What’s a Magneto?: What Comic Book Movies Can Still Learn from X-Men, the Genre’s Underrated Masterpiece

If you’ve stepped foot in a movie theater at any point within the last decade and a half, you can attest to the dominance of superhero film franchises that appear to stretch into infinity. And increasingly, the specifications for a comic book movie demands a scaffolding that supports a “shared universe,” loosely defined as a series of films that build on one another in a manner more sophisticated than a traditional series. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) provides the most popular example: franchises within franchises (Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, etc.) that crossover in event films (The Avengers) and casually (or not) set up characters that may or may not warrant their own series. Widely adored by fans, this method most accurately captures the feeling of replicating the experience of reading a comic book on the big screen in a style that stresses homogenous results. DC, long known as the company who almost exclusively makes movies with Batman and Superman, is in the process of developing their own cinematic universe with the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is set to feature the cinematic debuts of Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Aquaman.

Meanwhile, as the two publishing titans square off with one another for cultural supremacy, a far smaller but no less compelling battle is being waged for the soul of the X-Men franchise. Though the X-Men originated (and continue to live) within the pages of Marvel Comics, the cinematic rights reside with 20th Century Fox, far from the clutches of Disney (owners of Marvel and its respective studio). The lineage of X-Men films is nearly as convoluted as the property’s comic book history. What started out as a straight forward original trilogy (X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand[1]) morphed into a complex narrative web that includes a spinoff prequel (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), a prequel to the original trilogy (X-Men: First Class), a spinoff sequel to the original trilogy (The Wolverine), a sequel to both the original trilogy and First Class that marries the timelines into one (X-Men: Days of Future Past), a spinoff that ambiguously resides between the old and new timelines (Deadpool), and the upcoming sequel to Days of Future Past (X-Men: Apocalypse), along with God knows how many sequels, prequels, and spinoffs in the future. If you feel lost by the overwhelming complexity to these movies, you’re not alone: the series averages about twelfth place at the box office within each film’s given year of release.[2] In other words, the X-Men franchise is a consistent, moderately successful moneymaker that fails to reach the heights of its spandex contemporaries, an ironic distinction when one considers how it was this very line of films that helped pave the way for the glut of superhero movies.

But the property has hardly ever been an easy sell. While most comic book stories are content to get by on easily digestible lessons like “with great power comes great responsibility” and “truth, justice, and the American way,” the X-Men elevated themes such as racism, homophobia, and tolerance from subtext to text. Professor X and Magneto’s arguments for survival in a hostile environment sound awfully familiar to those from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Certainly, time travel, aliens, and melodrama drive the narratives into more traditional genre territories but the insistence of the property to tackle real world problems is built into its very premise, making for one of the few comic book stories as accessible to serious academics as it is anxious ten year olds. In the cinematic realm, no film waves the comic book’s flag so adeptly as its original entry, X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer, the 2000 release (along with 2002’s Spider-Man) gave the genre new juice after a decade of tepid attempts that seemed to take the medium only so seriously. Visual effects had reached a point where nearly anything from the mind’s eye could now be rendered, making the superhero film the ideal example for a new age in blockbuster filmmaking.

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Even over fifteen years later, X-Men continues to stand as an artistic watermark that both its sequels and the larger genre marketplace have routinely failed to live up to. Progressively, the franchise seems obsessed with constructing elaborate action set pieces and further complicating a continuity that skirts the edges of outright collapse. You could say this is an attempt to make a larger splash in a market that prizes shared universes and interconnected narratives but you would only be half right. As I mentioned earlier, longtime fans of the comic book know that half-baked revamps, confusing timelines, and ever shifting loyalties often border on the incomprehensible. However, if one looks at a given story in its own context rather than how it relates to the larger continuum, the joys and lessons of the stories can surprise even the most casual of fans.

“But Kyle,” you may be asking, “What is it about X-Men that makes it so special?” For one, the movie’s narrative and stylistic devices resemble a stripped down, moody thriller that happens to include super powered mutants as a supplement rather than as a selling point. An early scene features Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) explaining to Congress that mutants are the results of accelerated genetic mutations that grant them powers that give them equal capacity for good and evil, leaving many mutants and humans alike confused about how to relate to one another. This paranoid, sci-fi setup feels ripped right out of a Michael Crichton novel. Beyond just the story, the aesthetics themselves build a world not to dissimilar from our own. Singer and his director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel shoot the film with a muted color palette that stands in stark contrast to the visual extravagance of the comics. The costume design works in accordance with those visual choices, dressing our heroes and even our villains in a streamlined, practical way that doesn’t draw too much attention to their dress, even leaving Cyclops (James Marsden) the chance to make a joke at the expense of yellow spandex.

No scene embodies the totality of this approach more than the meeting between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in a Canadian bar. A TV plays in the background delivering further exposition to the audience about the debates being held around the “mutant phenomena” while our two leads stare at one another with a dose of suspicion. Their uncertain glances are interrupted by a belligerent patron who previously lost to Wolverine in a caged fighting contest just moments earlier, with the angry guy whispering that he “knows what [he] is.” When the man goes for a knife, Wolverine reacts quickly by dispatching his claws, which are shot close-up in a manner that draws attention to their alien/foreign nature. He follows that up by cutting in half the shotgun pulled on him by the bartender (who calls him a “freak”), leaving everyone in the room (including Rogue) frozen in their tracks. This isn’t a universe where Superman cheerily saves a cat from a tree or Batman stylishly fights through the streets of Gotham City. The world of X-Men is one of intense discomfort that just as often makes scared humans the antagonists as it does mustache twirling rogues.

Rogue eventually hitches a ride with Wolverine and the two strike up an improbable bond that anchors the movie. Both outsiders, the pair are perplexed by Professor X and his “school for gifted youngsters.” Rogue is eager to ingratiate herself into a place where others her age are coming to terms with themselves and their fellow mutants. Wolverine, meanwhile, finds the tolerant attitude highly suspicious, as the drifter’s own backstory flashes at shadowy institutions that manipulated his abilities for their own ends. Later, Rogue is hoodwinked by Mystique (Rebecca Romijin) under the guise of classmate Bobby to leave the mansion, telling the girl that her presence is unwanted. Wolverine plays the unlikely role of father figure by encouraging her to come back and “give these geeks one more shot.” We get impressions, some detailed and others faint, of the other X-Men but this is unambiguously the story of Rogue and Wolverine. The two learn that a whole community exists that looks to enrich them instead of enslaving them. At the film’s conclusion, Rogue decides to continue her education there while Wolverine amicably departs in an effort to gain answers about his past.[3]

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While the two have found a source for diminishing their torturous pasts, their pain is depicted as a permanent wound that can never fully be reconciled. In turn, the defining theme of the film is that of trauma. The opening scene transports us back to “Poland 1944,” where a young Magneto is being ripped apart from his family in a concentration camp. In a desperate expression of sorrow and anger, the future villain bends the metal gates. Apart from delivering a stylish, memorable opening, this look into Magneto’s past undoubtedly informs his feelings on the danger humanity poses towards itself and mutantkind. The very next scene shows a visually brighter but still emotionally devastating segment in “Meridian, Mississippi: The Not Too Distant Future” where Rogue inadvertently cripples her boyfriend simply by kissing him. Back to back, this pair of scenes shows mutants as both the oppressed and the unintentional aggressors. Furthermore, the distinction between these two scenes as past and near future represents an ever present trauma that defies anything short of nuanced solutions. The whole idea that a school must exist to educate, develop, and nurture young mutants further draws a line in the sand to the dangers humanity poses against them and the incalculable power they raise towards it. Even Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), a vocal opponent of mutants, is subjected to a machine made by Magneto that artificially induces mutation. Over time, his body falls apart and dissolves into water, killing him.[4] All of this is to say that physical and mental transformations routinely inflict irreparable damage that can only be remedied by peace, if there’s even enough time to secure it.

Pointing out X-Men’s adoption of succinct narrative and stylistic traits, careful attention to character arcs, and strong thematic content may seem like the basic building blocks for good storytelling but these elementary details are being continually left out of the vast majority of superhero movies. Today, X-Men plays like a signature story that puts its ideas and characters at the forefront instead of laying track for the inevitable franchise that will follow behind it. There’s no problem with franchises that have dozens of entries as long as the early films don’t feel like expositional slogs that may or may not pay off three movies later. Perhaps X-Men had the virtue of striking its own path in an era when concerns over shared universes were nonexistent. Even so, the franchise that helped kick start the modern superhero craze looks increasingly afraid of sticking out. Deadpool, the series’ latest release, jettisoned the team and its weighty themes entirely in favor of a slapdash plot only there to mildly support bad jokes aimed at immature fifteen year olds. Apocalypse looks like an appropriately rousing summer blockbuster that offers little new in a post-Avengers world. I know I’m not the only fan of these characters who is beginning to feel the dreaded effects of “superhero fatigue.” It seems natural that the franchise that started us off on this ride be the one to pump the brakes before the machine goes tumbling aimlessly off the cliff. For these and all other superheroes to remain relevant, caution must be exercised that stresses singularity over conformity. It seems like a message that Professor X would be proud to embrace.

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[1] Kind of a funny title, as this was hardly the last stand.

[2] I’m excluding Deadpool from this average since it’s still in theaters and is quickly raking in returns at pace that far exceed previous efforts from the franchise.

[3] But c’mon, we all know he’s coming back.

[4] As a kid, I found this scene absolutely horrifying and it still plays as disturbing all these year later. Very Cronenbergian.

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