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X-Men: Choosing effects over character for 16 years


June 14, 2016

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    With X-Men: Apocalypse being yet another box-office success, 20th Century Fox’s superhero franchise has made it to nine films and counting — a remarkable feat, since the first X-Men movie was released way back in 2000. For 16 years, the X-Men movies managed to maintain a sort of flimsy continuity between each other — using prequels, Wolverine and Deadpool-centered spinoffs, and time-travel-triggered retcons to keep themselves from being forced into a corner and committing an official reboot. 
    Fox may have been successful in keeping the continuity of their prize-hog movie franchise intact, but characterization is often an underserved element in these films. Despite access to loads and loads of comic book heroes and villains — super-powered mutants with their own rich background, relationships and history — the X-Men movies often chose to prioritize special effects and action-packed set pieces ahead of its characters, sacrificing character development in favor of stylish CGI spectacle. 
    Most of the mutants introduced in the franchise so far have often been denied satisfying character development or arcs. In the X-Men series, characters often are reduced to nothing more than ciphers, defined solely by what power is in their arsenal — i.e., nearly everyone in the franchise who isn’t named Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy), or Magneto (Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender). This is a franchise that apparently had no qualms about killing off the majority of their fresh-faced cast introduced in the prequel relaunch (First Class) off-screen before Days of Future Past was released. 
    In both the main and prequel trilogy, Cyclops (James Marsden and Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen and Sophie Turner), Storm (Hailee Berry and Alexandra Shipp) and Nightcrawler (Alan Cummings and  Kodi Smit-McPhee), the “main” X-Men, have only one or two defining character traits. The villains fare no better and are sometimes given even less to do. 
    X2’s Lady Deathstrike (the female mutant who possesses adamantium claws, like Wolverine) and First Class’s Riptide and Azrael (villains who possessed wind and teleportation powers, respectively) may have provided opportunities for cinematic battles full of fun choreography, but they’re all characters absent of any dialogue or characterization. They exist only to entertain the audience. 
    The series’ saving grace has always been its ability to entertain. The amount of inventiveness, energy, shock and awe embedded in the choreography and staging of their set pieces and action sequences is a thing to behold, whether it’s the stylish opening scene of a brainwashed Nightcrawler using his teleportation ability to assault White House guards in X2; the thrilling, comic book-esque fight sequence of Wolverine fighting Yakuza goons on top of a speeding bullet train in The Wolverine; or the iconic and memorable Quicksilver scenes in both Days of Future Past and Apocalypse. 
    And it's not like the films are devoid of any character-driven scenes. Stewart and McKellen, along with McAvoy and Fassbender, bring gravitas to a majority of their scenes, elevating the script to a whole other plane of existence. It’s just a shame that the X-Men films, as a whole, have chosen to marginalize the other iconic comic book characters present in the films, ignoring the potential stories and arcs they can bring to a script. 
    Even in Apocalypse, characters are sidelined and minimalized: Olivia Munn’s Psylocke provides nothing more than fan service by wearing a swimsuit for the majority of the movie, and Ben Hardy’s Angel is the embodiment of bland. It’s such a waste, especially as the characters they play have rich history and arcs in other iterations — comics, animated shows, etc.  
    Superhero movies promise visual splendors and CGI extravaganza, and the X-men films deliver that promise in the best way possible. Unfortunately, they’re also in dire need of characterization and personality. With the next main X-Men film set in the 90s and a solid team set up at the end of Apocalypse, let’s hope director Bryan Singer and company put in the same amount of consideration, planning, care and attention to their characters that they do in their action sequences and set pieces.


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