Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The X-MEN Movies: The Marvel Cinematic Universe's Idiot Older Brother

The first X-MEN movie was more than fans had hoped,
but less than what should have been.  The X-MEN
comic is positively epic. The movies have not been.
THIS POST IS A SPOILER-RICH ENVIRONMENT.  Please do not read further  if you don't want the X-MEN movies spoiled for you.  It's never my goal to ruin movies for people so, I generally try to avoid being any more spoilery than I have to, but when writing about a movie series, it's kind of impossible to avoid all spoilers.  YOU HAVE BEEN SPOILER-WARNED!

Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed the X-MEN movies.  All of them.  Well, almost all of them (COUGHx-menoriginswolverineCOUGH).  I was overjoyed when the first X-MEN got so much right.  I was still disappointed in how much it got wrong, though.  I mean, come on, it's me--I've read the X-MEN comics.  Sometimes I wonder if everyone who made that first X-MEN movie had.  As far as I can tell, all they did was read the X-MEN issue of WHO'S WHO IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE and then just stuck in the more popular characters.  Which was great, all told.  That was more than I was expecting, to be honest.

What the first X-MEN movie got right.

The plot and dialog for all of the films was pretty good with the films getting better and better as they went (not including the two Wolverine stand alone films which were steps backward in quality, though the one in Japan was the better of the two).  It was nice to see the general dynamic of Magneto versus the X-Men being respected as much as it was.  However, there is one thing they absolutely had to get right in order to capture one of the most interesting and long-running dynamics...

Yeah, the relationship between Scott, Jean and Logan has
always been tense.  I would have liked to have seen more of
this, but I think the movies did alright--despite scuttling the
entire dynamic when they inexplicably killed off Scott.
The main thing the X-MEN movies got right, thankfully, was the relationship dynamic of the big 3 X-characters.  Scott, Jean and Logan have always had a rough relationship.  That was great.

The general dynamic between Professor X and Magneto worked OK in that first film but was perfectly in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Honestly, that was the biggest surprise to me in all of the X-Movies.  The idea of a morally ambiguous character is something Hollywood is seems to be interested in avoiding.  Most of the time we only get to see good guys and bad guys with no gray areas.  It's easier that way, but also less interesting and FIRST CLASS proved that by being the strongest of the X-MEN movies.

The casting of Professor X was so spot-on, I was almost bored of it by the second movie.  The casting of Wolverine, was almost as spot-on as Professor X, but Wolverine is much shorter than Hugh Jackman in the comics.  I know I sound like an uber-geek saying that, but it's really about irony.  It makes for great one-liners when people refer to Logan as "Little Guy."

Obviously, I didn't let Jackman's height stop me from enjoying his portrayal.   He was excellent otherwise.

I feel that the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique was particularly awesome because she is a very good actor and really got the ambiguity of her character.  This aspect worked really really well toward creating a parallel with Magneto.  Obviously both McKellan and Fassbender are pretty much perfect as the magnetically maniacal mutant.

Basically, I think my point is that the casting, almost across the board, is perfect in the X-MEN movies... except when it isn't.

Scott could only be himself with Jean around because
only her telekinetic powers were strong enough to hold
Scott's eye-beams at bay.  Yeah, I can understand why
that would be a helpful thing.
What Doesn't Work: The Casting of Jean and Cyclops

Now, I think Famke Jansen is one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.  Seriously.  She is also a pretty good actor.

James Marsden is a perfectly good actor, as well as a handsome fellow.

However, they really didn't have much chemistry together and that was something that really needed to be there.  Scott and Jean were two of the original X-Men and as such were around the same age. However, you can tell that they Marsden and Jansen weren't born in the same decade.  It may seem shallow, but their relationship is so well-established in the comics, it's something the films really should have gotten right.

Also, Marsden doesn't seem to really nail the part of Scott.  Scott is a tortured soul.  His powers are definitely a curse, and he is doubly tortured by his love for Jean, who hasn't been the most loyal, over the years.  Since the script doesn't include any of that ever Marsden comes across as 2-D.

So... uh... this happened.
Likewise, in the first film, Jansen's Jean comes across as a typical woman who can't decide between two men.  Which is fine, I guess.  It's just that, in the comic, Jean was always portrayed as one-part girl next door, one-part femme fatale.  So much so that, in a brilliant parody of a big storyline from competitor DC comics that involved a "gene bomb" that removed all super powers, Marvel had their "Jean Bomb" which ruined the life of every man who came in contact with it.  That's how iconic Jean is in the book as someone whom you can't help but love, even though you know she's probably going to be bad news.  Especially since she's died a few times and went bad more than once, too.  Oh and then there was that one time when Scott fell in love with another gorgeous red-head who turned out to be a clone of Jean's who then went evil.

I know everyone always says "the book was better" but, in this case, it really was.  What's worse is that the movies could have stuck a lot closer to the comics.  But I'll get more into this in a bit.

I don't mean to suggest that this is somehow either actor's fault.  It's the director who should have told the writer to give Scott MUCH more pathos and it's the director who should have told Jansen about the whole girl-next-door/femme-fatale thing.

Also, would it have killed them to cast a real red head as Jean?  Or at least give Jansen a better dye job.  Sheesh.

What Also Doesn't Work: changing the general continuity of the comic!

That moment when the cast of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS experienced the
subtle realization that they were starring in the best X-MEN movie--but also
the one with the most jumbled up continuity.
And hey, check it out, no Wolverine! 
As both a comic book fan and a writer, it drives me NUTS when writers change things needlessly.  If the changes make things better, I mind them much less, but I still wonder why they change them.  I mean, the unchanged elements are in the source material for a reason and the source material is obviously successful enough to merit an adaption, so.... maybe you should leave stuff alone and only change things so they fit the time constraints?

Like with how Marsden's Scott is clearly too young to have been an X-Man in the 70s and how his younger brother in the comics (Havok) became his older brother in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.  And why give Rogue and Logan the same damn relationship Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat) and Logan have in the comic?  Especially, since Kitty is a more interesting character?

Not only did Jean and Angel have a
thing, they were kind of jerks about it.
Why underwrite Mystique in the first film only to make her incredibly interesting in FIRST CLASS and DoFP?  Why underwrite Storm when she is one of the most dominant characters from the comic? Why include Quicksilver for a couple of AWESOME scenes in DoFP and not recruit him permanently?  Why is Moira MacTaggart working for the CIA when she's supposed to be a Scottish scientist who helps Professor X a lot (and even fathered his child, as I recall)? Why leave Colossus out of the films almost completely?  I loved the relationship he and Wolverine had.  Their Fastball-Special is iconic!

Another underwritten character in the movies who is quite prominent in the comics was Angel.  Think of Angel as Batman, without the tragedy.  That is, until he is crucified and left for dead in the sewers by a gang of merciless mutant mercenaries.  Angel's wings are amputated and he is a devastated man.  He not only loses his wings but also his true love (Jean, who else?) and decides to kill himself by crashing his leer jet into the sea.  Which he does.  He is then resurrected (by the bad guy in the upcoming X-MEN: APOCALYPSE) as Archangel--his wings are replaced with wings made up of poisoned feathers made of steel.  And of course, he's now a bad guy.

Warren Worthington III, aka Angel, was an original X-Man!
His life was good until this happened.
Then he got resurrected and went bad and then went good-ish.

Yeah...  How was that storyline not in the movies?!?

So, why were all of these characters and story lines and character arcs underused or ignored entirely?

Simple: Because the writers/producers/directors who made the X-MEN movies didn't have a plan.  In my post about TV pilots I talk about how too many shows begin without the writers really having a sense of where the show is going to go or who the characters are yet.  The thing is, it's a writer's job to come up with that before he or she hands in a script.  What's more is that the direction the story will take and the arcs the characters are on, should be in that script already.
Clearly, that was not the case with the X-MEN movies.  Watching the first X-MEN movie I got the impression that they were just doing what they thought would sell--throw the most popular characters from the comic (Magneto, Professor X, Wolverine, Jean, Scott, Rogue, not Colossus  because he's too hard to do the FX on) and throw them in a blender.

Did they think about a story arc for the entire movie series?  Did they think about character arcs for the characters in that first movie?  Did they think about what they wanted to do over all?

It does not seem so.

In fact, we know they didn't because we know what a movie series looks like when filmmakers do all of those things before writing a script.  How do we know this?  The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done it and done it publicly.

The real shame of the X-MEN movies

The first X-MEN comic came out in 1963.  So, by the time the first X-MEN movie was released, there had been almost 40 years of X-Men stories to draw from to make these movies.  Sure, the storytelling wasn't always perfect over the decades, but there had to be a few really good arcs for it to keep going all this time, right?

So, why didn't they just sit down and make a plan borrowing from the books?

Why is it so hard for Hollywood to be confident in their own abilities?  Of course, thanks to what Disney, of all companies, has done in trusting Marvel Studios to get it right, we know Hollywood can be confident in their abilities.

The Mouse trusted the Marvel to do what it's largely done for the last forty years--get storytelling right.

Seems a good place to start, an X-Men storyline, right?
How I would write an X-MEN movie series (don't worry, this is simple)

I'd start in 1963.  Or maybe 1973 just to make everyone's age, less of a thing.  In the first scene, I'd show young Xavier picking up a newspaper from his front stoop.  He reads the front page story about a mutant...

And from there, I'd let the original story unfold.  The story would be how several terrorist organizations are moving to destabilize human civilization around the world.  This isn't Al Qaeda or ISIS, this Magneto, the Hellfire Club, Mr. Sinister and others working apart and together to essentially assert themselves as the new dominant life form of Earth.  Each group does so with different means and methods.  The Hellfire Club, works in the background to manipulate things from the shadows.  Mr. Sinister targets individuals to ruin.  Meanwhile, Magneto takes the direct approach.  All the while, Professor X and his young X-Men set about fighting this mutant menace in secret, thanks to the anti-mutant sentiment globally running rampant across human society.

Don't worry--this isn't all a period show--I would do it ARROW-style and jump back and forth between modern events and events in the past.

Comics adaptations aside, this is the thing all super-hero movies are missing right now (yes, even the mighty MCU is missing this): this whole "War on Terror" thing is the new normal.  Muslim extremists are now the new bogeyman.  And it's pretty obvious how similar a word "Muslim" is to "mutant."  I mean, come on--it's the perfect parallel.  But the parallel to Muslims doesn't have to be the only parallel.  I'd do a subplot with mutants in my  storyline that would allow American mutants to parallel what's going on now with how some police are treating People of Color.

Mutant Lives Matter

It's so easy for Hollywood to focus on the business-side of things rather than the art-side of things.  It's the art-side of storytelling that can comment on the world and it's something that science fiction does better than any other genre.  If Hollywood could just get the idea that art reflects the time period in which it is created we might be able to see storytelling that would literally make the world a better place.  See, when it's done right, art helps us better understand our own world and what's going on in it.  Like it or not, storytelling is an art as much as it is an industry and focusing on what sells has consistently stopped the X-MEN movies from being a truly powerful entity.

The good news is...TV!

Easily the worst poster for the best
X-MEN movie.
A live-action X-MEN TV series is being developed.  I think this is a GREAT idea.  I've mentioned my longing for a SPIDER-MAN live-action TV series before but the truth is, every big title in comics should get their own show--especially the X-Men.  As I said earlier, they have more than half-a-century of storytelling to draw from.  There are TONS of great storylines to tap.  One of my biggest gripes about American TV shows is that the seasons are too long--it's impossible to tell 20+ good stories in a row.  But with source material like the X-MEN comics, it wouldn't be a problem.  Weirdly, it looks like the studio behind this new series will be placing it within the same universe as the movies, which makes no sense to me. Not only will that guarantee more continuity confusion but it means all the cool characters (like the studio-beloved Wolverine) won't be appearing in the measly little TV show.

I could go on for quite a while about what should be done in a live-action X-MEN TV series, but I think I've made my point.

Final Thoughts

Marvel Studios has proven that if you are loyal to the source material and tell a good story, you can make serious money and create a juggernaut.  The MCU is unstoppable despite missing it's role is a metaphor for society.    The X-MEN universe is so vast, it can be its own MCU-style story universe.

Are the X-MEN movies enjoyable?  Of course!  But you have to admit, if they had done it my way, it would have been better.  And who knows? Maybe the TV series, if it gets off the ground, WILL be better.

Of course, one way to be sure of that--let me help.  Hey! Development guys at Fox!  Email me!

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