X-Men in Film – Epilogue

I ran through the three core X-Men films earlier this year.  To summarize, I found the first was okay, the second good, and the third poor.  And even though I more or less enjoyed the first two, I was never comfortable with the setting or the approach taken by director Bryan Singer.  In my lead-in, I mentioned I wanted to post my own thoughts on how I feel the studio should have gone about in bringing the franchise to the big screen.  Considering this weekend is the opening weekend for the Matthew Vaughn directed X-Men: First Class, it seems like now is a good time to do this entry.

First off, I did not make an entry for the X-Men spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine and that’s because I never saw it.  Not only did it look poor, but the plot also sounded bland.  It was not well-received by critics or by friends of mine whose opinions I trust so I saw no reason to see it.  And the suggestions to follow in regards to how I would have approached the series do not mean I think I could do better.  Far from it, I am no director and I’ve never had anything published.  I’m just a jaded fan.  And for the most part, I think die hard fans are bad for this sort of exercise.  They tend to be more rigid and regimented and incapable of distinguishing what’s important from what isn’t where a plot or character is concerned.  A neutral party is better able to look at the source material and identify the key components that makes the franchise important and bring those components out within the new medium.  Unfortunately, I think those who handled the X-Men did a poor job of that and even though I’m a fan I’m going to try to be objective.  Below are the components I believe would make for a good X-Men film:

Civil Rights – At it’s core the X-Men represent a civil rights story, and Bryan Singer and Fox acknowledge this.  One of the core conflicts is Professor X as a Martin Luther King Jr. figure to Magneto’s Malcolm X.  Both have the same goal but aspire to reach that goal through very different means.  The other conflict is human society vs mutants, what the canon refers to as homo sapiens and homo superior (a term coined by Magneto).  In the first film, the conflict outside of the good guys vs the bad guys is the Mutant Registration Act, a bill introduced by Senator Robert Kelly.  Kelly mistrusts mutants and wants to see each one register with the federal government so that the government knows what each mutant is capable of and where they are at all times, similar with sex offenders and common criminals.  Law abiding mutants of course bristle at this as it forces them out of the closet, so to speak, when some would rather live quiet lives and keep their mutant abilities private.

Graydon Creed worked so well for the animated series, it's hard to imagine him not working for a film franchise.

This a solid starting point for the franchise, but the initial plot gets lost in Magneto’s hijinks.  Kelly is removed from the picture early on negating his influence on the bill and it doesn’t pass, though that is irrelevant.  What Singer and company failed to do was create a hostile environment for mutants.  At no point do we get a sense of the contempt and fear humans have towards them.  We get a taste of it in X2 when Bobby Drake “comes out” to his family, but little else.  I wanted to see more fear from the general populace and from the government as well.  That’s why I think the films should have looked closer at the 1990’s animated series for inspiration.  Henry Guyrich and Bolivar Trask would have made for good secondary characters.  Perhaps the sentinel project could have been referenced in the first and carried over into the second film.  The sentinels from the comics likely wouldn’t have worked on film, but a military styled task force charged with controlling mutants could have stood in.  The Friends of Humanity could have also been used to give us the extreme end of the spectrum from the societal perspective.  Graydon Creed is a great character and one that’s easy to hate for audiences.  The villain of X2, William Stryker, could have been incorporated into the FoH as well in his priest persona as opposed to a military one.  Ultimately this would have better portrayed the X-Men as selfless heroes protecting a society that hates and fears them, as the main antagonist would still have been Magneto and his Brotherhood.

Small Squad – Another aspect the existing films recognized was the need to keep the X-Men small.  In the 90’s, the team became bloated and trying to carry that over to the films would have proved impossible.  The films reduced the X-Men to four actual team members; Cyclops, Jean, Storm, and Wolverine with Xavier and Rogue also in roles requiring extensive character development.  And while I think this is a solid foundation, the ball was still dropped in terms of developing these characters.  Wolverine was the obvious focus for character development as he’s been the most popular character for a long time now.  Jean exists as the strong female lead and to get between Cyclops and Wolverine.  The Wolverine character was handled mostly well (though I feel strongly a short actor should have played him) but Cyclops was butchered.  He comes across as the jealous, petty boyfriend rather than the victim.  Cyclops should be strong and honor bound where his duty is concerned, the obvious good guy where as Wolverine is a villain who happens to be fighting for the good guys.  Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I got the sense that the films wanted us to root for Wolverine to win the girl and to dislike, and even distrust, Cyclops.  Storm wasn’t developed hardly at all, and only once Halle Berry won an Academy Award did the writers see fit to give her more screen time.  Storm has an interesting back story in that she was perceived by her people as a goddess and perhaps would have worked better as a character recruited by Xavier, rather than just a secondary female member of the team.

I love you Beast but you just don't work on screen.

I have always felt Beast should have been included.  He is a good example of a mutant who can’t hide amongst people like most of the X-Men can.  The problem with the Beast character is that his look does not translate well to live action.  Would fans accept a non-blue Beast?  Probably not.  Iceman perhaps could have been a better choice as a fourth member given his character doesn’t need too much development as he’s the practical joker and a kid at heart.  The Iceman character as he exists in the current franchise is a throw-away, anyone could have been used in that role.  Nightcrawler is another great character that needed to get onto film, but I think Singer had it right in waiting for film #2 to introduce him, though I think the character needed more development.

One think I would not change is how the films utilized Rogue.  I’m a fan of introducing the X-Men as an already existing product and bring the audience along by having it introduced to the X-Men through the eyes of a new recruit, such as Rogue.  Rogue provides a good example of how super powers aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, something at the core of the X-Men mythos.  This aspect of her character makes her more interesting than the classic juvenile characters Kitty Pryde and Jubilee.

Wolverine – I said a lot about Wolverine in my initial post on the subject, so I’ll try to be brief.  In short, I feel Wolverine is best served as a secondary character.  He’s the prickly member of the team who doesn’t always feel like a member of the team because of his lone wolf nature.  Ideally, he wouldn’t be in the first film as his introduction to the team could have been handled in a second film.  One thing I really liked about Marvel’s Ultimate X-Men was how it introduced Wolverine as a mercenary hired by Magneto to infiltrate the X-Men, but he eventually is won over by Xavier (and Jean) and betrays Magneto.  That could have been used for the films but Fox would have never allowed an X-Men movie to be shot without Wolverine, he’s too important from a marketing perspective.  Therefore, keeping him off to the side and antagonistic would have worked best.  Ultimately, I want a character with a giant chip on his shoulder that Xavier and Cyclops constantly have to fight with to get him to stay the course.  When Magneto and his goons are raising Hell, Wolverine should be the one abandoning ranks to go after Sabretooth as opposed to working within the system.  As an audience, we should love his ferocity and his bad ass nature but feel frustrated with his obvious character flaws.

The Villains – Magneto is the obvious choice as the main arch rival for the X-Men, there’s really no other choice.  And I do like that the current films didn’t make the mistake the original Batman did and kill off the hero’s main adversary in the first film.  As long as Xavier is around, Magneto needs to be as well.  His Brotherhood was fine as well though it needs to be as big as the X-Men.  If the X-Men are 4 then the Brotherhood should be 4, not including Magneto himself.  Sabretooth and Mystique are good choices as well, but Toad kind of sucks.  If the films needed a slapstick villain he could have been used there, but otherwise I’d prefer Avalanche or Pyro.  Juggernaut is an interesting possibility as well and one that would have been worth exploring.  He presents obvious visual problems in bringing him to live-action (the look he sported in The Last Stand would not do) and balance issues as he’s a load to take down.  I like the step brother parallel though with Xavier, but he can’t be a mutant which also is an issue.  The magical nature of his powers wouldn’t fit the setting I imagine for an X-Men film franchise so his abilities would have to come from a suit.  Perhaps he could wear some sort of mammoth battle suit serving as a pre-cursor to the government’s own sentinel program.  Or he could be some sort of metal monstrocity created by Magneto.

The reality warping mutant Proteus represents a case of risk vs reward. In the hands of the right director, he'd end up an extremely memorable villain.

As the franchise would likely form a trilogy, new villains would be introduced.  I like the idea of keeping Magneto involved in all, but keeping him on sidelines at times would give the films some variety.  I already mentioned the sentinels and Friends of Humanity as potential villains.  Could they carry a film?  Possibly.  Other villains that could work include The Hellfire Club, who are also featured in the latest film.  They could be another Magneto, a villain seeking mutant supremacy but through different means.  While Magneto is confrontational, The Hellfire Club works behind the scenes and infiltrates the economy.  High-born and intelligent, they would pose a different kind of threat.  A really bold director could also turn to Proteus, the reality warping mutant.  His powers could be explained as being mental, an extreme take on Xavier’s, and his general origin could be kept intact (imprisoned bastard yearning for acceptance from his father).  His powers would be a visual delight, and his plight easy to grasp.  He’d function as a sympathetic villain, and also plant the seed in the audience’s mind that perhaps mutant control is necessary.

If a film must have a Wolverine-centric villain and plot, then I think Omega Red could be fun.  The Weapon X project would be introduced, and the Omega Project could be the Soviet equivalent.  After tangling with him in the past, Wolverine is angered to learn he’s been revived by the Soviets and takes off to stop him.  It would give the audience more insight into the mind of Wolverine after seeing him mostly as an ass in the first film, and the X-Men would come to his aid for a feel good moment.  Red is a visually interesting villain, and his death syphon makes him more than formidable.

The Plots –  The plots of the existing films can be simplified as:  Mutant Registration Act, “God Loves, Man Kills”, and The Cure.  The second was of course augmented to basically remove the God component from the original story, but all the same.  The Phoenix Saga was also worked into the third film.  I mentioned earlier that I feel the Stryker character as a priest could be worked into the cast of reoccurring characters.  The Cure plot is an interesting one and one I like because of its obvious societal parallels.  Phoenix I can do without.  I know it’s an iconic story but it’s overplayed.  One thing the films didn’t tackle was the The Legacy Virus which could be worked into all of the films as a pervasive thing and another reason humans fear mutants.

To summarize, the basic approach I’d take for a three film trilogy would probably go something like this:

1 – Mutant Registration Act, Government exploring ways to control mutants, Magneto as a mutant terrorist attacking government agencies (Cyclops, Jean, Wolverine, Iceman, Rogue as X-Men.  Sabretooth, Mystique, Juggernaut, Avalanche and Pyro as Magneto’s Brotherhood)

2 – Sentinel Initative unveiled to control mutants, Moira’s son Proteus escapes, Magneto is courted by The Hellfire Club (Nightcrawler is introduced after the X-Men save him from the FoH early on)

3 – Wolverine leaves the X-Men to confront Omega Red, X-Men are forced into a confrontation with The Hellfire Club, Rescue Wolverine, Magneto watches from the sidelines (Colossus introduced as part of the Wolverine side plot, some of Wolverine’s Weapon X buddies could be brought in as well such as Maverick and Silver Fox).

I’m not married to that, but it’s a start.  I’d aim to end the trilogy with Magneto posing as an immediate threat, perhaps him forming a film equivalent of his mutant haven Avalon.  What’s not developed is how The Hellfire Club would pose a threat.  Perhaps they would be behind the introduction of the Legacy Virus as a means of planting fear into the hearts of humanity.  I would also consider having their political connections leading to an abolishment against the Mutant Registration Act which would portray them as being a group with some positive benefit, but with ill methods.  Magneto would also reject their assistance as he wouldn’t care for their methods, preferring something more direct.  I’d also look for a way to introduce Storm, though at this moment I’m not sure how it would be done properly.  Either way, my head is swarming with other ideas such as building up the FoH.  Nightcrawler could be held hostage because of his connection to Creed and demonic appearance, which makes him an easy target for Stryker.  That could easily be turned into a much bigger plot.

As of right now, X-Men: First Class has an 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com and has been fairly well received.  The general consensus seems to be that while it’s nothing special, it’s an entertaining enough summer film.  Unfortunately, that’s been the story of the X-Men on film; good but not great.  I’m waiting for the Batman Begins of X-Men to be created.  Because of the social commentary contained within the franchise, there’s no reason why the X-Men can’t be something bigger than just a comic book movie.  The franchise is currently broken, and even though it’s kind of the lazy way out, it needs to be blown up and redone.  First Class can’t cure its ills and a truly great X-Men film is still nothing more than a fantasy.

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