What do we want from an X-Men movie in 2016?33
Tasha: X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past felt like a big step forward for the X-films franchise. After so many grim, overcrowded stories pitting Charles Xavier and his mutant students against Magneto and his mutant-supremacist followers, suddenly there was a storyline that acknowledged the friendship between the two leaders, brought back some of the big metaphors that have defined the X-Men stories since their inception, and acknowledged that being a superhero could be exciting and cool, instead of a constant parade of terror and resentment. Then X-Men: Apocalypse took the story back a decade. Every gain made in DoFP between Professor X and Magneto is erased, there's yet another generic villain out to destroy the world for clunky reasons, and even the fun stuff — like yet another slo-mo run-around from Quicksilver — is just reheated from the previous film. All it took is one movie, and now the X-franchise feels like it's spinning its wheels again.
But the well is deep: the X-Men have been around since 1963, and their stories over the decades have covered so many themes, ideas, plots, and characters we've never seen in the movies. What do you think we're missing out on as we watch the same signature characters fighting the same battles? What do you want out of your dream X-Men movie right now?
Bryan: I read more DC than Marvel growing up, so I've been in the (unfortunate?) position of experiencing X-Men as a movie series first, comic series second. When I went to see Bryan Singer's first take in 2000, my hopes were pretty simple: just be better than Apt Pupil, please. I was shocked — and frankly, a little seduced — when I discovered a confident movie that was able to take comic book characters seriously, grounding them in a world of real stakes and resonant themes. Given the trend that followed, it seemed like Hollywood felt the same way.
My love affair continued unabated until Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand came along and broke everyone's heart. In the films since, I haven't been hoping for greatness as much as I've been bracing myself for potential disappointment. But that kind of expectation-lowering has benefits. It's made solid films (First Class, DoFP) seem fantastic, and middle-of-the-road ones (The Wolverine) play like high-end entertainment. I'm not expecting X-Men: Apocalypse to be truly spectacular, and I'm not necessarily hungry for any specific new characters, either. I just want a consistent movie series, damnit, and if this can be the third installment in a row to deliver an ongoing serialized narrative without embarrassing itself, my faith will be restored. Maybe.
Alex: It would be nice to have an X-Men movie without Wolverine. Bless his swole heart, but there is no need to keep inserting Hugh Jackman's Wolverine into X-Men movies. What's been fascinating to me is how the other X-characters in the movies have been shortchanged over the last decade — Storm, Kitty Pryde, even Jean Grey — while Wolverine has been the de facto protagonist. It would be nice to see their emotional lives, too.
This probably explains why I loved First Class so much, even with its flaws — we got to see emotional depth given to characters not named Wolverine.
One of the strengths of the X-Men comics is that the characters are part of this adopted family, and they have complex relationships and beliefs that clash, complement, and contrast. These superheroes need each other as much as the world needs them. The movies often forget that.
"These superheroes need each other as much as the world needs them"
Kwame: I'm very much an X-Men: The Animated Series devotee when it comes to my personal love of the X-Men. The great thing about that series (other than the theme song) is that it told great character stories, and for me, the best X-Men stories showcase those truly unique characters. They needn't have been the classic Chris Claremont ones — though how the cartoon handled the Dark Phoenix Saga is far and away better than anything done in the films. Giving a character like Nightcrawler — a devout Catholic and teleporting circus performer — time to shine felt powerful, even when I was a kid. Now, the films get really close by taking time to examine Professor X and Magneto's relationship, particularly in First Class, but they do tend to get mired in noisy superhero action without making us care about anyone other than Wolverine. My greatest fear is that Apocalypse is just another step away from great characterization toward flashy but ultimately empty fight scenes.
Tasha: You're right to be afraid, and the fight scenes in Apocalypse aren't even flashy enough to excuse the script's lack of interest in the characters! The fights are pretty generic, especially after the opening of X-Men: Days of Future Past, where we get to see Bishop, Kitty Pryde, Blink, Iceman, and others fighting for their lives as a well-honed, integrated team. There's a real sense of physical trust between them — it takes guts to charge at a wall, assuming Kitty will be there to phase you through it — and a sense of long familiarity with each others' powers and methods. That's something the MCU movies have slowly built up to with the Avengers, but it's depressingly rare in X-Men movies, where it should be a core facet of the fights. Instead, we usually get one-on-one, hero-on-villain face-offs, which never have the same kind of thrill for me. At this point, a primary thing I want from any X-Men movie is synergy and cooperation. It says a lot about the characters, about how they trust each other and train with each other, but it's also just visually cooler than a series of carbon-copy punch-offs.
Ross: I love a big climactic fight, but honestly, I'm getting really tired of watching Superhero Ensembles Trying to Stop a Cataclysmic Thing Wanting to Destroy the World for Reasons. The stakes rarely feel genuine at that level, and character development all too often takes a back seat to juggling a number of interwoven narratives.
What I'd love from an X-Men film, more than anything, is restraint. I'd love nothing more than a film that focuses on the relationships between a handful of people, stakes that could have believable consequences, large scenes that are earned, and small scenes that are surprising. Just because you have an impressive lineup of mutants doesn't mean they all have to take center stage at some point — if, say, Colossus sat this one out, I wouldn't bat an eye. I know Apocalypse goes in the opposite direction, but after a summer where the superhero-to-film-reel ratio is far too high, I'm itching for a movie that tries to keep things small.
Here's my pitch for the next next X-Men: Magneto and Xavier in a room, playing chess. And that's it. Maybe it cuts between past and present — Ian McKellen vs. Patrick Stewart and Michael Fassbender vs. James McAvoy. And they're just acting. And moving chess pieces. And acting. And moving chess pieces. And Acting. In IMAX 3D.
Emily: Like Kwame, I get the bulk of my pre-2000 X-Men knowledge from The Animated Series. I've still barely ever cracked an X-Men comic. I never was an expert or completist by any means, but the broad strokes of the X-Men — being gifted and angsty — appealed to my Saturday-morning-cartoon-watching self. I liked Rogue a lot. Bryan Singer's X-Men came out when I was a Premiere subscriber, and before the film's release, it ran a big feature on Singer, Avi Arad, and the conceptualization of "a new kind of superhero film" that feels like a massive harbinger in hindsight. There was a lot of emphasis on the lack of neon spandex and bat nipples (Batman and Robin was still painfully close in the rear-view mirror), as well as the attention this script would pay toward the human drama of its mutant cast. It was being made by the guy who did The Usual Suspects! This was a classy joint!
Even still, the first X-Men film still feels light and pulpy compared to the 10-ton epics both Marvel and DC have rolled out since. But that's my favorite mode for this bunch — light, pulpy angst, still firmly tied to a semi-mundane world, with a climax that's more flash than crunch. Captain America: Civil War sealed the deal on the superheroes-as-nukes metaphor that it's been building since the start of the MCU. Perhaps that's why that franchise has never really moved me — I'll always prefer the superheroes-as-any-othered-group, which necessarily means conflicts on a smaller scale — evil senators instead of evil gods. I want this to be a teen drama again!
"I want this to be a teen drama again"
Tasha: So are there specific characters you want to see more of in the movies, or want to see handled differently? For me, it's always been Nightcrawler, who in the comics has gotten to be a leader, adventurer, and role model for young and troubled mutants. (If the guy who looks and smells like a demon can be philosophical and even happy about his lot in life, surely anyone can.) X2 opened with a brief taste of how intimidating and spectacular he can be when he gets to cut loose as a fighter, but since then, he's always been relegated to cowering comic relief. I'm really ready for the cinematic version to find that rakish, hip-shot confidence that makes him stand out so much in the comics.
For that matter, I'm still waiting for an onscreen Storm who feels like more than a fashion shoot and a special-effect enabler. Apocalypse comes closer than any film so far, but while it gives her a backstory and at least one thing she cares about, it doesn't give her many lines or much character. She's proved herself one of the most adaptive characters over the years. I'd love to see the film version become as strong and certain as the source-material version, without losing her personality entirely.
Emily: Well, obviously, I've been waiting for my favorite mall-rat Jubilee to have her moment for a long time. I also feel like the once-reviled, corporate partnership tie-in character Dazzler is worthy of a rewrite in our celebrity-obsessed times. (I've heard both appear in Apocalypse, but in sub-cameo capacity.) After all, wouldn't a bunch of superhumans with blue skin and weather-control powers be, like, SUPER-famous if they existed today?
I think Ross is on the right track with the two-hander idea. I can easily see the X-universe succeeding where the abysmal Jem and the Holograms failed, giving us a bittersweet meditation on pop mania and teenage fandom augmented by mutant powers. I can see Dazzler as a Taylor Swift / Beyoncé hybrid who does her own effects, and Jubilee as a devoted fan-turned-ally who realizes she has talents of her own. Maybe this is me just wishing The Wicked and the Divine was as good as the amazing superhero / pop-star epic in my head, but being a mutant and being a diva with weapons-grade charisma always seemed like two sides of the same coin to me.
But yeah, I like when the X-universe really grapples with our world and our mundane concerns — that's why Quicksilver's introduction is so engaging in DoFP. A story with parallel narratives of people who want to feel special — a global celebrity and a mall-rat teen with a Snapchat addiction — could be a lot of fun when you add in firework-hands.
"I like when the X-universe really grapples with our world"
Alex: I still am holding out hope that one day, someone will figure out how to bring Emma Frost to the big screen in a way that does the character justice. I understand the limitations — being telepathic isn't exactly the most exciting mutant power; no one wearing her costume would be taken seriously; she's aggressively campy; she also has a strange and long-winded origin story of being bad, but eventually reverting to good. But over the last decade or so, as she's played a bigger role in leading the X-Men (though she's been missing since Marvel's Secret Wars crossover this year), I've developed an affinity and affection for the character's resilience, her sardonic humor, and how she sees the future of mutantkind.
The X-Men franchise, like the cinematic superhero industry, hasn't really been good at telling the story of young women growing up. A story about a young Emma Frost is as rich in material — boarding school, siblings, teenage heartbreak — as any out there. And an adult Emma laying down some salty, tough love at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters... Well, that would just be gravy.
Kwame: Wolverine might be the quintessential X-person, and Hugh Jackman might be the breakout star to come out of the film adaptations, but for me, Magneto is the dark heart of the entire series. There was a moment right around the time X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out that a Magneto solo film was in the works. It's probably for the best that it never got off the ground. You can't trust Fox with anything. But Magneto encapsulates both the big and the mundane that the rest of the comic comments on. The best interpretations of the character have always been not the genocidal lunatic, but the gifted militant who's willing to go too far because he's seen some real shit. He's seen how far his "enemy" is willing to go, first-hand. But underneath it all, he's still after some higher good, making him a perfect leader of the X-Men if there was ever a need for him.
Like in a parallel universe where Apocalypse has taken over the world...
And as badass as Ian McKellen was in Singer's original run, Michael Fassbender captured that complexity brilliantly as a raw, untrained Nazi hunter in First Class. I love that arc, because it's clear the mutants never could have stopped the war, even with Magneto's powers on their side. How gut-wrenching is that? I think one of the principal failings of the less-than-great X-films (and I suspect Apocalypse) is that they lose sight of what grounds the story — that these people are gifted, but they're still just people. They're not gods. It's not enough to just say, "Oh, Nightcrawler had it real bad." We need to feel it throughout the film, even on top of the fun setpieces. And Magneto is key to that.
Tasha: Having actually seen X-Men: Apocalypse, I'm sad for everyone in this thread, because it fulfills so little of what you're looking for. And it's going to be a while before we'll even have another hope of seeing any of this in a film, because after Apocalypse, there are no other team X-Men movies on Fox's production docket. There's the 2017 Wolverine movie, and the postponed Gambit film, and the still-theoretical X-Force and New Mutant projects, and the chance of more X-Men in the Deadpool sequel. But there's no guarantee that the X-Men as a team will be back in theaters anytime soon. At least in the meantime, we all have decades of comics and animated shows to catch up on. Maybe there's some hope for that "Xavier vs. Magneto in a no-holds-barred chess match" storyline in print, instead.