Let me explain how I became a comic-book fan in the first place. I was 11 years old and my family dumped me off at my first ever sleep-away camp for the summer. Seeing as how my favorite thing to do outdoors has always been to go indoors, I was pretty skeptical that I would find a summer with virtually no electronic devices anything other than torture. At least people being water-boarded have clean water and a place to lie down.
As my parents were dropping me off my dad attempted to console an obviously depressed, pre-pubescent version of me with the phrase “Don’t worry, I’ll send you comic books”. I remember thinking at the time that the concept of voluntary reading did not exactly provide much solace. A few weeks of ingesting powdered eggs, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and being forced to go to church services on Sundays (As the agnostic child of atheists, I can tell you that if THAT was in the brochure, it was deeply buried in the fine print), a large manila envelope arrived for me. Inside were three comic books, all three of which I still have: Fantastic Four #321 (Liked), Daredevil #260 (Loved) and Uncanny X-Men Annual #12 (The new cornerstone of my existence). I read that book so many times over the next few weeks that when my parents came up to get me, the drive back home was nothing but X-Men related comments and questions directed to them from the back seat. The next two decades have been as much about the X-Men for me as it has been about anything else. I followed them relentlessly trough artist changes, writer changes and roster changes. Even through the mid-90’s comic ”Crash” when I, along with most comic fans, stopped buying books altogether, I would still pick the occasional X-Men just to check in with my old friends. As a result of all of this, I take the X-Men very seriously and very personally.
When I discovered that a film was being made of my beloved franchise, I was immediately skeptical. Every decision that I heard they were making on the production side I viewed as a bad one. Every casting choice was wrong, every crew person deemed inappropriate. Also, keep in mind the era in which the first film was done. Way back in the year 2000, the super hero movie universe was a different place. Nowadays any given weekend you can go to a multiplex and see big budget special-effect-laden extravaganza based on some comic property. This deluge was preceded by a prolonged drought. There were years when any property even vaguely comic book related would be anticipated by the comic community with a surreal amount of reverence. Can you imagine a time when comic fans would be chomping at the bit to get to watch a direct-to-video Punisher movie featuring Dolph Lundgren as a guy who doesn’t even have a white skull anywhere on his person? This time happened, I was there, I saw it.
In 1998, a movie based on the obscure Marvel half-vampire, half vampire-killer “Blade” was released and turned out to be surprisingly good. It was a medium sized studio film that took a relatively silly concept and made it work by casting it well (Arguably career highlights by now complete has-beens Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff), making the characters unique and, most importantly, grounding it in a certain reality. It also had the advantages of low expectations and an R rating that allowed the filmmakers to deliver the proper level of violence and blood people used to expect from vampire movies before tween-based Mormon propaganda ruined all of the fun. The important thing is that it established a beachhead, proving that it was possible for comic movies to be good, successful and serious. Still I remained skeptical about my X-Men.
Well, fortune smiled upon me, the heavens opened up and Bryan Singer and his crew delivered upon me an X-Men film that I could call mine. The most important thing about the X-Men that attracted me in the first place is that they worked on several levels. At their most basic, the X-Men are a superhero team with powers and costumes and all that kind of nifty, shiny stuff that looks good on a poster and sells lots of toys, t-shirts and anything else you can stuck a lead character on. On a deeper level, the X-Men are a metaphor for anyone who is in any way different. This film did not shy away from this aspect, in fact it reveled in it. Here was a comic-book movie that did not shy away from the inherent social commentary within the text, yet still made room for some nice effect-laden fighting. It still had its flaws, to be sure. Not all of the characters were fully flushed-out, they were hampered by a relatively small budget for a studio film released in the month of July, etc. Still, there is a moment near the end of the movie that I will never forget. It’s a scene leading up to the final confrontation on Liberty Island where the team that comprises this version of the X-Men approaches the entrance to the Statue of Liberty. It’s a simple bit, really, but even though there were only four of them and even though they weren’t exactly wearing the costumes that I had become accustomed to, these WERE the X-Men.
I was satisfied. I wanted more.
Everything that I liked about the first X-Men movie was taken, rolled in batter, deep-fried and served with a side order of awesome for the sequel, “X2”. While the first movie didn’t shy away from the comic’s metaphors, this one took those metaphors, shoved them under its arm and headed toward the end zone at full speed. It literally included a scene where one of the teenage mutants “Came out” to his parents. None too subtle, but still very fun. It also flushed out the main characters from the first one, introduced new ones (The film opens with a fantastic sequence featuring the character Nightcrawler attempting to assassinate the President), and gave them more interesting stuff to do and more interesting settings to do them. In summary, a sequel that does everything that sequels are supposed to do. To top it all off, the film ended with the strong implication that the third film in the series would tackle arguably the most iconic and involved X-Men storyline of all time: “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. I vividly remember seeing X2 for the first time. I was in the largest theatre in London and literally sitting front row center of the balcony. It remains one of the greatest film going experiences I have ever had. Despite all of this wonderment, I still think that the most amazing thing about it is that if a Kyle Reese-esque time-traveling figure would have approached me during the end credits and said to me “Guess what? You’re not even going to want to SEE X-Men 3”, they’d have been absolutely correct.
Now’s when things get bad.
After Bryan Singer left the franchise to take his talents to Metropolis, I will admit that I was very scared. Who could they get to replace him and his team? Initially, the choice appeared to be Matthew Vaughn. At this time, Vaughn had only done one film, the British crime drama “Layer Cake”. I had not been able to see that film yet and optimism is not usually my initial state of mind, but a relatively young director had been plucked out of the ether and pleasantly surprised me with this franchise before. I hunkered down and prepared for Matthew Vaughn’s mutant festival.
Well, that didn’t happen.
Matthew Vaughn soon left the film. A straight answer as to why was never really given. Let’s just saw that he was fired/quit/scheduling conflicts/creative differences/unexplained illness/prior commitmented out of the project. A replacement had to be found. I got nervous again. Still, I figured, who’s the worst person they could hire? I woke up one morning a short while later, turned on my computer and went to a sire called www.thesuperficial.com. The headline was a big picture of Brett Ratner smiling and the words “20th Century Fox hates you”. I’m not a religious man and I never have been, which is a good thing, because if I had been, I would no longer have been after reading that headline. Let me briefly summarize my feelings about Brett Ratner by telling you a story about the rest of that day. Immediately after this news, I went out to meet up with my girlfriend for lunch. She arrived to find me sitting at the table with my normal hang dog expression even more hanging and dogging. She asked me what was wrong. I said back, “What’s the worst piece of news that I can give you that, technically, has nothing to do with me?”. She thought for a minute before taking a stab at it: “Is Brett Ratner directing X-Men 3?”. Needless to say, we’re still together.
The best thing about Brett Ratner’s movies up to this point was mostly the fact that I was under no obligation to see them. The worst thing about Brett Ratner movies? Well, that’s pretty much a tie between everything else about them. This was not Brett Ratner’s first flirtation… Wait, sorry to put that image in your head. Let’s say Ratner’s first dalliance with comic book movies. Ironically, he was considered to direct a slightly earlier version of exactly the project that Bryan Singer left for, Superman This was a different version of Superman than the one that would eventually get made, one that was rumored to have Ashton Kutcher in the lead. To this day, I have always considered a Brett Ratner-directed, Ashton Kutcher Superman movie to pretty much be the cinematic equivalent of the Cuban missile crisis. I don’t know exactly how close we came and I don’t want to know. The important thing is that we’re all still alive. The only person who really regrets that movie was never made remains Joel Schumacher. I’m sure that it would have given “Batman & Robin” a run for it’s money as the undisputed heavyweight champion worst comic book movie ever.
Despite all of this, I had not completely given up hope for “X-Men 3”. After all, Singer set him up with a pretty good pitch to hit. He was given an expansive world to play with, very well established characters and mythology and a budget that was almost twice what X2 had. Also, you know that old adage about how in times of extreme stress normal people get super strength to free someone who has been trapped under a car or something? Well, this is possible with directors occasionally, too. As my father would remind me any time I would start to complain about some Halloween costume-esque leaked X-Men 3 costume on the internet or horrifyingly bad casting rumor. “Look at Andrew Davis” he would say. For anyone unfamiliar with the work of director Andrew Davis, allow me to give you a brief summary of his IMDB page: Crap, crap, crap, crap, THE FUGITIVE, crap, crap, crap. His point was not lost on me. Sometimes, pedestrian people are able to rise the to the occasion and make something surprisingly good. All there was left to do was sit back, take my dad’s pep talk to heart, keep pounding my expectations into the ground with a sledgehammer and hope for the best.
“What a piece of shit!” my dad exclaimed loudly. It was opening day of X-Men 3 as my dad and little brother had just come back from seeing it. The more I had seen in previews the less I had cared to see and the more happy I was to bide my time. Already scared to find out anything specific, I tried to ask a few questions about the plot and characters. All that came out of his mouth were unhappy stammers, disgruntled mumbles and the more than occasional profanity. My dad is not someone who is known to mince words, but in this case, his words were downright pureed. He was speechless. When I would eventually brave the theatre, I would be no less disappointed. Not since “Highlander 2: The Quickening” had a sequel done such a thorough job of not just making a terrible and unworthy movie, but also being so destructive to the franchise as to ensure that no future film makers could do anything with it either. They burnt the crops, the salted the earth, they took their money and left. It must have been deliberate; there really is no other alternative. I’ve never gotten a confirmation of this from anyone involved in the making of the film, but for a movie to do this much against what had come before it, they must have been intentionally killing the franchise, like the Monkees did when they made the movie “Head” (Except that movie had a more coherent plot). Not only were they more than happy to kill central characters without giving it a second thought, they were so against the central metaphors of the first films as to either be willfully ignorant, or just plain stupid. One is the aspects of X-Men 3 that I will never forget was a subplot involving a cure for mutantism. Such a cure interested the character Rouge, a pubescent mutant who’s power prohibits her from making physical contact with any other human being. Near the end of the second act, we see her in line to take this cure while being beseeched by her boyfriend not to. The scene ends in an ambiguous manner, he leaves and she is clearly conflicted as she nears the entrance to the clinic. We do not see Rogue again until the very end of the movie. She returns to her boyfriend and informs him that she has taken the cure and now she’s all better. Wait, WHAT!?!? The most obvious allusion ever for those horrible Michelle Bachman family-run religious organizations that claim to be able to cure people from being gay and you guys blow it that badly? Apparently, the makers of X-Men 3 spend their spare time supporting the Westoro Baptist Church (If you don’t know, look it up). This whole thing was mortifying. Alcoholics talk about something called “Rock Bottom”. Well, the X-Men movies were like a night of binge drinking. It started out fun, reached dizzying, euphoric heights and finally ended up covered in shame and vomit. “Alright, people, show’s over. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here”. It would take an absolute miracle for me to believe that the X-Men movies could be saved. An absolute miracle…
Well, as it turns out that there are occasions where fortune does indeed smile upon you. The storm clouds clear and if you are a really good little boy or girl, Santa Claus will leave you something very nice in your stocking. In this case, my stocking contained “X-Men: First Class”.
This first step in this path to redemption is the most obvious and logical one: Bring back Bryan Singer. Seeing as how Singer piloted the good ship X-Men with aplomb and the Brett Ratner mutiny turned it into the Exxon Valdez, the announcement that Singer would be returning as a producer gave me hope for the future. Next up on the list, they hit the “Reset” button yet again by hiring Matthew Vaughn as the films director, having proved his worth with a fun and unique interpretation of the super hero film with “Kick Ass” a year before. After a very unceremonious false start, Vaughn would finally get his chance at bat. But what story could these people tell? X-Men 3 left few characters alive and with powers (and left even fewer GOOD characters that way). Again, the filmmakers made an interesting and gutsy decision: to take the X-Men story back to the beginning. In telling what is essentially the story of Professor X and Magneto’s “bromance” you get it all: A few characters the audience knows along with a bunch they don’t, an interesting, new historical setting (The Cuban Missile Crisis) and a great way of delving into the increasingly prevalent “Reboot” territory. They’ve given themselves endless options for sequels as well. They could make a film that starts right where this one left off (If you’ve seen the film, you know that this is quite literal), they could jump years or decades ahead to place the X-Men in other interesting historical settings. Personally, I want to see Professor X and Magneto’s ideals clash as they team up to help take on Idi Amin in the “Raid on Entebbe” Israeli hostage crisis. If for no other reason, just to see James McAvoy playing both Xavier AND his character from “The Last King of Scotland”. Hey, a guy can dream can’t he?
X-Men: First Class stands as possibly the definitive example of how a once great film franchise can take a giant step back from the precipice of doom and return once more to the realm of true entertainment and intrigue. It’s restored a faith that I was more than willing to dismiss as gone for good. I owe a great deal of gratitude to everyone involved in bringing this film to the screen. You’ve taught me that my healing factor is more powerful than I thought. Speaking of which, one of my goals in this essay was to go the entire length without even once mentioning Wolverine. He gets way too much of the attention in both the comics and movies and I was really proud of myself for leaving him out entirely. Perhaps my opinion is evolving?
"X-Men: First Class" comes out today on Blu-ray and DVD. Do everyone a favor and buy it. I'm desperate for the sequel, "X-Men: Business Class"