Posts Tagged ‘Superheroes’

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Director: Shane Black

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley

Certain sayings, such as “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” never lose their effectiveness, even if we forget who originally said them in the first place. For as long as we’ve gotten to know him, Tony Stark has been a man who, although he has never brushed aside his intense narcissism, has consistently tried his best to atone for past mistakes. Before being nearly killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, Tony was the sort of guy who was so wrapped up in his own genius, fame and fortune that he often saw himself as smarter and therefore more important than everyone else. The first part is still applicable (and winds up being true more often than not), although he’s made leaps and bounds in that second area, in particular since teaming up with the rest of the Avengers. One inescapable consequence of being a prick to so many people is that, eventually, you rub someone the wrong way.

As the world was saying ‘goodbye’ to the year 1999 and ‘hello’ to 2000, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was giving that lecture previously alluded to in “Iron Man,” where he was said to have first met Yinsen, his fellow captor years later in Afghanistan… despite being too drunk to remember the encounter. At the same conference, Tony also hooked up with one scientist, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), for a one-night stand while humiliating another named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). It would be thirteen years before Tony would see Hansen and Killian again. Sometime in the interim, those two scientists began working together, combining Hansen’s tissue regeneration project called Extremis with Killian’s privately-funded think tank named Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM). Both had originally tried to gain Tony’s interest in and help with their projects, but were left out in the cold. Bad for Tony, and bad for a lot of other people, too.

Also arriving on the scene is the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama Bin Laden-esque terroristic villain who likes blowing shit up and shooting propaganda videos to gain the world’s attention. He leads the “Ten Rings” organization first seen in “Iron Man.” There’s more to him than meets the eye, though not in a Transformers sort of way. Not surprisingly, Killian is involved with the Mandarin as well. The suicide bombings that the Mandarin is taking credit for are actually people who’ve been “upgraded” with Extremis going KABLOOEY! One of those explosions takes out the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and places Tony’s bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in the hospital.

Even without the new line of threats piling up against him, Tony’s biggest stumbling block, and the movie’s most intriguing plot point, is the PTSD he suffers from as a result of his participation in the Battle of New York in “The Avengers.” Flying a nuclear missile through a wormhole in a remarkable act of selflessness will do that. The mere mention of words like “wormhole” and “New York” can send him into a full-blown panic attack. He barely sleeps at all anymore, because all he ever sees in his dream state are images from the battle. To compensate, he buries himself in his work, putting a strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

When the Mandarin strikes, he strikes hard, reducing Tony’s Malibu, California home to rubble, an incident which leaves the world believing that Tony/Iron Man may be dead. In reality, Tony has escaped to the town of Rose Hill, Tennessee, where he will lick his wounds, repair his damaged Iron Man suit and investigate one of the other known instances of a “suicide bomb” that left no trace of bomb components. This leads to a welcome cameo appearance from Knoxville-born actress Dale Dickey, perhaps best known for her work in “Winter’s Bone.” Once back on the Pacific Coast, Tony prepares for one of his toughest battles yet. How do you defeat an enemy that can instantly heal their injuries, both moderate and severe?  Like Tony, the Extremis soldiers have limits to their perceived invincibility.

With Shane Black taking over the director’s chair from Jon Favreau, “Iron Man 3” takes on a slightly darker tone from its predecessors. Tony’s sense of humor, which made “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2” so much fun, is still present but dialed down a little. Accordingly, the soundtrack is less “fun” and more serious this time. There are no AC/DC songs, but there is a very strong score from Brian Tyler to play us through the action sequences. I still believe that Jeff Bridges from the first “Iron Man” is the series’ best villain, although it’s not from lack of trying from the actors present here, nor is it the fault of the writing, which offers a few twists and turns the audience cannot have come in expecting. “Iron Man 3” offers some of the most memorable scenes in the entire series. Four of them stand out:

– Tony’s first panic attack when he is autographing a child’s drawing of the Battle of New York. Quietly, he scribbles the words “Help me!” He then gets upset when he breaks the crayon. Eventually, he’s so overwhelmed that he has to leave the restaurant entirely, jump into his Iron Man suit and fly away just to be alone for a while. Downey handles this and subsequent scenes containing panic attacks so well that it feels real.

– The attack on Tony’s Malibu home. After Tony calls out the Mandarin in fron of live TV cameras, giving out his home address, he had to expect this. But I like this scene because it is eerily reminiscent of a similar scene from “Lethal Weapon 2,” where the trailer that Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs calls home is also attacked by enemy helicopters. Ironically, Shane Black was the creator of the Lethal Weapon franchise, but dropped out during production of “Lethal Weapon 2.”

– Tony comes face to face with the Mandarin. Everything in the movie feels as though it’s been building to a confrontation between Iron Man and the Mandarin. After all, the Mandarin is known to be Tony Stark’s greatest foe from the comics. But it’s how their inevitable meeting plays out that elicits the majority of the film’s mixed reviews. I think it’s brilliant, but it’s also one of those things that I can’t justifiably talk about around anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie.

– The “barrel of monkeys.” With the kidnapping of the President (William Sadler) and the destruction of Air Force One, Tony is left to rescue the aircraft’s remaining passengers, who are plummeting to the ground below with no parachutes. Tony gets them all to join hands, the only way for him to save everyone. It’s a truly spectacular stunt. To top it all off, like the Tony/Mandarin scene, this one ends in a most unexpected way, in this case with the Iron Man suit turning out to be a drone remote controlled by Tony. Amusingly, it gets smashed by an oncoming truck as it passes a nearby bridge.

For now, Iron Man’s solo adventures appear to be at an end. Overall, I still favor the first “Iron Man,” though “Iron Man 3” definitely grows on you. I’m still lukewarm in regards to the ending, although I am relieved by the knowledge that this is hardly the last time we will see Tony Stark/Iron Man. First, he’ll re-team with his super-powered comrades in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (opening in less than two weeks), and he’ll also join the party in “Captain America: Civil War,” which is due out next year. Add to that his likely involvement in “Avengers: Infinity War, Parts 1 & 2” and it’s clear that everyone’s favorite genius billionaire playboy philanthropist isn’t going away anytime soon. I can dig it.

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Iron Man 2 (2010)

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson

No longer burdened with the uncertainty of whether or not their project was going to work, the success of “Iron Man” meant that Marvel Studios could focus on the remaining pieces to their “Avengers” puzzle. First on that list was a second solo adventure for Tony Stark/Iron Man. It is almost universally agreed that “Iron Man 2” was rushed into production, resulting in a sequel that fails to live up to the original. While this all may be true, it’s not like it’s never happened before, and “Iron Man 2” has enough going for it that it keeps you entertained throughout, just as the first one did. Superhero movies have always been at their best when the stories they tell are driven by an internal struggle which the hero has to address in order to move on to his next adventure(s). In “Iron Man,” in addition to dealing with betrayal from a former friend, Tony Stark also had to face a crisis of conscience, to make peace with his past as an arms dealer and move on to his new role as a peacemaker. In “Iron Man 2,” Tony is faced with a vengeful foe he never knew existed and another man who is jealous of Tony’s fame and glory, but his greatest enemy is his own mortality.

As it turns out, that paladium core in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)’s chest which keeps him alive is also slowly killing him. Chlorophyll smoothies are the only thing keeping his blood toxicity levels in check, and even that’s not going to be very helpful for much longer. Tony knows this, but hasn’t yet found the right time to explain it to his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) or his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). What he doesn’t know is that Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has recently seen his father waste away and die, is plotting revenge against Tony for perceived wrongs done to his family by Tony’s own late father, Howard.

At a senate committee hearing, Tony is encouraged to turn over the Iron Man suit. Arguing that since he and Iron Man are one and the same, turning over the suit would be akin to placing himself into
“indentured servitude.” It is during this scene that we are introduced to the film’s second villain, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons manufacturer who has no qualms about selling his product to the highest bidder. His weapons also have a nasty habit of malfunctioning, which is particularly unfortunate for the guinea pigs he finds to test out his knock-offs of the Iron Man suit. A mere annoyance all by himself, Hammer becomes more dangerous when he teams up with Vanko after watching the Russian attack Tony in the movie’s best action scene at a Formula One race in Monaco. Vanko could have killed Tony outright, but found it just as satisfying to place doubt in the minds of the public that Iron Man is still capable of protecting them.

Tony’s health grows worse and worse, and so he elects to make Pepper the new CEO of Stark Industries. She takes on an assistant, a redhead who introduces herself as “Natalie Rushman,” but whom the audience knows is really S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), also known as Black Widow. Natasha has been sent by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to evaluate Tony Stark for possible inclusion in the Avengers Initiative. She’s also extremely handy in both hand-to-hand combat and interrogation tactics…. and she fits really well into any leather outfit or formal dress she puts on. Just thought I’d throw that last part in there. For Tony to recover his health and fend off his new enemies, he’s going to need all the help he can get from Natasha, Rhodey and an old film recording of Howard Stark, still teaching his son from beyond the grave.

If you’re examining “Iron Man 2” for flaws, don’t bother looking in Robert Downey Jr.’s direction. He’s still proving why he’s one of the most perfectly cast actors to headline a superhero film. Blame Scarlett Johansson and you and I are going to have serious problems. At times when the film looks like it’s about to bog down, there she is to spice things up with her good looks and Black Widow’s ability to kick the ass of every person in the room. Unless you REALLY HATE the rock band AC/DC, then don’t blame the soundtrack, either. After memorably kicking the first film into high gear, AC/DC bookends “Iron Man 2” with “Shoot to Thrill” and “Highway to Hell,” both equally as well-placed as “Back in Black” was. The fault in this sequel lies with its weak villains. Although I love both Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell, and their characters are still quite interesting, the movie never builds them up as credible threats to Tony Stark/Iron Man. This hurts what is otherwise an enjoyable popcorn flick. Perhaps if Marvel Studios hadn’t been so eager to continue reaping the benefits of their newfound success story, they might have had a chance to work out all the bugs. As it stands, “Iron Man 2” is easily the weakest entry in the MCU thus far, but if this is indeed the “worst” that they can do, I see no end to Marvel’s gravy train.

Iron Man (2008)

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow

To really get a party started, you don’t hire a clown. No, you call upon a rock n’ roll superstar. As a young actor, Robert Downey Jr. showed promise, but his career got sidetracked in the late 1990’s thanks to his drug addiction, which led to numerous arrests and court appearances. By that time, he’d become more well-known for his performances in front of a judge than for his movies, the best of which up to that point had been 1992’s “Chaplin.” Flash forward a few years, where the superhero film is gaining popularity thanks to the “Spider-Man” franchise, “Batman Begins,” and others. Marvel Comics, setting its sights skyward, shoots for a long-term goal of an ongoing franchise of films, leading to an unprecedented crossover (achieved with 2012’s “The Avengers”) and continuing on from there. But if they’d crashed and burned coming out of the gate, none of it would ever come to pass. One way that could have happened is if they’d hired the wrong guy to star in the first film of the series, 2008’s “Iron Man.” Fortunately, Robert Downey Jr. happened to be available, and the rest is history.

When first we meet Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), we see a man so full of himself… so assured of his own genius… that he has lost sight of how the world around him works. As the head of Stark Industries, chiefly a weapons manufacturing company, Tony would be appalled if his creations were to fall into the wrong hands. He’s about to learn that this is exactly what has been happening. A terrorist group calling itself “The Ten Rings,” already armed with a cache of weapons they’ve acquired from Stark Industries, is very interested in Tony’s latest project, the Jericho missile. Tony and his military escort are ambushed. The next thing that Tony knows, he’s in a cave somewhere in the deserts of Afghanistan with a near-fatal chest wound. Only two things keep him alive now: 1) The car battery he’s hooked up to is magnetically preventing shrapnel from entering his heart, 2) his engineering know-how is of considerable use to his captors. Knowing that neither of these leases on his life will last more than a couple of days, Tony enlists the aid of fellow captive Yinsen to help him escape.

First devising a more efficient replacement for the chest implant, Tony then builds an iron suit, which not only has the capability to smash, shoot, and fry anyone in his path , but is also great at repelling enemy fire. It can fly, too. Of course, this is just a prototype, and so any flight will only last long enough to get Tony clear of danger. Rescued by a search party led by his good friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Tony returns to the States with a new perspective. He no longer wants Stark Industries to be about destruction and war-profiteering. His colleague Obadiah Stain (Jeff Bridges), who helped build the company alongside Tony’s father, has other ideas. While Tony retreats to his lab to perfect the iron suit design, now made with a titanium-based compound, Obadiah has been double-dealing with the terrorists. Eventually, it becomes clear to Tony that his worst enemy is not the one halfway around the globe, but the one pretending to pat him on the back while secretly looking for a good place to stick a knife.

“Iron Man” isn’t all about Downey Jr., whose personality lends the film the sense of humor it needs. It just happens that it’s MOSTLY all about him. Terrence Howard is good, if expendable (as it turned out), as Rhodey. Gwyneth Paltrow provides some of the movie’s sweeter moments as Tony’s assistant and will they?/won’t they? love interest, Pepper Potts. Still the best villain of the “Iron Man” franchise, Jeff Bridges turns in a strong performance as Obadiah Stain. It’s a shame that he’s only good for the one movie, because he’s a lot of fun to watch here. But the real surprise among the supporting cast is Clark Gregg, making the first of four MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) film appearances as Agent Phil Coulson. Gregg took this side character and has unexpectedly made the man Thor refers to as “Son of Coul” as popular as his super-powered friends, a role Gregg has since reprised as one of the stars of ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” now nearing the end of its second season.

Although 2008 also saw the release of the genre-eclipsing second entry in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, a movie displaying a vast array of acting talent, I would argue that “Iron Man” is of even greater importance to film history. So much hinged on Marvel getting this one movie right, on introducing Tony Stark/Iron Man in a way that could get the audience involved instantly, regardless of whether or not they are familiar at all with the comic series. If it failed, there would have been no “Avengers,” (Thor, Captain America, etc.) and I seriously doubt that anyone would have dared try to film “Guardians of the Galaxy” or any of the soon-to-be released titles like “Ant-Man,” “Doctor Strange” and “Black Panther.” With Marvel finding both the perfect actor to play the part and an appropriate song to play during his first scene, Tony Stark/Iron Man got the perfect introduction, the MCU got its rock star… and Robert Downey Jr. proved that he was indeed “back.”

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

And now for something completely different. Since 2008, Marvel Studios has had no trouble in introducing its characters to a wide audience. One thing that has aided the Marvel Comics Universe is finding writers and directors that know how to blend action with comedy. Taken too seriously, the superhero genre would fall flat on its face, and not in the good pratfall kind of way. Just as important, they have a knack for humanizing their protagonists, making them relatable people worth rooting for. Even with all the action flying around the screen, “Guardians” is very character-driven. With the exception of Thor and his two solo films, these movies have all centered around human heroes. But even Thor, who has the physical appearance of a human, has had mostly Earthbound adventures. In “Guardians,” we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’ve stepped through the looking glass. We’re beyond Thunderdome. Yet, we’re in a galaxy not so far, far away at all.

The film stars Chris Pratt (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) as Peter Quill, a human who has been away from Earth since 1988. He was taken from our world on the day of his mother’s death by Yondu (Michael Rooker), an alien with little resembling morals or common decency. In his adulthood, Peter, who from this moment on I’ll refer to by his outlaw name of ‘Star Lord,’ has become adept at the criminal lifestyle, betraying even Yondu. No honor among thieves! Like Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds before him, Star Lord is a terrific smuggler and a scoundrel, but not too bright. His latest prize, an orb of some importance and power that he knows not what, comes highly sought after. In particular, a murderous individual known as Ronan (Lee Pace) wants it very badly. The mere mention of Ronan’s name on the planet Xandar causes Star Lord’s buyer to back out of the deal, and that’s when he meets the people who will become his best friends in this or any other world. If you’ve already been enjoying the movie up to this point, it’s also the moment when “Guardians” truly kicks into high gear.

Star Lord’s new friends don’t exactly ingratiate themselves to him right away. The green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by Ronan to Xandar to retrieve the orb. She intends to betray Ronan and sell it to someone who doesn’t intend to use the powerful stone that lies inside it. To accomplish this, she steals the orb from Star Lord just after his deal goes south. During the ensuing fight, Star Lord is bagged (literally) by two bounty hunters: Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), whose surname explains what kind of creature he is, and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a walking, talking tree. Rocket is an ill-tempered, at times mean-spirited little fellow, but you would be too if you were the product of several genetic experiments. Groot is really handy in a fight, but it’s difficult to carry on a conversation with him since his entire vocabulary consists of the sentence “I am Groot.” Actor Vin Diesel may not get much to say, but he makes up for that by emphasizing the words differently to express multiple feelings and to show us that he really isn’t just saying the same thing over and over. Rocket, who has been with Groot for long enough that he can translate for him, helps out with the rest. Before the end, Star Lord will need everyone that isn’t trying to kill him (and some that are) on his side if Ronan is to be defeated.

There was still one “Guardian” left to introduce after the incident with the orb. Xandar’s security force, the Nova Corps, breaks up the fight and arrests and incarcerates Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket and Groot. In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) whose wife and child were killed by Ronan, and whom will be instrumental in the group’s escape from prison. Knowing full well that the other actors could handle their roles, I was the most interested in Bautista’s performance. A professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Bautista has not had much acting experience outside of the ring, and certainly no starring roles. He’s chiseled enough that he provides the physicality necessary for Drax, but Bautista also brings a highly emotional performance to the role. Drax is single-minded when it comes to seeking the death of Ronan, and this often causes him to act before thinking. He’s got friends now who can help in that area… when they have more than just part of a plan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson he ain’t, but Dave Bautista’s highly honorable Drax is every bit as lovable as that of Andre the Giant’s Fessik from “The Princess Bride.” He’s also in a much better movie than Johnson has ever participated in.

Although some of the supporting cast does not get as much screen time as maybe they should, I recognize that it’s hard for this big a cast to get the attention they need with a running time of approximately two hours. For example, Glenn Close’s role of Nova Prime could probably have been played by just about anyone. Others do just fine with the time that is given to them. Karen Gillan, recognizable for TV’s “Doctor Who” but thoroughly unrecognizable here, is cast completely against type as Nebula and seems to have enjoyed playing a baddie for once. Her character also takes part (unwillingly so) in one of the movie’s funniest moments. Maybe one of the more impressive things this movie does is with John C. Reilly. Ordinarily, Reilly’s near the top of my list of least favorite actors, in part for his goofy roles. When he is “normal,” as he is in “Guardians,” Reilly can be tolerable. This is the most tolerable I think he’s ever been. Kudos. In addition to the supporting players, there are also cameos to look for. There’s the usual appearance from Stan Lee, still with us at age 91, bless him. Look fast for Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman as an inmate at the prison, and be sure to sit through the end credits for the triumphant (albeit brief) return to the big screen for a certain Marvel Comics character since his 1980’s solo film tanked and became regarded as one of the worst films of all-time.

Just as important a character as any in the film is the music. Peter’s mother had given him a mix tape, which he still listens to on a Walkman, and he has made it the soundtrack to his life. Comprised of hit pop songs from the 1970’s, it emphasizes as well as anything ever could the fact that the writers are laughing right along with us. Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” are among the highlights, and any movie that has Marvin Gaye in its soundtrack is okay in my book. If it teaches us anything, it’s that it’s okay to dance to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” just as long as nobody is watching you.

This is one of Marvel’s best efforts thus far, and the best one that doesn’t feature Robert Downey, Jr. It’s the one that has taken the most direct route to comedy, and certainly the only true outer space adventure, complete with giant spaceship battles. Inevitably, comparisons with “Star Wars” and other science fiction franchises will come to mind. For example, one can watch the scene where Ronan receives instructions from the disembodied head of his boss, Thanos (Josh Brolin, whose part will only grow larger in future Marvel films) and recall a similar scene between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Ronan’s ship is even referred to as the Dark Astar, which isn’t that far removed from “Death Star.” But, as much as “Guardians of the Galaxy” has in common with those and other films, it is definitely its own animal and will continue to be, with a sequel scheduled for 2017. When the time comes, there ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to the theater.

X-Men Days of Future Past (2014)

Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” ~Roger Daltrey

Bryan Singer returns to the director’s chair for the “X-Men” franchise after an eleven-year absence, during which time the series added another sequel and two solo outings for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)… all of which were terrible movies. “X-Men: The Last Stand” had committed the most egregious offense in the way it botched the “Dark Phoenix” saga from the comics. After that fiasco, anything “X-Men” related would either draw limited enthusiasm or no interest whatsoever… even 2011’s “X-Men: First Class” which I ended up liking very much. So, when the announcement came that my favorite storyline from the comics was next up for cinematic treatment, I feared the worst and kept my expectations low. If they could screw up one of “X-Men”‘s two greatest stories, who could say that they would fair any better with the other? One thing was for sure… I would not be fooled again.

The future is a dark, depressing nightmare reminiscent of James Cameron’s “Terminator.” Mutants (and the humans who dare to aid them) are being hunted down like animals by an unstoppable armada of Sentinels, giant robots who had originally been created by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in the 1970’s as a deterrent against the perceived threat posed by mutants. The worst part is that the whole thing could have been prevented, if only someone had gotten to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in time to prevent her from killing Trask in 1973. A small group of mutants, among them Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) have come up with a way to make this happen. Kitty has been using her powers to help her friends prevent/delay their own deaths. She sends their minds back into their younger bodies, but this trick only works for short time distances. To send someone back several decades, Kitty would need to be working with a mind not easily broken. Enter Wolverine, the only man for the job.

In 1973, Wolverine must locate and convince the younger Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to work together to alter the future by saving the present. It’s a pretty daunting task that Wolverine’s been handed. Xavier has been wallowing in depression in the X-Mansion following the events of “X-Men: First Class.” Most of all, he feels betrayed by Mystique, with whom he’d been friends since childhood. Magneto’s as big a problem to reach, having spent the last ten years under lock and key underneath the Pentagon for murdering JFK with the “magic bullet,” although he has a much different account of events. The worst thing anyone could do is release the world’s most dangerous mutant from his cage, arm him with knowledge of the future and who’s responsible for its creation, and yet breaking Magneto out of prison was the only thing our heroes could have done.

Bolivar Trask is a man worth saving if it means preventing mass casualties on a scale no one’s ever seen before, but that’s about it. He’s been experimenting on mutants, which has resulted in the deaths of several characters from “First Class,” and he has his sights set on Mystique because of her powers of mimickery. He believes that he can perfect his Sentinels using her DNA to give them her ability to adapt, and he’s right. The Sentinels of the future win not just because they’re stronger, but because they can also mimic whichever power happens to be the one that neutralizes their enemy. Trask doesn’t care about flags, either. If the U.S. Congress doesn’t like his plan… the hell with them! Perhaps the North Vietnamese, who’ve just celebrated victory against the Americans, will be more properly motivated to hear him out. Never for a moment do you consider Peter Dinklage’s height when he is onscreen. His commanding voice gives Trask all the authority he needs.

The returning actors from “First Class,” who all did impressive work three years ago, feel much more like they are playing the characters as we had come to know them in Bryan Singer’s earlier films. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, having been on her own since November 22, 1963, has finally developed into the cold, world-hating woman who will wisecrack in the same breath as she is cracking your neck.  And yet these are not the same characters as in the first three movies. Like with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” every change that our heroes make in the past will add up to a new, unpredictable timeline. The future is not set.

One of many things I was concerned about going into this movie was whether or not the PG-13 rating would mean that the movie would weasel out on the carnage in the future scenes. While it’s not particularly gory (it’s “X-Men,” not “Friday the 13th”), there is no real compromise going on here. Mutants die left and right, and they die horribly. I love the idea of giving the Sentinels the ability to adapt. In the comics, they basically just had three ways of killing you: spears shot from their arms, brute force, or Iron Man-like repulsor beams shot from their hands… on the extra-crispy setting. Giving them Mystique’s power makes them scarier than ever.

So how does the movie fare overall? Color me impressed. Very, VERY impressed. I would even go as far as to call this my favorite “X-Men” movie, and to thank Bryan Singer for paying respect to the original material while providing a new and exciting take on “Days of Future Past.” Finally, I have the “X-Men” movie I’ve always wanted! Also, we finally have an answer to the oft-repeated question, “Does it ignore ‘The Last Stand’?” It does. At the same time, I don’t feel any real excitement for any future sequels, the first of which will be “X-Men: Apocalypse” in 2016. In reading the comics, I was essentially done with it after “Days of Future Past” concluded with Uncanny X-Men #142. Likewise, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” feels like it has brought things to a proper conclusion. In both the case of the comics and of the movies, I don’t see how anything can ever top this X-traordinary chapter.

X-Men First Class (2011)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt

Sometimes, when you’ve completely painted yourself into a corner, the best option is to go back to the beginning. The “X-Men” film series, although it has never felt completely true to the comics, had experienced a decent start before the folly of “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Though the story goes that it had always been part of the plan (as if I’ve never heard that excuse before), it still happens that “X-Men: First Class” came about at a particularly important time for the franchise. In addition to the need for a certain amount of cleansing, the “X-Men” movies had been a part of our lives for more than a decade, and the original actors were not getting any younger (a subject that will also be addressed by 2014’s “Days of Future Past”). For a younger cast to truly be accepted in these roles, you first need competent actors, and then a story that can help the audience warm up to them. How about incorporating the Cuban Missle Crisis, one of the most frightening and important events of the last half-century?

As this is a story whose focus is primarily an origin tale for frenemies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), it is only fitting that the story should begin with both of them as children. We return to the scene which opened the original “X-Men,” with little Erik Lensherr being separated from his mother by Nazi soldiers in Auschwitz when his powers manifest themselves for the first time. What we didn’t see back then is that someone else was watching this happen, a Dr. Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), and he is very interested in unlocking the boy’s potential. Bringing Erik into his office, Schmidt places a coin on his desk and instructs Erik to move it the way he bent the bars on the gates outside. When Erik cannot comply, Schmidt brings in his mother, points a gun at her, and gives Erik until the count of three to move the coin. Still nothing, unfortunately for Erik’s mother. Upon seeing her dead body, Erik’s rage is unleashed and the entire room is destroyed, along with two guards. Schmidt is excited, and he tells Erik that this is just the beginning.

In England, at more or less the same time, a young Charles Xavier is disturbed from his sleep by noises in the kitchen downstairs. He is greeted by what appears on the surface to be his mother, but he quickly sees through the charade. Revealing her true, blue-skinned form is the shape-shifting Raven, she who will come to be known as Mystique. Like the Wolverine/Rogue dynamic from “X-Men,” the friendship developed between Charles and Raven is a new angle that I find to be one of the movie’s best ideas, even if it does create a few continuity problems. As the two group up together, Charles charms the ladies as a student of genetics while Raven, who in public now adopts the appearance of a beautiful blonde in her early 20’s (Jennifer Lawrence), chooses not to disguise her jealousy.

The first meeting between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr comes in 1962 when Xavier has been hired by the CIA, among them Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), to help locate the Hellfire Club, a group of mutants being led by Klaus Schmidt, now going by the name Sebastian Shaw. The group is tracked down to their submarine, where Erik arrives and tries to kill Shaw. He almost drowns in his pursuit, but for the intervention of a concerned Xavier. Together, the two will recruit several other mutants to their cause, and they will need every single one of them for the final confrontation with Shaw, whose ultimate plan is to start World War III by forcing the placement of nuclear missles by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Turkey and Cuba, respectively. The most important moment in the movie is when Xavier pulls Erik out of the water. What if he hadn’t, or had at least been too late? You’re talking about a much different universe indeed. McAvoy and Fassbender both excel in their roles. Despite the fact that the actors neither look nor sound anything like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, I still believe them.

I have only one real objection about this film: the casting of Zoe Kravitz. Actually, it’s not her so much as it is her fickle, cold-hearted and annoying character. Angel reminds me too much of the characters invented for “The Last Stand,” who possessed little personality and much anonymity. This at least is counterbalanced by Jennifer Lawrence, for whom “X-Men: First Class” served as my introduction. Hers is definitely a different portrayal of Mystique from that of Rebecca Romijn, but that’s because this is Mystique’s uncomfortable crossroads period where she had to decide where her place in the world truly lies, and Lawrence helps bring that out of her.

Perhaps my favorite of all the X-Men movies, “First Class” works both from the advantages of being a period piece and in its unashamed determination to challenge what we think we know about the history of these characters. It also raises a lot of questions which I hope will be answered by future sequels (like the one that was just released today, for example). I would have preferred that this movie had meant the start of a whole new X-Men universe, like with the new “Spider-Man” movies. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the plan, as “X-Men: Days of Future Past” directly ties the two casts together. Even with “First Class,” you get cameos from two of the original cast’s actors, cameos which are both welcome and well-played. Ever since 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” left a bitter taste in my mouth, I’ve been keeping low expectations every time another sequel pops up. I didn’t even see this one theatrically, waiting for the DVD release later that same year. I fear that the creative team, which has always been made up of mostly the same personnel, doesn’t know a good thing when they’ve got it. A+ for this effort. Time to prove me wrong one more time, ladies and gentlemen.

X-Men The Last Stand (2006)

Director: Brett Ratner

Starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Ellen Page, Ben Foster

Movie trailers are deceptive little buggers. Among the greatest films of all-time there are those which have, as part of their advertising arsenal, some of the most terrible trailers. Trying not to fall asleep during the interminable trailer for “Casablanca” is nearly impossible, yet that movie is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Then, you have trailers like the one for “X-Men: The Last Stand”…

Based solely on those two minutes and thirty seconds, this looked like a sequel worthy of bearing the “X-Men” name, and potentially a fantastic closing chapter (as if they really were going to stop after just three movies). So… What the hell happened?! The writer(s) for this film had the most popular storyline in the history of the X-Men comic handed to them on a silver platter, courtesy of a setup provided by “X2.” As originally told in 1980, it’s a pretty basic premise, with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) having made a gesture of self-sacrifice so that her friends might live on to fight another day, only to herself be reborn as the entity known as the Phoenix. She then becomes drunk on power, a threat to all life everywhere. Like Superman, the Phoenix could destroy the universe just by listening too hard. The only thing keeping her grounded is Jean’s personal relationships with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). In one “What If?” scenario published separate from the original “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the Phoenix kills Jean’s friends, saving Cyclops for last. Upon realizing she has killed the love of her life, the distraught Jean reacts by destroying the Earth. She cannot face living in a world without him in it. I don’t know who among the production crew is responsible for the garbled mess that is “X-Men: The Last Stand,” but I don’t feel at all smug when I say I understand these characters far better than they do. I’ll wager that most anyone else who counts themselves as an “X-Men” fan could say the same.

As “X-Men: The Last Stand” begins, I see that the movie is wasting no time whatsoever in botching this whole thing completely. In a flashback to when Xavier and Magneto (Ian McKellen) were still working side by side and actively seeking out other mutants together, they visit the home of Jean Grey’s parents. Jean is described as a Class 5 mutant, meaning that she’s an exceptionally gifted and powerful mutant. We also have the introduction of Warren Worthington, III, aka “Angel” (Ben Foster), referred to as such because of his angelic wings which give him the power of flight. This is all before the opening credits and, while Warren’s father figures prominently in this movie, if you think that Angel himself has any major contributions to make, you’d be sorely mistaken.

It’s Warren Jr. who has the important role to play. His own fear of mutants, and guilt in fathering one, has led Warren Worthington, Jr. to devise a method by which the mutant gene can be “cured” like a disease. From its beginnings, “X-Men” has always been a reflection of the persecution of those whom the uneducated perceive as “different.” Only the names have changed. In the 1960’s, it was the Civil Rights Movement of the African-American community, and the resistance to the end of segregation, which the comic was addressing. Nowadays, the metaphor could extend to the LGBT community’s fight for the right to be counted as equals, their struggle to be who they are and love whom they choose without constant scrutiny. From that perspective, the “Cure” storyline… an invention of the early 2000’s… could be seen as being like “praying the gay away.” That might have made for a good enough movie all by itself. So why the need to squeeze that story together with one which isn’t even remotely compatible?

Now, get this: Cyclops was the leader of the team all along. It wasn’t Jean Grey, Storm or, as one might have suspected, Wolverine. Still grieving, the X-Men’s captain returns to the site of Jean’s death at Alkali Lake, only to find her very much alive. His joy is short-lived, however, because Jean KILLS HIM. You know, that one act that would cause her so much emotional turmoil that she burns the world to a cinder? In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Jean directs her anguish toward only a handful of fragile items in a single room. Oh, wait, it gets better. Xavier tells Wolverine that, when he first met Jean, upon witnessing how unpredictable her abilities were, he has from then on been placing mental blocks in her head to keep those powers in check. Doing so, he says, created a dual personality. Yes, folks, the Phoenix in this movie is no supernatural or alien entity. That stuff in “X2” about her powers becoming enhanced/out of control? This movie wants you to forget all that. Turns out it was just the breaking down of Xavier’s mental blocks. How exactly was the Professor, as powerful a mutant as he is, supposed to have been maintaining these walls while asleep, otherwise rendered unconscious, or (as in “X2”) under the influence of a mind-controlling mutant, hmm?

While the Phoenix’s story largely ends up taking a backseat to the “Mutant Cure,” both lead to a big showdown at Alcatraz Island. It’s there that Magneto intends to wage his war, choosing that site because that’s where the mutant known as Leech, a kid who renders all mutants powerless as long as they remain within close proximity to him, is being kept. He’s the lab rat that the U.S. Government is using to produce their Mutant Gene suppressant. It’s quite a knockdown, drag out fight, but I can’t help noticing that most of the participants on Magneto’s side are unfamiliar figures who were given quite a lot of screen time during the course of the film. Don’t even bother wondering who any of these people are. The movie is never going to tell you. It doesn’t matter anyway, because they’ll all be dead by the end of the battle.

It would seem fruitless at this point to make any observations about the acting in this film, having pretty much beaten to death the poor quality of the story itself, but I’ll go for it. The one bright spot comes from Ian McKellen, who has never been more Magneto-like. There is good in Erik Lensherr, but it is overwhelmed by his hatred. He who experienced the cruelty of the Nazis, Magneto does not see that his own superiority complex when it comes to Mutants vs. Humans is no better than that of the Third Reich. His undying respect for Charles Xavier, despite their opposing views, is his one saving grace. “X-Men: The Last Stand” was the first place I ever saw actress Ellen Page. Mostly known for quirky roles in independent films, she’s more subdued as Kitty Pryde. Sadly, many of those who made the first two “X-Men” films so enjoyable are not allowed to contribute much at all this time. Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn, and Patrick Stewart are all sorely needed at key points late in the film, but circumstances dictate that they be absent. Famke Janssen, who impressed me in “X2,” is criminally misused in “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Jean was better off dying at the bottom of Alkali Lake. That’s where all copies of this movie should be, too.