I Like to Watch | Dark Phoenix
When I look back on the debut of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, the display of serious charisma and acting gravity was significant. Patrick Stewart. Ian McKellan. Famke Janssen. Halle Berry. Anna Paquin. James Marsden. Bruce Davison. The then unknown but amazing Hugh Jackman. I mean, this was a cast of serious talent.
X2 (also Singer) was even better. Brian Cox and Alan Cumming signed on. Once again, great freaking cast, solid writing, great love triangle, with each of these premiere actors getting at least a few moments in the movie to really chew things up.
In that regard, at least Singer understood something that previous attempts at superhero films hadn’t entirely grasped: it isn’t about the powers on display or the special effects, it’s about the people who have them. It takes a lot of fucking charisma to pull off a role derived from a comic book. Imagine Wolverine even being a blip if any other actor had played him but Jackman. Imagine any other actor playing Charles Xavier but Stewart. Then jump to 2017’s Logan and try to conceive of any two actors who could pull that cinematic stunt off.
All told, the first two X-Men movies had five Oscar-winning actors.
When I was a die-hard comic reader, back in the day, it was the artists who made the difference with their specific and distinct drawing styles. My favorite artist was always John Byrne and his take on The Fantastic Four and later the X-Men. There is something about his work that brought characters I loved to a certain kind of life and it always ended up being something about the pen and ink magnetism of the heroes.
When you look at the non-Fox MCU, it isn’t Iron Man that makes that first foray work. It’s Robert Downey, Jr., an Oscar-winning actor with so much natural appeal dripping from his pores and Jeff Bridges oozing palpable malevolence that electrifies the kind of silly storyline. It took Captain America to reveal Chris Evans as a truly exciting actor to watch, and The Hulk isn’t awesome because of the advanced CGI but because Ruffalo is a great actor. Add the extraordinary screen presence of Sam Jackson and how can you fail?
Less than technological advances, I’d argue the primary reason superhero movies are the Big Gorilla in cinema today is about the casting.
Christopher Reeve as Superman.
Michael Keaton and Christian Bale as Batman.
Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as The Joker.
Cate Blanchett as Hella.
Tobey Maguire and Tom Holland as Spiderman.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.
Anthony Hopkins as Odin.
Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor.
Ron Perlman as Hellboy.
Wesley Snipes as Blade.
Hugo Weaving as Red Skull.
James Spader as Ultron.
Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger.
Paul Rudd as Ant-Man.
Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool.
Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus.
Christ, the Nolan Batman trilogy has both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in secondary roles!
When FOX decided to re-invent the X-Men with X-Men: First Class in 2011, they followed suit. James MacAvoy. Michael Fassbender. Jennifer Lawrence. Kevin Bacon. Fuuuck. That’s a chunk of star power by actors with some serious street cred, yes?
Following that up with X-Men: Days of Future Past, we get Stewart, McKellen, Jackman, Berry, MacAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, as well as Ellen Page and fucking Peter Dinklage!
Sure, X-Men: Apocalypse still has Fassbender, MacAvoy, Lawrence, and Oscar Isaac(!) but suddenly, the X-Men team consists of actors with almost zero screen presence: Nicholas Hault, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, and Sophie Turner. Who? Why? Each one with a diminishing return on presence or pop. None of whom would be interesting enough to have dinner with let alone spend two hours watching them pretend to be superheroes already played by far more charismatic actors.
So, finally, we get to the final FOX X-Men movie. Dark Phoenix. Fassbender and MacAvoy look tired. Lawrence mails in a quick “Thank God I don’t have to do these fucking movies anymore” performance. Jessica Chastain seems bored out of her mind and the heavy-lifting is done by these dull, milquetoast actors trying really hard to emote the big scenes but falling short of a single moment. Even the big message (You are a woman and so your power comes from being emotional) is a watered down version of Brie Larsen’s journey in Captain Marvel, which is flawed because Larsen has the charm of a brick of sod.
Frankly, I love these movies derived from comic book superheroes. I grew up reading this stuff so to see them up onscreen with amazing CGI powers is super cool. These characters are a form of modern mythology and no one casts a demi-god with an actor who couldn’t sell me car insurance.