Flashback: ‘X-Men’

Summer 2000 saw the arrival of Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ on the big screen, leading to an explosion of superhero blockbusters at the cinema…

X-Men Xavier & Magneto

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan provide heaps of gravitas in Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  2000

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn (as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Bruce Davison

Directed by:  Bryan Singer / written by:  David Hayter (Story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer.  X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

The not-too distant future: as the U.S. Government contemplates the introduction of a registration act for mutants – evolved humans with paranormal abilities – the benevolent ‘X-Men’, led by Professor Charles Xavier must stop Xavier’s old friend, Erik Lensherr and his Brotherhood of Mutants from igniting a conflict with the rest of humanity…

Retrospective/review

Although it could be argued that the contemporary explosion of comic book superhero films was initiated by the success of Blade in 1999, it was actually X-Men that brought the genre to the masses – leading to an (at least presently) endless crop of big screen comic book adaptations.  Helmed by The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, X-Men would become a smash hit for film studio 20th Century Fox in the summer of 2000 and although it may now seem a little tame when placed alongside Marvel Studios releases such as the colossal Avengers Endgame, it remains an enjoyable superhero action adventure that has an important place in the history of superhero cinema.  It would also spawn a lucrative film franchise spanning almost two decades, concluding with last year’s unfairly maligned (albeit flawed) X-Men: Dark Phoenix…or technically, will conclude with the still as-yet unreleased New Mutants spin-off.

By enlisting a director of proven calibre and having its cast include two of the world’s most talented and experienced actors, Star Trek legend Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier – leader of the ‘X-Men’ and a mutant with incredible mental powers – and Ian McKellan as Xavier’s old friend turned enemy, fellow mutant Erik Lensherr – aka ‘Magneto’, with the ability to control magnetism – X-Men would take a serious and somewhat believable approach to the source material without betraying the core fantasy and socially aware elements Stan Lee and Jack Kirby infused into the original Marvel comics (and which was so well portrayed in the classic 1990s Fox X-Men animated series).  Some may have been upset by the lack of more colourful costumes, but the cool black leather X-uniforms are indicative of the style and creative intentions favoured in Singer’s film.

X-Men Wolverine

Hugh Jackman debuts as Logan/Wolverine (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

In X-Men, as U.S. senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) debates the perceived danger of those with mutant abilities and presses for the Mutant Registration Act, Erik Lensherr, with his ‘Brotherhood’, believing that a war between mutants and the rest of humanity is all but inevitable, plots a pre-emptive first strike which Charles Xavier and his benevolent mutant X-Men must prevent.  In order to uncover Magneto’s plans, Xavier must investigate the link with two stray mutants – the young and afraid adolescent girl going by the name ‘Rogue’ (Anna Paquin, future star of TV hit True Blood), with the ability to absorb the powers of other mutants and the mysterious Logan, otherwise known as the cage fighter called ‘the Wolverine’, who is unable to recall his past or how his skeleton was grafted with the indestructible metal adamantium – a process he only survived thanks to his mutant-healing factor.

Although he may be taller than his comic book counterpart, Hugh Jackman – receiving top-billing – is instantly and effortlessly Logan/Wolverine, perfect casting in a role that would quickly become popular with audiences and fans alike.  Jackman simply is Wolverine, aside from matching the obvious physicality of the character (minus the height difference, which really isn’t an issue given the strength of Jackman’s performance) he embodies the spirit of Logan, from the raging temperament to the emotional depth arising from his nightmare flashes of lost memory and his befriending of Anna Paquin’s Rogue.  It’s a sublime portrayal right from the outset in X-Men and one that would only become more refined and assured in later instalments.

The cast of X-Men is filled out commendably with a generally strong group of actors who are a good fit for their characters.  James Marsden, Famke Janssen (previously a femme fatale in the James bond film Goldeneye) and Halle Berry make for pleasing live action versions of fan-favourite X-Men, respectively: the optic-blasting team leader Scott Summers/aka Cyclops (the conflict between Cyclops and Logan intact from the comics), the telekinetic Jean Grey (with no X-alias) and Ororo Munroe/aka Storm, with the ability to control weather effects.  Magneto’s Brotherhood boasts Rebecca Romijn as the shape-shifting Mystique, Tyler Mane as the feral Sabretooth and Ray Park (Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) as the agile, whip-tongued and slime-spitting Toad.  They may not be afforded anything in the way of character development, but non-the-less help facilitate the threat to the central heroes.

X-Men Cyclops

‘Cyclops’ (James Marsden) leads the X-Men as they attempt to prevent a war with the rest of humanity (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

From a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto, the script is provided by David Hayter (best known for voicing iconic video game character Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid) which captures the essence of the X-Men comics, it’s characters and the themes of prejudice and persecution which sadly remained as prescient in 2000 as they were in the 1960s, transposing it all into a more grounded reality.  Despite the more serious elements of the story (immediately evident from the bleak flashback opening at a World War II concentration camp, where the young Erik Lensherr is separated from his parents and his mutant abilities are first demonstrated) there’s still some fun to be had with a smattering of black humour and entertaining action sequences which complement the human and emotional aspects of the film.  The narrative wisely focuses on Logan and Rogue as the lone outsiders who cross paths with the X-Men, acting as a mirror for those in the audience unfamiliar with the world and characters of Marvel’s X-Men.  Bryan Singer’s direction is tightly and expertly executed, with a clear sense of visuals, tone and character deftly balanced with the action set-pieces which meld seamlessly with the special/visual effects which make full use of the $75 million budget (a princely sum back in 2000 but small change compared to today’s cinematic superhero offerings).  The Liberty Island finale is suitably tense and exciting bringing X-Men to an action-packed crescendo which may pale in comparison to the more epic and effects saturated climaxes of subsequent entries but is a satisfying close for Singer’s first effort.

Whilst the overall quality of Fox’s X-Men franchise may be inconsistent, the films are generally entertaining and sometimes excellent (see: X2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men is certainly one of the better early Marvel Comics big screen adaptations, the success of which (along with Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man) would allow more comic book blockbusters to hit the big screen and inevitably become the dominant genre in film and television.

Geek fact! 

Amongst the serving producers of X-Men was later Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, mastermind and guardian of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Batman: Hush’

Warner Bros. Animation adapt another popular Batman story for the latest DC Universe animated film… 

Batman Hush (film) a

The Dark Knight Detective returns in the Warner Bros. Animation release ‘Batman: Hush’ (image credit Warner Bros/DC Entertainment).

Spoiler-free review

Starring (voices):  Jason O’Mara, Jennifer Morrison, Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Peyton List, Geoffrey Arend, Maury Sterling, Rainn Wilson

Directed by:  Justin Copeland / written by:  Ernie Altbacker / 81 minutes

What’s it about?

Pitted against some of his oldest and most dangerous foes, Batman soon finds himself facing a new enemy – the mysterious ‘Hush’…

In review

Batman: Hush is the latest DC animated film from Warner Bros. Animation, based upon the popular 12-issue story arc (written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee) from 2002.  “Hush” is rightfully considered as one of the greatest modern era Batman stories in which Bruce Wayne faces a gauntlet of villains and a mysterious new nemesis – a manipulative, bandage-faced foe known as ‘Hush’ – whilst grappling with stark revelations from his past and the complications of a burgeoning romance with Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

This direct-to-video animated adaptation is an enjoyable one, doing a reasonably solid job of translating the source material to the screen and neatly condensing its elaborate plot into a relatively short running time of 81 minutes (around average for the DC animated films).  Certain elements of the original story are either trimmed or cut entirely but Hush generally feels cohesive and flows steadily without rushing through the narrative or unnecessarily dragging its heels.  Certain changes are made in order to service the adaptation or for creative reasons (mainly to fit Hush within the mainline ‘DC Universe Movie’ continuity) but for the most part they add a freshness to the story for those who have read the comics.  There is, however, one particular alteration that is likely to prove divisive and although it works for the film it arguably robs it of some of the emotional power of the original comic book story – leading to a fairly satisfying but less weighty finale that doesn’t quite measure up to the source material.

As with the comics, Hush places significant focus on the Batman/Catwoman relationship and that plays out as expected, as do several key moments fans will expect – the highlights undoubtedly being that iconic Bat/Cat rooftop embrace, Batman’s ‘tussle’ with Superman – the closest we’ve ever come to the epic conflict in previous DC animation Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II – and of course, the Batman’s ragingly brutal and bloody encounter with the Joker (pushing the film’s PG13/15 certificate rating).  The inclusion of Bane adds to the drama and adrenaline, although it’s a shame he’s not much beyond a dumb, musclebound brute here, although we are provided with a narrative reason for the character acting less “eloquent” than fans may be accustomed to.

Batman Hush (film) b

The Bat and Cat in ‘Batman: Hush’ (image credit: Warner Bros/DC Entertainment).

The voice acting performances are fine, if a tad unexceptional.  Whilst no Kevin Conroy, Jason O’Mara (in his fourth solo outing as the Batman, following Son of Batman, Batman vs Robin and Batman: Bad Blood) is non-the-less reliable in the central role of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jennifer Morrison is equally adept at delivering the requisite slinky, feline quality to Selina Kyle/Catwoman and the chemistry between the pair is adequate if unremarkable.  Peyton List does well handling two completely different roles – Poison Ivy and Batgirl, Jason Spisak eerily channels Mark Hamill as the Joker, alas Bruce Thomas isn’t the greatest fit for Commissioner Gordon, nor is James Garrett as Alfred (to be fair we have been spoilt by some real star casting in those roles previously).  On the plus side, Hynden Walch is superb as Harley Quinn as is Sean Maher as Nightwing and Geoffrey Arend delivers a pleasingly menacing Riddler whilst Maury Stirling proves a good choice for Bruce’s childhood friend, Thomas Elliott.  There’s also the welcome return of Jerry O’Connell as Clark Kent/Superman as well as Rebecca Romijn as Lois Lane and Rainn Wilson is once again suitably devious as Lex Luthor.

The style of Hush continues the pseudo-anime design of prior DC animation releases which may not be to everyone’s liking but gives an established and consistent look to the universe, although it lacks the detail and craft of Jim Lee’s comic book pencils.  Director Justin Copeland keeps everything tight and focused and delivers some strong and well-staged action scenes which is no small wonder given his experience as a storyboard artist on previous DC animation projects including Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, The Death of Superman and most recently, Reign of the Supermen.

The bottom line:  Batman: Hush is another entertaining Warner Bros/DC animation release that, despite a controversial alteration, does a good job of adapting the iconic comic book story.

Batman: Hush is available digitally now with Blu-ray and DVD releases to follow in August.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Reign of the Supermen’

The Man of Steel’s potential successors rise in the latest DC animated feature…

Reign of the Supermen

The ‘Eradicator’ continues the late Superman’s fight against crime in the DC/Warner Bros. Animation release, ‘Reign of the Supermen’ (image credit: DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. – used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring (voices): Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Patrick Fabian, Charles Halford, Cameron Monaghan, Cress Williams

Directed by: Sam Liu / written by: Tim Sheridan and Jim Krieg

What’s it about?

Six months after the death of Superman, Metropolis is stirred by the appearance of four new ‘Supermen’…

In review

Concluding the story which began with last summer’s The Death of Superman, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation present Reign of the Superman, a fun and enjoyable adaptation of the 1993 comic book arc. Picking up six months after Superman’s death following his defeat of the Doomsday creature, the world continues to mourn the loss of the beloved Man of Steel as the citizens of Metropolis are swept up in a media frenzy when four supposed ‘Supermen’ begin to appear – the wise-cracking, Lex Luthor sponsored clone who hates to be called ‘Superboy’ (Gotham’s Cameron Monaghan), the armoured champion of justice known as ‘Steel’ (aka John Henry Irons – voiced by Cress Williams, star of the CW’s Black Lightning), the mysterious yellow-visor wearing ‘Eradicator’ (Charles Halford) and the part organic, part machine ‘Cyborg Superman’ (Jerry O’Connell/Patrick Fabian). As each of these Supermen make their claim as to who may be the rightful successor to the fallen Last Son of Krypton, a looming threat from the stars places humanity in the path of a danger from which it has little hope of surviving…or do they?

Overall, Reign of the Supermen does a decent job of condensing the narrative of the original comics (which ran over the course of several months and numerous different titles) into its 89 minute running time. It does at times feel a little overstuffed and the various sub-plots and characters are not as fully developed as they could have been, particularly in the case of John Henry Irons/Steel and the Eradicator but it never feels jumbled or incoherent. There may have been a case for a further instalment to fully flesh things out and provide some breathing space but Reign of the Supermen works well enough as is and is still able to deal with the “World Without a Superman” part of the story sufficiently in its opening act, with some heartfelt moments between Lois and Jonathan and Martha Kent and an amusing yet poignant scene with Perry White (Rocky Carroll) in the Daily Planet offices. The Justice League once again play their parts (although it continues to be odd that, as with The Death of Superman, Hawkman is present but with no lines of dialogue) although the script wisely removes them from the action until the final act so that there’s more focus on the main story.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot of Reign of the Supermen in more detail without delving into spoilers but for those familiar with the comics, the film adheres fairly closely to the source material with a few original additions (and an alteration to the central threat) and it all leads to an exciting and action packed climax, a neat homage to Superman’s cinematic past and a tantalising tease of things to come in the DC animated universe.

The voice cast is solid and are served well by Tim Sheridan and Jim Krieg’s screenplay, the particular highlights being Rebecca Romijin who delivers a warm but strong portrayal of Lois Lane (bolstered by her scenes with Rosario Dawson as Lois builds a budding friendship with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman), Cameron Monaghan – bringing the arrogant, care-free and quippy Superboy fittingly to life and Cress Williams, applying the right qualities of inherent goodness and heroism to John Henry Irons/Steel. Rainn Wilson once again infuses Lex Luthor with the appropriate level of menace and deviousness but it’s still hard not to miss Clancy Brown in the role which he defined so definitively in Superman: The Animated Series.

The animation and character designs are good and the action (always a high point with these animated DC films) thrilling, all skilfully guided under the direction of Sam Liu – who also helmed The Death of Superman (with Jake Castorena) and many previous DC animation projects including Batman: Year One and Justice League vs Teen Titans resulting in an entertaining package that, when coupled with The Death of Superman creates a pleasing adaptation of the iconic story.

The bottom line: an enjoyable conclusion to the “Death of Superman” arc, Reign of the Supermen is a successful adaptation of the 1990s comic book story.

Film Review: ‘The Death of Superman’

Warner Bros Animation makes another attempt at adapting an iconic Superman story…

Death of Superman

The Man of Steel prepares to meet his doom in Warner Bros Animation’s ‘The Death of Superman’ (image credit: Warner Bros, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring (voices):  Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Nathan Fillion, Christopher Gorham, Matt Lanter, Shemar Moore, Jason O’Mara

Directed by:  Jake Castorena and Sam Liu / Written by: Peter Tomasi / 80 minutes

What’s it about?

Superman faces his greatest challenge when a mysterious and brutal creature arrives on Earth and begins tearing its way through Metropolis…

In review

After the lacklustre Superman: Doomsday (released in 2007), Warner Bros Animation takes another stab at adapting the iconic 1990’s DC Comics storyline – elements of which were also incorporated into Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman.  This time WB is taking the same approach as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by splitting the story into two parts, beginning with The Death of Superman and to be concluded in Reign of the Superman, which is due for release next year.

More satisfying than the aforementioned Doomsday, The Death of Superman is an enjoyable, albeit not totally perfect, entry in Warner Bros’ DC animated universe.  Written by comic book scribe Peter Tomasi (writer of the acclaimed DC Rebirth Superman series), the screenplay does a commendable job of streamlining– and in a few areas improve – the original comics storyline which had the luxury of several issues to expand into numerous sub-plots.  The result is a loose reinterpretation that focuses on the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, providing a solid emotional core that pays off when the Man of Steel is faced against Doomsday – the powerful and unstoppable destructive force that smashes its way through Metropolis.

It’s a little slow and uneventful to begin with but once Doomsday arrives and the tension begins to build it picks up the pace and becomes more engaging, the final third largely a prolonged (and quite bloody, this isn’t one for younger viewers) battle between Superman and his titanic foe.  That was the only real highlight of Superman: Doomsday and directors Jake Castorena and Sam Liu deliver some exciting and impactful action scenes that rival the 2007 film.

One key improvement made by Tomasi’s script (which drops in some neat references to Superman: The Movie and the 1966 Batman television series) is an increased and more integral role for the Justice League and whilst this is still Superman’s story, there’s some fun and insightful interaction between the various team members, with wisecracking exchanges between Green Lantern and the Flash adding a dash of humour whilst Superman and Wonder Woman open up as they contemplate their past relationship.  The team’s failure to halt Doomsday’s rampage raises the stakes and adds to the sense of impending doom making the final showdown all the more intense.

The voice cast is very good, Jerry O’Connell is a strong and reassuring Superman with a more grounded and vulnerable approach to Clark Kent, Rebecca Romijn (Mystique in Fox’s original X-Men trilogy) brings a warmth and determination to Lois Lane and The Office and Star Trek: Discovery star Rainn Wilson delivers a spirited performance as Lex Luthor, infusing him with the right measure of arrogance and menace, although Clancy Brown is still arguably the definitive choice.  Justice League voice artists including Jason O’Mara, Rosario Dawson and Nathan Fillion (Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, respectively) reprise their roles as the various DC heroes whilst Black Lightning’s Cress Williams is a welcome addition as John Henry Irons – a character that as fans know plays a big part in the “Reign of the Supermen” arc.

Visually, The Death of Superman is decent if a bit unremarkable – character designs are generally strong (adopting the same anime-esque style of previous releases such as Justice League: War and Justice League: Throne of Atlantis) but environments are pretty sparse and lack detail.

The Death of Superman doesn’t evoke that more immersive and cinematic feel of The Dark Knight Returns and that stops it from fully living up to its potential.  Perhaps this might have been achieved by having it be a standalone project (with a slightly bigger budget) rather than incorporating it into the continuity of the main DC animated films (established in 2014’s Justice League: War), or maybe it’s because the source material is just not as strong or as nuanced as Frank Miller’s seminal Batman tale – that’s all a matter of perspective and open up for debate but as is, The Death of Superman is a worthwhile watch if only at least to erase disappointing memories of Doomsday.

The bottom line:  The Death of Superman is a more successful version of the classic Superman story that although falling short of greatness is non-the-less an enjoyable watch and superior to WB Animation’s previous attempt.

The Death of Superman is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.  Reign of the Superman will be released in 2019.