Marvel Month V – ‘This will be a long one,’ or ‘Damn you Hugh Jackman.’

by TheLitCritGuy


So here it is – a little later than planned thanks to things like laptops crashing and my dissertation needing to be written, but together we’ve made it to the end of Marvel Month. It’s been a long road and sometimes a painful journey, (yes I am looking at you again Ben Affleck) but this month is nearly done. So where to finish? Which franchise best sums up the Marvel universe and has been turned into a franchise that everyone would know? Only one place to go people! A school. Full of gifted youngsters. That’s right. It’s X-Men time.

Once again it seems that this is yet another cultural juggernaunt that simply wouldn’t be around were it not for the considerable talents of Messers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, (Whatever it was they were doing in the 1960’s to give these guys those ideas, I think it’s a shame the creative industry stopped doing it. They were golden days, clearly) when in 1963 the X-Men debuted in X-Men #1.

From then and until now the X-men have gone from one of the lowest selling titles to one of the most enduringly popular, so when superhero movies took off it was only a matter of time untill the studio came looking for some mutants. The development process for X-Men was much longer than for some hero films, stretching as far back as the late 1980’s when James Cameron was rumoured to be involved. 20th Century Fox picked up the script in the late 1990’s and finally, after treatment after treatment, (including one by a certain Mr Joss Whedon) in 2000 the first X-Men movie was released, directed by Bryan Singer.

As this franchise is one of the more successful actions film series I’m not going to spend much time going over the elements of the plot. Suffice to say, this is a really well designed and interesting action film. The design and aesthetics of the film is clearly influenced by the comics but moves the style on from some of the more cartoonish elements – no yellow spandex being the most immediate example. Also serving as one of the few times I can think of that a film has influenced the medium that influenced itself. Grant Morrison’s run on X-Men which started soon after the first film does bear some striking similarities.

The cast function well as an ensemble, particular highlights for me are Patrick Stewart in a wheelchair and Gandalf in a cape. The two are by far the best actors in the film and whilst this kind of film doesn’t necessarily require top-notch acting as opposed to people who can give you good reactions on green screen. That it isn’t to say the rest of the cast are bad, I am just trying to keep some perspective. Having done some googling of different reviews the best way I found of summing up the first film is  a nice quote from James Berardelli who said”the film is effectively paced with a good balance of exposition, character development, and special effects-enhanced action. Neither the plot nor the character relationships are difficult to follow, and the movie avoids the trap of spending too much time explaining things that don’t need to be explained.”

The quality of the film is just that, setting everything up for the sequel – after the first one took nearly $300 million, the sequel came out 3 years later in 2003 as X2. Or X-Men 2 here in the UK. The film again is a very well put together action film, based on Chris Claremont’s graphic novel from 1982, God Loves, Man Kills. The cast is bolstered in the acting talent  department with Brian Cox playing a villan and Alan Cummings having a small part too. This film was a bigger success than the first, so the third film swiftly hoved into view.

The third film was by far the most troubled with Bryan Singer departing and being replaced by Brett Ratner and whilst the film was by far the most successful of the franchise it is by far the weakest. The subtle issues that X-Men have always dealt with (regardless of form)  was sacrificed for explosions, explosions and more explosions. Whilst  the film had been trying to lead up to a climatic struggle the whole thing felt stale and soulless – typified by the choice of Vinnie Jones as the Juggernaut. loud, annoying and lacking in any kind of nuance.

Then, the low point, X-Men origins Wolverine. I won’t waste much time on this turkey suffice for a few points. The film is entirely pointless from a dramatic or character point of view. Everything we, as people completely unfamiliar with the X-Men history needed to know about Wolverine,  was explained ALREADY! In two flash backs during the second film. Yes, you can fill in all the details but why would you? Regardless of who the character is give your audience a little credit, let there be some room for imagination, or ambiguity. This film didn’t add anything new to Wolverine and, if anything, made me think less of the character. We didn’t need to know anything about his past because he was cooler without it! Next, Deadpool. For those not used to the world of comics, Deadpool is a brilliant and completely insane character prone to over the top explosions and awesome fourth wall breaking jokes. Ryan Reynolds was a great casting choice. SO WHY STITCH HIS MOUTH SHUT!?!? There is no clearer example of completely missing the point of what that character is for! The relationship between the two brothers, that should really form the emotional core of the film is underdone as instead of coming off like a struggle Hugh Jackman and Liev Schrieber both seem to dislike each other.

The film also proves to have one of the best examples of one of my personal bugbears with action films. The idea of getting the audience to emotionally connect with someone we do not know. so Logan ends up in Canada after leaving his secret army unit and falls in love with a wonderful woman called……er…….. She is on-screen for about 6 minutes and is then killed off to give Logan the reason he needs to start kicking ass again. Fine. What really annoys me is the films insistence of playing this for emotional pathos. WE DO NOT KNOW HER! So, why should we care? Well, I didn’t.

Thankfully though, for the next film we got something much MUCH better; last year’s X-Men First Class. A little clichéd, but this really felt like a return to form for the franchise. The two leads of James Mcavoy and Michael Fassbender were both amazing, the set pieces were done well, slick action and a fantastic bad guy. Crucially, the film was paced well, building up the drama untill the climax actually felt like it had dramatic weight as things hadn’t been exploding from minute one. Yes, I could pick holes in it, but here’s the important thing. I don’t want to. I’m aware it isn’t perfect but this film actually feels like it was made with care, and attention to the enjoyment of fans rather than with an eye to huge profits. Soul, in short, matters as without it, you end up with Hugh Jackman being angst-ridden. With it, you get one of my best films of 2011

So, how does this compare then to the X-Men comics? Well, here’s where it all got a little difficult. Asking around and doing my own reasearch I found that the best run on X-Men was widely considered to be by a writer called Chris Claremont. Seeking out his work I realised that he wrote X-Men for sixteen years. Sixteen YEARS! SIXTEEN years! So obviously reading that whole run would be impossible, (this column is already late as it is) I decided instead to focus on one single story from that run and see how it matches up.

The story is the classic Dark Phoenix Saga, written by Chris Claremont, with art from Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. The reason this was chosen was for the allusions made to  in X2 and the similarities between this and The Last Stand make it probably the best one to do. Perhaps the most striking thing about the run is that it really made me feel out of my depth. This isn’t a criticism, but is worth noting – the X-Men universe is big. Really big..(I’ll stop before this turns into a HitchHiker quote) and as someone unfamiliar with the world and the backstory it does mean that there are elements here given more room, time and space that any of the movies could or should have done.

The plot is galaxy spanning and feels in a way much bigger than the earth bound stories of the films – though this has been something of a repeating theme in Marvel Month as writers have space and fewer limitations than a film crew. The look of the comics is very different too, the art feels other-wordly and keeps the reader on edge. so how does it compare as an adapative source for the films? Well…


Well…it is good.

But not great. The problem is that the films depend on the most visually recognizable members of the X-Men canon, Xavier, Magneto Wolverine and so on and when the films attempted to deal with the psychological elements of the story that make up Dark Phoenix it doesn’t feel right, coming off as staged and overly loud. That said, the comics would be impossible to adapt completely – the X-men have become a vast sprawling bloc in the Marvel universe and I really shouldn’t be too harsh on it as an adaptation because of poor choices one director made.  The things that work from the comics are kept in the films; the dealing with questions that still ring true today, the sense of comradeship and the struggle of the few to do the right thing in the face of opposition are all things that the films do pick up on. At it’s best (cough, First Class, cough) the franchise grounds itself in reality well too, enabling us as viewers to relate to this world as believable whilst still being excited about the possibility of having the ‘X-Gene.’

So, there we are. A mixed bag to be sure, but the lessons are still here to be learnt. Find the soul of something and do the best you can, with the medium at your disposal. That’s how you make a good X-Men movie.



PS. Can we all agree that Storm is by far the most annoying one out of all the X-Men? Seriously…

PPS. And in the Deadpool movie HE HAD BETTER TALK!!

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