“Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel” have gotten a lot of people talking about these two franchises, inspiring a lot of debate and discussion about the proper way to treat both of them. In these cases, my mind always goes to my friends I know are the superfans of those franchises. I wonder what they think about these new movies, and how much of their opinion is defined by a lifelong love. I wonder how much my opinion is persuaded by being a relatively new convert to both of those franchises.
And then I start thinking about the franchise I’m most enamored and associated with, and the films that have been based on it. I start thinking about the X-Men. Whatever attention I’ve turned on my Star Trek and Superman loving friends might, in theory, be turned back on me come July (for “The Wolverine”) and then again next year (for “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). And after hearing fans have strong opinions about whether or not Superman was treated right in “Man of Steel,” I started wondering whether or not any of the five X-Men films (“X-Men,” “X2: X-Men United,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “X-Men: First Class”) have gotten my favorite property right. Do they even feel like my X-Men?
Surprisingly, I reached the conclusion that none of the existing X-Men films feel like my X-Men, and I actually have very little hope that any will in the near future. This isn’t to say they are bad films. I love Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn’s films… and I less-than-love the other two. Seriously, “X-Men” was a revelation to me back in 2000, and “X2” still holds up as being almost “Avengers”-level perfect (see, I’m a biased X-Men fan!). I even have fairly high hopes for “The Wolverine,” and I am pretty excited for “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” But I’m also worried that neither of these new films are going to work for me, not in the way that X-Men, when done right, work for me.
The X-Men to me are about two things: characters and the minority metaphor. The films have really done a great job with the latter part, though exploring the conflicts and overlap between Professor Xavier and Magneto’s political stances, the threat posed by characters like Senator Kelly and William Stryker, and scenes like Iceman coming out to his family. All of those aspects work and make the good X-Men films stand apart from every other superhero film. The lesser films are lesser because they sacrifice the metaphor for boring punching.
However, the films rarely get the characters right and it will take a hard reboot for the franchise’s problems to get fixed.
The team superhero movie is a hard, hard beast to tame. When “X-Men” was released in 2000, it was the first of its kind. It even remained relatively unchallenged as a superhero team movie for over a decade until “Marvel’s the Avengers” came out. Super team dynamics were redefined by that film, and it had the benefit of the character groundwork laid down by multiple solo films. Since “X-Men” was part of the first wave of modern superhero films, it didn’t have the benefit of solo movies, or really even many good superhero movies, to draw from. “X-Men” tried to do a lot, and it mostly succeeded. But after having seen just what how great a super hero team film can be, the success of “X-Men” and its subsequent films doesn’t shine nearly as bright.
Of the original trilogy of films, I would say that only Wolverine, Professor X, Kitty Pryde and Magneto were handled correctly. Not being the biggest Jean Grey fan, I was actually surprised at how interesting she was in the first two films; I’d say she actually traded up. The rest of the X-Men, and there are a lot, are all either grossly misused (Cyclops, Storm, Emma Frost), underdeveloped (Rogue, Iceman, Nightcrawler), underused (Colossus, Havok) or in the bad movies (Beast, Angel, Gambit).
Full disclosure: “X2: X-Men United” is still one of my favorite films of all time. It feels like reading a great, modern “X-Men” trade paperback in one sitting. It’s rollicking fun, and it has a tight script and excellent direction. The actors are all beyond enjoyable on the big screen, but the characters that most of them are playing are just… not X-Men. It’s still a great film, and easily my favorite “X-Men” movie. It’s seriously 95% of the way there, but I don’t think an X-Men movie can be considered “done right” if it gets big characters like Cyclops, Storm and Rogue wrong.
Cyclops gets strong characterization in “X-Men” before being sidelined for the majority of “X2” and killed off quickly in “Last Stand.” Storm plays bit parts in the first two films before getting a meatier role in the regrettable “Last Stand,” and Halle Berry’s performance never does Ororo’s regal yet down to earth personality justice. The film adapted the terrified Rogue that joined the X-Men in “Uncanny” #171 and stretched it out for three films, and Iceman never cracked any real jokes. Nightcrawler’s swashbuckling personality took a backseat to his religious devotion in his one appearance. Colossus was reduced to little more than a special effect in his two movies. You probably forgot that Beast and Angel appeared in the franchise at all, since they were part of the crowded “Last Stand.”
Since the majority of these characters are returning for “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” it is possible that they’ll finally get treated correctly. But the returning characters (Wolverine, Professor X, Magneto, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Iceman, Colossus and Storm) are joining up with a few of the “First Class” cast (Beast, Mystique, Magneto and Professor X), in addition to even more new mutants (Quicksilver, Warpath, Blink, and possibly Bishop and Sunspot). That’s seventeen X-Men in one film, not counting Peter Dinklage, the Sentinels and whoever else director Bryan Singer decides to add.? To take a break from complaining, I have to say that I’m excited about seeing all of these actors back as X-Men. I’m excited that Warpath and Sunspot will get brief exposure. That’s great. But this crowded cast is the exact thing that has kept and is keeping the X-Men films from feeling like my X-Men. The X-Men comics are about characters, they aren’t about gratuitous power-driven cameos. Somewhere along the way, the people behind the X-Men franchise started looking at powers and not characters.
Never is this more evident than in the curious case of Quicksilver. Joss Whedon added him and his sister Scarlet Witch to his “Avengers” sequel because of their worldview, believing that these two characters would present the established team with dramatic philosophical conflicts. When Fox heard that Whedon was including mutants to his 2015 “Avengers” film, they hastily added Quicksilver so they could get there first. According to Bryan Singer, he has an action sequence that needs Quicksilver. That’s the difference, and that’s the problem. Whedon wants Quicksilver because of who he is, Singer wants him because of what he can do.
Kids gravitate towards characters because of powers, sure. Wolverine has knives that come out of his hands! That’s awesome! But that attraction is superficial, and it almost always gives way, pretty quickly, to a deeper connection. We like characters because of who they are. People aren’t mad at “Man of Steel” because Zack Snyder did something wrong to Superman’s powers (I didn’t notice if he did); they’re mad because he changed something about his character. Whedon gets this. That’s why every character in “Avengers,” even characters with little screentime like Maria Hill, resonated. I can tell you who Maria Hill is. Colossus had as much screentime and I can’t tell you anything about him. And he’s Colossus. Dude’s been an A-List Marvel superhero for almost forty years.
My ideal “X-Men” film, and one that I think would get to the heart of what makes the X-Men special, would focus on family. Because when these characters are done right, that’s what they are. You can’t get that feel if half of the family members are relegated to superficial cameos, either. A real X-Men film should focus on a small group of A-List characters (I’m partial to the Paul Smith-era “Uncanny” team or the Fox cartoon lineup) that get equal screen time and all get treated as if they are as important to the franchise as Wolverine is – because a real X-Men movie can’t be mistaken for “Wolverine and Those Other Mutants.” It has to treat the mutants as metaphor angle as essential and with respect, and they would come up against a big time threat (Apocalypse).
I’m looking forward to the next two “X-Men” films, for sure. But now that I’ve started thinking about what an X-Men film really should be, and what I want out of an X-movie, I can’t stop. I know what I want and I’ve seen it done in “The Avengers.” I know it can be done for the X-Men. I want a great movie that’s also a great X-Men movie.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).