With the promise of control of the X-Men Universe reverting back to Marvel, it is interesting to look back on the roller-coaster of quality and influence that is the X-Men movies. It has been almost 20 years since Bryan Singer made X-Men (2000) and as a result made superhero movies fashionable and profitable again. The entire genre had been all but destroyed in the shit-storm of bat-nipples, bat-puns and bat-neon that was Batman and Robin (1997). Let’s face it, without superhero movies modern cinema is just a series of large, empty buildings where spotty youths try desperately to sell you overpriced ice-cream and talk nostalgically about a time when Star Wars movies were worth seeing. So from X-Men in 2000 to this year’s Dark Phoenix (2019), 20th Century Fox provided us with an eclectic mix of quality and style – that is assuming you want to include spinoffs like The Wolverine (2013), Logan (2017) and Deadpool (2016). Unfortunately in the end, Dark Phoenix was like a cinematic tidal wave: confusing, wet, guaranteed to ruin your day, and so obviously a bad thing you could see it coming a mile away. Dark Phoenix seems to have killed the series dead. The proposed final chapter, The New Mutants, has already been made but it is unclear how Disney will release it, even if they will at all. For the true X-Men fans, it is now a waiting game to see how the world of Mutants will be enfolded into the monster embrace of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
If Dark Phoenix left a bad taste in your mouth or you are keen to see something like the X-Men movies but with a little more creativity, character and indie-sensibility, there is a movie out there for you. Push (2009) is a weird little science fiction action film, set entirely in Hong Kong and following a group of characters all with different superpowers. For fans of the MCU, you’ll get to see Chris Evans as a reluctant hero before he became a reluctant hero with a star-spangled shield. Evans plays Nick Gant, a ‘Mover’ hiding out in Hong Kong after witnessing the death of his father as a child. His father was killed by a powerful government organisation that seeks to control and use people with psychic powers. In the tradition of this type of anti-hero, Nick is living a hand-to-mouth existence by wasting his talent on ever-more dangerous street scams until a young girl played by Dakota Fanning, who is a ‘Watcher’, enters his life. If this is starting to seem like too much background lore or if it feels like a kind of grungy Dungeons & Dragons, it isn’t. Either human evolution or experimental accidents have created individuals with psychic powers (basically low key superheroes). They all have cool one-word names. Watchers, for example, see images of the future. Movers are telecnect…telicane…telleco…can move things with their mind. Shifters can create illusions. Pushers can create false memories in others. then there are bad guy government types, menacingly represented by Djimon Hounsou, are experimenting on them to create super-soldiers.
So the plot is basically indie X-Men, or Jason Bourne with psychics, or what the Avengers would be if none of them wanted to be superheroes. We are all very aware that since X-Men in 2000, and even more so since Iron Man in 2008, there has been an avalanche of superhero movies and TV shows. So for something to be worth watching there has to be a certain quality which sets it apart. Push has a few things which sets it apart from the now standard Marvel fare. First is the setting. Push is set entirely in Hong Kong and it makes full use of the place. The stacked blocks of anonymous apartments, the frenzied harbour community, vibrant colours, multiculturalism and complex social layering is all expressed in the architecture and décor. In fact, some scenes in Push are reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell (1995) and its sequels. It is more like science fiction and cyberpunk than a superhero movie. If it feels like a comic then it feels like a manga. The second is the camera work. How does one summarise it succinctly? More like Bourne than Bond. The colours are bright, the lighting feels natural, the camera is often handheld, and the framing is more intimate than epic. Bear in mind that Push managed on a budget of around $38 million compared to X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s budget of around $150 million and Watchmen’s budget of $130 million, both released in the same year. The year before that, the first Iron Man had a budget of around $140 million. Push gracefully manages with less. It manages (and this is the third reason to watch it) because it is inventive. Both the overall plot and the individual set pieces are designed to explore what it means to possibly possess supernatural powers. Telekinetic-controlled handguns, for example.
Marvel’s world is undeniably and consistently entertaining. However, despite a few stylistic flourishes in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and the Ant-Man movies (2015 and 2018) they are rarely forced to push the envelope of creativity. There have been a string of behind the scenes stories of directors being fired due to “creative differences,” usually when they refuse to toe the Marvel line. Why should they be inventive? They’ve got a formula to print money. Why change it? Push, based on production constraints and no doubt a desire to be different, manages to create something which is undeniably a superhero move but doesn’t look or feel like the movies we’ve become so familiar with over the last two decades. Chris Evans effortlessly provides the movie with a grounded central performance. Although those who have only seen him as the upstanding Captain America may find it hard to first see him as a loser on the run. Those who have seen how good an actor he is in Sunshine (2007) and Snowpiercer (2013) will find his Everyman, science fiction hero familiar. Evan’s journey from loser to hero is the central thread of the movie but not the limit of the plot. The whole story attempts to take in a larger worldwide conspiracy and the consequences of god-like powers. It is in this area that the movie overreaches a little. When the movie is an intimate, personal journey it works great. But when it reaches beyond itself you can’t think about it too deeply or it starts to unravel. You’d end up saying things like, “Wait, but couldn’t they just…” or “But how did that manage to…” and other annoying phrases like that. But don’t bother with all that. It is a superhero movie after all. A low-budget, indie, inventive little superhero movie, and perfect for Saturday afternoon viewing.
By the way, to go back to the beginning of this post, and just for any enthusiasts out there, the movies in the X-Men Universe could possibly be summarised as follows:
- X-Men (2000) – Entertaining, low-key introduction to the genre.
- X2 (2003) – Better, bigger and more interesting than the first.
- X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) – Confused, muddled and a big disappointment.
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) – Lacks continuity, style and logic but has Hugh Jackman.
- X-Men: First Class (2011) – Lacks Hugh Jackman but has continuity, style and logic.
- The Wolverine (2013) – A good movie and a bad movie all rolled into one.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Not as good as First Class but at least it has Hugh Jackman.
- Deadpool (2016) – The standard by which grown-up superhero movies are set.
- X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) – The aptly named beginning of the end.
- Logan (2017) – Dark, moody, well scripted farewell to Hugh Jackman.
- Deadpool 2 (2018) – Like Deadpool but bigger, more expensive and with all the jokes explained.
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) – I really should have given up on this two movies ago.