Friday, June 10, 2011

What X-Men: First Class Can Teach You About the Choices Writers Make

[Spoiler Warning: The following post discusses plot elements of the film X-Men: First Class. Go see the film first. Then come back and read this.]
The sheer number of super-hero films this summer is both a blessing and a bane to comics fans.  

It’s gratifying to see long-time favorites such as Thor, Captain America, and Green Lantern finally getting their due in big-budget blockbuster films—a validation of sorts for those of us who had to endure snickering from classmates and co-workers who didn’t understand our obsession and from parents who kept waiting for us to outgrow comics.  

The mainstream, it seems, has finally caught up with us.

But films also provide fans with much to complain about. It almost goes without saying that films change characters and back stories to fit the needs of a different medium and audience, but when a film alters details established in previous films featuring the same characters, it gives fans cause to howl even louder.

Case in point: X-Men: First Class

Not only does the film depart substantially from the extensive continuity developed in the X-Men comic books, but it also contradicts story elements established in the first three flims, X-Men (2000), X2 (2003)  and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), as well as the prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Yet fans would be remiss if they regarded such departures as carelessness on the part of the filmmakers or insensitivity toward the characters and/or fans. Rather, analyzing such changes can help us understand the difficult choices all writers have to make.

Changes from the Comic Book Series

X-Men #1, published in 1963, introduced us to a team of five teenaged mutants—Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman, and The Beast—led by their wheelchair-bound mentor, a powerful telepath named Charles Xavier (Professor X).  Though shunned because of their powers, they sought to protect humanity from their arch nemesis, an evil mutant called Magneto. All of these characters were featured in the previous films, set in the present day. 

This presented a huge problem when the filmmakers chose to set the new film in 1962, using the backdrop of the Cold War to escalate tensions between humans and mutants. Only three of the above-named characters—Prof. X, The Beast, and Magneto—were depicted in previous films as old enough to have been alive then.

So the filmmakers did the next best thing. They replaced the other original X-Men with two characters (Banshee and Havok) who didn’t join the team until much later in the comics. They also included the shape-shifting Mystique—a villain in the previous films—as an uncertain hero.  

Do these changes work? I think so. Banshee and Havok are relatively minor characters, so the slate is clean for the filmmakers to reinvent them as necessary. Sure, liberties were taken (in the comics, Havok is Cyclops’s younger brother and Banshee is older and speaks with an Irish accent). But these changes allowed the filmmakers to recast them as fun-loving and inexperienced teenagers. Come on—who didn’t laugh when Sean (Banshee) tried to fly for the first time, or when Alex (Havok) turned his destructive power loose in Xavier’s underground bunker? Who didn’t thrill for them when they finally mastered their abilities?

Best of all is the inclusion of Mystique. Outcast because of her bizarre appearance, she grows up living a lie—using her power to present herself as a normal-looking woman even to other mutants. Her journey toward self-acceptance is both heroic and heartbreaking. 

Changes from the Previous X-Men Films

X-Men: The Last Stand established that Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) worked together to recruit mutants as late as 1986 (twenty years before the film)—and that Charles could still walk at that time.  (The Wolverine prequel, which I have not seen, is said to corroborate this.) However, X-Men: First Class contradicts both ideas.

I can only imagine that the filmmakers chose to go in their own direction for the benefit of the film. Even casual moviegoers these days know what is meant to happen to both Charles and Erik. Drawing their transformations out over the course of another film (or several films) would have left a hole in X-Men: First Class. The movie would be anticlimactic if it didn’t end with these characters adopting their familiar roles.  

What the filmmakers gave us instead was another heartbreaking moment wherein these two men—who had become friends in spite of enormous differences in personality, background, and worldview—must sever their friendship once and for all. As a viewer, I felt Charles’ anguish when he could not prevent Erik from killing. I also felt Erik’s anguish when he realized that he and Charles do not want the same future for mutants.

No Accents, Please

As mentioned above, Banshee does not speak with an Irish accent. Another character with altered speech patterns is Moira MacTaggert, a Scottish geneticist in the comics who is recast as a CIA agent in the film.

According to IMDb, director Matthew Vaughn told the actors not to use accents in this film, apparently so they would be free to reinterpret the characters instead of being enslaved to the depictions of previous actors (James McAvoy, for example, had planned to use Patrick Stewart’s British accent as Xavier). 

One benefit of this decision is that the film does not have to waste valuable time explaining why an American CIA agent has a Scottish accent.

An argument could be made, I suppose, that the character does not have to be Moira, but, considering the comics analogue’s long, personal relationship with Charles, it would have been disappointing if she had been recast as a completely different character.

Stradling the Line: Canon or No Canon?

Movies work on a much more emotional level than comics. The filmmakers certainly knew this and weighed the pros and cons of following canon against making a movie that delivered the biggest emotional wallop it could. 

X-Men: First Class delivers that wallop, I think. It also stands on its own, whether one has seen the previous films or not—and whether or not any further films are forthcoming. 

The merits of any given change can be debated, but, by straddling the line between following canon (and often reinterpreting it in surprising ways) and ignoring it, the filmmakers did what all writers must do: make difficult choices to serve the needs of the story.

Tell me your opinion. Did X-Men: First Class do a good job of "rebooting" the film franchise?


Kristi's Book Nook said...

This is a great post. I love all of the new films even though they are not true to the actual comics. I saw the Green Lantern last night and loved it. Thanks for sharing.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

I know going into any super-hero movie that it's is going to make substantial changes from the comic book. I'm okay with that, so long as the film remains true to the spirit of the source material and tells a good story. The X-films, I think, have delivered on this. I haven't seen GL yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

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