**NOTE: This post does not contain any spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse**
When I’ve previously written in this blog (I know it’s been a while) it’s largely been to discuss events in politics or technology. But hell, this is my blog and I get to choose what I write on, so this one’s going to be about the latest X-Men movie, X-Men: Apocalypse.
So then, on to the movie.
I’ll be upfront here – I’m a comics fan. I’ve read comics since my early teens, everything from Archie Comics to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus. Contrary to the assertions of some, I believe that comics are a unique art form that have become part of a global culture. Comics provide a visuasl medium that started (and continues) on paper but has become equally popular form of expression in digital and social media. They can be frivolous fun, or a means of dealing with deeply traumatic events and emotions. And they can be a significant means for their readers to deal with emotions they may not otherwise find positive outlets to address.
So it was with me. X-Men comics in all their many titles and epic history were one of my major outlets when I was going through my teens. Although other superhero titles offered some fun and there were huge fan bases for heroes such as Spider Man, Batman, Captain America or Superman, it was the X-Men characters that I naturally gravitated towards. As a young man struggling to understand the world and come to terms with who I am – particularly as a young bisexual man at a time when the culture wars had yet to resolve for acceptance of of the LGBTQ community – the narrative of the X-Men was one that I strongly identified with.
The X-men were not heroes that were largely looked up to by society. They were not celebrated as the individuals that saved the world, no matter how many times they actually accomplished it in their stories. The X-men were the outsiders of the Marvel comics universe, and most importantly, outsiders not by choice. They were all mutants, humans who at some point in their maturing (usually puberty) exhibited abilities that made them different from most of society. In some cases these abilities were fantastic, making them hugely powerful heroes or villains in Marvel’s comics universe. But in many other cases the abilities gained were limited, or merely made them different from other human beings (e.g. they grew scaly skin). The point was, they were different from regular human beings, and just like the real world, in the Marvel universe different equals fear and hatred in society.
Cleverly, when Marvel created the X-Men they did so as a means to discuss problems of racial and cultural hatred of minorities in the 1960s. Using mutant heroes as proxies, they could mirror the American experience of hatred and persecution minorities experienced through the eyes of mutant heroes who never received the respect and accolades they deserved. It wasn’t perfect (we’re talking about a group of white, largely male kids here when X-Men were first published), but it was probably one of the most significant efforts to address affecting positive change for a single purpose since comics were used to grow and maintain public support for the war efforts during World War II.
So, as an awkward teen scanning the comic store shelves for something that I connected with in the early 90s (yes, going to the comics store was the only way to get comics in those days), finding a comic who’s heroes felt under threat by elements of society because of who they were rather than what they did was an important find for me.
You need to understand that this was in the days before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before coming out was something that society celebrated. These were the days when the Toronto Star still would relatively frequently have stories about gay-bashings on Saturday nights on Yonge St. (For those of you lucky enough not to remember this, I’m not talking about people yelling at gay people when I say “gay bashing”. I’m talking about the old practice of a group of usually men (sometimes drunk, sometimes not) cruising along the street until they see someone they believe to be gay, then either jumping on him and beating the crap out of him right there, or pulling him into the car and kicking the shit out of him somewhere else.) It was a time when it was known among those in the LGBTQ community and its supporters that the police wouldn’t really investigate any assaults on LGBTQ individuals, and in some cases were the instigators while on or off duty. It was a time when the Toronto Gay Pride Parade was still an act of political defiance in the face of at least an uncertain (if not disapproving) public. Many people still expressed at least a degree of uncertainty about being seen at the Pride Parade over what it may mean for employment and social consequences. It was a time where Toronto’s Gay Village felt very much like a village, a small oasis where you had permission to let your guard down a bit and be yourself – or at least start to understand who that may be in a context different from what you might experience on a day-to-day basis.
Feeling that you were different than others, that you not only were swimming against society's stream but that you were compelled to, felt in those days like the choice in front of you was to hide who you are and not directly face society’s wrath or choose to be who you are and accept a potentially very difficult life. There wasn’t the feeling of broader societal support that LGBTQ youth of today often encounter (although many still face fear and persecution in a number of areas and cultures in our society. There’s still a long way to go for LGBTQ acceptance in society.) So finding a comic that seemed to mirror that life experience, even in the fantastical, was both refreshing and a relief.
I soaked the X-Men in, learning their characters backgrounds, motivations, powers and rivals. I tried to learn all the many, many characters of the X-Men universe (it truly was huge at that point as many writers used the creation of mutant heroes as the means to resolve many story arcs. Need a way to explain something? They’re a mutant! How did a character get a power? It’s their newly emerging mutant power! It did get a bit ridiculous after a while.) And I tried to learn the history of the X-Men comics franchise, including the motivations of the creators for making some of the decisions they made in the story lines. X-Men were an outlet that on some level let me know that the challenges I was experiencing were not an isolated experience, that I wasn’t alone (even if the people I was drawing strength from were fictional.) I sometimes let myself imagine I was in that world, not with earth-shattering powers, but experiencing some of the camaraderie and solidarity that I wasn’t yet finding in the real world.
So the X-Men universe hold a soft spot in my heart. I knew from the moment that they announced the very first movie that it all could go horribly wrong, and that sacrifices would have to be made for the sake of the medium. Still, I hoped on some level that what would materialize would see the world of the X-Men that had existed in my head made real. That… didn’t really happen with the first three movies (and the Wolverine spin offs). There’s already tons that’s been written about the issues comics fans have with the movies, let alone their problems as movies alone.
When they re-booted the series with X-Men: First Class, it was a relief. Not only did it appear 20th Century Fox had learned from its previous mistakes and they’d traded the fantastical for the underlying human struggle of trying to find acceptance in a world that isn’t prepared to do so, but it seemed like they’d made the X-Men, the real X-Men, truly accessible again. It felt like the X-Men universe was available to those kids who needed to find a bit of a home, who could see a bit of their own experience in the same manner that I did.
And now we come to X-Men: Apocalypse. Let me be blunt, this movie is a hot mess on a lot of levels. It feels like something’s being destroyed on a massive level at almost all points in the movie, so much so that I checked the credits in detail for any sign of Michael Bay’s involvement. Worse still, it isn’t always clear as to why the destruction is taking place, or even what’s really being destroyed. What was clear is that this movie really, really doesn’t like non-pyramid shaped buildings, and even then it’s not a huge fan of the pyramid shaped ones. If you walked into this movie knowing nothing of the X-Men universe, you’d have a really hard time keeping up with who’s who and why they’re doing anything. It’s the sort of movie that critics usually pillory and frequently would spell the end of any franchise hopes for a movie studio (save the Fast & the Furious and Transformers franchises, which are basically only comprised of destruction with one-liners from various one-dimensional characters and people love it. Ten more sequels at $10 billion a piece!)
But I suspect a large group of movie fans won’t care.
X-Men: Apocalypse is first and foremost made for X-Men’s long-term fans, or more specifically those fans of the X-Men comic books, because unless you have much of the back stories provided by the comics there’s a whole lot you’re not going to understand in this movie. As a comics fan, I loved that they touched on some things that I thought would have been either too obscure or too nerd-deep to ever get to in the movies. Cool, it’s rather nice to be sitting in the theatre thinking “Wait, they’re not going to actually go there. Wait, they went there. Wow.” But at the same time even the most ardent comic fan has got to know that if this part of their brain is truly being tickled, it can’t be good for a wider movie-going audience. This is stuff that you decided to spend at least a good number of hours cramming into your brain when others were out rock climbing, or playing beach volleyball or doing whatever else beer and/or energy drink advertisements has told me they were doing to have fun. The point is, they have not, nor likely ever will, have crammed this information into their heads to be anywhere close to be enjoying it on the level that X-Men fanboys will.
And there-in lies the problem. 20th Century Fox has swung the pendulum over in the other direction from making X-Men movies that seemed almost devoid of influence from the comics that birthed them to the comics now almost being required reading before going to see the movie. If anything, X-Men: First Class now appears to be almost the centre-point of this pendulum arc, balanced equally between the fan-geeks and the casual movie goers. X-Men: Apocalypse will tick off all the shit-loads of destruction boxes for casual viewers, or at least those casual viewers that what to see stuff get blowed up real good. Script? Yes, there is one. And that’s probably all we can positively say about that as a piece of accessible filmmaking. Great actors? Sure. It’s got bucket loads of ‘em. And only half of the time are they chewing the scenery.
(Side note: I, like many people, love Jennifer Lawrence’s attitude and approach to Hollywood. But for the love of god, can she please get a reasonably decent script in an action, adventure, sci-fi movie?!? After the pain that was the Hunger Games series and now this, she must be looking for the nearest sharp objects to drive through scriptwriter’s eyes.)
The point is that while I love the X-Men as an intellectual and creative property for a lot of personal reasons, I want other people to have the opportunity to come to love them as I do – and films like X-Men: Apocalypse aren’t helping. I don’t think the latest film is so bad that it warrants ending the X-Men franchise and there’s certainly boatloads more material to draw from for future movies. However, what is glaringly clear is the degree to which 20th Century Fox is missing a clear, guiding brain trust for this cinematic universe as has worked so well for Disney/Marvel Studios. While there’s an intention to develop sequels from this movie, it’s also clear that 20th Century Fox is thinking more linearly, from movie-to-movie. This is limiting its ability to actually develop its characters (which at the end of the day need to be at the heart of even the biggest superhero / action / sci-fi movie, as Marvel Studios has so successfully proven), which in turn is pushing the movies to rely upon big special effects spectacles to carry the films. That is a recipe for disaster (no pun intended) for a character universe that at their core are based on exploring the fundamental human dynamic fear and hatred of the unknown.
As much as the fans might love for the world of the X-Men to join the cinematic universe of Marvel Studios and fight alongside the likes of Captain America and the Hulk, but that appears incredibly unlikely anytime soon. (So much so that Marvel Studios have actually created a replacement for the X-Men and mutants in the Marvel cinematic universe known as the “inhumans”. Yes, the comic book geeks could have a whole discussion about how the two could still co-exist in the same universe, but the reality is that this was as much as a business decision as a creative one. 20th Century Fox isn’t letting go of control of its X-Men property any time soon.) Barring that ideal to happen, it’s time for 20th Century Fox to truly start investing in its X-Men property if it’s going to achieve anywhere close to the strength of story and skill that the Marvel Studios films have demonstrated.
Could that occur? Sure. Pigs might also mutate and fly in the next X-Men film as well. For a lot of reasons that I won’t get into now that have to do with fun words like “multi-channel intellectual properties”, 20th Century Fox doesn’t have it in them to make it happen. So what’s the best we can hope for? Competition. Aspiration. The knowledge that 20th Century Fox keeps trying use take its X-Men franchise and being the Google to Marvel Studios Apple in putting out quality superhero films. If both keep trying to make the films better and don’t get lazy about it, then we may still yet get the truly amazing X-Men film both the movie-going public and the comic geeks have been waiting for. X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t that perfect film, but it could be a stepping stone towards it.
If you want to take one thing away from all this take this – both studios share one character, Quicksilver, but at this point 20th Century Fox is miles ahead of Marvel Studios in creating great Quicksilver running sequences.
And that alone is reason for hope. (Also the reason to see X-Men: Apocalypse. Seriously, the film’s Quicksilver sequence is even better than in the last film. Worth the price of the ticket.)