know how effective Jackman and the fine actors playing young and old Professor X and Magneto are. And with Jennifer Lawrence having become one of the biggest stars in the world since First Class, her role as Mystique is certainly magnified, as would be expected.

Future Past continues the positive trend that the series has been on since First Class washed the bad taste of Last Stand away. Brett Ratner might deservedly feel like a scapegoat once the credits roll here, but you’ll feel pretty satisfied.

*** (out of four)

Hercules Box Office Prediction

This Friday, audiences are treated to their second Hercules themed film of 2014. This would considered the higher profile one as The Legend of Hercules bombed in January with an abysmal $18 million domestic gross. Expectations are understandably bigger for this one – as it stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and is directed by Brett Ratner. It’s likely to gross more in its first weekend than Legend did in its whole domestic run.

Having said that, I’m anticipating a fairly muted opening for Hercules. The trailers and TV sports aren’t bad, but they’re rather unimpressive. There’s also Lucy, the Scarlett Johannson action thriller that seems to have more buzz around it and could be more successful in attracting a female audience. As I see it, Hercules will need to do solid business internationally to justify its reported $110 million budget because I don’t see it reaching very close to that stateside.

Hercules opening weekend prediction: $21.4 million

For my Lucy prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2014/07/20/lucy-box-office-prediction/

For my And So It Goes prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2014/07/20/and-so-it-goes-box-office-prediction/