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X-Men (2000) -vs- X2: X-Men United (2003) -vs- X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Beau DeMayoThe Smackdown

What happens when you take a merry band of hot people with gifts that get them lynched, a bitter geriatric villain born from the Holocaust, and a Star Trek captain confined to a wheelchair but still in charge with his faintly-odd-I-can’t-place-that-but-it’s-North-Atlantic accent?  You get the X-Men trilogy, started by Bryan Singer in 2000.  Leave it to the X-Men, a comic book franchise that re-defined comics, to make comic book films cool again following the fall of the Batman franchise.  With X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s release and Fox’s not-too-subtle Blu-ray release of the X-Men series, X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand face up to find out which film is more evolved, and which determines the fate of mankind’s war against their genetic superiors?

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In One Corner

Bryan Singer’s X-Men took a little bit of Matrix and a whole lot of Marvel and jam-packed it all into an intense 90-minute film that was surprisingly more thriller than action film.  This isn’t a surprise since Singer has always seemed most comfortable in thrillers, The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil being the merits that earned himX-Men’s directorial helm.  In X-Men, Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, an amnesiac mutant with indestructible claws, is found by the X-Men, a group of highly-trained mutants who moonlight as teachers at a school for young mutants.  The school’s headmaster, Charles Xavier, dreams of creating a world where human and mutants co-exist.  Opposing Xavier and his X-Men is Magneto, Xavier’s former best friend and militant leader of the anti-human Brotherhood of Mutants.  This is a movie made by its casting since the plot is rather slim and predictable.  Watching Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan wax philisophical as comic book versions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X makes for a riveting thriller.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine was risky, but amazing, casting.  The visual style and look of X-Men is something to appreciate, as Singer and his production design crew throw away blind fidelity to comic book gratuity and instead adapt the comic to our real world.  Gone is yellow spandex, bright purple/red costumes, eight-foot tall mutants, and Gucci-wearing shapeshifters.  Everything is understated, making the film’s themes of prejudice and alienation all the more real for a modern audience.

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In The Other Corner

In 2003, the X-Men return with a bang with what many called the “Wrath of Khan” of comic book films (this was pre-The Dark Knight mind you).   Based loosely on the graphic novel, “God Loves, Man Kills,”  this is the first of the three X-Men movies to actually use a specific graphic novel as its basis.  What is unique about X2: X-Men United is that Singer turns the superhero formula on its head, bringing it closer to the more nuanced plotlines of the comic books.  In this entry, the X-Men must actually team up with their arch-nemesis, Magneto, in order to stop a greater threat: William Stryker, a bigoted colonel who has orchestrated a mutant “final solution.”  Building upon the character and cast chemistry of its predecessor, X2 launches full-throttle into an intense chase film with the X-Men on the run, hunted by Stryker and his military force.  Singer earns his action-chops in this film, with everything from teleporting-presidential-assassinations, dogfights-amid-tornados, and a brutal tango of adamantium between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike.  If that’s not enough, wait until the last ten minutes when the X-men stare down a thousand-ton tidal wave.  Not a fan of action?  The film’s sincere and unpredictable relationships and plot twists will keep you interested.  In the end, this character-study-turned-action-feast brings the best of the X-men to the screen, even if it takes considerable liberties with the source material.

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The The Last Corner

With Singer out, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) stepped in to deliver the most action-packed X-Men yet.  X-Men: The Last Stand is all mutants, spectacle, and body count.  Magneto is back as a villain infuriated at humanity’s attempts to actually cure mutants.  Magneto is not the only one back, so is Jean Grey–back from the dead wanting to send a few people back from whence she came.  As the X-Men scramble to contain anti-mutant hysteria, the school finds itself alone on all sides.  To be honest, there’s not much plot here which is odd considering the plot devices used and the source material–The Dark Phoenix Saga is considered one of the best comic epics ever written.  However, the depiction of mutant powers–especially those of Dark Phoenix–is fun to watch and never bores.  X-Men: The Last Stand returns to X-Men’s compressed 90-minute time frame, keeping things frenetic and relentless if a little meaningless and confusing.

The Scorecard

As a trilogy, The X-Men is one of the better ones out there, each installment building upon previous installments and source material while adding something new.  Now whether or not what is added is a good is another question altogether.  The X-Men trilogy intends to ultimately tell the tale of Wolverine, a gruff loner who finds himself in foreign situations that eventually force him to lead a team of mutants he never wanted to be part of in the first place.  The film that most pushes this character arch is X-Men: The Last Stand and for that purpose, it’s an instant loser to X2 and X-Men.

X-Men and X2 functioned so well against one another due to their loyalty to character and their natures.  In The Last Stand, characters arrive on screen utterly changed from their previous versions, and mainly to show how noble or level-headed Wolverine is.  Storm is an unmitigated bitch, a pro-mutant extremist who seems to tolerate humanity more than protect them.  Xavier is ruthless and corrupted, no better than Magneto himself.  Gone is the nuanced and sympathetic depiction of Magneto, replaced now with the full-blown Hitler knock-off Magneto would never let himself become.  Character relationships are inconsistent.  One moment, Magneto is goading Jean Grey to murder Xavier.  In other scenes, he’s bemoaning his fallen friend.  Bobby is all about Rogue until Kitty Pryde shows up.  Storm apparently hates Jean Grey suddenly…or maybe not.  Everything is jumbled and confused because quite frankly…

…there’s just too much action and too much Wolverine.  With so many mutants thrown into the mix, and so much action used to display their fantastic powers, The Last Stand’s action set-pieces quickly become par for course.  What’s worse: their mediocrity eventually overshadows characters and the significance of the action setpieces.  Characters die without much build-up or follow-thru.  Catastrophes happen with little consequence.  Instead of an intense family battle as the X-Men face one of their own, Jean Grey, we get a force romantic subplot with Wolverine and Jean.

And that’s the thing: the X-Men is about more than just Wolverine.  Granted, Singer used Wolverine as an anchoring point since his character is the most engaging and probably displayed the most potential for cinematic character development.  However, Wolverine in The Last Stand becomes clearly infallible, an Indiana Jones meets Hans Solo figure who’ll never let you down and never turn his back on you.  This is a far different character than that of X-Men’s Logan, who stops at nothing to get what he wants–including stealing and lying.  At the end of the film, he even leaves the X-Men to find out more about himself–he’s no team player.  X2’s Logan is even more fallible, trying to steal a another man’s woman, ditching the X-Men during the climax, and nearly leaving lost children behind so he could pursue his own goals.  The Last Stand is all about Wolverine rising to the occasion perfectly and ably each and every time. It gets boring.

So, yes, X-Men: The Last Stand quickly falls before X-Men and X2: X-Men United.

Now, it’s tempting to give X-Men the title due to it having started it all.  It did, after all, introduce an entire world of characters, a complicated backstory, and a bevy of social themes all in 90 minutes. But like I said, X-Men’s plot is rather slim and predictable, even if by necessity.  But a film is still a film and a film needs plot, one that’s engaging, exciting, and unpredictable.  Despite it’s greater moments, X-Men sometimes finds itself slumping under its own weight.  We see the start of characters and character relationships and like Bryan Singer himself said, “it’s very much a trailer.”

In X2: X-Men United, Bryan Singer and Co. are clearly more comfortable in their skins.  From a technical standpoint, the film is impressive.  The visual style hinted at in X-Men is fully painted in X2, with metallic blue colors perfectly reflecting the icy, cold isolation of the X-Men’s flight from Stryker. The cinematography and camera movement benefit from a larger budget, as the camera moves kinetically and naturally through scenes, reacting to the action on screen (just take a look at Wolverine’s showdown with Lady Deathstrike).  Special FXs rose to the demands of a script that necessitated an aerial dogfight among more tornados than the entirety of those in Twister. With the technical stuff working double-time, Singer and his cast focus on the emotional turmoil of being hunted and isolated–not to mention the way that turmoil builds or damages relationships.  In X2, friendships break, lovers reunite, and families shatter.  And the final moments of the film’s climax deliver an emotional moment unlike any other in the trilogy, which is saying something considering the death toll of X-Men: The Last Stand.

What also makes X2 stand out from it’s successor and predecessor is its plot reversals.  One can never get too comfortable in knowing what is going to happen in X2.  Who knew it would be Magneto who saved the day?  Who knew the X-Men would have to turn to Magneto?  Who knew Jean would make the ultimate sacrifice in the face of her friends’ certain death?  And what is X2’s greatest strength is X-Men: The Last Stand’s firmest weakness.  Instead of exploring Jean’s death more fully or the following Magneto would have earned from saving all of mutantkind from Stryker’s death machine, The Last Stand chooses to not build on its predecessors complicated and nuanced relationships and plot material–it just introduces a whole lot of its own to the detriment of what was previously established.

What’s more is that X2 balances no more than 14 characters, bestowing each with a great “moment” that helps show their growth in the face of disaster.

The Decision

When dealing with themes of prejudice and isolation, it behooves a film to make such themes enjoyable to watch on screen.  X-Men introduced us to a complex world of hate and nobility. X2 showed how cruel this world could be, forcing complex characters to risk it all to save not only themselves, but the entire world.  X-Men: The Last Stand uses the same world but somehow makes it all seem so much more…ordinary with bombastic action and gratuitous shock-and-awe.  Character?  Plot?  Emotion?  Theme?  Who cares with X-Men: The Last Stand!  It’s got a cameo of your favorite mutant from issue #314!

Balancing a delicate and huge array of source material, X2 delivers a superhero ensemble film like no other–engaging action meshed seamlessly with serious character stakes set against a thematic world eerily similar to our own.

United they stand; X2: X-Men United is the X-Men at their best.

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