Tag Archives: X-Men

Looking Forward to ‘Civil War’? Support Your Local Comic Book Shop

There would be no “Captain America: Civil War” if, in 2006, comic book writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven hadn’t cooked up the original superhero feud to end all feuds, between The Cap and Iron Man.

Thanks to this iconic Marvel moment, everyone and their mother will be rushing out this weekend to see the latest big-screen adventure of the Avengers. (That’s right. It also happens to be Mother’s Day weekend. Be sure to take Mom with you.)

It’s fitting that 24 hours after the official debut of “Civil War,” shops around the country will observe Free Comic Book Day, a celebration of the genre that gave us Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, and Spider-Man.

Launched in 2002 by Diamond Comic Distributors and a panel of industry retailers, publishers and suppliers, Free Comic Book Day is held annually the first Saturday in May.

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The goal of the event is to introduce readers unfamiliar with comic books to this unique literary format and their local independent comic book shop.

“Each (shop) is unique in its community, with a style and personality all its own,” according to www.freecomicbookday.com.

I’ve never been much of a comic book reader. I remember thumbing through my older brothers’ issues of Archie and Superman, but I never got hooked on the genre. Still, with my love of fantasy, reading and stories, I’ve always felt a kinship with comic book enthusiasts. The comic book store is one of my favorite places to hang out.

As an entertainment reporter, I frequented one Lancaster shop — Bases Cards and Comics — for more than a decade. I first visited the store in 2000. It was the year of “X-Men,” when comic book movies became more than just kids stuff, and I was looking for quotes from fans already familiar with the mutant heroes.

The readers browsing at the shop that Wednesday morning were eager to talk about why they loved the X-Men. They were warm, engaging and articulate about the history and social relevance of the Marvel series.

Bases became my go-to spot for dozens of stories, an invaluable resource for research and gathering quotes and opinions about Hollywood’s comic book movie du jour. Winding my way among the brightly colored racks, I’d pounce on unsuspecting browsers in hopes of scoring an interview.

The shop also happened to be — and still is — a great place to spend time in, full of interesting, friendly and eccentric personalities. Owners Rob and Janice and manager James Preston are three of the most fun, welcoming people I’ve met. I have fond memories of chatting with them and their intelligent, opinionated customers about everything from Spider-Man, to the Man of Steel, to The Dark Knight, to San Diego Comic-Con, to Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

If you’ve never visited your local comic book shop, I urge you to give it a try on Saturday. At best, you’ll discover a thrilling new series or rekindle your passion for a childhood favorite. Maybe you’ll meet some potential new friends with common interests.

At worst, you’ll leave with a handful of free comics.

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Aside from Bases, Lancaster is home to two comic book shops. Battlegrounds carries a small selection of volumes, but specializes largely in tabletop gaming. My friends tell me that Horizon Comics offers great prices and selection.

Each shop will have its own policy to determine how many comics you’ll receive on Free Comic Book Day, but you’re guaranteed at least one, as long as supplies last.

Among the titles to be handed out are Archie, Bob’s Burgers, Marvel’s Civil War II, Serenity, Doctor Who, Suicide Squad, Pokemon, Assassin’s Creed, Attack on Titan, The Legend of Korra, and DC Super Hero Girls.

Photos: http://www.freecomicbookday.com, http://www.comicbookmovie.com, marvel.com.

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Fantastic Four Isn’t Great, But It’s Not the Disaster Everyone Says It Is

Fantastic Four
Two stars (out of four)
PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, language)
100 minutes

I find myself in the odd position of defending “Fantastic Four,” a film that received a dismal 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and delivered one of the worst box office performances ever for a movie associated with the lucrative Marvel brand.

Critics spent the last week and a half kicking this ill fated reboot while it’s down, and while I can’t say I blame them, the degree of gleeful vitriol directed at the film seems excessive to me.

“Fantastic Four” fails on many levels. Even in its best moments, it mostly doesn’t work. But what critics are overlooking is that director Josh Trank has taken a radically different approach to a comic book movie formula so worn, it’s becoming positively threadbare.

“Fantastic Four” is Trank’s weird but fascinating mad science experiment gone wrong. The director’s approach to one of comic book history’s most flamboyant franchises is so understated, it’s almost somnambulistic, but there’s something about the rubbed-rawness of it that is the perfect antidote to the hot-buttered-popcorn pageantry of movies like “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “The Avengers.”

Yes, there are all kinds of problems with the film, from an unpolished script that often reads like a first draft to its half-hearted, muddy-looking visual effects, but one gets the sense “Fantastic Four” could have been great. If Twentieth Century Fox is stubborn enough to forge ahead with a sequel, they may be onto something.

Trank’s career is most likely over. Whether Fox’s meddling or his inexperience are to blame for this is the subject of debate. Earlier this year, the director did the unthinkable and walked away from a Star Wars “anthology” film, a move that probably wasn’t his idea.

This is sad because Trank’s 2012 debut, “Chronicle,” showcases a talent for putting an original, realistic spin on the cliche comic book origin story. A drama about high school buddies who suddenly acquire superpowers, it clearly inspired the first act of “Fantastic Four,” which kicks off with the blossoming of an unlikely grade-school friendship between science nerd Reed Richards and street-smart Ben Grimm. (They’re played as adults by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell.)

Grimm’s family conveniently owns a scrapyard full of the parts Reed needs to complete his pet science project, a teleportation device, and Ben is just curious enough about his strange, little friend’s wacky ideas to go along with him.

The pair debut Reed’s creation at a high school science fair, attracting the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a philanthropist researcher who has been working in vain on the same technology.

Storm offers Reed a scholarship to his scientific institute, where he’s recruited a team of young geniuses, including his children, brilliant Sue (Kate Mara) and irresponsible Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), along with Storm’s former protege, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebell), a brooding computer prodigy.

The first act of “Fantastic Four” focuses on the meeting of these eager, young minds and it isn’t half bad. This is largely due to the efforts of the film’s eager, young stars, who in previous roles have proven themselves to be incredibly gifted.

(Kudos, especially, to Mara, who may be the first woman in Hollywood to embody her superheroine with more regard for intellect than sex appeal.)

Unfortunately, the script does these promising performers a disservice. Penned by Trank, Jeremy Slater and “X-Men” scribe Simon Kinberg, the screenplay is in dire need of a few more drafts. Characters are left undeveloped, the pacing is out of joint, key scenes seem to have gone missing, the dialogue turns awkward, conflicts are hinted at but never fully materialize.

The scenario that imbues our quintet of heroes with powers that dramatically alter their body chemistries is as ridiculous as it is horrifying.

Yes, the way things go down in a fourth dimension dubbed “Planet Zero” is wildly insulting to the audience, but it also provides a brief glimpse into what a gloriously twisted thriller “Fantastic Four” could have been, dipping into Cronenbergian nightmares as our quartet of newly initiated heroes confront the terror of their freakishly transformed physiques, including super-stretchy limbs, invisibility, and involuntary combustion.

In sharp contrast to the cartoony 2005 film starring Chris Evans and Jessica Alba, Trank actually downplays the more over-the-top qualities of the Fantastic Foursome’s abilities. This counter-intuitive choice ultimately hurts the film — poor Jaime Bell suffers most as rock monster The Thing languishes in the background — but I have to admire how gutsily polar opposite Trank’s “Fantastic Four” movie is from the “Fantastic Four” movie we expect.

Also daring, and kinda dumb for filmmakers catering to comic book lovers who generally want to see their superheroes put the smack down: There is only one major action setpiece in the film, and it comes at the end, and it is a complete mess

Once again, some may see the absence of the genre’s trademark POW!, BANG!, BAM! moments as a flaw, and if box office is what you’re concerned about, that’s a pretty big flaw.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I can’t help but wonder: Could there be a place for a comic book movie that doesn’t offer “Avengers”-style mayhem and destruction roughly every 10 minutes?

Charlie Jane Anders of io9.com declares that “Fantastic Four” is “the most self- loathing superhero movie I’ve ever seen.”

“The new ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot goes beyond darkness, into actual self-loathing,” she writes. “It’s kind of bizarre. … This movie’s central storyline is less a plot, and more a shame spiral.

I think Anders inadvertently pinpoints what is good about “Fantastic Four.”

Why shouldn’t a comic book movie be about shame instead of shallow spectacle? Self-loathing instead of shiny spandex?

Why shouldn’t it push “beyond darkness” into emotional territory that isn’t bizarre so much as it is realistic and even deeply uncomfortable?

Perhaps reviewers are circling “Fantastic Four” like a pack of sharks after a sardine because they don’t know what to make of it.

Photo: sciencefiction.com

 

 

 

 

Prep for ‘Future Past’ with Ultimate X-Men Recap

Are you planning to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past” this weekend?

Ideally, you’ll want to watch all six movies that preceded this sequel, which features a time travel plot so twisty and complex, it would leave J.J. Abrams scratching his head.

Director Bryan Singer’s wildly entertaining but mentally taxing seventh franchise installment requires moviegoers to keep straight a huge ensemble of mutants past, present and future in various eras, various places and various stages of their lives.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy “Days” but it does help if you brush up on the X-movies that have gone before. Below you’ll find reviews, complete with plot summaries, of every chapter in the franchise, from 2000’s “X-Men” to last year’s “The Wolverine.”

Consider it your refresher course on all things mutant. Professor X would be proud.

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X-Men (2000)
Three and a half stars
PG-13
104 minutes

Some comic book junkies waited more than 30 years for an X-Men movie. When the film was finally made, it was greeted with a flurry of hype reminiscent of the fuss over “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” After months and years of pent up anticipation, someone was going to be disappointed. But that someone wasn’t me.

Director Bryan Singer brings the mythology of the comic book to life without sacrificing substance for special effects — and the special effects are spectacular. Yes, Wolverine’s knife-like talons shoot from his skin with a thrilling metallic ring and Storm brews up magnificent bursts of thunder. Yes, Magneto twists metal bars like balloon animals and Wolverine and Mystique pirouette in a graceful, butt-kicking fight sequence.

The heart of the film, however, is in the richness of the characters and the resonance of the themes of prejudice and intolerance which made the comic so popular. Dark, moody and intelligent, but always fun, the mutant charms of “X-Men” will satisfy even the most X-ignorant and leave them hungry for more.

The brilliance of “X-Men” begins with the casting. Led by stage and screen veterans Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and charismatic newcomer Hugh Jackman, the actors transform comic book caricature into flesh and blood. Jackman is Logan, one of a minority of humans who have reached the next stage in evolution, feared by society because of their extraordinary powers. Logan is also called Wolverine because of the metal claws that spring from his knuckles, his wolfish sensory ability and rapid healing power.

Wolverine meets up with waifish runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin). She’s no ordinary teenager. Anyone who makes skin to skin contact with her could end up in a coma or worse. The two are pursued by bad guys from the Brotherhood of mutants: shape-shifting, blue-skinned Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), big, dumb and hairy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), slithery-tongued, high-jumping Toad (Ray Park) and their ringleader, Magneto (McKellen), who manipulates all types of metal without moving a finger.

Wolverine and Rogue are rescued from Magneto’s clutches by the X-Men, whose headquarters are hidden beneath a school for gifted youngsters where Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart), one of the world’s most powerful telepaths, trains mutants to use their powers for the good of humankind. He and ex-students Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose power also lies in her mind; Cyclops (James Marsden), who can blast through walls with his eyes; and Storm (Halle Berry), who wields power over the weather, keep track of the world’s mutants and fight evil.

As Rogue and Wolverine adjust to a community where mutants share acceptance and mutual respect, the X-Men strive to keep them safe from Magneto’s grasp and stop his diabolical plot for world domination.

It’s a delight to watch the distinguished McKellen and Stewart face off in “X-Men.” Two such passionate and imposing actors need not leap from planes and pummel each other with their fists to catch our attention. In one tense standoff, they do battle with nothing but their minds — Xavier pulls a sort of Jedi trick on Magneto’s men while Magneto holds cops at bay by turning their own guns against them.

It’s Jackman, however, who holds the movie in his sharp-clawed hands. His Wolverine is a sexy mix of James Dean leather-jacketed cool and Jack Nicholson crazy. A raging animal whose only soft spot is for Rogue — and perhaps Jean Grey — Wolverine is the film’s darkest, most intriguing source of conflict. The chemistry between Paquin and Jackman infuses “X-Men” with a tender humanity.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters are too bogged down in explanations and exposition to extend this human touch to the rest of the X-Men. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that Cyclops and Jean Grey are lovers when they don’t ever seem to look at each other. Sometimes the mutants, who have supposedly been together through thick and thin, hardly seem to know each other.

Some people will probably complain about the way “X-Men” shamelessly and meticulously sets itself up for its inevitable sequel. I didn’t mind it. They won’t be able to make the second one fast enough to satisfy my craving for more.

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X2: X-Men United (2003)
Four stars
PG-13
134 minutes

“I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school looking for trouble.”

Professor X utters this line at the end of “X-Men,” and in “X2: X-Men United,” we find out exactly what he means by it.

When special operations commandos storm the professor’s ivy-covered, manor-style school for gifted young mutants, they get a whole lot more than they bargained for. Instead of lying there waiting to be tranquilized like good little kiddies, the students melt through walls, let out literally paralyzing screams, turn into walking masses of steel and spin walls of ice from their fingertips.

And then there’s Wolverine, who happens to be baby-sitting this particular night. You don’t mess with Wolverine.

You don’t mess with director Bryan Singer, either. The “X-Men” helmer is back in the driver’s seat for “X2,” and the man knows what he’s doing. The sequel is every bit as good as its predecessor, boasting seamless special effects, rollicking action and actors who really “get” their characters.

It is darker, sexier, more adult and more violent — though surprisingly nongraphic, with a heightened sense of camaraderie between the characters and more mutants with more intriguing powers.

In short, it’s a good time at the movies.

“X2” opens with an assassination attempt on the president of the United States by a mutant unlike any we’ve seen before. He is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue-skinned, strangely tattooed, devil-tailed creature who can instantly teleport from one location to another, disappearing from the grasp of secret service agents in a kind of inky blue “poof!”

In a doozy of an action sequence, Nightcrawler is barely thwarted from knifing the pres, but the incident gives ruthless Army Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox) the opening he needs to obtain authorization for a special ops invasion of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters.

Unaware of Stryker’s plot, Xavier, the wheelchair-bound leader of the X-Men, also known as Professor X (Patrick Stewart), dispatches the weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry) and telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to pick up Nightcrawler, in hopes they can prevent him from further violence.

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), in the meantime, has returned, still unsatisfied, from his quest to solve the mystery of his past, and Jean’s powers are threatening to burgeon out of control.

It is Professor X’s nemesis, the metal-manipulating Magneto (Ian McKellen), who busts out of his plastic prison with the help of shape-shifting lackey Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), to warn Xavier and the X-Men of Stryker’s hidden intentions, which involve the professor’s powerful mutant-tracking device, Cerebro.

In true serial comic book fashion, there is a lot going on in “X2,” but screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris manage to keep the story uncluttered, as well as allow sufficient time for each character to have his or her moment.

New faces are introduced, including the rebellious, flame-throwing Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and the tough-as-nails Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who is, in essence, a vinyl-clad female version of Wolverine with knife-like talons protruding from her fingertips.

All of the actors are game and energetic, most notably Jackman, whose rugged, flippant, cool-but-caring attitude signals the arrival of a true action hero, and the quietly imperious McKellen, who steals every scene he’s in.

Curry wisely does not go too far over the top in his portrayal of the eccentric Nightcrawler. Stamos gets more screen time and she’s surprisingly good, even getting a chance to shed her blue scales for her human skin in one scene.

Who am I kidding, though? The real stars of the X-show are the special effects and they are mighty impressive. From Wolverine’s whirling, lightning-paced final confrontation with Deathstrike, to the computer-generated maneuvering of the X-jet, to a scene in which Pyro unleashes jets of flame at a squad of police cars, only to be halted rather creatively in midrampage by the power-absorbing Rogue, these are action sequences that make you want to leap out of your seat and do an adrenaline-pumped dance of joy.

The “X2” finale is a bit overblown and those long-drawn-out and harped-upon secrets of Wolverine’s origins, once revealed, aren’t nearly as shocking as we might have expected.

Still, “X2” accomplishes what every good comic book should. It leaves us salivating for issue No. 3.

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X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13
103 minutes

The miracle of the first two X-Men movies was that they were based on a comic book series and still managed to be action packed and character driven. So while the audience was dazzled by the sight of Wolverine flashing those adamantium claws or Jean Grey manipulating futuristic airplanes with her mind, the real attraction was in the relationships of these mutants, whose ambivalence over their supernatural powers is really just a metaphor for whatever individual gifts or curses we struggle with here in the real world. 

Though he had hundreds of possible characters to choose from, director Bryan Singer was always careful not to cram the screen too full with them. They were painstakingly selected for maximum conflict, each one — with the possible exception of Halle Berry’s Storm — was given a moment to shine, and while fists flew and monolithic battles were waged, it was the interaction between them that made the films so compelling.

Singer famously abandoned the X-Men franchise when the prospect of bringing yet another Lycra-clad avenger to the screen — a musclebound fellow by the name of Superman — proved too tempting to resist. He left his mutant charges in the hands of Brett Ratner, helmer of the “Rush Hour” flicks.

In “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Ratner has clearly bitten off more than he can chew. The movie is so bloated with characters, old and new, that many of the personalities moviegoers have come to love have been unceremoniously shoved to the side. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg
(“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) and Zak Penn (“X2: X-Men United”) must share in the blame because they of all people should have known better than to attempt such a juggling act.

The plot of “The Last Stand” revolves around a pharmaceutical company’s sudden announcement that it has developed a cure for the genetic mutations that grant the X-Men their remarkable paranormal abilities. The U.S. government’s head of mutant affairs, Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), aka the furry blue Beast, attempts to address this startling turn of events diplomatically, but the nation is quickly divided between those who line up at clinics, desperate for the shot that will rid them once and for all of their embarrassing
abnormalities, and those who take offense at the very thought of such a thing.

“There’s nothing wrong with any of us,” Storm protests as talk of the cure swirls around Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) School for Gifted Youngsters. Inclined to agree with her is Magneto (Ian McKellen), the megalomaniacal metal manipulator and Xavier’s best-friend-turned-nemesis, who seizes upon the controversy over the cure to brew up his own violent mutant revolution.

Xavier and the X-Men are a little too distracted to deal with Magneto immediately because Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who seemingly died at the end of “X-Men United,” has
resurfaced and she’s acting mighty strangely, causing inanimate objects to float about the room and trying to seduce Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who has long nursed an unrequited
crush on the fetching telepath.

The transformation of Jean into the omnipotent, id-driven force known as the Dark Phoenix is one of the most anticipated elements of “The Last Stand.” It doesn’t disappoint, at least initially, as the furious Phoenix demonstrates her awesome powers in her childhood home in a scene of absolute devastation. Unfortunately, Janssen spends the rest of the movie mostly standing around, as do many of our favorite members of the X-gang, that is if they haven’t already abruptly departed from the screen.

Among the other returning characters who get woefully short shrift are the fatherly Xavier, laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), chameleonic Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), angsty fireball-throwing Pyro (Aaron Stanford) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose lethal talent for absorbing other mutants’ powers via skin-to-skin contact sparks a love triangle with her boyfriend, the hormonal Ice Man (Shawn Ashmore), and cute Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can
walk through walls.

These characters are all relegated to the background to make way for Storm, Wolverine and Magneto — not necessarily a bad thing considering Jackman and McKellen are two of the best actors in the franchise — and an assortment of new, but
largely uninteresting villains, including the behemoth Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones sporting a goofy helmet and an unsightly wedgy) and fast-moving Callisto (Dania Ramirez).

Ratner spends a lot of time dwelling on Magneto and his brooding band of drab disenfranchised mutants, who look like a bunch of pierced and eye-linered Goth kids
camped out at a Marilyn Manson concert, while utterly wasting some fascinating new arrivals, like the winged and tortured Angel (Ben Foster) and a mysterious bald child
named Leech (Cameron Bright), who is the source of the mutant cure.

Ratner seeks to mollify fans with some impressive special effects sequences, including a forest chase in which Wolverine gets to really bare his claws, an over-the-top set piece
on the Golden Gate Bridge and a final mutant showdown complete with flaming, flying cars and whizzing syringes.

On the whole, though, “The Last Stand” ends the X-Men trilogy on a terribly unsatisfying note. Of course, I’m not buying for a second that it was ever really intended to be the
final chapter. If you doubt me, stick around for the final teaser at the end of the credits.

The X-Men will be back. Let’s hope they bring Singer with them.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Two stars
PG-13
107 minutes

In the movies, at least, Wolverine has always been the coolest of the X-Men. Those lightning-quick adamantium claws. That werewolf-meets- Elvis pompadour. The leather jacket and the motorcycle, indicating his status as a rebel and a drifter. The grouchy glower and throaty growl. The fact that underneath all that animalistic rage, he’s just a softie with identity issues.

So, you might be tempted to think “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the first of several planned spin-offs of 20th Century Fox’s successful X-Men trilogy, would be the coolest flick of all.
Instead, it feels like the cold, stale leftovers of a franchise already past its expiration date.

If you’ve seen “X-Men” or its sequel, “X2,” then you’re already familiar with this origin story charting the mutant hero’s evolution from wolfie mercenary to indestructible
government test subject. “Wolverine” spends most of its time filling in the blanks, or manufacturing blanks to fill in — including the ferocious Canadian’s tragic love affair with an ethereal schoolteacher and his rivalry with psycho half-brother Sabretooth –before contorting itself into a tangle of twisted logic so that the story flows
back into the established movie mythology. Seamless is not a word I’d use to
describe this process.

The movie begins with an intriguing montage of all the wars the nonaging Logan (Hugh Jackman) and his equally timeless brother, Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), have fought during more than a century of existence, stretching back to before the Civil War. In the modern world, their unique powers — bony talons burst from Logan’s knuckles, while Victor has
the nails and teeth of a tiger — capture the attention of William Stryker (Danny Huston), the sort of mildly deranged military chief who, at least in Hollywood’s version of things, is
forever starting up renegade bands of top-secret super-soldiers in the interest of national security.

When Logan loses his taste for Stryker’s bloody agenda, he hightails it to the Rockies and settles down as a lumberjack with a fetching pacifist named Kayla (Lynn Collins). You can
probably guess where this is going because, obviously, Jackman can’t spend the entire movie snuggling in a cabin with some hot chick. The abrupt disintegration of his idyllic normal life, the work of a brother pushed over the edge by the horrors of the Vietnam War, sends Logan on a quest for revenge and straight into the lab of Stryker, where the broken-hearted mutant
is transformed into the angry, hairy, metal-skeletoned beast we’ve come to know and love.

Pumped up like a plastic action figure — indeed, the actor’s muscles have become a spectacle unto themselves — Jackman is as roguishly charismatic as ever. His Wolverine
is soft-spoken, given to spouting quaint, old fashioned phrases, like “bub,” but there’s a burning, primal fury coursing through those swollen veins. We like him, but we’re also a
little bit afraid of him.

Unfortunately, ever since “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Fox has jettisoned that potent, satisfying blend of character development and action that made the first two films such a delight.
With a writer like David Benioff (“25th Hour,” “The Kite Runner”) on board, you’d think the screenplay might be a smidgen more cerebral but, then again, his co-scribe was Skip Woods (“Swordfish,” “Hitman”), so nevermind.

Action is now all that remains — and if you’re in the mood tostart your summer viewing off with a bang, you could do worse than “Wolverine,” I’ll admit — leaving Jackman little to do besides glowering, growling and flashing those claws. Another fine actor set adrift in a
sea of vaguely-sketched-out personalities is Schreiber, a thinking man’s thespian who brings a refreshing level of subtlety and craft to what could have easily been the stock bad guy role.

Yes, there’s real acting going on in “Wolverine,” but it only calls attention
to the loudly echoing vacant space that is the rest of the film. Director Gavin Hood — whose
previous films include the promising South African drama “Tsotsi” and the not-so-promising thriller “Rendition” — seems slightly out of his league with a movie of this massive-budgeted scale. Perhaps this is why he relies on action movie clichés for his visual approach. The hero clutching a murdered loved one and bellowing “Noooooo!” as the camera swirls overhead, Jackman walking in slow-motion with a gigantic fireball behind him — it’s all here.

Hood also encounters one of the pitfalls that befell the makers of “The Last Stand.” With a host of new characters to introduce, it’s impossible to give each one their due, so many of these new arrivals fail to make even the smallest impression. Among them, the sumo wrestler-sized Blob (Kevin Durand), the sparky Bolt (Dominic Monaghan) and sharp-shooting Agent Zero (Daniel Henney). Even X-favorites, like the cardflinging Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and
the slicing-and-dicing Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), are given deflatingly short shrift.

So many mutants, so little time.

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X-Men: First Class (2011)
Three stars
PG-13
132 minutes 

Many fans lost faith in Marvel’s X-Men after “The Last Stand,” the bloated, messy,
infuriatingly shallow third movie that seemed to signal a disgraceful end to the franchise.

Hope may be restored by “X-Men: First Class,” a younger, sexier installment designed to send the series in a fun and lively new direction, while introducing the comic book mutants to another generation of moviegoers.

“First Class” is a marked improvement over “Last Stand,” even if it doesn’t quite stack up with the effortlessly cool and exhilarating first installments, 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X-2: X-Men United.”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, who has yet to crank out a flick that’s not worth seeing — his ouevre consists of “Kick-Ass,” “Stardust” and “Layer Cake” — this reboot has energy, style and an infusion of new blood that bodes well for the future of the franchise. Vaughn penned the script with his “Kick-Ass” collaborator, Jane Goldman, and “Thor” scribes Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller, working from an idea from original series director Bryan Singer.

They’ve taken a few liberties in regard to the existing films, but proceed with a surprising amount of respect for the preceding installments. There’s even a couple of priceless cameos involving characters from the first two flicks and playful references to X-Men lore, including the much loved and reviled classic blue and yellow suits.

Some fans may be miffed that Vaughn and company freely mix and match characters from various eras of the comic book for a story that is set during the Cold War as tensions escalate between the United States and Russia. We’re introduced to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), aka Professor X, a wealthy Oxford graduate with telepathic talents tapped by the CIA as a consultant on the rapid evolution of a species of mutants with powerful but frightening natural abilities.

Assisting Charles is childhood best friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone” and the upcoming “Hunger Games”), a scaly, blue-skinned shape shifter who will grow up to be the alluring mimic Mystique, but for now is insecure about her true appearance. The agency wants Charles and Raven to help them prevent enterprising madman Sebastian Shaw
(Kevin Bacon) from igniting World War III in his quest to shift the balance of power between humans and mutants.

Shaw has a connection to Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor and powerful manipulator of metal, consumed with the desire to avenge his past.
Erik’s obsession leads him to cross paths with Charles, who befriends the future Magneto and urges him to channel his anger into more positive pursuits. Together, they begin
recruiting others like them to join what one character describes as the CIA’s special “mutant unit.”

The recruitment sequence is one of the most enjoyable in a movie that takes its cues from the swingin’ ’60s suaveness of early James Bond films. There are submarines and smart suits, martinis and miniskirts and a pre-feminist vibe that’s capped off by January
Jones’ smoking-hot portrayal of Shaw’s shimmery, indestructible, skintight jumpsuit-wearing righthand gal, Emma Frost.

If only the countless scenes of generals plotting out strategy in war rooms filled with blinky lights and maps were as titillating. Sadly, the historic machinations of the plot tend to drag, as do moments involving Bacon’s Shaw, a disappointingly run-of-the-mill Bond-style baddie
whose motives are suspiciously like those of the fully formed Magneto.

A hefty helping of teen angst is served up by the film’s assorted young mutants, including Lawrence’s Raven, the fluttery fairy-winged Angel (Zoe Kravitz), shy and nerdy Beast (Nicholas Hoult), screaming Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), adaptable Darwin (Edi
Gathegi) and energy wave-blasting Havok (Lucas Till). As in past films, some of their powers are more compelling than others.

The highlight of “First Class” is the interplay between McAvoy and Fassbender as close comrades with starkly opposing philosophies that will eventually drive them apart.
Both actors bring an emotional weight to their scenes together, although it is Fassbender’s tormented rage — hold onto those metal fillings, folks! — that commands the most attention.

A final showdown between these friends, soon to be foes, hints at potentially awesome things to come.

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The Wolverine (2013)
Three stars
PG-13
126 minutes 

Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for more than a decade now, and the actor — and his spectacular bulging sinews — are no worse for wear.

Sure, the adamantium-clawed antihero had a bad time of it in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a brainless, bloated action epic that twisted itself into too many knots in an attempt to conform to franchise canon.

But thankfully that seems like a distant memory with the arrival of Logan’s fifth big-screen outing, “The Wolverine,” (the sixth if you count his brief but priceless outing in “X-Men: First Class).

“The Wolverine” ditches the franchise’s preoccupation with its protagonist’s tortured origin story and puts the focus back where it belongs — on Jackman and his ferocious embodiment of the enraged mutant, the indestructible product of twisted government experimentation.

Capably directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma”), the movie presents us with a Wolvy who is more vulnerable than ever before, physically and emotionally. The script by Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) and Scott Frank (“Minority Report”) doesn’t skimp on action, but also works hard to ensure its epic scale never overwhelms the human drama.

At the beginning of the film, Logan is squatting in the wilds of Canada, unkempt, stringy-haired and looking a lot like Jean Valjean, the desperate ex-con Jackman played in “Les Miserables,” only beefier.

This mutant is sorely in need of a bottle of shampoo, a shave and an escape from the bad dreams that haunt his sleep, including visions of lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who he was forced to kill at the end of 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

After a tragic encounter with one of his fellow beasts of the forest, Logan gets riled up and instigates a backwoods barfight. He is reluctantly extricated from the brawl by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a samurai with crimson hair and a penchant for schoolgirl skirts who has traveled all the way from Japan to track him down.

Yukio convinces Logan to return with her to Tokyo at the request of her employer, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a dying businessman who wants to thank him for saving his life years ago during World War II.

Once in Tokyo, Logan discovers there is more to Yashida’s interest than gratitude. The ailing man claims he can rid Logan of his rapid healing powers and the immortality that weights so heavily upon him.

While Logan considers this proposal, he is introduced to Yashida’s heirs, his scheming son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and demure granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Wolverine never could resist a damsel in distress and becomes Mariko’s protector after an assassination attempt by the Yakuza.

The Japan setting of “The Wolverine” makes for entertaining intrigue, complete with stealthy ninjas, sword-wielding samurai and family secrets hidden behind sliding Shoji screens. Here the tank-top-clad Logan and his husky biceps stick out like a sore thumb, which makes for some compelling culture clash.

With her balletic blade skills, Fukushima is a spunky new sidekick for Logan, while the slinky Svetlana Khodchenkova is alluringly creepy as venomous nemesis Viper.

Tossing off sarcastic one-liners and glowering grouchily at his castmates, Jackman continues to do an excellent job of channeling the tormented rebel’s fury and guilt. The actor is getting older, but you wouldn’t know it, especially from the state of his strapping physique.

There are a few points where the pace of the film lags — Mangold, to his credit, is more interested in character development than comic book bluster — but X-fans should be satisfied with the energetic action setpieces the director unveils.

There’s a great introductory sequence that takes place during the bombing of Nagasaki. A Yakuza ambush during a funeral zings with cleverly choreographed flying arrows, swordplay and martial arts, punctuated by the thud of Wolverine’s massive fists.

“The Wolverine” may be the first film ever to stage a chase atop a bullet train in one of the few instances in which Mangold gives in to the sillier impulses that comic book movies tend to bring out with over-the-top feats that defy physics.

Parents should note that the film’s PG-13 designation is what would be considered a “hard” rating. In other words, “The Wolverine” is considerably violent, despite its general lack of blood and gore. In one scene, Logan is pierced again and again by arrows. In another, a bit of self-surgery is performed that could either be considered laughable or cringe-worthy.

I’ll close with another note, this one to fans rabidly anticipating next year’s “X-Men: Days  of Future Past”: Stay for the credits to see a teaser that will have you wishing it was already May 23.

‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ Delivers Best of Both Worlds

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Three and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (some sci fi violence and action, suggestive material, nudity and language)
131 minutes

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” could be the best chapter yet in a comic book franchise that has been going strong for the last 14 years. That’s because this seventh entry offers the best of all possible worlds, allowing the seasoned mutants of the first trilogy to appear alongside the excellent young cast of recent reboot “X-Men: First Class.”

“Days of Future Past” preserves the fun historical revisionism of “First Class” while simultaneously heading into darker, more emotionally wrenching territory, literally jumping between a world we recognize – the turbulent 1970s – and a world we don’t – a bleak and violent dystopian future.

Director Bryan Singer smoothly juggles an unwieldy ensemble of mutants old, new and even newer and succeeds in keeping the film’s focus on the characters. The movie’s brain-cell-melting concept is clever and the visual effects are superior, but “Days of Future Past” isn’t about that. It’s about people coming together despite epic personality clashes, the very thing that made the X-Men so relatable when they made their comic book debut in 1963.

It’s almost as if Singer and writer Simon Kinberg are atoning for letting the fans down with the much reviled third X-Men movie, which Singer produced and Kinberg penned. “Days of Future Past” niftily erases “The Last Stand,” while cunningly opening the door to an alternate reality with lots of tantalizing possibilities for the franchise.

They achieve this improbable feat with the help of “First Class” co-writer Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn, who contributed to the mind-bogglingly complicated story. It begins with a glimpse of an inky future in which mutants, who boast unique super powers thanks to their evolved genes, are hunted by high-tech killing machines known as Sentinels. Haunting images of bodies and mass graves set the tone for a film that is often grim and, parents should note, not always kid friendly.

Despite the dismal outlook for their future, the X-Men continue the fight for the survival of their species. In a spectacular opening sequences, a young band of mutants engages the eerily faceless Sentinels in combat. It’s clear they’re outmatched by their relentless mechanical foes, but they manage to stay a step ahead of them thanks to Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open up portals to transport her comrades from one space to another.

The X-Men’s other secret weapon is Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) who apparently has a gift for … take a deep breath and try to stay with me now … transferring an individual’s consciousness back in time to their younger body. She and the surviving X-Men, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his old nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen), who have temporarily buried the hatchet, concoct a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the past. His objective? Stop shape-shifting, blue-skinned Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), from committing the fateful act that will trigger the mutants’ impending extinction.

Because of his quick healing powers, Wolverine is the only one whose mind can withstand the traumas of such rigorous mental time travel. It’s not long before he wakes up in his youthful, pre-adamantium-enhanced body in an era still reeling from the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination.

To get to Mystique, Wolverine must appeal to Professor X and Magneto at the very point in time their friendship evaporated, back when they were still going by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender).

This is no easy task because Charles, awash in self pity after the climactic events of “First Class,” has shuttered his school for gifted youngsters and hunkered down in his mansion, blocking out the mutant voices in his telekinetic head. Eric is imprisoned in the Pentagon, due to his participation in a particularly notorious crime. A solitary Mystique continues Eric’s militant pro-mutant sabotage, zeroing in on maverick weapons developer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

“Days of Future Past” presents us with an X-Men universe gone topsy-turvy, occupied by a Wolverine who still flashes claws of bone, a Professor X who can walk but whose powers are diminished, the only thing he shares now with the metal-manipulating Magneto.

McAvoy and Fassbender basically pick up where they left off in the finale of “First Class.” Their highly charged chemistry remains the rebooted franchise’s greatest strength. McAvoy is particularly intense as a Xavier whose optimistic humanism has been replaced with despair — there are allusions to drug addiction in his suffering – and Fassbender is all cool, controlled rage, magnetic in his malevolence.

There are so many other mutants to love in “Days of Future Past,” too. Chief among them is newcomer Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a kleptomaniac teenager who delights in his speedy gifts and presides over the best sequence in the film, using his supernatural swiftness to bust Magneto out of his plastic prison. This may be the film’s most entertaining moment, but it’s just one of many in which Singer and Kinberg bring the mutants’ gifts to vivid life in uncannily crafty ways.

Also new to the club are the energy-absorbing, dreadlock-sporting Bishop (played by Omar Sy, charismatic star of French film “The Intouchables”) and strong and fast Warpath (“Twilight’s” Booboo Stewart).

Reprising their roles from “First Class,” Lawrence transforms the increasingly empowered Mystique into a much richer character and Hoult provides much of the film’s humor and heart as Xavier’s right-hand man, the furry, blue Beast.

Patrick Stewart and McKellen bring a veteran gravitas to the film and while we all have to suspend disbelief a bit to imagine that Jackman still looks like the young Wolverine, he’s so comfortable and confident in the role, we’re willing to go along with the charade.

If you haven’t seen the previous films in the X-Men franchise, the plot of “Days of Future Past” could be near impossible to follow. Actually, this could be the case even if you have seen them. By time the credits roll – and you’ll want to stick around until the very end for an apocalyptic teaser – you may have a Cerebro-sized headache.

It’s a small price to pay, though, for the satisfaction of viewing the most compelling team of comic book characters ever to grace the big screen. An unforgettable bunch of freaks and weirdos, they speak to the disenfranchised, the misfit, the loner in all of us.

The Avengers may get more attention these days, but they’re not nearly as cool.