You never quite know what to expect from an X-Men movie. What started out as the first so-so entry into the era of superhero movies created by people without absolute disdain for their source material has since meandered back and forth between bottom of the barrel, borderline-unwatchable garbage and, with the addition of Matthew Vaughn's First Class, almost great. So go figure that I walk out of the most recent edition of the franchise unsure how I feel about it.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad movie. At worst, it's the third best of the series, after the aforementioned FC and the also good, but not quite great, X2: X-men United. But these days, smack dab in the middle of what feels like the golden age of superhero geekdom, I might be getting a little spoiled. I got all the action, all the easter-egg winks and nods, and all the spectacular special effects I could have asked for, but for whatever the reason, I'm a little disappointed.
Some issues that crop of are typical of a project of this scale. The lauded coming together of the two primary casts from the franchise's previous iterations, for example, doesn't amount to much on screen, with the original trilogy's actors relegated mostly to brief cameos, or, I have a feeling, the cutting room floor. Anna Paquin was all but excised from the film prior to release, and I have a feeling a director's cut with her scenes intact might make it feel more like the characters in the bleak future have something to do. Regardless, the movie is firmly set in the FIrst Class chronology, with the future scenes feeling more like an excuse for (admittedly awesome) CGI action, a sense only exacerbated by the fact that the mutants doing the actual fighting are, generally, brand new, so we don't give a damn about what happens to them.
The script has a hard time balancing the many spinning plates it sets. Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is still smarmy and fun to watch, but once he's gone to the past to relay his message of warning, he doesn't have much of a direct impact on the proceedings, enough so that I found myself wondering how things would have been any different if he returned to the future after the first act, or the second, or even right away. The plot itself is somewhat loose, without the cohesion of a simple, central villain as in the previous film's Sabastian Shaw, so much of the action feels a bit forced.
But, again, all of these things are forgivable. The characters that do get our time are all worthy of attention. Fassbender is just as good as the first go around as Magneto, and while he's a bit sulky, James McAvoy continues to bring more character and depth to the character of Charles Xavier than (the admittedly great elsewhere) Patrick Stewart ever did. The real standout this time is actually Jennifer Lawrence's turn as Mystique, who probably comes off the most favorably in the badass department with a slew of impressive, balletic fight sequences and a convincing, subtle level of psychological scarring. Fox has done a good job with the last three films of the series bringing their characters back to places of more realistic emotional truth, away from the cartoon ridiculousness of X-Men Origins, and that's still true here.
And yet, there are things here that really bother me. Things that go beyond this movie and into the state of the business as it stands right now. Marvel Studios has found themselves in an incredibly sweet spot where their financial motives line up with the creative ones. So, while it's ultimately just an excuse to print money, the films we've been getting out of them have had heart, and been of a higher quality than we've ever had any reason to expect before now. But where there's success, there will be imitators, and you can see the groundwork being laid here to, as some might grotesquely put it, "expand the brand."
You can see it happening over at Warner Bros., where DC is in such a rush to catch up to their rivals that they're willing to ignore the fact that Man of Steel was an irredeemable slog and force it open into an entire cinematic universe, shoving every character they've got into their cupboard into a Justice League prequel that sounds worse every day. You can see it at Sony, where they managed to sneak a two-hour trailer for a Sinister Six movie into theaters by calling it The Amazing Spiderman 2. Everyone else is seeing what Marvel has, and instead of copying their earnestness, the thing that makes the movies work, they copy the formula, only speeding the whole thing up as fast as they can. It's like trying to bake your grandma's delicious chocolate cake recipe in the microwave.
This film's not so much forcing a cinematic universe, mostly because it doesn't have to, as it already exists, but the same soulless tone is seeping in. Characters are forced into the script for no reason, like Havok, who returns for a single scene and never returns, or the incessant nodding towards the returning William Stryker, whose presence, like much of the film, serves only to (SPOILER ALERT) "undo" one of the two films universally loathed by the fan-base. The character of Quicksilver, whose pivotal scene is absolutely spectacular, is at best wedged in as a nod to fans, and at worst exists solely as a middle finger to Marvel Studios, who will feature the same character, but not referred to as a mutant, in their upcoming Avengers sequel. There just seems to be a lot of cogs turning in the creators' heads, different agendas besides just telling a story, and that bugs me.
Should you see it? Yes. Absolutely. As far as superhero movies go, it is certainly up to par, and has some of the best action I've seen this year. But it's not the revelation some of us might have been expecting, what with it's astronomical budget (over $200 million) and star power, and don't be surprised if you come away with the nagging feeling that something's not quite right at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.
Oh, and stay through the credits... Goosebumps. (Yeah. They got me.)