X-Men: First Class is coming out in theatres this June 3rd, directed by Kickass and Stardust auteur Matthew Vaughn. Even though the film is a prequel in this wildly successful franchise based on the comics by Stan Lee, it is advisable to take a peek at the earlier films. They each still hold up in their own ways. Let's review where to hit your DVD shelves this weekend:
X-Men: Bryan Singer went from the avante garde brilliance of The Usual Suspects to the realm of tights and comics here with panache. The movie follows the introduction of classic Marvel character Wolverine (a then newcomer Hugh Jackman) to Professor Xavier's School for the Gifted (aka Mutant High). Joining him on the journey is a young Southern runaway known as Rogue (Anna Paquin). Exposition and introductions are quickly eschewed in order to tell an actual tale (thankfully) about how the evil mutant Magneto (a chilling Ian McKellan) has created a device that he plans to use to turn all humans into mutants. This is of course a matter of concern for Professor X (a perfectly cast Patrick Stewart) and his students for them to rally around stopping, and solidify their team. Really it is the final showdown of the film, taking place within the Statue of Liberty that really will appeal to not only fans of the series but general audiences. It has clear consistent action sequences that escalate the tension, clever dialogue (particularly a moment between Cyclops and Wolverine that perfectly typifies their dynamic), and by using an actual national landmark (a classic component of the New York skyline for natives and those who've only seen pictures) it grounds all the fantastical elements. The Statue of Liberty is real, it is something that concievably will be present in the reasonably distant future, and holds an emotional context of independence that the characters in this world also hold near to them. It's a concise and enjoyable introduction to the world (even if some of the jokes are stilted, we still don't need to know the punchline to what happens when you electrocute a toad).
X2: X-Men United: There is some magical gift to the first sequel of a trilogy when you get the same team back together (for reference see: Empire Strikes Back, Spiderman 2), and Singer and company certainly pulled it off. The movie picks up not long after the first film, and follows the newly expanded team as a government agency (led by Bryan Cox's William Stryker) breaks into the school to kidnap Professor X for reasons the audience will soon find out in thriller-ish fashion. This divides the team pretty quick, allowing for the film to really highlight some of the story arcs and characters that didn't get much screentime during the last outing. In particular it is Jean Grey (Famke Jansen) who benefits from this method of storytelling as her powers take on a new foreign quality, that really the comic fans knew was coming but still wanted to see anyway. And even then, this classic arc was handled with deft hands for this installment (sadly not carried over nearly as well in the next film). Singer expanded the visual scope of the film and crafted some remarkable sequences, notably the one in the White House featuring a new character named Nightcrawler (a wickedly fascinating Alan Cumming). This is not to say that Rogue and Wolverine, or Professor X and Magneto, the previous films core pairings are thrown to the wayside, somehow they are there to thrill and entertain audiences admirably. This would in particular be the movie to look back at when comparing it to the new prequel, particularly the performances by McKellan and Stewart and how the younger incarnations of Magneto and Professor X (Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy) hold up in comparison. It's a beautiful and complex movie considering its runtime and source material, check it out.
X3: The Last Stand: Many hardcore X-Men fans probably wish this movie did not exist, that it should not be a part of the canon. Yet, it is and we will all need to live with that fact. The film's basic plot follows the team as they find out a cure for mutants has been uncovered, and the government wishes to round up all the mutants to force them to take it and remove their gifts. This of course upsets Magneto and his Brotherhood, who seek to takedown the government for this metaphorical genocide. This leads to the introduction of many new mutants including Beast (Kelsey Grammar) and Angel (Ben Foster, who somehow went from dorky nerd to ripped action star for this role). The emotional arc and ramifications of this drug are best played out between Rogue and her boyfriend Iceman (Aaron Ashmore), which may be the only reason to revist this actioner that otherwise clumsily told a story to shock and annoy the fans otheriwse.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine: I previously reviewed this movie and awarded it the grade of B+. On second look two years later, sadly the movie did not hold up as well. It's still interesting to see how the filmmakers characterized Wolverine's history, but the action scenes were few and far in between with little carrying the plot forward to keep even some devout fan's interests. Any questions or concerns a fan would have about the character are answered, but in utilitarian fashion, as if checking off a list created by the previous films (how the claws work, how he lose his memories, why Stryker is so fascinated by him). This is a movie for strictly fans of Jackman, Liev Schreiber, and Ryan Reynolds (who makes a Deadpool spin-off still worth a distant dream for nerds).
Grade in Retrospect: B-