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Six game changing movies of the last 15 years – Number 3: X-MEN
January 7, 2013 By Holly Clarkson
Six game changing movies of the last 15 years.
Number 3: X-MEN
If you go back to the year 2000, we were all worried about planes falling out of the sky, computers exploding, and the possibility that we’d all be living in another stone age when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999. If we had, Bryan Singer would not have conjured up one of the most important superhero films ever made.
In reference to one of the earlier heroes on our list, Stephen Norrington’s adaptation of Blade in 1997 had lit the fuse, but it was Singer’s X-Men that ignited the popularity for comic book movies and set the bar for how superheroes were to be portrayed on the big screen.
Blade had been a dark, brooding movie, that apart from fangs and disintegrations, didn’t really stretch the imagination that much to make Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff vampiric supermen. The looked human, they sounded human, they used guns, swords, and used lots of underground imagery that made people think that a whole culture could exist without the public ever knowing.
X-Men though, would be a lot tougher. Here you had a cast of characters who could shoot laser beams from their eyes, control the weather, read minds, manipulate metal and be basically indestructible. How on Earth would you make them believable? Not only that, their comic and cartoon incarnations were famous for their garishly coloured, skin tight spandex uniforms. How would Singer turn that into a convincing live action franchise that people who weren’t familiar with the books and animation would accept?
Thankfully, Singer’s first choice for the role of Wolverine, Russell Crowe, wanted too much money to have CGI claws superimposed over his fists, and Dougray Scott wanted to leave his schedule clear for a possible Mission Impossible movie. That lead to arguably the most inspired piece of casting of the last decade, as Singer picked out an unknown, Hugh Jackman, to take on the role of the curmudgeonly Canuck.
Jackman was a nobody in Hollywood at the time, and was also an Australian with no experience on on screen work. His only professional acting qualifications were stint trading the boards in the West End production of Oklahoma and an unreleased-at-the-time film adaptation of that story. Jackman’s wife even told him not to take the role, because she felt it would damage his chances of becoming a serious actor.
But Jackman’s portrayal of the amnesiac Logan made the film. For a start, he embodied the character, debuting not in bright yellow skin tight clothing, but a battered leather jacket, moth eaten jeans and a toned down version of Wolverine’s famous mutton chops. Jackman also captured the rough, surly attitude of Marvel writer Len Wein’s creation. Jackman’s character was mean, moody and gruff. It also helped that he exuded sex appeal, and allowed the movie to bring in people who weren’t really bothered if he wasn’t the right height to play Wolverine.
There was also the casting, and performances, of Sir Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. Both classically trained Shakespearean actors, they invested the two senior roles in the movie with the kind of gravitas that made people sit up and think this wasn’t just one for the kids. Granted, Patrick Stewart’s hairstyle made him a natural choice for Charles Xavier, but he still needed to get across the idea of a man who wanted to the change the world, but didn’t want to use violence to do it. He had to fulfil the role of a Malcolm X, Martin Luther King role, without making him seem to be a carbon copy of those two characters, and representing a fictional minority that would have been easy to lay on the allegorical parallels. Charles Xavier was supposed to be a peaceful pioneer, who had learned patience and diplomacy in dealing with people who hated his kind. He also was the antithesis of the all action hero, as being placed in a wheelchair made not only Stewart stretch his acting chops, but also that the character would use his brains rather than his brawn.
But it’s McKellan who comes into his own, stealing virtually each scene he’s in. He changes the melodramatic, and sometimes pompous, bodybuilding pensioner, into an inherently evil, elder statesman, with little conscience about what happens to those who don’t subscribe to his beliefs. The character of Magneto has always represented the opposite side of Charles Xavier’s fight, preferring to use violence rather than negotiation to further the mutant cause. In the comics though, Magneto had in some ways become too similar to Xavier, and had started to illicit sympathy for this cause. McKellan rectified that by having his Magneto have no qualms about killing a young girl and using her power to transform the world’s politicians into mutants.
Magneto here becomes a single minded weapon of mass destruction, and is perhaps the best illustration of why mankind should be afraid of mutants. Here is an 60 plus year old man, with an English accent, who wears a Marks and Spencer’s pullover, and a rather silly looking helmet. Yet, with the wave of his hand, he completely nullifies a police force’s entire swat team and armed response unit. Is there anything that defines “butchness” than a hoard of gun toting cops, and in one scene, Magneto shows how utterly useless mankind’s weaponry is against him. This is an old man, and he can beat an army. And he knows it.
The roles would be further defined by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class, but while it filled in a lot of the blanks, it didn’t have the same resonance as their older incarnations in the original movie. Charles Xavier is a more powerful pioneer when using his mind rather than his body, and Magneto is a far more effective villain when trying to overthrow humanity and using his power without the limitations of doing the right thing. It’ll be interesting to see how this is followed up in the upcoming “Days of Future Past” movie, but up until now, neither of them have embodied the characters the same way Stewart and McKellan did.
X-Men defined an era, and showed that Superhero movies could enter the mainstream, and create stars from hitherto unknown stage actors, and redefine the careers of two of the most well known actors of the 20th and 21st centuries. It was merely the herald for the oncoming storm however, as the final two in our list will be arguably two of the biggest movies of the last 15 years ever, never mind just comic book movies. Next up, a man behind a mask who just a few years ago, once again found his place in the pantheon of all time super hero greats…
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