How do I feel about the upcoming X-Men: First Class film? I’m excited as all hell. I think Matthew Vaughn’s film stands an honest chance of reviving the X-Men film franchise, if only for a single moment. His track record as a director is exemplary: L4yer C4k3, Stardust, Kick-Ass; before that, he’s well known as a producer on Guy Ritchie’s best films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. In short, the man has made, or has been heavily involved with, some of my favourite films of the past ten years.
He doesn’t have an easy task, however. After the major successes of X-Men and X-2, we all know what happened with X-3. Yes, Andy Burns has covered “number three” in film franchises before, so I’m not going to reiterate the same information. Just remember that “number three” in a film franchise, and this is particularly true of superhero films, is usually garbage or, at best, incredibly sub par when compared with its predecessors.*
X-Men, in short, revolutionized comic-book films. Some might say the same about Batman and Superman, but every other attempt in and around when those films were released was a colossal failure (The Punisher, anyone?). I consider those two films to be anomalies in an otherwise dead area of film. X-Men might have been a similar anomaly, but then I ask you to have a look at Spider-Man, which came out only two years later. The ball was rolling, and Bryan Singer started it through a mix of then state-of-the art digital effects, a strong emphasis on characterization, and a half-decent story that stuck quite closely to the original material. One of the smartest things he did, with three notable exceptions (Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and Halle Berry), was cast relative unknowns in the roles of the heroes and villains. One couldn’t really complain about the casting of actors whom one didn’t know. The comic-book world and its fans can be unforgiving at times.
The second film, X-2, was a stroke of genius and is considered by many to be one of the best comic-book films ever. I’m inclined to agree. I was won over by nearly the entire cast of the first film, and they did a wonderful job of establishing the well-loved characters of the franchise. The second film was able to delve into a much meatier story, and it didn’t need to rely on introductions; it could just get on with the plot, and it did so admirably. Its introduction of the Phoenix storyline was done sublimely, with no need to drown in exposition—simply some flashes of fire and power and the sacrifice of Jean Grey. This was a point I quite enjoyed; the original storyline had Jean’s sacrifice and destruction as the Phoenix, meanwhile in Singer’s second film, Jean sacrifices herself to produce the Phoenix. This makes far more sense given its mythological nature. Wolverine, always a favourite, was given centre stage again, with more emphasis on his hidden origins and his loose-cannon role on the fringes of the team.
Then we end up with X-3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, two films that I can best describe as half-assed attempts. They’re not horrible films, and when you compare them with, say, Batman and Robin or the aforementioned Punisher, they’re quite entertaining. The problem is, the bar was raised so high by the first two films that these hodge-podges of plotlines and characters couldn’t help but feel like a schizophrenic mess. X-3 mixed the Phoenix storyline, the ascension of Storm as leader, the start of the Whedon Astonishing X-Men run, and then proceeded to throw more and more characters at the audience. It’s a mess. The same is true of Wolverine. While the title sequence showing Wolverine’s actual origin was interesting, the rest of the film feels like a pile of plotlines thrown into an automatic shotgun and the blasted haphazardly in every direction. Story and emphasis on character made X-Men and X-2 what they were. They were tight, clean narratives, and they didn’t try to bite off more than they could chew.
X-Men: First Class looks to put these emphasis back in place. Let’s hope it delivers.
*You cannot count The Lord of the Rings, because that is one story.