Hey, guys! Dark Phoenix is out! Isn’t that . . . isn’t it . . . great?
Okay, let’s not pretend that any of us actually went to see that movie. The truth is that the X-Men movie franchise has been flagging for a little while now. Sure, it was innovative when it first came out, but that was nearly 20 years ago.
|A little color would pep up those uniforms
Before I talk about where the X-Men movies have been stumbling, let’s take a look at where this whole crazy superhero movie trend started. The year 1997 saw the release of Batman & Robin, the third sequel to the 1989 Batman film. Reaction to the film was negative, as moviegoers pushed back against a series that went from dark and noir to dark and gothic to ridiculously bright and silly. This was considered the death-knell for superhero films and films based on comic books. Hollywood entered a fallow period when it came to pictures based on comic books. That terrible period lasted for, oh . . . about a year. You see, in 1998 New Line Cinemas released Blade, a movie based on a character from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comics. The character had been heavily revamped between the comics and the movies, but the modern version had made some appearances on the ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon. This is probably because they wanted to test the new version out on some kind of audience. The movie did well. One should note that despite having some superheroic qualities (superpowers, distinctive costume, fighting evil in an urban setting), most people don’t usually think of Blade as a superhero (note: as of this writing, the comic book incarnation of Blade is a member of the Avengers). Two years later in 2000, the first X-Men movie comes out from 20th Century Fox. Now, this is a property that people knew was a superhero thing because of the ‘90s cartoon. However, they played a lot of it down. Things were a lot more stripped down and more grounded. The palette was a lot darker. And the colorful costumes of the comics and popular cartoon were replaced with black leather bodysuits reminiscent of both Blade and The Matrix. Again, it did well. Two years after that, Sony Pictures released the first Spider-Man movie which embraced the superhero thing a lot more and the rest is history.
But yeah, in the middle of that whole era when the entertainment industry was pushing against the whole idea of the “superhero” was when the first X-Men film was released. And the problem is that they’ve never entirely been able to quite separate themselves from that era completely.
You may scoff, but the “superheroes are uncool” era extended out beyond the Hollywood movie set. Marvel used to downplay the term “superhero” in its own text pieces and press releases. Per their descriptions, Captain America was “a soldier”, the Fantastic Four were “explorers”, the X-Men were “activists”, etc.
|Still one of the best on-screen renditions, though I like X-Men: Evolution too.
Anyway, over the past 19 years superhero films have sort of broke loose and shown what they were capable of with the MCU. And they did it by embracing a lot of the crazier aspects of it all. The main X-Men films still feel unusually cautious. They repeat the same conflict over and over again. They always default back to showcasing the same four characters, Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and whoever Jennifer Lawrence is playing (they say it’s Mystique, but the character comes across more like Amelia Voght), despite the X-Men having possibly the best ensemble cast in all of superhero comics. The color palette is still this sterile, bland black and chrome thing. And that’s just the beginning of it all.
I mean, they’ve tried to loosen up a bit especially in the prequel trilogy. They used The Hellfire Club in X-Men: First Class, who are a group that provides a different conflict seeing as they want to take over the world just because they’re arrogant, ambitious jerks rather than for some mutant supremacy agenda. X-Men: Days of Future Past used the Sentinels who are usually the go-to choice for stories about the push back of evil, mutant-phobic humans (which always evolves into the Master Mold AI trying to take over the world, by the way). And then there was X-Men: Apocalypse which used Apocalypse, one of the X-Men’s most comic book-y villains. But they still didn’t push any of it quite far enough.
The truth about the X-Men is that there’s always a drive to make it some kind of grounded, serious, mature thing because of the seriousness of its famous central metaphor. However, the thing is that as serious as the X-Men’s metaphor for bigotry and discrimination is, it’s also increasingly dated and very flawed. For example, the metaphor loses a bit of power when you consider that unchecked mutant powers are actually pretty dangerous. And the more you focus on that metaphor, the more the cracks in it start to show. So, the metaphor is always there in the comics, but there’s also a lot of cross-genre craziness and over the top soap opera melodrama to draw the eye and make sure you don’t inspect the metaphor too closely. What kind of craziness? Oh, all kinds. Evil mutant terrorist kinds like Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Ancient conqueror kinds like Apocalypse. Time travel kinds like Stryfe and Trevor Fitzroy. Technological kinds like the Sentinels (including Master Mold) and the Phalanx. Alien and interdimensional kinds like the Brood and Mojo. Magical kinds like the Juggernaut and Belasco. Heck, sometimes they just go to a place called The Savage Land and fight dinosaurs and jungle people. The X-Men probably have one of the most diverse galleries of rogues out there, surpassed maybe only by Superman. And Superman has a diverse collection of villains because he’s the prototype superhero and has a lot of prototype villains. (Note: I said “most diverse”, not “best”. I know many people will argue with me about how Batman, Flash or Spider-Man have better rogues galleries than Superman). The one place where the vaunted bigotry metaphor and this varied array of villainy come together is in how people react to the X-Men’s heroism. Basically, the X-Men are the heroes who will save the world everyday for a week before breakfast and will never receive the proper recognition for it. No one throws the X-Men a parade. Instead, they’re greeted with suspicion, contempt or worse.
Not to mention there are other themes that play into the X-Men. Like found family. For decades, the idea that a family doesn’t begin and end with blood or marriage and that a caring family unit can be built out of friends, classmates, teammates and other such people has been one of the defining themes of the X-Men. Ever notice how Joss Whedon includes found family as an element in so many of his shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and even the Avengers movies. It’s probably because he’s an X-Men fan going back all the way to the ‘80s. The movies did pretty much nothing with it.
|Back to the printed page.
But now the X-Men are back with Marvel. Though, I’m not entirely crazy about the circumstances. Disney buying 20th Century Fox is a little worrying. Big companies getting bigger can cause some serious problems. Not to mention the fact that I’m not crazy about the idea of Disney handing what’s left of Fox, which includes right-wing propaganda factory Fox News, billions of dollars. However, there’s little we can do but look on the bright side of things. So now, the X-Men can get a fresh start, which I am eager to see.
That’s about all I can say on this aspect of the X-Men. But I have to say, now that I’ve started, it’ll be really hard not to turn the next post into just a love letter to my favorite X-Men character of all time. Hmm . . .