Friday, March 24, 2017

Moving Comics part 2: once and future X-Men

Logan - 2017, d. James Mangold (in theatre)
Legion - 2017 (Wednesdays @ 10 on FX)
Rewatch: X-Men - 2000, d. Bryan Singer (DVD)

(continued from Moving Comics part 1)

While bland Iron Fist looks bad against a stylish Luke Cage, it has double the misfortune of debuting at the same time that Fox has its two biggest creative and critical successes with its Marvel licensed properties: Logan and Legion.

Logan is the feather in the cap for Hugh Jackman's run as Wolverine.  This, his 9th appearance as the character (and 7th starring vehicle), actually has another Fox-licensed Marvel property to thank for its success: Deadpool.  Last year's surprisingly fun and outrageous R-rated vehicle proved to Fox that adults-oriented superhero pictures actually can be ridiculously successful.  The studio gave The Wolverine director James Mangold and Jackman carte blanche to tell whatever story they wanted to tell, however they wanted to tell it.  Logan, if its successful at anything, it's staying true to its vision (if to a fault).

Using its R-rating to the maximum, the film is set in the not-too-distant 2029, where an ailing and struggling Logan does jobs as a limo driver to keep himself and a mentally degrading Professor Charles Xavier (the impeccable Patrick Stewart returning to the role for a fifth time) safe in their later days.  Their current fates alone is a sorry and depressing state of affairs.  Logan's adamantium skeleton is toxic, and as he ages his healing factor is degrading, unable to fight the poison effectively.  Charles has dementia which means he loses control of his powers when he has his spells and homeland security has labeled him a weapon of mass destruction.  Mutantkind lost their fight for recognition and to be treated as equals, and are all but eradicated on the planet at this point.  But there's a new, young mutant Charles implores Logan to help, a young girl created as an experiment from Logan's DNA.  Logan is saddled with her safety, and ultimately the future of mutantkind.  Lots of claws in the face and through the back of the head ensue.  It's both great and uneasy (particularly when Laura [Dafne Keen] enters the violent melee).

It's a dark, grisly affair, with few (if any) moment of levity, but it's loaded with stellar performances and an unleashed-by-the-ratings-board Wolverine, which I think is what we've all wanted from the character since his 2000 debut in Bryan Singer's game-changing X-Men.  I won't get into spoilers but I will say the ending was not as I preferred, and the general lack of heroes in this film means it's not the greatest superhero movie ever, but it's a damn good film all on its own.

Being set a dozen years in the future allows for a few moments of inspiration and prognostication.  A scene featuring driverless transport trucks and some errant horses is perhaps my favourite moment in the film.  But the film is loaded with great moments, and features an unwavering tone and captivating momentum.  Despite being an utterly bleak coda to the X-Men franchise as we know it, Logan is a triumph on its own merits, a great character study from creators and performers who had an unflinching desire to get something truly inspired out before they left the characters behind.

Legion is an out-of-continuity X-Men story currently airing on FX.  It's the brainchild of showrunner Noah Hawley, the creator of the formidable Fargo TV show, based off a largely unknown and underutilized character from the comics.  There, Legion is the codename for Charles Xavier's son, a mutant with multiple personality disorder, and each one has its own superpower.  Here, Legion is David, who we meet in a mental hospital where he's medicated and unsure of his own reality.

Within five minutes of the first episode of Legion, I was sucked in.  Hawley used music and design to instantly establish a world that was definitely not our own, and editing to highlight the chaos David faces in his own mind.  That asylum set and the wardrobe of the people inhabiting it recall all manner of 70's landmark cinema, from The Shining, to Logan's Run, to One Flew Over The Cuckoos' Nest.  Retro-futurism and surrealism reign, and the sense the we as an audience don't quite know which end is up allows us to sink into David's garbled mind.  At the same time Hawley and company (a terrific team of writers, directors and editors, among other talented crew) cobble David's story together in a most erratic fashion, constructing a narrative like a puzzle, piecing elements of David's past from different times with his present, and then stitching them together with David's memories of the events which could be faulty.

David meets Syd in the hospital, a pretty blonde who keeps her hands inside her sleeves and pulls her track suit zipper all the way up to her chin.  She doesn't like to be touched.  Bad things happen.  It could be trauma (well, it definitely is) but it also recalls Rogue from Singer's X-Men.  We do learn why she doesn't want to be touched and it's not quite like Rogue at all, but it is fantastic.  David and Syd manage to escape their institute, thanks to the help of a mutant liberation group who are fighting a nefarious governmental organization who want to study and control, if not use and abuse mutants and their abilities.

The liberation group, led by Jean Smart's Melanie Bird seeks to free David from the misconceptions he has about himself and his ability.  They assure him it's not multiple personality disorder, but his mutant powers trying to manifest under the cloud of medication.  Unfortunately it never occurs to them it might be both.  They poke around inside David's mind, a form of therapy service thanks to another mutant with the ability to enter into memories, however they discover something nefarious and foreign leeching off David, not just holding him back but clearly traumatizing him.

Stylistic and crazy, playful and dangerous, horrifying and delightful, Legion is the most audacious superhero story yet told on TV or Film.  It's not an exercise in editing, but an actual puzzle story that the audience is presented with, entrusting them to piece it together.  It's intense and trippy, psychologically curious and confounding, and manipulative but never to the point of trickery.   The series opens feeling disconnected entirely from the X-Men source material, but as it progresses it bridges the gap and becomes part of that universe (if not exactly the cinematic X-Men universe). There's dance sequences and body horror, jump scares and trippy astral plain sequences.  Episode 7 is a marvel (no pun intended) in its execution, poetic, dreamy and fiercely intense containing one of the most inspired and harrowing action-but-not-action sequences that the whole show was building towards.  There's a clear "anything goes" direction to the series, but it has a strange internal consistency that grounds it.

It's a short, eight-episode season, but it has a focused drive and no excess.  Given Hawley's massive success with Fargo, FX has allowed each chapter to breath its own breath, most taking a few minutes longer than the traditional 42 minute "hour" slot.  That Legion exists is a gift, but that it seems to be reaching an appreciative audience is even more so (it was announced this week Legion was picked up for a second season).

It's been a long road to get to Logan and Legion from 2000's X-Men, but we've arrived.  The preconceived notion of what a superhero story had to be, whether on TV or in theatres, was pretty much established by Bryan Singer's landmark entry into the genre.  I rewatched X-Men for at least a dozenth time recently and it holds up.  The practical effect and scant amount of CGI have allowed the film to visually age well, and the story is more about character than action which is how it still stands above most of the superhero films that would follow it.

It seemed studios took the wrong lessons from X-Men (including Fox for its sequels) when they just saw leather outfits, shows of superpowers and set pieces.  Far too many movies just stole the surface elements and don't focus enough on the characters or having a meaningful conflict.  X-Men as both a comic and a film, has a double-edged analogy of the awkwardness of puberty (with dealing with sudden onset of supernatural abilities subbing in for hormonal and other bodily changes) and as an anti-prejudice fable.  Singer leaned more into the latter than the former, opening his film with a gut-wrenching scene of young Erik Lehnsherr being separated from his family in a Nazi-run concentration camp during World War II, and his powers suddenly setting in (of which he obviously has no control).  So it makes sense that 55 years later, an elder Erik, now Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) has only the worst taste in his mouth when a US Senator starts sparking outrage and fear in the public over mutants, and looks to register them and their abilities like they were criminals.   Magneto's stance is militant.  His estranged friend, Charles Xavier is more hopeful in humanity's ability to see all people as equals.  The divide between these two men and their approach to this oncoming crisis is where the film gains its conflict.

What's most surprising is how X-Men resonates as a parable even more today than it did 17 years ago.  Still pre-9-11, it didn't quite have the foresight to predict the dire Islamaphobia propaganda war the far right conservative media and politicians have been serving.  At its time, X-Men was just warning off this kind of prejudiced behaviour in general.  Today it's mirroring Trumps America to a frightening degree.  Bruce Greenwood's sole voice decrying mutants is replicated dozens-fold of anti-Muslim advocates in Trump's cabinet and the Republican-led congress and senate with.  Trump has called for registration lists of Muslims and immigrants in America during his Presidential campaign, and his policies are dividing the left into "hopefuls" and "militants".  If Magneto wasn't already a sympathetic villain, he's certainly become even more of one in today's context.

The fact is, the world of X-Men isn't confined enough, isn't dire enough to treat Magneto and his Brotherhood as rebels.  Instead they're terrorists.  It seems that one just has to wait for the situation to get bad enough to become a hero rather than a villain.

The B- and C- story of X-Men are both equally compelling.  Jackman's Wolverine makes his debut, a loner renegade who has to learn to become part of a team, and to accept that he's found a place where he's accepted for who he is.  Anna Paquin's Rogue is our teenage focal. When her life-energy-stealing powers manifest during a kiss with a boy, she runs away from home.  Wether people know she's a mutant or if they just think she's bad news, life obviously became harsh enough for her that she had to leave.  She winds up in Laughlan City (which is, apparently just a trucker bar) where she meets Wolverine, who's cage fighting for money.  Seeing a fellow mutant for the first time, she befriends him, just as they're attacked by Magneto's Brotherhood.  They're save by Storm and Cyclops and brought back to Xavier's School for Gifted Children, and so the story goes.  Few superhero movies since (Marvel's Avengers and Captain America: Civil War the notable standouts) have managed an ensemble cast so effectively.

It's a truly wonderful film, with great performances, and a fairly firm translation of the comics.  Some prefer X-2 which features more action and puts even more focus on Wolverine, but I find it's less focused and somewhat repetitive.  In fact, that each film in the series has in one form or another been about the conflict between Professor X and Magneto and how they view their struggle, it's a series in dire need of a refresh.  Which is what both Legion and Logan bring to the table.  The struggle mutants face is still a key facet to these stories, but they are character studies in their heart, which certainly helps in investing in them.