The X-Men have always been different. They’ve never subscribed to the usual “bigger is better” scenario of most superheroes, either on the printed page or on the screen. The best X-Men stories involve outcasts, with characters that experience prejudice and how they respond to it. The Legacy Virus storyline, Days of Future Past, House of M, God Loves, Man Kills, Mutant Massacre: All heavyweights when it came to important life choices, acceptance, regret and sacrifice – these are bigger issues that some characters never experience, because whatever happens, they always win, they are always accepted, and will always be the hero. The X-Men have always, on the printed page, been a step ahead of the game.
Which is a shame when it comes to how they now appear at the cinema.
While the comics incarnation of the X-Men was designed to appeal to a younger audience, it was a younger audience of outsiders. The X-Men were distinctive, showing readers they didn’t have to be afraid of being left out in the cold, that being “part of the crowd” wasn’t all it was cracked up to, and it was more important to accept what you were and how you could use your talents for the benefit of all, rather than being sidelined by them.
The movie incarnation started much differently, with established actors, well known names, original stories – but crucially it retained the themes that had made the comics such a success. Anna Paquin’s Rogue is a girl unsure of herself, cast out because she nearly kills a boy when she tries to kiss him. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is even shunned by the very lowlifes he’s been rubbing shoulders with, when they find out he’s a mutant. Even Bruce Davison’s Senator Kelly plays a crucial part, with his outright hatred of mutants, just because they’re
different. His demise after being mutated himself, to the outright joy of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, shows that prejudice works of both sides. Crucially, the film also explores how people respond to prejudice – if anything the human race is cast as a secondary villain, openly questioning mutants’ place in the world – at times unjustly. Magneto responds with violence, determined to change mankind into that which they hate. He doesn’t want to kill them, he wants to make them like him and teach them that his way his right. Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier takes the opposite approach, encouraging his X-Men to help humanity rather than harm it, in an effort to gain acceptance through aid. That doesn’t happen though, and therein lies another one of the X-Men’s enduring themes: No matter how many times mutants save mankind, there’ll always be those who hate them – because they’re different.
X2 follows similar themes, while bringing about the inevitability of upping the action content to ensure it was ironically bigger and better than it’s predecessor. The film moves at a much faster pace, and incorporates lots of comic lore and background stories, but still retains some elements of the underlying themes of mutantkind from the first movie. Shaun Ashmore’s Bobby Drake sees his parents talk to him like a mother and father who have just found out their son is homosexual, and they’re still living in the 70’s. Aaron Stanford’s Pyro leaves the X-Men because he becomes resentful of how humans treat mutants.
X-Men: The Last Stand is nowhere near the level of it’s previous two installments (The “I’m the Juggernaut Bitch!” line perhaps the standout example), but even so, it’s adaptation of the Legacy Virus in the shape of a cure for the mutant gene again explores the divisions between those with abilities and those without. Some want to take the cure so they can be “normal”, others resent it because they consider themselves a higher form of evolution, and don’t want to be “reduced” to being human. Magneto’s response to Mystique losing her powers is to immediately exile her from his employ, highlighting his callousness and he being just as prejudiced as those he fights against.
Things though, are different now. While Bryan Singer is back at the creative helm of the franchise, it is very much changed. It now features fresh faced, fashionable young actors and actresses, with perfect hair, immaculate complexions and abilities that we’re told are “cool” and not necessarily curses. While they explore the themes we’ve highlighted above, they now come second to fashion, special effects, prominent positioning of the most marketable cast members and the desperate need to carve out a niche now Disney and Marvel have cornered the market in the traditional superhero movie.
2011’s First Class reboot served as exactly that – eschewing the old guard and imbuing the likes of Magneto, Charles Xavier and Mystique with fresh faces and a dynamic not yet seen – going down the prequel route could arguably be seen as the right move, especially as the older cast were now showing their age, and no amount of CGI could roll back the years indefinitely for the likes of Stewart and McKellen. Matthew Vaughn’s exploration of James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier trying to understand his role in the world and that of mutants like him serves it’s purpose, but the real star of the show is Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. This isn’t a man bent on reshaping humankind in his image, but a raw, primal version, determined to exact his revenge on those who persecuted him. On this occasion, that’s Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, and while he makes a charismatic, charming and powerful villain – he is another mutant. His desire is not to make mutants supreme, it’s to destroy the world, setting him aside no differently than hundreds of other maniacs who have been beaten by the hero in the final reel. There’s no greater themes at play here other than revenge and destruction on a mass scale – and any hint at the differences between mutant and human is quickly covered in Lawrence’s repetition of the line “Mutant and Proud”.
2014’s Days of Future Past, while taking the name of one of the classic stories, has very little to do with its source material. With the need to restore the franchise’s most marketable name to front and centre to counter the growing threat of Disney’s Marvel juggernaut (no pun intended), it became a vehicle for star power. Gone is the story centred around Kitty Pryde and the ambiguous ending, in comes a greater role for Jennifer Lawrence, no doubt in part to her higher profile in the real world, and a return for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. The story, ostensibly designed to resolve the outstanding plot threads (and inconsistencies) from the first trilogy, relegates the original cast to cannon fodder (with the exception of Jackman). The introduction of The Sentinels – the embodiment of mankind’s fear of mutants – is handled well, but they are a blunt instrument to the subtleties of the first set of films. There is no dichotomy here – Man hates mutants, creates weapon, mutants destroy weapon – sugar coated ending.
But that ending means little compared to what’s to come. X-Men: Apocalypse is expanding it’s younger roster, and recasting more parts from earlier movies. Susan Turner from Game of Thrones is now Jean Grey, played in the original movies by Famke Janssen. Halle Berry’s role as Storm is now taken by a mohawked Alexandra Shipp, while Nightcrawler, previously portrayed by Alan Cumming, is now Kodi Smit-McPhee. While the new influx are respected actors in their own right, they all seem to target a certain demographic. The Young Adult fiction market, now taking off in its own right and arguably the next seam to be mined by Hollywood after the comic book movie, is where X-Men movies are now targeted. The likes of the Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner are the film of choice for the audience 20th Century Fox wants to see it’s new X-Men movies. It’s less about the plot and more about the cast – why else would most of the trailer now show Mystique in her harder-to-maintain human form, that coincidentally looks just like Jennifer Lawrence, than her natural state, which was the case in First Class? Ultimately the movie will make more money with her name and face attached to it, and that of the late teen cast – but what of the issues that inspired the X-Men movies to transcend from script to screen in the first place?
Evolution, discrimination, and acceptance – key themes that have been explored in the books and in the original trilogy of movies, but something sadly lacking in these latest incarnations. Evolution became a natural part of the mutant gene process, with some accepting their role, and resenting mankind, others embracing it for their and humans’ good, and others who just wanted to be able to lead a straightforward life. Moving on to that next level of understanding, and evolving to accept mutantkind, is something that, in the movie world of the first trilogy could take years, but there was a sliver of hope, and parallels drawn with how mutants themselves had evolved. That acceptance, while never achieved in the comics, was also an underlying theme, as Charles Xavier strived for those he protected to be recognised for who they are, and for people to understand them not as a threat, but as an ally. Discrimination, with mutants treated the same way as different ethnicities, sexualities and genders, is something the X-Men accepted and dealt with, while Magneto’s Brotherhood railed against. It was an issue that would never go away, but one that each character experienced and lived with. Understand why people were afraid, and helping them in spite of that prejudice was, and is, the underlying theme of the X-Men, something that in a world of teen heartthrobs, perfect hair, and the need to carry on raking in cash, the modern X-Men movies seem to have forgotten.