I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of the X-men comics, but I was hooked on the movie franchise because I was quite impressed by the first film. The second film was also quite decent, but all the films which followed were rather disappointing. Although not unwatchable, they fall into the category of “bike trainer movies” i.e. brainless action films to watch while doing a workout on a stationary bike.
When I heard that Bryan Singer would be directing this instalment, I immediately took interest. Not only did he direct one of my favourite films – The Usual Suspects, but he was also behind the first two X-men movies. This also went some of the way to explaining why many of the original cast members returned, some of them for very little screen time. My expectations were quite high, but I was not disappointed.
In a world very much like ours, mutants with supernatural powers live among us. Traditionally, X-men storylines are about the battle between professor Charles Xavier and his team, who wish to coexist peacefully with the humans, and Magneto – old friend and arch enemy who foresees violent conflict between humans and mutants to be inevitable, and wishes to make sure that mutants win it.
Casting Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen as Xavier and Magneto was the stroke of genius which makes all of these films worthwhile. These larger than life characters often say ridiculous things, and are complex characters which are at times difficult to believe. Not only are Stewart and McKellen such brilliant actors in their own that they are able to make us believe in the seriousness of their characters (even when Magneto shouts “you should have killed me when you had the chance” in X-men II), but the chemistry that is created between the two – respectful arch-rivals who used to be close friends, is a relationship which could have only been fleshed out by these two (they are close friends in real life).
In a slight variation on the usual story, but in keeping with current movie trends, there is time travel from the future into the past, thus allowing this film to not only be a sequel, but also a prequel. In the future, a war is being raged on mutants in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world enforced by robotic “Sentinels” which can adapt to their mutant prey’s powers and thus become immune to them and able to destroy them. The mutants, losing the war, get together for one last push by sending Wolverine (of course) into the past to ‘fix things’ so that the war never happens.
James McAvoy plays the young professor while Michael Fassbender is the young Magneto. They are both very good, although not quite as good as Stewart and McKellen, although I thought Fassbender got very close. Jennifer Lawrence gets her kick-ass on as Raven/Mystique.
The storytelling is very tight, and the action sequences polished, but what really makes this film good is the same thing that made the first two movies good – character development. Watching a young Charles Xavier and young Erik Lenscherr grapple with their choices, with their decisions, and with the knowledge of the future is what really makes you emotionally invested in the story, and ultimately what keeps you engaged long after the wow-factor of the special effects wear off.
The villain – Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage (a.k.a. Tyrion Lannister) is not so much a villain as a plot device, almost to the point of being a McGuffin. He is a villain who is not vile – he really acts as a foil to the main characters, perhaps illustrating (in a very meta kind of way) that real enemies aren’t the ones you unite against, but are ultimately our own bad decisions.
Similarly, much like the plot of this film, the film itself erases the mistakes of the recent past X-men films and gives us a clean slate. This is certainly not the best film I’ve seen all year (remember all those Oscar nominees? and that French film?) but it’s probably the best action film I’ve seen for a while. I highly recommend it.