Against The Hype

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The Best Shots of X-Men

July 31, 2010 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

A potent combination—1) droolworthy university course listings, 2) meetings with new schoolmates and old friends, 3) a dearth of notable summer fare and 4) the existing gamut of insights on its few standout blockbusters—sublimated most of my desire to write about the movies over the past three months.

But no more, since I couldn’t resist chipping in to Nathaniel R’s blogathon participatory series (I guess that’s what they call it these days) over at The Film Experience. The idea? Have the discipline to pick out and post a single favourite shot of a movie, as determined by Nathaniel. Just a glimpse of the screen captures below should tell you how my self-control turned out.

X-Men (2000) lives up to being forefather of the millenial rise of comic-book superhero movies. Both in the sense that it’s unapologetically well-constructed, and yet in that it looks shabby and transitional. Just look at that title screen! The dated CG effects, full of wobbly lightning and glowing energy cores, look like they were cribbed off the opening credits of the previous year’s Fight Club. To be fair, these effects will be an actual plot point, reproduced by some trumped-up contraption later into the movie. And a similar contraption, with similar but spiffed-up CGI effects, will also be reprised halfway into the decade in Spider-Man 2 (2004). But we can’t deny that this shot reminds us just how improved but pervasive and still-clichéd CGI in the movies has become since then.

Thank goodness that, for all its perfunctory CGI (and action scenes), the screenwriters got the heart of X-Men right. This is the first establishing shot of the movie, and I love that it goes there. Have you heard the apocryphal stories of audiences arriving late to the theatres and wondering if they’d stepped into the right movie? Yet the Holocaust is the most fitting historical anchor for the series’ recurring theme of prejudice, and the context helps to push the escapist fantasy of mutant powers into the realm of the real. The shot also showcases Bryan Singer’s role as director; X-Men is very much a screenwriters’ vehicle, clipping at the pace of its narrative beats, and Singer is there mostly to ensure the screenplay is served by efficient visual compositions, with plenty of crisp, shallow focus.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Poland any more. (Time since the earlier shot: 2 min 30 s. Also, more shallow focus!)

And here, as the juxtaposition of scenes implies, is Hitler’s modern counterpart. Note the golden rays emanating from Senator Kelly’s head as he sums up his support for the Mutant Registration Act. For all the explicit allegorical intent of a mutant’s sad “coming out” scene in the X2 sequel, I find this relatively muted scene on the US Senate floor far more distressing, precisely because Kelly’s case for the mandatory self-identification of mutants (in case they use their powers against other citizens) doesn’t make him too easy to refute, or map easily to other real-world minorities. But it’s a fine line between this and, say, arguing that HIV victims should be branded to contain the disease’s spread.

Worse, however satisfying it is to see Mystique take Kelly down a notch (and with just those legs!), there’s the dread that accompanies our knowledge that she’s only proving him right. (Kelly says as much at one point.) Nonetheless, Mystique’s unwieldy one-liner—”People like you are the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child”—has its own unassailable logic, and Rebecca Romijn embodies Mystique’s rage, disgust and agility well under all that makeup/CGI. Give or take the awful helmet-like wig.

You know what I love about these shots? When I first watched X-Men, I didn’t know who Sir Ian McKellen was, and yet I surmised from the way he’s introduced here that he was a huge movie star that I simply hadn’t come across before. (I would have a similar experience with Meryl Streep in Adaptation.) A year later, the first Lord of the Rings movie opened and sealed the deal. It was only much later that I learned that Magneto and Gandalf were his two biggest contributions to popular culture.

Senator Kelly: Don’t wanna be alone.

I’ve been mostly impervious to this on previous viewings. But perhaps because I’ve been reading Tony Kushner’s AIDS drama Angels in America, the sight of Kelly’s bulbous, pleading form and his hoarse whimper of that near-universal sentiment really got to me this time around.

And finally:

This is maybe Singer’s most auteurist shot in the whole movie, and it’s so weirdass and INLAND EMPIRE-like that I had to cap off with it. Cheers!

X-Men | 2000 | USA | Director: Bryan Singer | Screenplay: David Hayter, Tom DeSanto, Bryan Singer| Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Rebecca Romijn, Bruce Davison, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, James Marsden

2 Comments to “The Best Shots of X-Men

  1. liked this article!

  2. Great piece that really helps establish what Singer did differently from a visual standpoint that few others have done in the superhero realm.


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