Cover Story: Generation X

10 June 2014 Anthony Morris

Cover Story: Generation X

Image courtesy of Marvel

Ed#459, Anthony Morris, June 2014

Anthony Morris maps the evolution of The X-Men, from comic-book mutants to big-screen superheroes. With Days of Future Past now filling cinemas, it’s clear Wolverine, Magneto and Professor X aren’t finished yet.

For characters who represent the future evolution of humanity, the X-Men sure have been around for a while. The mighty mutant superheroes first hit the newsstands back in 1963 in the pages of Marvel Comics’ X-Men #1. (That still makes them the new kids on the block, however: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America are all pushing – or are past – 70, and even that perennial teen, Spider-Man, is well past 50.)

Now in cinemas, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the latest big-screen instalment of a franchise that’s been running without a reboot, reset or major recast since 2000. That’s 100 years in superhero terms. To put that run into perspective, we’ve had two different Supermans, three different Hulks and an entire Batman trilogy starring Christian Bale between the first time actor Patrick Stewart played Professor X and now.

There are many reasons why characters resonate with audiences. With comic-book audiences, especially those between the 1970s and 1990s, when X-Men reigned supreme, there were a lot of reasons to feel good about being an X-Fan. The team was racially and culturally diverse, with writer Chris Claremont making sure the series had a global focus. (The team even had an extended stay in the Australian outback in the 1980s; suffice to say the accents were only modestly painful.) And there was a lot of reading to be done: Claremont was notorious for his wordy style, packing each page with lengthy speeches that occasionally threatened to crowd out the art.

The X-Men themselves were tortured, self-obsessed teens writ large, their angst and torment actually as important and world-shattering as readers believed their own struggles to be. They’d get into fight scenes where everyone managed to rattle off Shakespearian-length speeches between punches and laser blasts. Everyone was wracked with self-doubt; everyone wondered if they were ever going to shape up; everyone demanded the world take their feelings seriously. As Claremont said in 1979, “That, to me, is what it all comes down to – the emotional relationships. To me the fights are bullshit.”

All of this was cheesy, and often mocked within the comics industry. It was also massively popular: when a spin-off X-Men comic was launched in 1991, it reportedly sold more than  8.1 million copies (though, considering the collector mentality rife in comics  at the time, it’s unlikely anywhere near  8.1 million people actually read it). This is even more impressive considering the characters’ relatively humble origins. When they first arrived on the scene in 1963, created by artist Jack Kirby and writer-editor Stan Lee, the X-Men were hardly a breakout hit.

The bi-monthly title wasn’t in Marvel’s top sellers, in part because they were a rare example of super-powered human characters who didn’t acquire their abilities via freak accidents. The five original X-Men,  and all the ones that would follow,  were ‘Children of the Atom’, mutated from birth so as to have strange powers that set them apart from humanity.

With a cast full of ‘mutants’ (the original title for the comic), prejudice is a theme the comic has played on from the very beginning: regular humans fear the X-Men in a way that they don’t fear more traditional superheroes. As objects of suspicion and fear, unable to find a place in regular society, they’ve been used as metaphors for everything from readers’ social lives to America’s civil-rights struggle.

One often-used comparison is that the telepathic X-Men leader, Professor X, is the ‘Martin Luther King of the mutant struggle’, committed to finding a way for mutants and humans to live side by side. Meanwhile the villainous Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), master of magnetism and survivor of the Nazi death camps, is the Malcolm X figure, fighting to ensure the survival of his people by any means necessary.  As their people are usually super-powered teenagers with abilities that make them lethal weapons, it’s an imperfect comparison at best.

It wasn’t until the series was relaunched with a new, more international line-up in the mid-1970s that X-Men started to take off. With Claremont as the series writer, the new team – featuring characters that would later be used in the movies, including Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm – quickly became the best-selling comic in America, a position it would hold for well over a decade.

Over that time there’d be plenty of fights, betrayals and bad guys, but the real draw for audiences was Claremont’s mastery of soap-style plotting. The focus shifted more to team banter, inter-party conflict and long-running mysteries. Hints were intermittently dropped about Wolverine’s origin. Was he really centuries old? How did he get his indestructible adamantium [a made-up metal alloy] skeleton? If he knew, Claremont wasn’t telling. “With [Wolverine], the less you know the better. He’s a mystery, an enigma,” he said in 2009.

While this angsty soap-opera approach kept the comic popular, leading to numerous spin-offs and making Claremont a millionaire, he was eventually bumped from the X-Men franchise in 1991 after clashing with his editor over the series’ direction. The characters remained popular throughout the 1990s, but an explosion in the number of mutants, and crossovers between comic series and ‘event’ storylines left the franchise looking tired.

When movie studio Fox bought the rights to the X-Men in 1994 (previously, the rights had been owned by Carolco Pictures, with James Cameron interested in directing), it was considered a long shot. While the X-Men was still a massive hit in the comics world, every comics fan could see a movie 10 times over and it would still be a flop. Team superhero movies then represented uncharted waters, and with such a large cast Fox wouldn’t be able to grab big names to bring an audience in. Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) was hired to direct, and the script went through numerous rewrites before filming began in 1999.

Things did not go smoothly. The rewrites left the film with a script that was somewhat uneven, and Fox’s refusal to go above a $75 million budget meant numerous characters and scenes were written out at short notice. The actor originally cast as Wolverine, Dougray Scott, dropped out due to scheduling conflicts with Mission Impossible II, with Hugh Jackman, who was then virtually unknown in Hollywood, cast three weeks into production. The release date was moved forward from Christmas 2000 to June of that year, meaning Singer had to complete the film six months ahead of schedule.

It was hardly a sure thing, even without all the backstage drama. At the turn of the century, superhero movies weren’t the massive money-makers they are today: the glory days of the Batman franchise were a distant memory; Marvel’s only other movie deal was for vampire hunter Blade. Unlike rival comics company DC (owned by Warner Bros), Marvel couldn’t make its own movies, and had no power over how its characters would be used – if at all – once it sold the rights to a movie studio. If characters were turned into jokes, Marvel would just have to wear it.

Fortunately, the end result was a hit. Jackman was a stand-out as Wolverine, his double act with Anna Paquin as Rogue worked well, the movie’s theme of struggling against prejudice added some depth, and having Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen playing the older generation (Professor X and Magneto respectively) gave the somewhat pulpy story some class.

A sequel soon followed – the even more impressive X2 (2003) – but director Singer left early in production on the third film, and his replacement, Matthew Vaughn, quit citing personal and professional issues. The project was passed on to Rush Hour series director Brett Ratner, a director better known for getting films made on time than his artistic vision. While the end product, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), was a box office success, it was no one’s idea  of a great film.

Worse, while audiences could have accepted The Last Stand’s many technical failings (it goes from day to night in the middle of the big battle scene for no reason – presumably no one making the film noticed), it also killed off a bunch of the cast. Professor X and Jean Grey were now dead, and Magneto had lost his powers. In a better movie these would have been minor issues for a follow-up to tackle, but The Last Stand was not an act anyone wanted to follow.

The solution? A series of ‘X-Men: Origin’ movies that would provide backstory for the more popular characters. But the first attempt – the clumsily titled X-Men Origin: Wolverine – turned out to be kind of average, shoe-horning in a bunch of new mutants (Gambit, Deadpool) and younger versions of established characters. It didn’t really work. Proposed spin-offs for Magneto and Deadpool were quickly put on hold, and only the fact that another prequel (X-Men: First Class) was already in development kept it alive.

In yet another last-minute escape for the much-loved mutants, First Class (directed by Vaughn, his earlier issues settled) turned out to be both creatively and commercially successful. The new cast and early 1960s setting, combined with some interesting character twists – as younger men, Professor X (James McAvoy) was a swinging womaniser, while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) was a Nazi hunter – breathed life into the franchise.

In fact, it breathed in enough new life for Fox studios to finally decide it was safe to revive the characters last seen in Last Stand. With Singer returning to direct, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-travel tale where the old Magneto and Professor X (still McKellen and Stewart) send Wolverine (still Jackman, in his sixth outing as the character) back in time to meet their younger selves from First Class, and prevent their scary and seemingly killer-robot-filled future from ever happening.

As for our superhero-filled present, it shows no signs whatsoever of changing. When the first X-Men movie was released in 2000, it was the only superhero movie out that year. Now, not even halfway through 2014, we’ve already had Spider-Man and Captain America films, with another Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, due out in August.

It might seem like Marvel is flooding the market, but it’s not its fault: in the 1980s and 1990s it sold the rights to many of its characters to rival studios. Sony grabbed the rights to Spider-Man and Ghost Rider; Fox had Daredevil, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

Then Marvel started making its own movies with the characters it still had, beginning in 2008 with Iron Man. Disney, seeing the profits to be made, bought Marvel outright in 2009. Now, if other studios don’t make movies using the characters to which they have rights, the rights revert to Marvel/Disney. It’s a case of use it or lose it, and with ideas being in short supply in Hollywood they’re using the characters for all they’re worth. Disney is committed to putting out two Marvel movies every year, with talk of ramping up production to three a year after Avengers: Age of Ultron next year. Sony is already working on spin-offs from the Spider-Man franchise; Fox is about to start filming a reboot of The Fantastic Four and another X-Men film (titled X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the 1980s) is already on the drawing board.

And that’s just the forthcoming movies based on Marvel characters. DC already has Batman vs Superman and a Justice League movie in the pipeline. If you’re sick of costumed adventurers, you might want to stay away from cinemas for the next few years. Calling a superhero movie Days of Future Past seems more appropriate all the time…


» Anthony Morris is The Big Issue’s DVD editor. X-Men: Days of Future Past is out now.

This article appeared in Ed#459 of The Big Issue magazine.