Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wednesday Comics: The Importance of the X-Men Movies

A few weeks ago I did my top 10 comic book movies of all time.  My good friend Rick O. pointed out that none of the X-Men movies were on the list.  This surprised him since they had come onto the silver screen with such critical and commercial success.

I explained that while they did not make into the top ten, they were important, nevertheless.

To understand, we have to go back and look at comic book movies and tv shows up until that point.  By the late '80's comic books had found a maturity of story telling that was unprecedented with books like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Batman: Year One, and others.  But in most pop culture, comic book characters meant images of paunchy Adam West in a batsuit or cheesy George Reeves reruns.  Even the amazing Superman portrayed by Christopher Reeve had devolved into Richard Pryor vehicles and poisonous atomic fingernails.

Tim Burton, however, made Batman wildly successful by bringing a much darker tone to him than people had been used to on screen.  Some would say that he too Batman more seriously, but they would be incorrect.  His Batman is darker, grittier, more twisted, more dramatic than before, but it was not serious.  The world was still dreamlike.  The landscapes and costumes even of the everyday characters felt artificial.  And the over-the-top antics of the Joker left us more entertained, than menaced.  I don't mean to say that the movie is bad, just that it is not serious.

And you can track it quick de-evolution with the nonsense with the Penguin in Batman Returns, riding on rubber duck mobile, or his army of missile-carrying birds.  The movie was still dark and violent, but was so very little grounded in any emotional reality.  The darkness was lifted and replaced with pure camp in the following two Batman films.  The last in the series, Batman and Robin, not only killed the franchise, but it nearly killed comic book movies in general. 

There were several comic book properties in development including a Superman film, that got shelved because of the bomb that was Batman and Robin.  Hollywood did not want to touch comic book properties, thinking they were toxic.  Of course, they didn't see that the properties were good, it was Hollywood that messed it up.  On the short run tv show, The Flash, the pilot episode was amazingly good, and gritty, and emotionally real.  But the series quickly devolved into cheesy gimmicks.  The conclusion: people must not like super heroes.

This reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons where Krusty the Klown plays King Lear on stage (check the link here).  He doesn't learn any of his lines so he improvs a bunch of horrible jokes.  The crowd starts booing and he says, "Whoa, tough crowd.  They're booing Shakespeare!"

But the problem with the comic book movies wasn't the comics, it was the horrible adaptations.

Enter Bryan Singer and his X-Men.  There are a lot of things that are rough about his first foray into comics.  But he did something that made his movie feel like a breath of fresh air:

1.  He understood the difference between comics and movies.
Some things don't translate well onto screen that look fine on the page.  For example, he got rid of all the yellow spandex in favor of the more camera-friendly Matrix-y leather suites.  

2.  He grounded the movie in real character conflict.  
Opening the movie in a concentration camp makes you understand Magneto in a way that is more profound than we had ever seen before in a comic book film.  And even though we understand him, he know he does evil.

3.  He made the movie about something.
The ideologies of Xavier and Magneto are parallels to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  He raises the very serious question of how best to stand against unfair discrimination: to fight or to return hate with love?

4.  He let great actors do their thing.
Batman and Robin had some very talented actors on their cast.  But Joel Schumacher the director coaxed some truly horrible performances out of them, probably the worst of their career.  Singer hired actors of incredible talent and let them use their full range of skills to make the characters very real to us and tangible.  This is a tradition the series has continued, where at 7 of them have been nominated for Oscars (3 have won).

The four things together show that Singer took the story seriously.  He also proved this by taking his concept directly to the fans at ComicCon.  The success of the movie made studios take ComicCon seriously, which is why it is so bloated with franchise panels.

But because Singer to the universe seriously and did it successfully, others were able to follow his path.  I maintain that we would never have gotten The Dark Knight, Iron Man, or Man of Steel without the pioneering work that Singer did. Like all trailblazers, he had no real guide map, so mistakes were made, but he and others learned from those mistakes and the movies are better for it.

And for that reason, the X-Men films are important to comic book culture.

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