On X-Men

My enjoyment of the X-Men dates all the way back to my childhood, when I watched the X-Men: The Animated Series on Fox Kids seen on Saturday mornings. It was one of my favorite shows that I looked forward to every week. How could you not totally love this series? I grew a real appreciation for the series, and essentially loved X-Men ever since. The allegories between them and the LGBT community resonate for me to this very day, as an important part of myself, expression, and what it means to be different.

According to The New York Times review:

Cyclops (James Marsden) unleashes bolts of energy from his eyes and has to wear shielding glasses to keep those rays in check. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is telepathic and telekinetic. Storm (Halle Berry) can control the weather, conjuring lightning bolts to do with as she will. The hotheaded, confrontational Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has superstrength, healing abilities that allow him to recover from almost any injury, and a metal alloy grafted onto his skeleton that gives him claws he can project from his knuckles. And Rogue (Anna Paquin) absorbs the essence of others, which makes her an energy vampire; she discovers her power when she steals her first kiss and almost kills the boy.

These are the X-Men, at least the ones that made it into Bryan Singer’s movie adaptation. It’s disheartening to see the X-Men depicted so earnestly here, given what they’ve been through — the cancellation of their comic book and their resurrection as the most popular characters in Marvel Comics history. Clumsy when it should be light on its feet, the movie takes itself even more seriously than the comic book and its fans do, which is a superheroic achievement.

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In the movie, as in the comics, mutants — Homo superior — are the next evolutionary stage for human beings, and they’re persecuted because (gasp) they’re different. The X-Men are mutants and misfits shepherded into altruism by the compassionate mutant Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has the ability to read minds and affect the thoughts of others. It’s a part Mr. Stewart was born to play: he has the vocal command to convince you that he knows what you’re thinking. (His name went out as perfect casting in Internet chat rooms as soon as talks about an X-Men movie materialized.)

Xavier’s nemesis is his former mutant friend, Magneto (Ian McKellen), whose roiling syllables make you want to see him square off against Mr. Stewart. Listening to them trill their vowels at each other is one of the movie’s few pleasures, since the parallels to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Xavier) and Malcolm X (Magneto) are made wincingly plain; Magneto promises to defeat his opponents ”by any means necessary.” Mr. Stewart and Mr. McKellen are a pair of austere hams, and their wrestling is the only consistently enjoyable note in the film. When they go golden throat to golden throat, it is like watching members of another species in action. Most of the other battles in ”X-Men,” fights between Xavier’s team and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, consist of stuntmen taking blows and being jerked across rooms the length of high-school cafeterias.

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When Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison, using a pinched voice) leads a charge against all mutants, he causes a boiling fury in Magneto, a Nazi concentration camp survivor. After the X-Men were created in 1963, almost 20 years passed before this aspect of Magneto’s character was written into the comics, and it makes sense to use it in the movie. His specific goal is revenge against anti-mutant bigots, which elevates Magneto above the routine motive of world domination. But his methods are so uncontrollable that they cause death.

Magneto’s forces include the mountainous Sabertooth (Tyler Mane, who brings his mast-size World Wrestling Federation persona to the role); the Toad (Ray Park), who leaps and unleashes a tongue several feet long, and the shape-shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). In the best piece of super model casting of all time, she is deep-sea-blue, with scales pasted onto her body; you can almost hear Dennis Rodman sighing in envy. She moves well, too.

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The movie does an extensive job of cramming in much of the mythology from the comics, loyal dollops of exposition that are both touching and ponderous, a setup to a sequel. The compassionate Xavier wants to reach an accord with both Magneto and the human race, with peaceful coexistence as his goal. At his private school, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (and before you giggle, that name is right out of the comics, too), where he houses and trains young mutants, there are cameos by X-Men like Bobby Drake, the Iceman. (When he speaks, wisps of frost emanate from his mouth.) When Wolverine comments on the black leather X-Men outfits, which look like something you would see on the counter staff at a bondage version of McDonald’s, Cyclops responds, ”What would you have us wear? Yellow spandex?” The line will get a laugh from comics fans, since the original X-Men and Wolverine costumes featured that fabric.

The filmmakers’ love for these characters and their histories is obvious, but it’s just as obvious that they doesn’t have any distance. There are elements that work on the page that just don’t lend themselves to film. The tortured, shy Cyclops is reduced to a decent-guy cipher in the movie, and he is made even more vague because his eyes are never visible; his suffering is clear to comics readers because of interior monologues provided via thought balloons. (Storm and Jean Grey are less defined.) That’s the kind of problem that devotion to the source material doesn’t help.

What happened to Mr. Singer, the director who massaged the parlor-trick malice of ”The Usual Suspects” into an event? His adaptation of Stephen King’s short story ”Apt Pupil” had a leaden quality not unlike that of ”X-Men.”

The two-fisted Wolverine, well played by Mr. Jackman, is perhaps the only other semi-rounded character who animates the picture besides Xavier and Magneto. He lives to fight, a boisterous tragic hero without complication. (Bits of his back- story, lifted from the ”Weapon X” comic series, are suggested here.)

Things have changed quite a bit since 1963, or 1975, the year Wolverine and Storm first showed up. These days, Magneto would probably turn up on ”The Howard Stern Show,” insulting dull, weak Homo sapiens. It might have been better to have the characters express themselves through action rather than having to explain themselves in the style of their comic book origins. The clear, bold strokes of comic books are what is needed.

The X-men comics’ creators, Stan Lee (who is also featured in a cameo) and Jack Kirby, had a genius for such touches. The ”X-Men” series was a precursor of the WB televison network; the comic book was one of the few popular venues in the 1960’s in which complex teenage characters were focal points instead of bland grown-up do-gooders like Superman, the world’s only well-adjusted split personality.

Perhaps that was the reason ”X-Men” comics struggled and failed initially; the world wasn’t ready for misunderstood young martyrs with special powers saving the world and living through unrequited flushes of love. The alternation of nonstop-action and lower-lip-chewing heartbreak — action melodrama — was what Mr. Lee pioneered in ”Spider-Man” and fried to a crispy crunch in ”X-Men.” (It may be what attracted one of the film’s co-producers, Lauren Shuler Donner, since her husband Richard’s ”Lethal Weapon” brought the same thing to the big screen.)

In 1963, when the threat of nuclear radiation was filling the screens of drive-in theaters with monsters from Japan and monsters in our own backyard, Marvel Comics came up with a benevolent spin and the X-Men were the result. To make it work as a film, someone needed to use the same brand of inventiveness. This movie is proof that imitation is the sincerest form of flattening.

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15 thoughts on “On X-Men

  1. I don’t agree with you that the movies were a poor adaptation. However, your writing made me WANT to agree with you. Just wanted to give you kudos for your exceptional persuasiveness.

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