Mutant Cinema: The Rise of the X-Films

It seems like an eternity since Hugh Jackman and company hit the big screen in the first live-action X-Men movie. After the critical trouncing of the third film in the series, 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand," the franchise looked doomed -- especially after Twentieth Century-Fox declared its intention to focus on Magneto and Wolverine spin-off films instead of continuing with the series they'd begun back in 2000.

But with the astronomical "Dark Knight" box office numbers, along with positive buzz from the first "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" trailer (and word of expensive reshoots to give that movie a more lethal edge), interest in the X-Men film franchise -- its past and its future -- has started to reemerge.

For "Variety" writer Tom McLean, the X-Men films have always been a topic worthy of attention, and the February edition of Diamond's "Previews" brings his Sequart book, "Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen," to the direct market.

Offering a critical look at the relationship between the movies and the X-Men comics that inspired them, McLean traces the development of various X-Men film projects over the past few decades and provides a Hollywood-insider's look at what went on behind the scenes to make Professor Xavier's dream become cinematic reality.

CBR News talked with McLean about the X-Men, his book, and whether or not the third X-Men film really deserves such a bad rap.

CBR: Most comic fans think they're practically experts on the X-Men films. They know with certainty, for example, that the second one is the best, and the third one is absolutely awful. What can "Mutant Cinema" tell them that they might not already know?

Tom McLean: There are a lot of things fans may not know. What makes the X-Men films landmarks of the genre is the faithfulness with which the comics were brought to the screen. This has been proven to be the right approach to making comic book movies, as proven by both the successes and failures in the genre ever since.

But "X-Men" managed to disprove the idea that superhero comics, with their vast cast of characters and interminable continuity, could never be made into movies that would appeal to the general public. That process was not easy, especially given the anemic $75 million budget the first film had. So it's useful to break down the process and examine how these films turned the vast, sprawling X-Men universe into successful films -- which elements worked exactly as they appeared in the comics and which had to be tweaked, altered, merged, or dropped entirely.

And that's exactly what "Mutant Cinema" does, making it fun for both fans of the comics and people interested in the mysterious ways of Hollywood in general (and the making of superhero movies in particular).

Is the third film really all that bad, in your opinion?

"X-Men: The Last Stand" is almost universally reviled as the worst of the X-Men films, and while I agree that it didn't live up to the standard set by "X2," I think many fans mistakenly blame director Brett Ratner, or Bryan Singer for leaving the franchise, or the writers and actors. The truth is the film was made under the most difficult of circumstances, which were dictated by the studio's need to get the film out for a predetermined release date. That film was made in almost exactly one year from start to finish and everyone who worked on it -- from Ratner to the makeup crew to the visual effects houses -- really busted their butts to get the movie done.

The result was a film that half worked -- the cure plot works very well, especially in letting the characters cut loose in the Alcatraz showdown with an energy that succeeded in a way that Singer's more restrained action sequences did not. The Dark Phoenix plot, on the other hand, just stops half way through the film and, despite the great scene between Jean and Xavier, never gets going again and limps to a finish that falls way short of the comic book version.

Understanding all the ways the comics and movies connect offers fans a new perspective on the material from both media, which is what I hope "Mutant Cinema" does. In short, the third X-Men movie isn't as good as "X2," but it is better than a lot of people are willing to give it credit for. Given how "Superman Returns" turned out, I think it's a mistake for folks to think that Singer would have done any better with a third X-Men film.

Besides the way the X-films broke new ground, what attracted you to them as a subject of critical study?

I've always been an X-Men fan and collector. The X-Men got me addicted to comics and kept me reading them when I otherwise might have given up on them. "X-Men" was a comic that took itself and its stories seriously -- and it delivered far more than it failed. I had the luck of a Hollywood connection that got me a copy of the script to the first X-Men movie a full year before it came out. I was quite impressed and became something of an early advocate for the film around the offices of "Variety," where I got a job in the fall of 1999. I had interviewed a number of folks involved in the making of the films over the years, which gave me the confidence to propose the book to Sequart at the first New York Comic Con. Julian Darius and Mike Phillips, who run the group, were instantly receptive to the idea. The deal was essentially made on the spot, and it's been a great experience getting the book written, edited and now out to fans to read, enjoy, and debate.

"Mutant Cinema" explores some of the other false starts and X-Men forays in other media. What can you tell us about some of those?

Attempts to make X-Men into a movie and into a cartoon extend all the way back to the early 1980s, when the comic was really hitting its stride and soared to the top of the sales charts. Animators at Marvel Productions practically turned the TV cartoon "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends" into an ongoing pilot for the X-Men, given the number of episodes that referenced or featured mutant characters. But the X-Men were a tough sell in those days, and even a beautiful animation pilot made in 1988 failed to get a green light. The 1990s cartoon was the real breakthrough and, as I said, proved in its own way that the concept could appeal to a mass audience.

On the live-action side, the earliest attempt was made by producer Michael Hirsch, who was associated with Canadian animation studio Nelvana. He hired comics writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway to write a script, which bore little resemblance to the comics but still featured many of the more popular characters, including Wolverine and Kitty Pryde. Interest waned through the 1980s and picked up again in the early 1990s, when James Cameron showed some interest in the property before moving on to his famous Spider-Man "scriptment" and "Titanic." Lauren Shuler Donner picked it up next, and had several scripts written, including one by Andrew Kevin Walker of "Se7en" fame. His script featured the original X-Men and Wolverine fighting Magneto and the Brotherhood, and had some interesting parallels to the films that were made and a few of the later comics stories. Everything changed, though, when Bryan Singer and his producing partner, Tom DeSanto, signed on to the project in late 1996.

Looking at how everything turned out, and the fan and general audience reactions to the movies, what do you think is the biggest misconception about the X-Men film series?

There are a lot of misconceptions, but I think the most significant is a misunderstanding of the broad appeal of the X-Men movies. The first film was truly one of the most underestimated films in recent times. Everyone in Hollywood who didn't know the comics -- namely, most people -- were absolutely blown away by the success of the first film. Similarly, the films are one of the few franchises in which each successive film grossed more than the one before it. "X-Men: The Last Stand," for all its flaws and all the scorn heaped upon it, was the highest grossing film in the trilogy.

Is there something inherently different about the way the X-Men films intersect with the X-Men comics? What's the relationship between the two different strands of X-Men narrative? (Or three narrative strands, if you count the animated series?)

There definitely was something different about the films when they started, in that the movies managed to replicate the themes, characters, and experience of reading the comics so well. They did that by being faithful to the comics and the characters, and in the process showed how other comic book adaptations could work. The movie and comic narratives are separate -- the sequences of events and continuities don't match up well on the surface -- but nonetheless manage to convey the same message while keeping the portrayal of the characters remarkably consistent.

The animated series deserves more credit for introducing an entire generation of fans to the X-Men. It's closer to the comics than the movies were, but the way the cartoon maintained the complexities of the comic book was almost like a pilot program that proved to Fox (and to Singer) that a faithful adaptation of the X-Men could work for a general audience.

What do you think is the core concept -- the soul -- of the X-Men? Do you think all three films captured that?

I think the core concept is people wanting to be treated for the way they choose to behave rather than how they were born or labeled. So, yes, I think all three films captured that concept, though each did so in different ways -- another key to their success. The first film was the most intimate, with both Rogue and Logan leaving behind lives of fear and hiding to finding a place and purpose with the X-Men.

"X2" was about learning to use that alliance to fight for the greater good -- no matter the individual cost, as exemplified by Logan abandoning the chance to learn his past from Stryker. The third film saw the mutants challenged internally, as the cure forced them to decide if the struggle was worth the cost when it could be just left behind, while Jean faced her own internal demons and showed the dark potential of great power.

These are universal themes that have been honed to a fine point by years of X-Men comics. The success of the films comes from their recognition of the comics success, of what makes them work, and that's what makes "Mutant Cinema" a must-read for fans of the movies and the comics who want to better understand what makes both sides of the X-Men franchise coin work so well.

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