It’s been a while since I have done one of these Geek Life Specials, but, with Marvel about to burn up the Summer movie screens with The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, what better time than now to talk about their first franchise that let us all know Marvel Comics belonged on the big screen? Yup, let’s talk The X-Men Movies!
Geek Life Special #2: The X-Men Movies
The X-Men… Not counting Spider-Man, could there be a more ready-made set of movie stars produced by Marvel? After a couple decades of being the biggest stars of The House of Ideas, it was a no brainer the would get the nod for a movie treatment. Besides, Captain America had a failed movie that lives in infamy and Spider-Man had a decade’s worth of speculation and development hell. After the surprise hit that was Blade, it was no doubt that Marvel was wanting to bring more of their characters to the big screen. Walk into any comic book store in the late 90s and ask the question, “Who do you think Marvel should make a movie about?” The answer was simple – the X-Men. Even if I was never a fan of the X-Men, I knew they had all the sex appeal and interesting characters to pull it off… If done right.
Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we? The X-Men were created in 1963 by Marvel’s undisputed kings of creation, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They came along at a time that found the United States torn apart by racial separation and unrest. The X-Men were something new to Marvel. They were characters who were born with their powers. They didn’t become mutated by radioactivity or learn their powers through the use of outside influences (i.e. magic or equipment). No, these characters were real live mutants. They had powers that mostly affected the way they looked. Cyclops (Scott Summers) had to wear a visor to keep in the powerful laser-like eye beams that he couldn’t control naturally. The Beast (Hank McCoy) had large feet that resembled hands like an ape’s that gave him great agility and gymnastic skill. Iceman (Bobby Drake) had a body that looked more like a snowman than a regular person and he could manipulate, what else, ice. Angel (Warren Worthington III) had a large set of angel wings that gave him the power of flight.
The only two that were “normal” looking was Marvel Girl (Jean Grey) and the team’s mentor, Professor Charles Xavier. Jean was a lot like Marilyn from The Munsters, the normal girl among freaks and outcasts. Her powers were telekinetic in nature. Professor X was one of the most powerful beings in the world and had the ability to read and manipulate minds. On the other side of this group was Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants who used their powers as a militant force. It would be Magneto’s use of force and furthering the mutant race “by any means necessary” that would scare humans and ultimately trouble the X-Men the most.
Despite later superstar status, this was one of the creations of Lee and Kirby’s that didn’t quite take hold like prior characters like Lee’s Spider-Man, the duo’s Incredible Hulk or Fantastic Four. They were quirky and different and certainly an allegory for what was going on in the real world, but they didn’t seem to do all that well as a series. After only 66 issues, the X-Men had, more or less, run their course. For the next 27 issues, the series ran reprints of earlier adventures. Marvel’s Merry Mutants were unpopular and not selling comics.
Enter the mid-70s and a time of brilliant new ideas from Marvel. In a couple issues of Incredible Hulk (#180 and 181 to be exact), writer Len Wein and artists John Romita, Sr. and Herb Trimpe introduced Wolverine, a Canadian mutant with indestructible Adamantium claws. Soon after, Wein and artist Dave Cockrum wrote the first new issue of X-Men in years. With Giant Size X-Men #1, the team was back and brand new. New members, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Thunderbird joined previously introduced characters Banshee and Sunfire to form an international team led by Cyclops in the field. This prompted Marvel to restart new stories with X-Men #94, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Cockrum. The rest, as they say, would be history.
As Claremont continued on, artists Cockrum and John Byrne would transform the X-Men into particularly popular characters. Almost every storyline, every character development, and every scene would roll into even larger and more expansive stories. The first major one was the Dark Phoenix Saga that featured a revamped Jean Grey who had become a host for an intergalactic being of immense powers. Claremont would write the title for 17 years and would be the architect for everything that we know as being “the X-Men” today. Not only that, but Claremont, along with superstar artist Jim Lee, were responsible for 1991′s X-Men #1 – the all-time greatest selling comic in history.
So, there’s the groundwork for what would eventually bring the X-Men to Hollywood. After guest starring in several cartoon series and even starring in their own immensely popular series in the early to mid 90s, the X-Men, who had also been stars of their own video games, were ready to make the leap onto the big screen. Surprisingly enough, the X-Men would get a great deal of help from a much lesser known Marvel character to test the waters first before they would ultimately make their big splash.
In late Summer 1998, New Line Cinema released a little R-rated movie called Blade starring Wesley Snipes. Blade was a horror character created in the pages of the extremely popular Tomb of Dracula series of the 70s. The movie was modern, extremely cool, and very, very bloody. It proved comic book movies could not only be enjoyed by adults, but also brought them out from beneath the shadow of major characters like Superman and Batman. Less than two years later, Marvel Studios began their conquest of film when X-Men hit the screens on July 14, 2000.
While the first movie wasn’t perfect, it certainly lived up to the hopes that an X-Men movie franchise was possible. For some, the insistence to only feature the most popular characters were a sore point. Instead of the original group of Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel, and Marvel Girl, the movie featured Cyclops and Jean Grey along with fan favorites Wolverine, Storm, and Rogue. Even the villains’ side featured a “greatest hits”, if you will, of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants starring Magneto and Toad as the only originals joined by Mystique and Sabretooth. What the movie lacked in historical accuracy it certainly made up in atmosphere. What it lacked in being able to pull together nearly 40 years of character development, it made up for in having the right characters in the right roles.
The movie brought Patrick Stewart in as Professor X and, frankly, could anyone else have played that part? Wizard Magazine once did one of their famous Casting Call articles and selected Stewart for the role more than a year prior to the film going into production. When it was announced that Stewart would indeed be the leader of the X-Men, Wizard unabashedly took the credit for 20th Century Fox’s choice for the part. Ian McKellan, another veteran actor, was brought on board to play Xavier’s former friend turned arch enemy, Magneto. McKellan’s career had certainly been rejuvenated in recent years in roles that had earned him critical acclaim in films like Gods and Monsters, Apt Pupil, and Richard III, so his, along with Stewart’s, addition to this relatively low budget, “funny book” movie instantly added some legitimacy to the production.
The younger members of the production weren’t too shabby either. The film was directed by Bryan Singer, who had directed McKellan in Apt Pupil, but had won instant critical success with The Usual Suspects. Singer’s involvement as director would begin a long string of Marvel finding successful directors to helm their franchises. The young director lured actors like Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, and James Marsden, but it would be an Australian that would not only steal the show but also become an overnight superstar to play Wolverine.
Hugh Jackman came into X-Men as complete unknown to American audiences. Playing Wolverine, all eyes would certainly be on him. It was a starring role and such a beloved character, that if it fell flat, the whole damn thing would fail. Not only that, but as Wolverine, Jackman would be even more intensely focused upon by fans of the comic. When fans saw Jackman for the first time, they knew they had their Wolverine. Jackman’s Logan would be less of a barely human animal constantly at war with his basest instincts. He would be a bit more roguish, like a Han Solo type of character. Yeah, like the Logan of the comics, he was a loner, but Jackman brought a sex appeal to it that took him beyond the short, hairy Canadian and transformed the character into a legitimate movie star played expertly by, perhaps, the only person who could play the role that well.
In the end, the film cost $75 Million and made more than twice that in the USA alone. While Blade proved there could be a future for Marvel characters if the right pieces were put in place with the right script and direction, X-Men proved Marvel characters could be big… Very big. The movie would blow down the dam and let even more of the characters flood the mainstream. In less than 4 years after X-Men’s release, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four would all hit the big screens to moderate to super success. Of course, in that same time the X-Men would blow the doors off everything with a sequel that would surpassed the original without falling into the usual trappings a second film. It would show everyone what a superhero movie could be in a modern age.
2003′s X2 reunited Singer with the major players of the first film. The story would be based on a classic X-Men tale, “God Loves, Man Kills”, as the main antagonist of the film would not be Magneto and his band of evil mutants, but a man named Stryker whose hatred for the mutant race was personal and deadly. The opening scene introduced to another fan favorite character from the comics, Nightcrawler, as he fights his way through the White House in an attempt to assassinate the President. As the story unfolds, we learn that Stryker’s own son, Jason, was a powerful, mind-manipulating mutant who was once a student of Professor X’s. When Xavier was unable to “fix” Jason to Stryker’s liking, Stryker started a war against all mutants.
The second movie’s main focus would shift to deepening the characters. With that, comes drama that was interwoven into the action. We learn about Stryker’s involvement with Wolverine’s “creation”. There’s a better explanation and development of Magneto’s point of view to coincide with his origins of being more of a Malcolm X type of civil activist in comparison to Xavier’s Martin Luther King. Younger characters like Pyro and Iceman, who had roles in the first film, were expanded upon. Plenty of Easter eggs were planted throughout the movie for fans of the comics, but didn’t play such a large part to muddy the plot or draw focus away from the story.
With the first movie being so successful, Fox upped the budget and allowed for a much more complete film. The longer running time gave Singer and writers Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter more time to do more than just a simple action movie. Much like well known sequels like Superman II or Empire Strikes Back, X2 wouldn’t just rely on formula, it took chances and progressed the characters forward. It would be an example to follow for future Marvel movies. Even when X2 borrowed ideas from others, like a finale that mirrored Star Trek II’s emotional ending, it still hit every note perfectly. In just three years, the second X-Men movie would surpass the original making the first one almost seem it was made twenty years prior to the sequel. With two hugely successful X-Men movies already under their belt, it would come as no surprise that Marvel was ready to make a third.
Unfortunately, things would take a sour turn…
Fox and Marvel were hot on the idea of a third X-Men movie the moment X2′s opening weekend finished. Jean’s sacrifice at the end of the previous movie also left a wide open door for the franchise to tackle a Phoenix story. However, in 2004, Bryan Singer would leave the project in favor of resurrecting a Superman film franchise for Warner Bros. Along with him, Dougherty, Harris, and Hayter also defected to the Superman Returns project. With a release date already set for Summer of 2006, Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox needed to act quickly to get a shooting script ready to go. Quickly, new directors and writers were attached to the project, but eventually, it would be Brett Ratner directing a script by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. The decision to go with Ratner would be one that wasn’t well loved by fans who felt his style would detract from what Singer had built in the first two installments. I would stand to say that the pressure of trying to create a third successful movie in a franchise on a condensed schedule would ultimately be the undoing of X-Men: The Last Stand.
The Last Stand came out to a massive opening weekend in 2006, but few would be impressed by the outing. Nearly right out of the gate, Jean Grey returns to kill Cyclops, and later kill Professor X. It seemed to be so focused on the shock value of those two moments, that everything else leading up to Xavier’s death was filler to connect point A to point B with little to really hang our hats on. As Magneto would build an army to fight against humans who publicized a “mutant cure”, suddenly all sorts of characters popped out of the wood works with none of them really getting any real attention other than to show off their powers as a wink to the comic fans in the audience. So many characters would come and go in the movie that I personally started to really lose characters like Wolverine, Storm, Iceman, and Rogue (you know, the stars of the first two movies) in the mess.
To be fair, the movie, as messy as many parts were, still contained scenes and whole segments that seemed to point toward a goal the writers were trying to get to, but, unfortunately, it just felt as though their paths to that goal was constantly blocked by cramming more characters that readers would recognize into the frame, or set ups to say lines like “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” with cringe-worthy disregard for any semblance of a good movie. It’s an old Hollywood lesson that oftentimes rears its ugly head – when a film franchise makes it to the third movie (Superman III, Batman Forever, and oh god… Matrix whatever-the-hell-it-was-called), the desire to make money trumps the desire to make a third good movie. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something we see far too often. Some franchises can overcome this like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the original Star Wars Trilogy, or the original Indiana Jones Trilogy, but all those have something in common. They are all telling one big story. It’s something Marvel has learned in order to build its Avengers franchise of movies. They let each movie stand on its own or as part of a larger story. Other franchises like the James Bond movies or the Harry Potter movies overcome this by going even further to let each movie stand on its own merits without feeling like a string of sequels.
I’m not saying The Last Stand was a total disaster. It wasn’t. Really it was more of a minor disaster if anything, but certainly mistakes were made in the development stages. As I mentioned before, if the killing off of characters (or in some cases, the completion of characters’ stories) is the only real emotional connection you can draw to a story, there’s a bit of a problem. It’s a cheap way to make your movie memorable. It also reveals that the story was wrapped around the idea of constantly introducing new characters with no intention of giving them a whole lot to do and forcing out characters the writers could not figure out to fit into the larger story. That’s like building a house on a foundation of pancakes… It’s flimsy and way to sugary to stand. At least Kelsey Grammar played the Beast super awesomely.
Things would only go even worse when Jackman reprised his role of Wolverine in a prequel called X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I don’t want to spend a whole hell of a lot of time on this only because if The Last Stand was a minor disaster, Wolverine would be a much larger disaster. It wouldn’t be because of Jackman because he could be Wolverine in a production of Cats and it would be awesome, but it was trying to fit everything else into the original franchise only opening up more questions and confusion. A lot of the movie deals with Wolverine’s early days with Weapon X. He’s manipulated into working with them again after trying to get out of the mercenary business. Then, he’s like fighting a bunch of people and stuff. His girlfriend kind of dies but not really. Then, Deadpool shows up and is completely botched. The End. I’m moving on.
Even though X-Men Origins was a minimal success domestically (the movie cost $150 Million and grossed about $180 Million), fans of the X-Men franchise couldn’t have been terribly happy with the direction of the series. Two “not great” films had come and gone and the distance between the two successful, and well liked, Bryan Singer installments was getting wider and and wider. That didn’t stop Fox from announcing they wanted to continue on with a Magneto origins flick and a Deadpool spinoff with Ryan Reynolds who played the Merc with a Mouth (or I guess without a mouth as it turned out in the Wolverine movie?). Not only that, but Jackman was still on board with the idea of another Wolverine movie. However, fans seemed to be growing tired of the series even if Fox was desperate to retain the franchise rights. When rumblings for a prequel called X-Men: First Class, reaction was initially lukewarm. When it came out, though, the franchise had taken on a fresh, new life and proved there still could be an X-Men franchise that could capture the past successes.
X-Men: First Class came out in June of 2011 to very positive reviews. The director, Matthew Vaughn, was already known to Marvel fans. Originally, he was to be the director to take Bryan Singer’s place on the third film, but had to drop out. Later, he brought the Marvel property Kick Ass to the big screen. If there was one ray of hope that could break through the growing negativity of X-Men fans, it would be Vaughn. His film would focus on the adventures of Charles Xavier prior to the creation of his school for gifted youngsters. It was set to the backdrop of rising tension between Cuba and the United States and set the stage perfectly for the paranoia of these mutants suddenly popping up all over the world. By film’s end, the pieces were in place for the destinies of Xavier and Magneto and seemed to scrub away those bad tastes left by Wolverine and The Last Stand.
The biggest surprises of The First Class was the surprising turns by the actors. Everyone except January Jones playing Emma Frost robotically was spectacular. James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier felt right and seemed to run in the same vein as Patrick Stewart’s portrayal, but yet his very own. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto was charming, but nearly creepy as his experiences in the concentration camps was much fresher. The scene where he’s tracked down former Nazis in South America is one of the most tense scenes in any Marvel Comics movie. Finally, Kevin Bacon’s surprising Sebastian Shaw was amazing. As great as everyone else was in the movie, every single scene with Bacon stole the show. His demise was nearly a disappointment because we wouldn’t see him in the role again.
Fans shouldn’t be too worried about the future of the franchise. For the announced 2014 sequel to First Class, Matthew Vaughn is already set to return as director. As of the date of this article, only Jennifer Lawrence is showing as returning as the younger Mystique. Considering the off the rails success of The Hunger Games, yeah, I’d bring her back too. It seems inconceivable the rest of the cast wouldn’t return in some capacity – especially McAvoy and Fassbender. Either way, the show is back on track and, as long as Fox can mirror some of Paramount’s moves to put the right people in place, it would seem the X-Men will always have a place on the big screen.
Enjoy the comic book movies of this Summer, folks… Between The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises, fans should have plenty to be excited for, and to celebrate that, I’ll be continuing the line of Geek Life Specials through the Summer! To prep for DC’s return to theaters in June, I’ll focus on the Superman movies. So, be sure to check back then!