X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A powerful, ancient mutant is awoken in 1983 and begins his quest to wipe out humanity so the world can start again. The X-Men, including some young additions to the team, stand in his way…

Get used to multiples names…
* Charles Xavier aka Professor X (James McAvoy) is now running a private school so he can covertly help young mutants come to terms with their powers. During the action climax, he loses all his hair – we knew that would happen at some point!
* Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has gone to ground since the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) He’s living under an assumed name (Magneto incognito?) with a new wife and daughter in Poland. But when they’re killed, he goes ape and joins forces with the film’s main bad guy.
* Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is off on her own when we first see her, helping mutants in places like East Berlin, but soon gets seconded back into the X-Men team.
* En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is possibly the first ever mutant, is incredibly powerful, and has been asleep since being betrayed in Ancient Egypt. When he wakes up he’s grouchy, so decides to kill everybody… Well, aside from a few handpicked acolytes: Psylocke (Olivia Farrington– I mean Munn), Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Angel (Ben Hardy). Storm defects to the good guys at the end. Psylocke sneaks off, hoping to be in the sequel.
* Hank McCoy aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is still Xavier’s right-hand man.
* CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) has no memory of her involvement in the events of X-Men: First Class (2011) because Charles used mind-control to give her amnesia. But she helps the team defeat Apocalypse. There’s a joke about how she looks like she hasn’t aged a day – it’s been 21 years since we last saw her, fictionally speaking! – and she mentions her son, which is seeding a potential plot for a future film.
* After his scene-stealing spot in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver (Evan Peters) returns for an *even more inventive and entertaining* set-piece here, as well as generally getting more to do. It’s also confirmed that he’s Erik’s son.
* The junior members of the team – X-Men: the Next Generation? – include younger versions of characters from the original trilogy: Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
* Alex Summers aka Havok (Lucas Till) appears in his third X-Men movie.

Stan Lee cameo: During Apocalypse’s apocalyptic apocalypse, Stan Lee and his wife, Joan, appear as an elderly couple looking on in horror. It’s a lot more sombre than his usual cameos.

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that are contradicted or expanded in other movies.
* Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has a surprise cameo when the characters break into a secret research base. Because we’re now in an alternative time (thanks, Days of Future Past!) he’s kinda going through a different version of the events seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). To be frank, the sequence is self-indulgent and slows the pace. The film wouldn’t suffer if it had been cut.
* William Stryker also crops up: this is the character’s fourth X-Men film, but it’s the first time an actor’s played him twice.
* The character of Angel had been in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). His age makes no sense here.
* The film’s post-credits scene seems to be teasing the next solo Wolverine movie, which is due out in March 2017.

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend Fraser Dickson to talk about this film: “I was never a fan of Apocalypse in the comics. He seemed like this generic big bad who just wanted to rule the world. All a bit old-fashioned in comparison to the other more nuanced threats the X-Men were facing in print at that time. Unfortunately, for me, this film ended up re-enforcing that view. I say ended up because I really liked the new cast and it set off at a sprint developing into an enjoyable caper movie that really built on the strengths of First Class and ignored the worst of Days Of Future Past. Then came the world-ending CGI, which dwarfed the individual battles and stories being told and sent us back to generic disaster-movie territory with a blank villain at its centre, which, for me, sold short an otherwise enjoyable reboot…”

Review: There *are* problems. This is yet another bloody superhero film with a climax that consists of CGI buildings being destroyed. (Dear Hollywood: we’re all bored of that now. Think up something new.) And the bad guy’s not exactly what you call nuanced. But on the whole this is entertaining stuff. For a start, it shows recent rivals Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War – two movies that sag under the weight of too many characters and subplots – how to do a big-budget action film where everyone feels like a vital cog in the machine. The story has been smartly constructed so that nearly every character has a journey or a moment to shine, while the younger cast in particular are likeable, fun and work well as a team. There’s also a joyful 1980s-ness to the whole thing: Kurt wears a Michael Jackson Thriller jacket, characters go to see Return of the Jedi and make a self-deprecating gag about trilogies, there are themes of nuclear war, and Ally Sheedy pops up in a small role. Two hours zip by very enjoyably.

Eight Brooklyn Bridges out of 10

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X-Men: Days of Future Past: The Rogue Cut (2015, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A year after the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, a different edit was made available on Blu-ray and DVD. Called The Rogue Cut because the most attention-grabbing addition was an entirely new subplot concerning that character, it’s around 17 minutes longer than the original. I’ve already written about the theatrical print, so this review is concerned with the changes made in 2015. It’s far from a full list. I’m just mentioning what I spotted and thought interesting…

* During the opening action sequence, we now see a glimpse or two of a temporary shrine the characters have built to fallen comrades. Aww.
* The minor characters in the future stuff now have a discussion about the pros and cons of changing history. “My people need to vote,” says Bishop as it concludes. Charles looks round the group, reading their thoughts: “They just did,” he says. “They’re in.”
* Kitty and Bobby share a moment – and a kiss – as she prepares to send Wolverine back in time.
* After Logan gets to 1973 and wakes up in bed with a woman called Gwen, his fight with some goons is more violent. There’s then an extra scene. He steals a heavy’s car and finds Gwen in the passenger seat. She clearly knows the 1970s Logan well, but this version just tells her to get out. As he drives away, we hear a radio news report about the end of the Vietnam War and see the World Trade Centre in the background – further reinforcements of the time period.
* In the 70s, when Logan, Charles and Hank need to find Quicksilver’s address, Logan laments that they don’t have the internet.
* There’s a new exchange at Quicksilver’s house: Logan trades a bit of banter with Quicksilver’s younger sister and there’s also mention of a third sibling (a nod to the fact that Quicksilver has a twin sister in the comics).
* Nixon’s first line while he watches news reports about mutants – “Fuck me!” – had been cut from the original version. A little while later another line has been reinstated – “I don’t care who you screw,” he says to Trask, “as long as it’s not me.”
* In the original version, the comatose Logan in the future scenes lashes out and injures Kitty. She then has to maintain the time-travel trance while bleeding. In this cut, however, Bobby suggests they find Rogue – a character from the original X-Men trilogy – so she can take Kitty’s place. It’s the headline change to the movie, and has a huge affect on the third quarter.
* Another huge change happens around this time too. In the original cut, Charles talks to Raven via telepathy and infers that she’s heading for Washington. That information has been removed from this version, though, and we cut to a new scene of Hank and Logan. Hank asks if he makes it in the future and Logan deadpans, “No.” (In the original, this exchange happens later on. Of course, that scene’s been trimmed out of this edit.)
* The new stuff continues… Hank is watching TV coverage about Trask when he hears a sound in the house and finds that Raven has sneaked in. She says she had nowhere else to go and kisses him. As they make out they turn into their (coincidentally both blue) mutant forms. He says she’s beautiful, which is a reference to a conversation they had in X-Men: First Class, but then pulls away and walks off. (That’s more willpower than I’d have, mate.)
* Then there’s a lovely dissolve from an exterior shot of the house in 1973 to the house in the war-torn future. In the 2020s, Charles, Erik and Bobby break into Charles’s former home to rescue Rogue. All this stuff is intercut with familiar shots of the 1973 Erik breaking into a government building. The crosscutting is really good, and was clearly the original intention during filming.
* In 1973 there’s a new scene of Raven sneaking into Cerebro and smashing up the equipment. After she’s left, she heads for Washington and we’re back into the original cut’s storyline.
* In the future, Rogue reaches the temple. Kitty learns that Bobby has been killed during the mission. Rogue then takes Kitty’s place by Logan’s side. (In the 70s, meanwhile, Logan somehow senses that Rogue is now in charge of his time-travelling.)
* In the White House sequence, Charles has a chat with an injured serviceman, who asks why he can’t walk. “Friendly fire,” says Charles.
* A new post-credits scene shows Trask in the same kind of prison that once held Erik. He’s grown a beard.

Review: The additions are good in and of themselves, and the flow of the storytelling is impressive when you see them in context. But it’s easy to see why the Rogue subplot was cut in 2014. It’s a tangent, a diversion, that doesn’t contribute anything new. Losing it didn’t damage the story. The Raven/Hank scenes were perhaps a greater loss, as they flesh out two key characters, though the pace was undoubtedly zippier without Raven’s visit to the house.

Eight Central Parks out of 10

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In the near future, a war is waging between mutants and robot killers called Sentinals. Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr realise their only hope for victory is to send Wolverine back in time to prevent the fighting ever starting…

Get used to multiples names…
* Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy) is just one of numerous characters who we see in both the 2020s and the 1970s – hence two actors playing the role. The main body of the film takes place in the past: it’s been 11 years since the events of X-Men: First Class (2011); Charles has been abandoned by most of his friends and is also a junkie. The drugs help him walk but subdue his telepathic powers.
* The action opening features a number of newly seen mutants fighting the Sentinals: Blink (Fan Bingbing), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Bishop (Omar Sy). Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) from the original trilogy are also part of the team, as is…
* Kitty Pryde (Ellen Paige) is using her powers to evade the Sentinals. The plan sees her send a colleague’s consciousness back in time to warn their past selves of upcoming attacks. (Keeping up?) She uses the same trick to send Wolverine to 1973. She then has to spend the rest of the film holding her hands either side of his sleeping head.
* Ororo Monroe aka Storm (Halle Berry) is still fighting with Professor X and still doesn’t have much to do.
* Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the movie’s lynchpin. His consciousness is sent from the 2020s into his 1973 body (very Desmond-in-Lost). He gets the gig because a) his mutant healing powers mean he has the best chance of surviving such a procedure, and b) he doesn’t age so Jackman can play the character throughout.
* Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender) is, in the future scenes, working with Charles and the others. But they’re estranged in the 1970s. Since the events of First Class, he’s been arrested for killing JFK and locked up in a cell under the Pentagon.
* Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) is the bad guy of the story. In 1973 he plans to build robots who can hunt down mutants. Ironically, however, the war in the future is the direct result of his death in 1973. So Wolverine has been sent back to save his life.
* Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has found out about Trask’s plans so is plotting to assassinate him. However, she doesn’t realise that this will lead to war. Since filming First Class, Jennifer Lawrence had won an Oscar and become a huge star, which might explain why the usually minor Mystique is so crucial to this plot. (That’s being cynical, of course: her storyline works well.)
* A scene in an army base in Vietnam features William Stryker (John Helman), Alex Summers (Lucas Till) and Toad (Evan Jonigkeit) – all characters seen in previous films.
* Hank McCoy aka Beast (Nicholas Haunt and Kelsey Grammer) is still at Charles’s side in the 70s. In the new future timeline we see at the end of the film, Kelsey Grammer features in one shot.
* Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is a young lad who Charles and Wolverine recruit to help free Erik from jail. His mutant power is that he can move at lightening speed. After the prison-break sequence, he goes home – presumably because he’d be able to solve any problem the team encounter and the film would lose any tension. There are hints that Peter might be Erik’s son. (A couple of months before this film came out, Quicksilver also debuted in the Avengers series of movies. He’s played by a different actor in those films, and is not intended to be the same guy as here.)
* President Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho) features a bit. There’s a gag about switching off the tape recorder he has stashed in the Oval Office.
* The alternative future seen at the end of the film features cameos from old characters Rogue (Anna Paquin), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Scott Summers (James Marsden) – the latter two had been killed off in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and are being used to here to demonstrate how Wolverine has changed the past.

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that are contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* The fact Charles is alive in the future – despite dying in X-Men: The Last Stand – was addressed in Easter-egg scenes in that film and The Wolverine (2013).
* When Raven finds autopsy photos in Trask’s office, they’re of First Class characters such as Azazel and Angel. Erik later specifies that other mutants such as Emma Frost and Banshee have also died in the last 10 years.
* Stryker mentions his son, Jason, who appeared as a grown-up in X2 (2003).
* As mentioned, the happy ending resurrects Jean and Scott, who died in The Last Stand.
* A post-credits scene set in Ancient Egypt teases the 2016 film X-Men: Apocalypse.

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend Johnathon Hughes to talk about this film: “Where the other films cherry-picked elements of plots from the long history of the comics, Days of Future Past is the first in the series to adapt one single story – even using it as the movie’s subtitle. In many ways it’s the ultimate X-Men story – a balanced mix of serious social comment (genocide, political corruption, hate crimes) with sci-fi/fantasy thrills (time travel and cool robots). It’s one of the more overtly political comic-book stories: published in 1980 on the eve of the US election that saw Ronald Reagan become President, it warns this is an integral point in history for mutants and predicts dark days ahead if they don’t act now, represented in the ravaged future timeline (set in 2013!). It’s hard not to read this as a statement on right-wing Republicanism that marginalised minorities, and reaffirms the allegory of mutant mistrust to society’s treatment of gay and ethnic communities. There are inevitable tweaks in the film, the biggest being that Wolverine is sent back from the future, not Kitty, but this is understandable as Kitty would not have been born in 1973 going by the chronology (up to this point) of the films. Plus Wolverine doesn’t age and Hugh Jackman’s star power makes him the more obvious choice as a protagonist who can straddle both timelines of the film franchise. And it’s anti-mutant politician Senator Kelly (played by Bruce Davison in the first two films) not Boliver Trask that Mystique plans to assassinate in the past. But in terms of the overall concept, themes and tone it’s pretty faithful to the source material. The post-apocalyptic future and design of the Sentinels are particularly well realised. As one of the most revered comic-book stories of all time, there’s no need to really mess about with it.”

Alternative version: A few months after this film’s release, an extended version called The Rogue Cut was released on DVD. There are a number of significant changes, so I’ll blog about that separately.

Review: There’s plenty to enjoy here, especially if like me you’ve recently seen all the previous movies again. This is one for the fans: if you’re a newcomer, good luck. Days of Future Past is a sequel to both the original trilogy and X-Men: First Class, and it assumes a level of knowledge and understanding. Marry that with a complex, time-shifting plot and it can be a struggle to keep with the mechanics of what’s going on. A second (or in my case third) viewing really helps, though, and it’s worth the effort. The first 15 minutes are necessarily grim – very Tech Noir, very The Terminator, very purple – but then it’s great fun once Wolverine wakes up in 1973 and the parallels with TV show Life on Mars start to mount up. There’s fish-out-of-water comedy, lots of action, lots of sci-fi trappings… but with Bryan Singer back as director the film never forgets to focus on character and story rather than explosions or paradoxes. If there’s one major flaw, it’s the nagging sense that the structure falls between two stools. As lovely as it is on a geek level to see the original cast and the First Class actors all involved in the same story, the future characters feel perfunctory and functional. (It must be the least-demanding acting Ian McKellen’s ever done on a job.) But with sequences such as the Pentagon heist, we’re often back to the swagger of First Class. Good fun.

Eight Eiffel Towers out of 10

X2 (2003, Bryan Singer)

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Aka: X-Men 2, X2: X-Men United

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Two opposing factions of mutants must join forces when a man called William Stryker plots to wipe them out…

Get used to multiples names…
* Back from the first film are good guys Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Halle Berry), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Scott Summers aka Cyclops (James Marsden), Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin), Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and, in another gag cameo about walking through walls, Kitty Pryde (recast with Katie Stuart). Wolverine and Jean continue their flirtation – that is, until she sacrifices herself during the action climax for not terribly clear reasons. Sadly, Xavier spends a looong time in a catatonic stupor so Patrick Stewart is rather sidelined. There’s a nice bit where Bobby has to tell his parents he’s a mutant: it plays like a coming-out scene, reinforcing the theme and providing some gentle comic relief. Younger team members Rogue and Drake more than hold their own with the others.
* Added to the team for this film are John Allerdyce aka Pyro (Aaron Standford), a livewire student who switches sides late on, and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), who can turn his body into metal.
* A character who starts off working for the bad guys (against his will) but then joins up with the heroes is Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming). He can teleport and has a strong religious faith. In one scene, he has a chat with Jean and Storm. Maybe they’re comparing notes on what it’s like to be in a James Bond film with Pierce Brosnan.
* The real villain of the piece is a military loon called William Stryker (an OTT Brian Cox), who has a history with Wolverine and a hatred of mutants. Despite this, he has a mostly mute mutant sidekick called Yuriko Oyama aka Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu).
* The previous film’s Big Bad – Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen) – is back, as is his pal Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Initially, Magneto is in the same prison we saw at the end of the first film. Because of the threat posed by Styker, he later teams up with the good guys. Romijn-Stamos actually gets a scene sans make-up when her character pretends to be a sexy blonde woman.
* Oh, and Senator Kelly has a short appearance. Neat trick, seeing how he died in X-Men. (It’s actually Mystique pretending to be him: actor Bruce Davison returns.)

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that will be contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* Younger versions of William Stryker will play key roles in both X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). In this movie, Stryker says it’s been 15 years since he saw Wolverine, which doesn’t tally with what we learn later.
* Mystique and Nightcrawler share a moment in this film – it’s a nod to the fact they’re mother and son in the comic books.
* Jean Grey’s death is a deliberate setting up of plot for the next film, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend Johnathon Hughes to give a comic-reader’s view on this movie: “X2 brims with confidence and definitely owes more to its comic-book roots than the first film. The episodic structure, multiple story strands, ambitious scale and richer characterisation give it the feel of a graphic novel from the glory days of the 1980s, drawing heavily from God Loves, Man Kills with its political comment about prejudice against mutants, and a fan-pleasing nod to the Phoenix saga at the end – the final image mourning Jean and teasing what lies beneath Alkali Lake is heart-stopping for anyone who grew up imagining what would it be like if Dark Phoenix made it to the big screen. The downbeat ending and shifting allegiances also make it feel like part of an ongoing story, meaning you want to come back to see what happens next issue.”

Review: A big improvement on the (decent enough) first film. For a kick-off, this is more complex: there’s more intrigue, more excitement, generally more going on. At first, a number of subplots bounce around each other before clicking together nicely, and it’s a script where each scene pushes the story on in interesting ways. Editorially it works really well too: scenes often reach a crisis point then cut away to eke out tension. (The attack on the school is especially gripping.) There’s also a pleasing Empire Strikes Backsiness about how the team of regulars is split up as the shit hits the fan. Meanwhile, as the plot motors along, every character gets a meaningful journey or nice little moment. In short, it’s just notably better written than the first film. People’s powers tend to be shown rather than explained in dialogue, for example, while plot exposition is much more elegantly handled. One thing that fails to fly, however, is the Wolverine/Jean romance. There’s little chemistry between the actors and it’s hard to understand what they see in each other (beyond the fact they’re both played by attractive people). But the sombre ending teases the next film well…

Nine White Houses out of 10

X-Men (2000, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a politician proposes legal limits on people who have been born with special powers, a terrorist called Magneto plots to turn everyone into mutants. Standing in his way is an old friend with a more live-and-let-live approach…

Get used to multiples names…
* The film’s point-of-view characters are Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin). They learn about the lives and rules of mutants so we can too. Jackman is such an effective leading man – very Harrison Ford-ish – that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. But he was only cast three weeks into filming when Dougray Scott dropped out because production of Mission: Impossible II overran. Paquin’s good too, and it’s a shame when Rogue becomes a damsel in distress in the second half. After bumping into each other in Canada and forming a touching friendship, Wolverine and Rogue end up at Charles Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters, which is also a front for a team of mutant superheroes.
* Xavier aka Professor X is played by Patrick Stewart, who brings gravitas, soul and a bald head to the role. His lieutenants are Dr Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Halle Berry in a dodgy white wig) and Scott Summers aka Cyclops (James Marsden). Jean has a flirtation with Wolverine, which irritates her fiancé Cyclops, but it’s not specified why she doesn’t get a cool codename. Storm is sadly a bit of a non-entity, and is also involved in the film’s worst moment. An uncredited Joss Whedon worked on a draft of the script and wrote a Bondian quip for the character – “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?” she says when facing off against an evil mutant called Toad. “The same thing that happens to everything else!” However, Halle Berry delivers it without any irony at all and the gag is lost. (Imagine a Buffy character throwing away the second half of the line.)
* Students at the school include Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Sumela Kay) – both will have more to do in sequels.
* On the other side of the mutant divide is a remarkably small team of bad guys. Magneto’s real name is Erik Lehnsherr and he’s played by Ian McKellen with an American accent and an arrogant air. He has just three sidekicks: the giant Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the creepy Toad (Ray Park from The Phantom Menace) and the blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique (a seemingly naked Rebecca Romijn-Stamos… Wowzers).
* The only other notable character is Senator Kelly, played by the reliable Bruce Davison. He opposes mutants but is then turned into one by Magneto and dies.

Stan Lee cameo: The creator of the X-Men can be spotted in the scene where a mutated Kelly walks out of the sea and up a beach. Lee is one of the shocked onlookers.

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that will be contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* Sabretooth acts like he’s never met Wolverine before, which doesn’t marry with the backstory told in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
* Kitty Pryde will be recast twice and get more to do in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).
* Charles tells us he met Eric when they were 17 – that story will be dramatised in X-Men: First Class (2009).
* Jean Grey mindreads Wolverine and sees memories of surgery he was subjected to – both X2 (2003) and Origins: Wolverine will expand on those events.

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend Fraser Dickson to give a comic-reader’s view on this movie: “As a lifelong fan of the X-Men comics this film was always going to struggle to live up to expectations, but I was encouraged after hearing about some of the cast and went in feeling optimistic. It made a promising start, touching on elements of the Days of Future Past story, but the ‘death ray’ set atop the Statue of Liberty in the finale was far too B-movie cliché for me. I left wondering whether films adapted from comics could ever work and would always end up seeming just too childish and naff. Then I saw Iron Man…”

Review: At 100 minutes the film is considerably leaner than most modern superhero movies. This decade’s Avengers films, for example, are 137 and 136 minutes, while the two recent Superman movies add up to around five hours. So with only an hour and a half before the credits start rolling, X-Men doesn’t hang about. The first 10 minutes feature a prologue set during the Second World War, the introduction of Rogue and her dangerous abilities, a debate in the Senate that kicks off the plot, the establishing of Charles and Eric’s rivalry, and the first sighting of Wolverine. It’s slick, enjoyable, intriguing stuff. However, it soon becomes clear that the trade-off for the bum-friendly running time is a flimsy plot. The movie feels like the pilot episode of a TV series. A lot of screen time is spent on introducing characters and explaining superpowers, while the story’s main beats are reduced to ‘heroes guess what the bad guy is up to’ followed by ‘heroes set off to stop him’. It’s not complex and there’s not much tension to anything. But it’s still obvious how influential the film’s been. Many subsequent comic-book adaptations have followed X-Men’s lead in playing things for real, for example. That 1944 prologue – showing a young Magneto in a Nazi concentration camp – is very important. Not only does it set up the themes of prejudice and fear of difference, but it also tells us this is not a traditional superhero film. This is set in a close approximation of the ‘real’ world, not the faux 1940s of the Christopher Reeve Superman films or the gothic Gotham City of Tim Burton’s Batman. The cast are also ‘playing the truth’ of the situations. There’s no Gene Hackman or Jack Nicholson given licence to camp it up, which adds weight to everything that’s happening. There may still be comic-book conventions on show (everyone has two names, the team dress up in silly costumes) but they’re also wittily undercut (Wolverine pokes fun at the aliases, his X-Men outfit doesn’t fit properly). There are regular moments of humour or humanity, in fact. The film has *heart*. The storytelling is also impressively clear, precise and confident. It’s just a shame it’s so simplistic. It doesn’t feel very ambitious.

Seven Statues of Liberty out of 10

Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having been away for five years, Superman comes home to Earth – just as Lex Luthor is kick-starting a new diabolical plan…

Good guys: In the years since Superman IV, there’d been numerous sequel or reboot projects that had failed to take flight. Directors such as Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, Michael Bay, Martin Campbell, Brett Ratner, McG and Wolfgang Petersen were attached or asked; actors as varied as Ben Affleck, Nicolas Cage, Will Smith, Christian Bale, Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser, David Boreanaz and Ashton Kutcher were considered, courted and in some cases actually cast in the lead role. But when Bryan Singer took over as director, he decided upon the unknown Brandon Routh to be the new cinematic Superman. He’s doing a Christopher Reeve impression for the most part, but if you’re going to steal then steal from the best. The character has been off in space for five years, searching for the wreckage of his home planet (guess what: it’s not there any more), but crashes like a meteorite near the Kent family farm. In his Clark Kent persona, he returns to his old job at the Daily Planet, but when he hears about a crisis aboard a 747 he turns into Superman and comes to the rescue. He then meets up with old flame Lois Lane as well as her new partner, Robert, and their son. The boy’s age means that maybe Robert’s not the father… Superman later spies on Lois, Robert and Jason (bit stalker-y, this), and is upset to hear Lois deny she once loved Superman. So he flies into space and floats above the planet like a god. He can hear the entire Earth at once, but his ears zero in on a bank robbery in Metropolis. (All those rapes will have to wait, I suppose.) When master criminal Lex Luthor creates a new landmass off the eastern coast of America, Superman flies there to sort him out – but the ground is tainted by Kryptonite, so he’s incapacitated and gets stabbed. Lois arrives to save him, then he dives into the ocean and lifts the entire continent up out of the water and flings it into space. Job done. Lois, meanwhile, is played by Kate Bosworth. It’s a dreary, dead-behind-the-eyes performance, empty of energy and charm. It’s difficult to fathom what either Clarke or Robert see in her. At the start of the story, she’s researching a story about a new space shuttle. When the plane she’s on falls out of the sky thanks to a power surge, Superman arrives to save her – knowing he’s back in town, she now feels guilty about writing a recent article called Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman. We get a gag about how she’s a poor speller – but she’s still about to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize (give it to the Daily Planet subs, I say). Mum-of-the-year Lois then takes her five-year-old son along when she investigates the source of the power surge, and they both end up being kidnapped by Lex Luthor.

Bad guys: Lex is played by Kevin Spacey, who’s having great fun with the role. After Superman failed to show up for a court date, Luthor was released from the prison sentence he was given earlier in the series. He’s since been conning an old woman (Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in 1948-1950) out of her fortune. Using a massive luxury yacht as his base, Lex now has a number of sidekicks and a plan to create a new continent so he can sell the real estate. Using crystals stolen from Superman’s abandoned Fortress of Solitude and some Kryptonite nicked from a museum, his creation is a jagged, desolate outcrop in the north Atlantic. Why anyone would want to live there is not addressed. Luthor’s chief lieutenant is the sarcastic Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey, who would have made a much better Lois Lane). Kal Penn – sometime Kumar, sometime politician – is one of the henchmen. For reasons not explored, another is constantly filming things with a video camera.

Other guys: James Marsden turned his back on the X-Men series in order to play Richard White, Lois’s boyfriend and the nephew of the Daily Planet’s editor. For third-act reasons, he has a seaplane docked outside his house. Young Jason is played by Tristan Lake Leabu. Frank Langella appears as Perry White; Sam Huntington doesn’t get much to do as a wide-eyed Jimmy Olsen. Eva Marie Saint, who won an Oscar for On The Waterfront and was in North by Northwest, plays Martha Kent. Coincidentally, her Waterfront co-star is also in Superman Returns – in a move that’s maybe a smidgen too pleased with itself, the film re-uses 1970s footage of Marlon Brando playing Jor-El.

Best bits:
* The creepy opening scene: Lex lying to the old woman he’s conned as she dies, then confronting her disgusted and disinherited family. Pulling off his wig, he hands it to a distraught little girl. “You can keep that. The rest is mine.”

* The interior of Lex’s yacht – a huge studio set that tilts from side from side.

* Clark’s dog drops a tennis ball at his feet, so he throws it and it flies miles into the distance. The dog starts to run after it, then stops, turns and whines a whine that clearly says, “You bastard.”

* The Daily Planet newsroom. It’s hectic and feels old-school – men in suits, ties and braces, women in tank tops – but also has computers and plasma-screens.

* Lex and his gang return to the empty mansion. A dog is eating a bone. Kitty wonders what happened to the other pooch…

* The room filled with an enormous and enormously detailed model train set. WANT!

* “Wow, that’s really something, Lex,” deadpans an unimpressed Kitty when his demonstration fails to happen. “Wait for it,” he says. She does, for a second, then repeats, “Wow, that’s really something, Lex.”

* When the model train set is trashed by the power surge, we get gags referring to older Superman movies: the earthquake from film one, the destruction of Mount Rushmore from film two and the plant fire from film three are all recreated in beautiful miniature.

* The first appearance of Superman, climaxing in a moment when he holds up an airliner vertically by its nose to prevent it crashing into a baseball stadium.

* The emergency editorial meeting called now that Superman in back. Perry White rattles off assignments: “Okay, everybody, listen up. I want to know it all, everything. Olsen: I want to see photos of him everywhere; no, I want *the* photo. Sport: how they going to get that plane out of the stadium? Travel: where did he go? Was he on vacation? If so, where? Gossip: has he met somebody? Fashion: is that a new suit? Health: has he lost weight? What’s he been eating? Business: how is this going to affect the stock market? Long term, short term? Politics: does he still stand for truth, justice… all that stuff?”

* Lois and Clarke in a lift, which is filled with other people reading the Daily Planet (headline: ‘The Man of Steel is back!’) There’s muzak and the pair trade nervous glances.

* Superman standing before a machine gun, the bullets bouncing off his chest. The bad guy then takes out a handgun and unloads into Superman’s face (steady…), but the bullet harmlessly impacts on his eyeball and slides off.

* Kitty driving manically through the city, endangering lives left, right and centre, as a diversion while Lex breaks into the museum. (She later slaps Lex and says, “I was going to *pretend* the brakes were out!”)

* A quick reference to Gotham City.

* Lex finding Lois on his boat while he’s cleaning his teeth.

* Lex: “Kitty, what did my father used to say to me?” Kitty: “You’re losing your hair?” “Before that.” “Get out?”

* While being held hostage with his mum, Jason plays the piano aboard Lex’s yacht. In a pleasingly whimsical moment, the henchman guarding them sits next to him and joins in.

* A shock wave hits Metropolis.

* Every time the Superman theme tune swells up.

* Superman picks up a continent.

* Lex and Kitty get stranded on a tiny atoll in the middle of nowhere. They have a helicopter… but no petrol.

* The final shot: a deliberate copy of Superman: The Movie’s final image.

Review: It feels a bit mean to criticise Superman Returns. Its heart is clearly in the right place and I don’t doubt the love put into it. But it largely doesn’t work. Slightly strangely, the film is a sequel to Superman II. It ignores the events of Superman III and Superman IV, and asks you not to worry that 25 years have passed yet no one’s aged. After a caption card that sums up the backstory, we hear Marlon Brando’s voice and John Williams’s theme music before a credit sequence modelled on the 1978 movie. That’s just the start of references to those earlier films – and, while plainly well intentioned, it’s a big problem. The film is just too deferential, too afraid to be bold. It doesn’t have a voice of its own, and as a result lacks zip and drive. It’s also too long and falls into that action-movie trap of having a really boring final third. (In comparison, the previous year’s Batman Begins gets more interesting the longer it goes on.) Visually, the cinematography is going for a romantic, classical look. It’s very soft, perhaps because the movie was shot digitally rather than on film; has lots of muted colours such as turquoise, sea-green and yellow; and often looks like an old painting – something to be admired from a distance rather than something to get wrapped up in. The film’s not a disaster, by any means. Routh and Spacey are great and I’d have loved to have seen them again. But it’s nothing special.

Six Pulitzer Prize-winning articles out of 10.

Next time: Superman II redux’d.

My 30 favourite films

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So, a few years ago – in order to complete an Empire magazine readers’ poll – I set about compiling my top 10 films. Narrowing them down that far was too tough, and I ended up with a shortlist of 30. Since that time, I’ve made one change: GoodFellas was reluctantly dropped for the most recent movie on the list.

I’ve added links to any films I’ve blogged about elsewhere on this site, whilst clips indicate my favourite five…

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

D.O.A. (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)