The Big Movie HoaX

August 22, 2002

By Avi Green

In my previous column from July 16, 2002, I argued about how there are many ways in which fantasy and reality just don’t intersect in the world of comics, and why the tragedy of 9-11 shouldn’t have been dealt with in Amazing Spider-Man #36 vol. 2. Many people in the world of comics, to be sure, are by now quite familiar with this whole controversial issue that Marvel started last year. Some liked it, others hated it. Either way, it certainly did generate quite a debate.

I’ve already stated my own opinions back in my own previous column, and suffice it to say that they have not changed since then, nor do I wish to elaborate on it any further. I’m not a professional, I’m just a very middle class citizen of Israel who likes to read comics as a hobby, that’s all. Still, as mentioned before, ASM #36 certainly did spark quite a debate on the whole issue of combining fantasy and reality into one.

But while everyone’s been arguing over whether or not fantasy and reality intersect in Marvel or any other universe, another, somewhat similar situation from the previous year, also Marvel related, has gone almost totally overlooked by just about everyone who dealt with the issue involving ASM.

That situation is the X-Men movie. And the actions it performed, which were similar in some ways to the situation in ASM, were, most notably, to trivialize the Holocaust by featuring a character – that being Magneto (played in the latter part of the film by Ian McKellen) when he was young - using sci-fi powers in the midst of a Nazi death camp.

By writing the opening scene of the movie this way, the screenwriters (reportedly a committee of writers, even though only one, David Hayter, is credited for the final script draft) have more or less trivialized a tragic historical situation in which the victims quite often were virtually helpless and had no means of saving themselves from death at the hands of the Nazis. And not only does it cheapen the plight of the victims, it can have the viewers asking such questions as why Erik Lensherr never went on the warpath to destroy other Nazi headquarters around Europe. The movie then very much abandons the subject and deals with it so little in the latter part of the film that, as a result, it could’ve trivialized the subject even that way.

What makes Magneto’s origin work so well in the comics is that he was virtually helpless when his parents were taken from him by the repulsive Nazis in the concentration camp, his powers only fully manifesting themselves years later when he was circa his adult years. This way, we feel his helplessness and can understand why he has such a tortured psyche. With the way that director Bryan Singer and his staff have done it here, however, the whole opening scene and origin just fall flat on the earth and have no impact.

"The movie trivializes the Holocaust with a pointless concentration camp opening scene." - Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune, July 14, 2000

The disappointment doesn’t stop there. Having viewed this and thought about it in hindsight, I came to the conclusion that the movie was far less impressive than it was being hyped as, and that, like the issues of X-Men written by Chris Claremont back in 2000, it had virtually nothing to say. Nada. Zero. Zilch. What I can say is that I am just inches short of being insulted. I guess you could all say that 9-11 turned me around and opened up my eyes tremendously to the whole matter.
 
I hate to have to admit this in print, knowing that there are a lot of people out there who liked this movie. And I know that I’m likely to draw a lot of criticism for attacking one of the biggest hits of the year 2000. But I can’t help but think that this was one of the biggest ripoffs of the yesteryear, eschewing any chances at making a statement for racial tolerance in favor of just another mere popcorn entertainment vehicle. And now, in this column, I will begin to dissect just what’s wrong with this movie’s structure.

Ditching a good scene by implausing and forgetting it

We’ve already discussed the opening scene with Erik Magnus Lensherr/Magneto, who will later grow up to become the Master of Magnetism, so let’s get on to one of the next scenes. Rogue (Anna Paquin), here a young girl in her mid-teens and not the tongue-wagging princess we know of in the comics, flees from her home in Mississippi after putting her boyfriend into a coma after her powers unknowingly manifest and take their toll on his consciousness. Within just a few days, she’s fled to Alberta, Canada, without explanation as to how she could get there in just a short time, where she meets mystery man Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a prize fighter who may have once been the subject of a government experiment that lined him with an adamantium skeleton (albeit here, it’s never made clear). Logan takes her in and tries to serve as a mentor to her.

While I initially found this scene touching, it started getting increasingly ludicrous and lost credibility very fast after Wolvie accidentally stabbed her with the metal of his claws, and through that, she’s able to siphon off some of his healing powers and heal herself!

Now if she were to have actually touched his skin, then she could’ve plausibly obtained the necessary powers for healing herself in quick form. But via his metallic adamantium claws? For the record, it was also very strange why her case never made it to the newspapers, or anybody in her home neighborhood didn't miss her; it was not reported in the papers or on the news.

And yet, that was still nothing compared to how they pretty much abandoned this scene soon afterwards, when Wolvie’s truck has an accident on a nearby hill and they're attacked by Sabretooth, after which they’re rescued by the X-Men. And, thanks to this, the whole part just rang hollow.

Hollow threats from Senator Kelly

A little while before that scene though, we get to meet the X-Men political foe, Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison, here speaking in an oddly stiff voice), here meant to resemble a conservative politician (a scripting step which is typical of uber-leftist Hollywood), unlike his comic book counterpart, who’s meant to resemble the liberal version of the racist, and hails from Massachusetts (at one point, when he's talking with an aide who turns out to be Mystique in disguise, he hints he doesn't consider firearms as bad as mutants. It's as peculiar as it sounds). Kelly is trying to get a bill approved by the Senate that would require mutants to register with the government in a way that echos Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. Unfortunately, while his fellow senators may nod their heads in understandingness of the bill, it’s clear that noone really takes his warnings seriously. For while Sen. Kelly may be voicing his opposition in the Senate, and the nation’s TV sets may present one very fake looking demonstration against mutants, in the streets of North America, whether it be the US or Canada, there is virtually no sign of hostility against mutants anywhere. Nobody’s screaming at any identified mutants, nobody’s throwing rocks at them or trying to hit them with clubs, no nothing. Exactly what kind of environment is this in which things seem to be pretty dire on TV, yet outside the screen, virtually nothing happens?

Simply put, the movie doesn’t so much as try to make a statement for racial or even religious tolerance as it pretends to do so. What it does do is use some of the movie’s most notable cast members as “props.” In other words, Halle Berry as Storm is supposedly meant to represent the blacks, while as for McKellen, he’s supposedly meant to represent the Jews (or is it the gays?), but considering how pretentiously he's characterized here, I'd say that's exactly why it all falls flat too.

The movie also strains a considerable amount of crediblity within the grounds of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters itself – rather than to delve into any serious focus on teen alienation, Singer instead would rather wow the audience with all those cool special effects and superpowers. Not to mention that the scene in which Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos under mounds of blue body paint), disguised as another student, upsets Rogue so much by claiming Xavier's got a low view of her that she takes off, enabling herself to be captured by Magneto later on, was hard to swallow. After all, wouldn’t Rogue just want to go and complain to anyone who’s more caring that she’d been upset by another student? Even harder to believe is that she’d just up and run away from the mansion grounds or that Xavier wouldn’t have sensed that something fishy was going on, what with Mystique in the vicinity.

"The story repeatedly emphasizes the mutants' sense of otherness, their feelings of rage and despair at being outcasts from  normal society. But you never feel that sense of separateness because the X-Men exist in their own world - and a rather privileged one at that - and the normals live in theirs." - Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury News, July 14, 2000

About the only scene that really impressed me was where the demonic senator Kelly was abducted by Magneto in order to turn him into a mutant as well, although I can’t help but point out that in most logical terms, if he wasn’t born with powers, then he isn’t really a mutant. But the movie squanders even that, with Kelly then finding his way inexplicably to the mansion of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), where he later dies. And even before that, when he swims up on a local beach, you'd think the scene came from a different movie, because everybody just stares with their mouths agape, and nobody shrieks in alarm at how an entity with superpowers just washed up on the shore.

Even the rest of the cast is squandered

Most of the other cast, both the good guys and the bad, are either given little attention or are just not satisfying enough in their efforts. In some cases, they’re even too old for their roles, most notably being Famke Jannsen in the role of telekinetic Jean Grey. Now really, can a thirtyish woman like her (she was 34 at the time this was filmed, and she’ll probably be 37 by the time the sequel is done filming) be the right choice for the role age-wise? I’ll let the readers decide for themselves, but seriously, it doesn’t take that much to figure out that she already does look too old for a girl who’s supposed to be in her early 20’s. While as for Marsden, he makes a pretty dull Cyclops. Paquin has little to do.

But the real letdown decidedly was the astonishing underuse of Berry as Storm, who ends up being grabbed by the neck by Sabretooth at one point, and doesn't even seem to fight back. She's also beaten by Toad (Star Wars’ Ray Park, better known as Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace) very easily at first. For heavens sake, from a logical standpoint, even if Toad as envisioned in this movie has a projectile tongue, Storm should still be able to electrocute him or even blow him around in a whirlwind pretty easily. This movie makes even her look like a joke. It's not until their final confrontation that she actually scores a point, and even then, the line delivered, "do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?" was underwhelming. Mainly because she answers her own question with, "the same thing that happens to everyone else." Pretty somnambulent.
 
As for the villains, they are limited mainly to grunts and a dozen lines or so at best. Tyler Mane, the huge wrestler who plays Sabretooth, is at best a walking grunt machine. Romijn-Stamos has the best line in the movie (“people like you made me afraid to go to school when I was young,” she tells senator Kelly when kidnapping him), but does little more than to walk around in shock value near-nakedness covered only by the blue paint and shape shift.

No moral lesson to be learned here

If anyone here has ever read Uncanny X-Men #150, that issue had Magneto holding Shadowcat/Kitty Pryde hostage and attempting to kill her. But the horrifying memories of his experience in the concentration camp in Germany made him realize that he was going as far as his own tormentors and in horror, he stopped himself from making any attempt on Kitty’s life, showing that does indeed have a human side and knows what limits there are to how far one can go in being a conquestor.

Alas, this movie on the other hand contains no such moral lesson as to why one should never imitate the ways of the enemies: Magneto captures Rogue for the purpose of using her as a living battery for his supposedly nefarious plot to turn the earth’s population into mutants as well, a plot that contains echos of the plot used in Blade, Marvel’s previous foray into adapting their own work from 1998. She asks if he’s going to kill her, to which he replies that he is.

"Never mind that this character's attitudes stem from being a victim of the Holocaust; his revenge is motivated on far simpler terms of violence and greed." - Chuck Rudolph, Matinee Magazine

The really corrosive thing about this movie is how Magneto is considerably less sympathetic a character here than his comic book counterpart, which all the more serves to undermine his background as a victim.

The battle is only between themselves

In the end, it becomes pretty apparent that the real battle is not between the mutants and the non-powered humans, but between the good and the bad factions of the mutants themselves. Magneto, as mentioned, is plotting to turn the world’s population into mutants as well (stop giggling please), starting with a meeting of world politicians on Ellis Island, which climaxes with Magneto trying to use the Statue of Liberty’s torch arm as a weapon in a scene so fake looking it’s almost hilarious.

But the most shameless act, surely, aside from being self-canceling, is the movie’s all too obvious setup for a sequel. We came, we saw, and in the end, some of us come to realize that in spite of how “entertained” we felt upon seeing it, there was really nothing there. No genuine messages of racial tolerance or selflessness, no nothing, it was all just symbolic and prop-like.

I can see as to why a lot of people were deceived by this utterly overrated movie though: some people are so desperate to find something that appeals to their wishes for making this a better world that they end up completely overlooking the flaws in the movie. Others no doubt went to see it simply because it was a “superhero movie.”

Aha, see? There we have it. Whether or not they actually read comics such as X-Men, they were interested in seeing this movie solely on the basis of its being a “superhero movie,” and little else. They were not interested in the themes of racial tolerance or selflessness that accompany the whole concept; they went to see it solely as just another summer popcorn entertainment. Pure and simple.

Furthermore, let us be clear here: if you’re going to make a movie in which the theme is supposed to be about racial tolerance and helping those less fortunate than yourself, you don’t wait until the sequel, you deal with it in the very first movie. Otherwise, what good is the sequel anyway?

For that matter, it’s sad to say, but, the chances are almost 100% likely that the movie will be even less impressive than its predecessor. I’m already dreading the sequel since Gambit may be in it. And even if he’s ostensibly based upon the version presented in Ultimate X-Men earlier this year (who wasn’t any good either), having a character like that around is not what I’d call presenting good role models.

It’s an utter shame that what could’ve been a really good movie that was more than just your average popcorn fare for the summer had to end up being just another dumbed down…average popcorn fare for the summer. What a waste of celluloid. And I think it all goes without saying that there will cometh a day when this movie is seen as being one of - if not the only - things that helped to destroy the X-Men comics. Since May 2001, Marvel's been changing the costumes to resemble the ones in the movie, and worse still, they've been allowing Grant Morrison to ruin the books even further by giving him the freedom to corrupt what makes them click as well.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I hate to have to admit this in print. And I know perfectly well that I’m likely to take a lot of flak for putting down what’s thought to be a big event of the year 2000. But I can’t help but think that this was just another movie project sent down the drain by filmmakers who were more interested in making money than in making a statement about the importance of valuble lessons. And that’s a real shame.

Recommended links:
Matinee Magazine review
One Guy's Opinion review by Dr. Frank Swietek
Rolling Stone review
Las Vegas Weekly review
The Toronto Star review by Geoff Pevere
Movieline review
Philadelphia City Paper review
USA Today
The Nation: Summer Celluloid Meltdown
Dallas Observer

Avi Green, who feels that he’s learned a lot from 2001, can be reached at avigreen2002@yahoo.com

Copyright 2002 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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