The Elite Tier
7. Professor X/Charles Xavier (X:Men, 2000, X2, 2003, X-Men: The Last Stand, 2006, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2009)
There are very few characters on this list (even the highly ranked ones, even if they’re great in other ways) that made me say “Wow, I’m watching the comic book character come to life on screen.”
Out of those few characters, Professor X is the only one who gave me that feeling without the use of a mask.
(You might be asking “Hey, what about Christopher Reeve?” but I saw those movies as a kid well before I ever picked up a comic book so he didn’t get the chance.)
When it was announced that the X-Men were getting a movie, Patrick Stewart was the number one choice in a lot of fan’s minds for the role (myself included). When it was announced that Stewart had been signed, fans were thrilled, knowing he would carry the proper amount of weight and dignity to the character.
And we were all, of course, proven right. Even though he’s probably second in terms of total screen time to Logan, Professor X is the most important character in the X-Men films overall, and if he wasn’t pulled off so excellently the films wouldn’t have worked anywhere close to as well. This was the first superhero team film, and adapting the concept to film was a bit risky as it could be seen as silly. Having an actor with the weight and presence of Stewart be our main conduit into this world did wonders for establishing the world’s legitimacy.
Stewart does a fantastic job in the films (yes, even the third) and helps bring the proper weight and sophistication to the role while still showing some elements of humor. He’s far from a typical one-dimensional “mentor character guy,” and we see elements of his struggles and human side. This is especially put on display in Dark Cerebro, where we see his mental image of himself still has legs, and he takes a moment to admire that fact.
We also like him and feel his pain as he struggles to try to keep up his morals and his view that mutants and humans can co-exist even in the face of evidence that might suggest Magneto’s view might have more weight and the humans are truly against them. When Stryker uses Xavier’s own compassionate nature against him in X2 (by manipulating him by making him think a little girl is lost and trying to find her friends) we feel sick.
In particular, the relationship between himself and McKellan’s Magneto was handled exceptionally. The idea of a relationship in which the parties are both worst enemies (for ideological reasons) as well as being best friends is an incredibly difficult relationship to pull off. In the comics you have decades to establish the nuances of such a relationship, but the movies are tasked with portraying it in a very small amount of time. The scripts do a good job including dialogue and scenes that showcase it, but those scenes would have fallen flat if the chemistry between Stewart and McKellan wasn’t so great and one of the biggest highlights of the films (and certainly the highlight of the first one). The way they’re able to express their points to each other civilly, you can definitely see the fondness they have for each other, how you can really see how much they enjoy each other’s company but are also pained by the fact that they aren’t able to fully appreciate it because of the ideological differences. Really great stuff, and Stewart deserves a ton of credit for having that get through.
A couple critical notes (from X3 of course), however. The first is that he has very little reaction to Scott’s death. This is pretty bad, but even though I was angered by it, for some reason I can’t quite seem to fault the character and portrayal too much for that one. It seemed almost like the producers threw in a “Oh yeah, and no one cares about Scott” as an F U to Marsden and Singer for leaving, and the character of Xavier happened to be caught in the tornado and nothing could be done about it, and it mostly angered me in terms of the portrayal of Cyclops. The second is that some of his decisions regarding Jean Grey were questionable. I don’t necessarily have too much of a problem with the idea of him suppressing young Jean’s powers – it’s certainly morally questionable, but the fact that the character makes morally questionable decisions isn’t a downside of the portrayal, and might actually add to the character’s depth. The comic version of Xavier certainly has made quite a few morally questionable decisions of his own. My issue is more along the lines of the fact that once Xavier eventually realized that his suppressing her powers has created a destructive second personality in her, he doesn’t really do anything about it and just kind of hopes it doesn’t manifest. You would think that, at least, he would recognize the potential for disaster and keep Jean Grey at the school at all times and not be one of the people involved in all of their missions because of the risk, so my issue isn’t with the fact that he seemingly made a morally questionable decision, but the fact that after he discovered the alternate personality that he made a series of dumb ones. The movie probably would have been served better if Xavier never was able to realize that his suppressing of her powers resulted in this alternate personality and was taken aback by it when it manifested in X3, rather than having known about it the whole time and kind of shrugging it off.
That being said, despite those notes, the character of Xavier is one of the characters who still comes out strong overall in X3. A lot of this is due to the fact that Stewart still completely sells the character, and when he dies, we actually feel bad and have a feeling of loss and that the movie earned it to some degree (unlike we did with Scott’s death).
All in all, the combination of an extremely distinguished actor and two (out of three) great scripts that allow him to shine provide us with one of the best portrayals of a comic book hero onscreen.
Alright, fair warning. A lot of people are going to hate me for this next entry. Not for being too high, but for being too low. I honestly debated putting it into the top five just because my personal opinions seemed to be different than the general public’s and I knew a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me in keeping this character out of the top five, but I realized I wasn’t being true to myself. So just hear me out and let me explain my reasoning.
6. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, Batman, 1989; Batman Returns, 1992)
I have this character in the top tier, the same tier as the number one character, but I have a funny feeling I’m going to have to spend more of my review explaining why I didn’t have him even higher than I am singing this character’s praises.
Several of you are probably angry that this character is below Bale’s portrayal or some of the others in the top five. Now, here is my reasoning. Most of the arguments I’ve seen in the debate “Keaton vs Bale – who portrayed Batman better?” seem to revolve around the job that the actor did with what they were given, which one made for a better Batman and/or Bruce Wayne visually.
But for this list, I’m not just discussing the job the actor did or how they appear visually– it’s also a list that considers “what they were given” to great degree. And unless the actor completely botches it, that’s actually a more important element. And I thought the material Bale was given and the roles his character had in the films were better than the elements Keaton’s Batman had to work with. Keaton himself as an actor knocked the material he was given out of the park, no question, my issues are solely with the role that he was given by the scripts.
The 1989 Batman movie is a great movie, to be sure. But I feel it’s necessary to include a personal note as to why I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as a lot of people older than me did. I was only three years old when it came out, so obviously I didn’t see it in theaters or anything. I didn’t watch it until much later – in fact, I saw Batman Forever in theaters as a kid before I saw either of the Keaton films. So when I first saw the Keaton films sometime in either 1998 or 1999, my eye towards them was a lot more critical than someone who was seeing a representation of Batman on film for the first time. I completely understand why this film and movie could be exhilarating to a Batman fan seeing it in the theater – although I did enjoy Adam West’s version, I can understand the West detractors’ point regarding the fact that a serious Batman should be enjoyed as well and West’s version hindered the potential for seeing it, and why they would be exhilarated seeing this take on a serious and dark Batman character and movie. Also, the cultural impact of the movie can’t be denied.
Still, the fact remains…in the two Batman films Keaton starred in, neither of them really had much of an arc for Batman or much for him to do besides react to the villains.
The first film, by far, focused more on the Joker than Batman. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if Batman himself was given more of a character as well. I certainly don’t have an issue with starting a comic book movie film en media res without giving the character’s origins, but I do think that if you’re skipping the origins the character still should be given some sort of arc or character development. The character’s arc/character development in the first film were basically a romance plot with Kim Basinger and that’s it. He does eventually learn that the Joker was the one who killed his parents, but he doesn’t find this out until the very end. This seemed totally unnecessary. If Bruce knew that the Joker was the one who killed his parents the entire time, a lot could have been done with that to help give Batman an arc of some sort.
Also, I do have to mention the fact that in both Keaton films the character murders people willy-nilly with no regard. I’m not exactly the biggest comic book purist if what’s onscreen works well also (heck, I recently defended the changes the “Watchmen” movie made to the ending) but this still rung hollow for me, as Batman’s decision not to kill people was a critical aspect of the character. If the films gave a believable explanation for him to change his mind that would be one thing, but it just seems to me like he is able to freely kill in these movies because it makes the plot progression and action scenes easier.
The biggest problem is the fact that neither of the two films seemed to focus on Batman as a character, and he doesn’t really get any sense of an arc. The first movie had some thematic elements that meant that Batman is the best character to fit into it, but in Batman Returns, his role could literally have been given to any other superhero and the script wouldn’t have to be changed all that much. How can I rate the character too highly when neither of his films were really about him?
As I said earlier, most of the “Keaton vs Bale” debates are about their acting abilities, and rarely have to do with the role they were given, and most of the Keaton defenders rely on the “acting/visual” side of the equation. However, there is one and only one argument I’ve heard that defends Keaton’s Batman in regards to his role in the films as opposed to the visual portrayal or acting – the argument that in the Keaton films, Batman is “meant” to be mysterious and so the focus is off of him on purpose. I can appreciate this to some degree, but from a film perspective still have several issues with it. I don’t think Batman is particularly mysterious in the first film for a few different reasons. First of all, we spend plenty of time with him as Bruce Wayne, showing us the man behind the mask and his every day interactions as he tries to woo Vicki Vale. Of course, Keaton also does a fantastic acting job as Bruce Wayne, but the character isn’t given all that much to do, and showing so much of him in his civilian persona hurts the “this character is a mystery” motif. We simply don’t understand a lot of his motivations or character – why does he mess around with Vicki Vale and say that he isn’t Bruce Wayne only to reveal to her that he’s Bruce Wayne later? Furthermore, when we deal with Batman as a full fledged superhero, “mystery” doesn’t seem to be much of what drives him. Batman Begins dealt with Batman as an unstoppable creature of the night that terrified villains who for large moments of the film we only saw glimpses of, and in a lot of scenes we barely saw him except when he escaped out of the shadows momentarily to take down villains. In the 1989 Batman, most of the shots of Batman have him completely open in the light and displaying him. If the “this character is a mystery” aspect of the character were played up more, it would probably result in the character taking down people silently in the darkness, but instead, he accomplishes his business in full view of the camera without hiding in shadows or any mystery, such as when he slowly climbs the stairs in the final battle.
That being said, the first Batman movie was still an incredibly entertaining film, and Keaton’s visual portrayal and acting performance completely sell it. The second movie…I wasn’t a big fan of. For the most part, I think, my opinions of superhero films line up with the general public, but Batman Returns is by far the greatest exception, I think. People seem to love this movie, but I really disliked it. A part of this is because I’m not a huge fan of Burton and the morbid worlds he creates, and don’t think they necessarily have a place in a Batman film. I know the atmosphere and surroundings are unusual and interesting and are the biggest sources of praise for the movie, but I think the plot is incredibly uneven, and once again Batman isn’t given enough to do. The film seems to be centered around a morbid original character Burton created that happens to be given the name “The Penguin.” In any case, the chemistry between Batman and Catwoman is pulled off quite well onscreen and is the highlight of the film, but I still feel that Batman isn’t quite given enough to do and you could argue that his role in the film could have been fulfilled by any other costumed hero. (And, if you changed around some elements of the Catwoman relationship, could even have been filled by a cop or something).
In any case, I hope I’ve got enough negatives out of the way for you to at least understand why this character isn’t higher. The fact that I still have him in the top tier and sixth overall is a huge testament to how perfectly Keaton’s acting was with what he was given. He has a tremendous screen presence and makes us feel like we’re watching Batman onscreen. It’s a tremendous shame Keaton was never given a film script able to truly showcase off his acting abilities (like, for example, the script for Batman Begins) and the character was never really given a chance to shine on his own without just reacting to the villains. Still, there is absolutely no denying that with what he was given, Keaton’s portrayal is iconic and tremendous, and the visuals contribute to a great degree to give us one of the most iconic movie performances of all time.