Saturday, June 4, 2011

How many X-Men movies do they think we want?


I don't know about you, but the X-Men were not considered to be first-tier superheroes when I was growing up.

There were a lot of superheroes I heard about, from Superman to Batman to Spider-Man to Wonder Woman to Aquaman to Captain America to Green Lantern to the Incredible Hulk, but it wasn't until much later that I heard about the X-Men. This is just my own personal experience, but I'm sure some of you had the same one.

Yet as a movie franchise, X-Men seems determined to outpace all of these. I mean, classics like Aquaman and Wonder Woman are permanently mired in development hell, with an Aquaman movie likely being set back by the existence of a parody version on Entourage, and Wonder Woman receiving its latest blow when NBC refused to pick up the pilot for its fall TV schedule -- even though the blogosphere had been alive with chatter about the woman picked to play the lead (Adrianne Palicki) and what her costume would look like. Movies of Green Lantern and Captain America are only just now coming out this summer. (Notice I'm conveniently ignoring the crappy Captain America movie that came out in 1990).

But with today's release of X-Men: First Class, the X-Men will trail only Batman in terms of modern-day movie incarnations. That's right, this is the fifth X-Men movie, meaning it's tied with Superman (four with Christopher Reeve, one with Brandon Routh, with another due out next year), two ahead of Spider-Man (with another due out next year) and three ahead of the Hulk (one with Eric Bana, one with Edward Norton, and none more on the horizon, I hope). (Notice I'm conveniently ignoring all the incarnations of Superman that came before my own lifetime.)

So it makes me wonder: How many X-Men movies do they think we want?

I have to pause here to acknowledge the reality that nothing gets made in Hollywood unless there is a perceived demand for it. Obviously, if we keep watching X-Men movies, they'll keep making them. Even the last X-Men movie, 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was critically panned, grossed $180 million in the U.S. That translates to the studios as "Yes, we want more X-Men movies." And after the predicted big opening weekend for X-Men: First Class, the verdict will seem even louder.

But where does it end? There have been five movies, and I see no reason why there won't be five more. If a hot young cast featuring Michael Fassbender, James MacAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence is a hit, as expected, they should be good for at least another two or three films. And don't forget that they're still working on a sequel to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, called The Wolverine, even though Darren Aronofsky is no longer associated with the project. Other films that may or may not be in the works, according to wikipedia, include a Magneto origins story, a Deadpool origins story (who the heck is Deadpool? I can't even remember) and a fourth installment of the original X-Men timeline, which last left off with 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand.

Whew.

I mean in one sense, the reasons for this are obvious. With most of the other comic book heroes mentioned above, there's just one protagonist, or in the case of Batman, 1 and 1A (don't forget Robin, though Christopher Nolan obviously has). With the X-Men, there are a huge number of characters that you can keep developing and spinning off. They may not all be interesting enough to support their own origins stories, but some of them are, and the rest can be lumped together in a variety of sequels and prequels. There's no shortage of ways for the X-Men to continue breeding like a virus, as long as the box office dollars keep coming in.

But at what point do we have to be saved from ourselves? At what point does simple decorum suggest that the X-Men need to be packed away for a decade and rebooted sometime in the 2020s?

As with many commerce vs. art discussions, it all comes down to box office. I mean, the only reason they stopped making Saw movies (for now) was that those movies began making demonstrably less money. If X-Men: First Class clears $200 million in the U.S., which it seems certain to do, there's not going to be any financially demonstrable decrease in our desires -- not anytime soon, at least.

So, we do want this, apparently.

I just hope this movie is good. We'll worry about the others later.

11 comments:

Travis McClain said...

I'm a James Bond fan, so the idea of a handful of movies being "enough" makes no sense to me. There have been 22 official Bond movies (plus two more, 1967's Casino Royale and 1983's Never Say Never Again). The first Bond movie not to star Sean Connery, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, was a financial disappointment, but is generally held in very high regard by fans today. What if they'd freaked out and given up on the series then?

Or consider when 1979's Moonraker made more money than any other Bond movie, but fans said it had gone too far (it puts 007 in a laser fight in outer space). The reaction? The next film in the series, 1981's For Your Eyes Only got back to a grounded, lethal Bond and it's one of the finest in the series.

My point is that there's no reason that one bad movie--be it a box office disappointment or fan reaction--should be taken as evidence that a series has overstayed its welcome. That's nonsense. Bond has proven that the key is to learn from the performance of each film and incorporate those lessons into the next entry.

As for the X-Men, they're a perfect property to adapt for films today for two reasons. Firstly, CGI and other developments in film-making have reached a point that allow for the fantastic elements of the X-Men mutant powers to be realized in a convincing manner.

Much more importantly, though, the essence of the X-Men has always been about minority rights. Forget about healing factors and telekinetic powers; the real story of the X-Men is one of a persecuted minority group misunderstood, feared and hated by the majority. Whether this is an allegory for a specific ethnic group, the LGBT community, a religious sect or some other group doesn't matter nearly as much as the ability for an audience to identify with the simple message of the X-Men:

"We will not run and hide just for being who we are."

That's why X-Men is a perfect property for film stories today, and why they will continue to be viable for years to come. And it's worth noting that this social element was present from the very first issue in 1963. Minority rights were ingrained in the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby from the very beginning, so there's no use in anyone whining that recent stories have co-opted a superficial comic superhero group and grafted a liberal social agenda onto them. It was always part of the X-Men.

The philosophical differences between Professor X and Magneto very much reflected the differences between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X; non-violent civil protest versus a more militant approach. These are not trivial concepts, no matter how silly the costumes of the characters may be or how easy it is to be distracted by all the various powers displayed. X-Men addresses some very important social topics, and as long as the films make an effort to use these characters to explore those kinds of stories, there's no reason that there should be "enough" X-Men movies any time soon.

Vancetastic said...

Travis,

Thanks for the really insightful and thoughtful comment. You are of course correct about the social history of the series and the intentions of its creators. I chose to ignore this in favor of an intentionally superficial approach to the topic, that dealt more with the general idea of series overstaying their welcome -- which you also successfully debunked with your James Bond example. Hey, what can I say, sometimes I only have the time to attack things on a surface level, intended as sort-of humor. One thing I hadn't considered, and I think is absolutely on the mark, is the parallels with King and Malcolm X. (Ironic that it's Professor X playing the King role rather than the Malcolm X role, given the similarity in their names.) Thanks for that.

However, I do think it's unwise to imply that either Marvel or 20th Century Fox cares as much about the minority rights issues as either Stan Lee or Jack Kirby did, and that this is at all a motivation in them continuing to make these movies. Fox would not make these movies if they didn't make money. I think it's better to say that the message is an added benefit beyond all the money they're making, and I think it's realistic to say that most moviegoers don't take away a greater appreciation for the differences among people after seeing an X-Men movie.

Vancetastic said...

Oh, and yeah, I don't really think the success or failure of Wolverine relates to how many more movies they should make. I guess I tend to think there's a certain number of movies that are appropriate for a series to have before it potentially becomes a mockery of itself through excess. Your James Bond example is again convincing evidence to the contrary -- but then again, James Bond is an absolutely unique example in film history, and it's not a model most other series can (or should) try to duplicate.

Travis McClain said...

I know I'm in the minority, but of the first three X-Men movies, my favorite was actually The Last Stand, which I felt did a really good job of balancing spectacle with social message. The pace was quick, which sacrificed dwelling on certain plot points and showing characters ruminating, but I thought for a third film it was acceptable. This wasn't an origin story; by now we knew who these characters were, and I thought it was fine to just get on with it.

Yet, the premise--that there may be a "cure" for mutation--was very topical. No one made a flag-waving effort to say, "These are the same arguments being thrown around about the church-sponsored 'gay camps'," but I suspect that few who saw the film didn't make the connection on some level.

As for how invested the companies are in the social messages, I think that, too, is a non-issue. That's the nature of all commercial art: being profitable is the number one priority of all comics and films. That's a given. But that does not mean that the writers who take on those properties and become custodians of those characters are merely sneaking in a social message.

Anyone who would even want to work on an X-Men movie is almost guaranteed to be interested in the property on some level, and it's unavoidable that those writers would see the value in the minority rights aspect. It's not a latent story element; it's been front-and-center for 48 years. Even if the writer(s) makes no effort to make a specific allegory apparent, just by telling a story of a minority group being persecuted, they've created a social message story to be interpreted by its audience.

Some of the most revered works of art have not been tied to a specific event, but rather a larger theme, that can be re-interpreted by subsequent generations. In that context, then, no X-Men movie needs to explicitly connect to a specific minority group. Just being one is sufficient, and it allows the audience--regardless of what their particular affiliations and sentiments may be--to identify with the story at hand.

All that said, one thing that I think is necessary for the film-makers to bear in mind is how important is it that the films never reach the level of self-reference that has plagued the comics for much of the last 30 years. X-Men continuity could be taught as a graduate level college course, it's so convoluted and predicated on X-Men as X-Men, rather than X-Men as a storytelling device for exploring social issues.

So long as they keep the storytelling focused on a group of characters marginalized and threatened by the public, and illustrate the division between mutants about how to respond to that sentiment, they'll do fine. But if they ever introduce time-traveling alternate realities, they're doomed.

Vancetastic said...

Excellent points all, Travis. I can't disagree with any of them.

However, I do think there's a point where the X-Men series could start to climb up its own asshole, and that's when it gets too far removed from its original characters and storylines. I think the future X-Men project I have the most difficulty with is the Deadpool origins story. Deadpool was not even a character who appeared in any of the first three X-Men films. It seems at that point like it might spiral off into total geekery with very narrow appeal, and become more like a one-off superhero movie.

I don't have the same depth of knowledge of X-Men that you do, so how crucial is this character to the original X-Men mythology?

I think another thing that I'm only slowly accepting is that the traditional trilogy model for movie franchises is less and less relevant these days. There's no longer a stigma attached to going to a fourth movie or a fifth movie, and even less so if they shrewdly start dropping the sequel numbers from the titles, as most franchises have started doing. (Not Mission: Impossible IV, but Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol).

Another thing I'll say is that they certainly picked the right director to keep me interested. Especially after Kick-Ass last year, I've got my eye on Matthew Vaughn.

Travis McClain said...

The funny part is, I've only read a handful of X-Men comics in my life! (I'm a DC guy.) I've absorbed most of my knowledge of these characters through the mere participation in geek culture, and from hearing about their stories from a friend who has been a lifelong fan.

In fact, one of his favorite comic series was Deadpool, and the appeal for him was largely that it was, in fact, detached from the X-Men stories at large. I have no idea how the forthcoming movie will play out, but if they stick to the tone of the comic that made the character such a hit, imagine something like The Professional by way of Judd Apatow. Deadpool is a wisecracking assassin, and while there's not much in the way of pertinent social commentary, it could be a lot of fun.

As for the concept of Series Fatigue, I've often wondered about that. I mean, go back and look at the Universal Monsters movies of the 30s and 40s. There were, I think, something like a dozen movies featuring Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. The idea of Hollywood driving a series into the ground is not as new as we've allowed ourselves to believe.

No, the problem isn't that they keep going back to the well. The problem is that studios often don't support sequels in production, relying on the goodwill of the series to ensure box office performance.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier could have been a terrific Star Trek feature. The story is something very much in keeping with the original series, the characters are well written and by all accounts even those who hated William Shatner give him credit for being a very helpful and cooperative director. What hurt the film was that Paramount gave him a far lower budget than previous Star Trek features. Plans to cast Sean Connery fell apart and they settled for Lawrence Luckenbill (who, I feel, was fine as Sybok, but obviously isn't Sean f'n Connery). The special effects were abysmal, even for 1989, and there's only one reason: Paramount got cheap.

The funny part is, the previous Star Trek film, The Voyage Home was the most successful in the entire series. And remember, The Final Frontier came out just as Star Trek: The Next Generation was nearing the end of its second season on TV. All indications were that the public would line up for another Star Trek movie, and Paramount unwisely felt that meant the film would succeed without much support from them.

As long as studios continue to misinterpret success of a series as evidence they can afford to take the audience for granted, then yes, sequels will continue to be seen as shameless cash cows. But they don't have to be that way.

Monty Burns said...

Saw the movie. It was pretty solid. McAvoy and Fassbender are likable and captivating actors, and carry it well as leads. Jennifer Lawrence does not impress the way she did in Winters Bone, but she is okay. January Jones craps out the worst performance since Denise Richards played a nuclear physicist in that Bond movie. Some of the origins here were cool, many of the characters were new to me (not a comic reader). A couple of the 'new' (old) characters were bad to terrible to laughable. Overall , a solid action/hero movie, and setting it during the cuban missile crisis was interesting. I can easily see the two leads carrying 2 more of these movies.

Vancetastic said...

Monty,

That's good to hear. If I'd gone to the movies this weekend I probably would have seen it. I'm not surprised about January Jones -- after I saw her host possibly the worst Saturday Night Live of all time, I was convinced she is no kind of actor.

Travis,

And since James Bond has already been discussed in this comment thread, I'm curious of your opinion here: The World is Not Enough (where Richards plays the nuclear physicist), worst Bond movie of all time?

Travis McClain said...

Nah. I like The World Is Not Enough. Richards is laughable, but Sophie Marceau rocks my socks off and I think it may have been Brosnan's finest performance as Bond. He seemed much more confident there than in the other three.

According to Flickchart (http://www.flickchart.com/Charts.aspx?franchise=17&user=minlshaw), my least favorite Bond movie is the 1967 Casino Royale, but if you exclude that then I'd answer with Moonraker of the official Bond movies.

Vancetastic said...

Interesting answer. I'm surprised because I personally really liked both Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies (my favorite Brosnan Bond movie). Then again, my feelings toward Bond films are probably pretty unusual. I'm not a particular fan of the new Casino Royale, and have seen only two Connery Bond movies (I know, I hang my head in shame), one of which was Never Say Never Again, which I hated. My favorite Bond movie is Octopussy, but the main reason for that is that I had it recorded off cable on VHS when I was growing up, and watched it probably ten times.

Travis McClain said...

GoldenEye was the first new Bond movie I saw; I was fairly oblivious to the series until after 1989's Licence to Kill.

I was initially underwhelmed by Tomorrow Never Dies but after living through the last decade and seeing the influence that Roger Ailes has had via Fox News I've come to see Brosnan's second 007 outing as somewhat prescient. I still feel like it's a pair of movies; one movie dealing with Bond and Paris and the other with Bond and Wai Lin, but I've really come around on it over the years.

As for Never Say Never Again, I didn't care much for it at first but now--particularly after having read Ian Fleming's novel--I hold it in higher regard. The video game sequence still falls short for me, and I don't particularly care for most of Michel LeGrand's score, but Klaus Maria Brandauer was terrific as Largo, and while I'd have preferred a more "exotic" actress than Kim Basinger, I like her in the film, too.

After Goldfinger, Connery's performance became rather detached, I felt--particularly in Thunderball where the stakes were the highest they'd been yet in the series, but Connery's Bond seems alternately arrogant and lazy about saving the world, as though he's aware that he's going to prevail in the end. In Never Say Never Again, though, he plays it as an experienced agent where the arrogance of before comes across as reassured confidence borne of experience, and there's a sense that this time, he's a Bond who realizes he may not carry the day. For my money, it's one of the more nuanced and interesting performances in any of the Bond movies.

This does bring me to a contextual point I should have already made, though, and that's that I am a dedicated fan of Ian Fleming's original novels. Fans who have actually bothered to read Fleming will tell you there is a marked difference between Literary Bond and Cinematic Bond, and I personally prefer the former. This colors my perception of the films. I prefer my Bond to carry a constant sense of doubt and disdain for his work.

Cinematic Bond--particularly during the Roger Moore era--has, instead, been much like a magician capable of responding to any heckler by pulling a dove from his sleeve. Cinematic Bond is too often unflappable, taking for granted that he'll win and any momentary loss is little more than a nuisance on the path to guaranteed victory.

I love the movies in general, but I much prefer the outings that allow for a Bond more in keeping with what Fleming wrote. For instance, I think Timothy Dalton may have been the finest 007 we've had so far. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the best in the entire series--and I believe one could argue it may be the best.

Now, I believe, you've had more than enough of my take on Bond. I saw the new Pirates of the Caribbean last night and now I shall share some remarks in response to your previous post about that film...and I assure you, they'll be Bond-free!