X-Men and X2

I had somehow missed the first three X-Men movies, and have still missed The Last Stand, technically. But when I asked a comics friend if I should watch that one too, he responded, “Not if you’re sober,” so we’re just gonna pass that one (until I’m not).

Part of me feels like I should try to compare and contrast X1 and X2, to figure out what makes the first one good and the second one great, but what even is the answer there? Is X2 just better plotted? X1 more bogged down with character introduction? Maybe. But then again, I like character introduction. I also love scene setting, and X1 is fabulous at that. It starts in Poland, perfectly. Michael Chabon knew exactly what he was doing when he began The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay* with a boy in 1930s Czechoslovakia, because to tell your story of new American gods, it is good to start in the Old World. Comic book characters sprung like primary-colored Athena’s from the minds of scrappy young Jewish men in Brooklyn, New York, trying to literally live on imagination, and so yeah: Erik Lehnsherr.

Let’s talk about Erik Lehnsherr.

Charles Xavier is important too but we’ll get to him in a minute — we start with Erik, because Erik demands you start with him, because Erik is angry. And his anger is important. Sure, it’s the most blatant bit of on-the-nose storytelling since maybe the Mutation As Queerness Metaphor that we’ll also be getting to (there is a lot to be got to in the X-Men franchise) (I love the X-Men franchise), but when Erik shows you the concentration camp numbers stained into his wrist and swears he will not be rounded up again, well you’d be forgiven for whispering some awed curse words.

In the world of the X-Men movies, the whole structure of how people react to superpowers is different than in its Marvel sister-universe, the Avengers franchise, because here our heroes are “mutants.” Instantly set apart, not normal, Other, with all the fear and lack of safety and hot resentment that comes with that. Which is why it means everything for the mutants to find community with each other — for Logan to normalize the hell out of Rogue’s impossible existence with a simple “Fair enough” as they rumble through Canada in his truck, to support Bobby when he reveals that he hasn’t “come out” to his family yet, to always assure each other that “mutation is not a disease” and they do not need to be fixed. The mutants are persecuted for being different, violently so, and as extreme and just flat bad as his aims and methods may be, we fully get why Erik is not going to stand for it. I genuinely forget he’s the villain at times, in a way I never do even with other sympathetic super-enemies like, say, Loki.

But then again, X2 contains this actual bit of dialogue:

Pyro: “So, they say you’re the bad guy.”
Magneto: “Is that what they say?”

“They” both is and is not Charles, because damn if Charles doesn’t wish every minute that Erik weren’t the bad guy. But he is Charles’ perfect foil, that is sure. Because where Erik is a pessimist who believes humankind has had chances to not be awful and blown them repeatedly, Charles Xavier is an optimist who believes in everyone’s capacity for goodness. He has a sense of faith in both individuals and the universe, at a strength rarely seen outside of maybe Agent Dale Cooper. And just as we need Erik’s anger, Professor X’s unconquerable hope is also so important. Even if it weren’t for the future of the world, and were simply the trust that someday he and Erik might be on the same side again. Erik, whom Charles loves almost like a threat — “I will always be there, old friend,” he assures him in his plastic prison, always.

I haven’t even mentioned anyone’s powers. Their powers are SO COOL. Magneto controls metals, which is spectacularly useful and/or dangerous in 99.9% of situations. Magneto is formidable. And Professor X has telepathy, feels people’s thoughts and can slip into their minds, and I adore that I’m still not exactly sure about the scope of what he can do, because that feels right. Charles, your power is spooky. It’s a good thing you mean so well.

But that’s just Magneto and the Professor. We could be here all day if I went through all the mutants we meet in just the first two X-Men movies. There are just so many of them, and their abilities so varied, that the cast of characters basically becomes a murderers’ row of deus ex machinas, and I love it. It’s high fun the way a heist movie is: assembling a mod podge team of people with different skills but one common goal.

Now, don’t get me wrong — the X-Men movies are not exactly nuanced masterpieces of cinema. Like all superhero movies, they are grand in a way that’s always hovering on the line between glorious and ridiculous. They have the myth’s hand-wave toward plot holes and rationality, because that’s not why they exist. They exist because we want to see a woman who can create storms come spinning into a frozen forest in a whirlwind, crackling lighting out of her fingertips, and rescue two new members of her found-family of beautiful, melodramatic weirdos. That is why we go see X-Men movies.

Anyway, to answer my initial question: X2 is better because it contains Nightcrawler.

* If anyone with even a passing interest in comic books or their history has not read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, wow do I ever encourage you to do that. It won the Pulitzer for fiction for good reason. Read it in October — it feels like it’s always October in that book.

Blade Runner

There seem to be four different versions of Blade Runner that you can watch today. I ended up with the “Final Cut,” with no help at all from the dude at my local video rental store, who, incredibly, did not take the opportunity to mansplain the history of Blade Runner to me that I just handed him. Anyhow, from what I’ve gathered, this edition does not include Harrison Ford’s resentful VO narration (I can’t imagine anyone really wants that), or the “happy ending,” which is also just fine with me, as what I saw was the best ending I can imagine for this movie.

I am unsure what the consensus is on the picture quality, but the Blade Runner I watched was very, very beautiful. The very first shots are the lights of the city making a galaxy in the iris of someone’s eye, ringed in industrial flame. And then when we dip inside one of the buildings, the starry lens flare casts glimmers across our own eyes, just like the ones we saw. I could not have picked a more perfect follow-up to Metropolis if I tried, because in both theme and form, what Ridley Scott made is absolutely the visually striking, philosophically disquieting successor to what Lang started. I like that movies about humanity intersecting with technology are so concerned with being startlingly well-designed things in themselves.

Our main man here is Deckard, coming right out of whatever it was in the late 1970s / early ‘80s that was producing so many loner-cool cops. Because Harrison Ford is in many ways playing a sort of cyberpunk Max Rockatansky, a guy who’s going to take his noodles with him into the hover police-car because whatever, cop in the goldenrod waistcoat, whatya gonna do about it. Deckard is a Blade Runner, meaning he hunts down replicants gone rogue. Replicants are robots built to be nearly indistinguishable from humans, which does not sound like a smart idea, but clearly whatever got us into this terrible future was not a boon of Smart Ideas. Los Angeles is now forever dark and rainy — truly this is a dystopia. There’s not a speck of plant life to be seen, just endless warrens of gritty streets and gritty people, disorienting cluttered interiors and blue tendrils of cigarette smoke curling everywhere, a giant screen of a smiling woman holding a little red capsule floating over the city like their unspeaking god. The soundtrack is strange and silvery and occasionally seems like it might be half-diegetic. There are search lights casting about everywhere, though no one seems to be able to find what they’re looking for.

But Deckard is looking, looking for the dangerous replicants his shoddy police force believe to be on a havoc mission after breaking free from whatever off-world planet they had been working on. Enslaved on, rather, because god forbid we start with the good ideas now. So he quickly becomes the grim PI in our futuristic film noir, meets his mysterious femme fatale, and gets detecting. And we, in turn, begin to get to know his quarry: the replicants with the crystalline blue eyes. Unfortunately, they’re charming in their creepiness, so cold toward humans but so warm to each other. I’m sure we won’t end up with any conflicting feelings at all, watching this go down! No, we absolutely will.

And that’s the magic of Blade Runner: the way you can never quite tell what you want to happen, just like you can never quite tell where you are in this city. Personally, I may have flipped the most when I discovered that LA’s famous Bradbury building was playing itself, and was actually the Bradbury. Fantastic, the way all the pieces of what you think you know — space and robots, detective stories, post-apocalyptic wastelands, Prodigal Sons — all combine to make something you never actually expected. And when it comes to Roy’s final, haunting monologue…. well, legend goes that not even the screenwriters knew to expect that.


Rather an easy lay-up for the first entry of a movie blog, you might say, and I would say yes, exactly: the plan. Have there been entire dissertations on Metropolis? Surely.

I lightly studied Fritz Lang’s M once in a 20th-century German history class, and was delighted with it in much the way I’m delighted with this. There is such a keen interest in the craft of film in Lang’s work — probably in a lot of German work, for that matter. Innovation and Design. This is a movie that credits a sculptor right after the composer, that sort of thing. Metropolis was artistically daring in what it was trying to achieve, and it shows, and I love that. Unusual as they are, I also really love the gaps of missing material. There’s something so special about watching something that has been rescued. I got very sappy and sentimental about this. Also sentimental about the typeface game filmmakers used to bring to their inter-titles — pour one out for the lost art of triple-dashes used like ellipses.

What we have not lost, however, are Metropolis’s themes, for when haven’t we been telling stories about the downtrodden rising up against the system that holds them down? Robots though, that’s newer. Workers literally fed to the piston jaws of the Machine and a beautiful girl built of metal who can tear apart society — wow Weimar Republic, wow.

But for all the cold grinding gears, this movie is just stuffed with emotion. Our hero, Freder, who resembles a gentle mascara-wearing Leonardo DiCaprio, is forever showing distress by curling his hands in fists against his chest, like he needs to pull his ribs open to create space for all his feelings. And his father, our villainous greedy overlord, has these incongruously sympathetic sad eyebrows, something like a cross between Mark Rylance and Mark Strong. But that’s probably a good sign, as much of the narrative will hinge on accessing his stores of empathy.

There’s also an exceedingly tall vampire-looking henchmen just called The Thin Man, who stalks around having a wonderful time threatening people, and a mad worshipful inventor living in a medieval barn somehow still wedged between the art deco skyscrapers. It of course has secret access to the catacombs beneath the city, where the workers meet after their long shifts to listen to the beautiful starry-eyed Maria, a saint in the underground, their prophetess with the wisdom of the hearth and heart. Maria believes in reconciliation between the Haves and the Have Nots, and her faith in mediation lends hope and strength to the weary.

But of course, Saint is not all Maria is. Metropolis might be the best example I know of the problem of having just one female character in your movie, who ends up having to be everything, all at once. Because Maria is also the Beloved of Freder, as well as the Mother to the workers’ children. And it is also her form that is copied for the malicious robot that the inventor has built — whom you can always tell from the original because Fembot Maria wears more eyeliner and her left eye has a rakish squint. And now we see “Maria” become yet more: Temptress, Witch, Whore of Babylon. She even bears a resemblance to Freder’s own dead mother, for whom the crazed inventor harbored a hopeless love.

Although there is a separate male character for each of the archetypes they are portraying, they don’t exactly rise above tropes either. But they don’t need to, because Metropolis is an allegory — what you remember are images. And they’re stunning: the Machina shining under the electric rings, the business Tower of Bable rising above the glittering glassy city, a swarm of leering eyes, crowds rushing like waves. What I adore about watching movies like these, the big ticket Influential ones, is how you can glimpse so many later movies flickering over the frames. It gives their oldness this odd magic power of seeming to tell the future.