Why are The X-Men so popular? Rick DeMott takes a look at the new feature film based on the phenomenally successful comic book series with two of the films executive producers Avi Arad, CEO of Marvel Studios, and Stan Lee, creator of the X-Men.
There was Superman. There was Batman. There even was Judge Dredd. Now the X-Men are leaping from the colorful comic book page to the big screen. To the avid reader, the names Professor X, Magneto and Wolverine are commonplace. However, the characters in the best selling comic title of all time are as strange as their very own mutant powers to the general public. When researching this article I asked various people, 'What do you want to know about The X-Men movie?' and I received questions like, 'Will the Shi'ar technology transform Jean Grey into the Phoenix entity?' to 'The X-Men? Aren't they a video game?' Therefore the question that arises is, with such varying levels of awareness, how will this superhero tale transcend what has come before it? Moreover, what makes The X-Men so popular to comic book fans and can their story bring a general audience to the multiplexes around the globe?
Twentieth Century Fox must feel so, for it has invested US$75 million into what will be their biggest release of the summer. The film is being helmed by The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil director Bryan Singer and the hefty sized cast includes Emmy Award-nominated Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Oscar Award-nominated Sir Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters), Oscar winner Anna Paquin (The Piano) and Golden Globe winner Halle Berry (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge). Three production companies, The Donners' Company, Marvel Media and Bad Hat Harry Productions, handled the creation of the film. The list of producers and executive producers from the various companies reads like a list of who's who. Representing the Donners' Company is Richard Donner, the man behind the Lethal Weapon series and Superman movies. Lauren Shuler Donner (Any Given Sunday) served as producer on the flick, along with Mighty Joe Young producer Ralph Winter. Singer's Bad Hat Harry Productions added Apt Pupil producer Tom DeSanto to the ranks of the film's executive producing team. Whereas, Marvel Media, a division of Marvel Entertainment who produces The X-Men comic series, brought to the project Marvel Studios' CEO Avi Arad, and The X-Men creator Stan Lee.
The X-Men comic book series began in September 1963. The story centered on Professor Charles Xavier and his school for gifted children. However, these kids were more gifted than your average chess playing tweens. They had superpowers. Prof. X, as he is called, searche the world to find adolescents who possessed extraordinary skills like his own telepathic powers. Xavier's school was a haven for these mutant children, a place where they were not ridiculed for being different. This idea of ridicule was what creator Stan Lee had in mind from the start. When searching his mind for new heroes, Lee wanted them to deal with the issues of bigotry, man's inhumanity to man and racial hatred. Thus, Lee wrote stories about those who were feared and hated by the rest of humanity. For instance, before joining the original X-Men team, Cyclops had to flee from an angry mob bent on killing him. Cyclops possesses the ability to shoot a powerful laser beam from his eyes. At this young age, the X-man had not yet learned to control his powers and had accidentally blasted a crane that sent a heavy object falling toward a crowd of people. The soon-to-be hero disintegrated the object with another optic shot, but was then pursued by the crowd because they believed he was trying to kill them.
All the various X-Men have similar tales. This basic theme has carried over into every issue of The X-Men series, which sells over 13 million copies per year, making it Marvel's most popular title. For a parable of racial unity "that speaks well of the taste of mankind in general," jibes Stan Lee. When asked why The X-Men are so popular, Lee says, "It's the characterization. It's like an adventure soap opera. Here are characters that have their own thoughts and goals."
The Cast of Freaks and Femme Fatales
It is these characters that everyone involved in the new feature film hope will compel moviegoers as they do comic book fans. Producer Lauren Shuler Donner states, "The characters are the reason X-Men has been such a popular comic for over 30 years. There are so many great heroes and villains within the series that one of the toughest parts of developing the film was choosing the characters on which to focus." Many meetings and conferences between the filmmakers and writers where held to determine the proper balance of characters for the tale they wanted to tell. The film is a completely original tale that did not happen in The X-Men comic book universe (even though Marvel has released comic book prequels to explain the movie's discrepancies to picky fans). However, both Avi Arad and Lee have stated the film is true to the characters and themes of the comic book world.
The noble Prof. X (Stewart) and his X-Men are the heroes, while the villains are lead by Magneto (McKellan) and comprise the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Heading up the Brotherhood is Sabertooth (Tyler Mane), a brutal beast-like being with the strength of seventy men. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) serves as the team's shape changing sentinel of sin, while finally, Toad (Ray Park), with his high-hopping abilities, marks the dim-witted good soldier for the evil side. The original X-Men team of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel, Beast and Iceman were not the team chosen for the comic's first mission into theatres. This cinematic X-Men team, guided by Prof. X, consists of Cyclops (James Marsden), the young general. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), one of the most powerful telepaths and telekintics in the world, who also plays the love interest for Cyclops. Rogue (Paquin), who is a young mutant, and the African American weather-controlling mutant, Storm (Berry), who is the proper allegory between the hatred for the mutants and racial bigotry. The final X-Men member, Wolverine (Hugh Jackson), with unbreakable metal claws, an ability to heal quickly and the furious temper of a wild animal, surfaces as the center character to The X-Men movie tale.
When asked about the film's central hero, Lee brags in classic comic book granger, "Wolverine is one of the most compelling characters in comicdom, maybe even fiction." In the feature, Wolverine comes to the school for gifted children to be trained by Prof. X. He's a loner and swiftly locks horns with the wise professor and elder students. "He's an anti-hero hero," Lee says. "People always love anti-heroes. You know he's got a good heart deep down, but he's rough and tough and rebellious and unpredictable. He's powerful yet vulnerable. And you take a combination like that and you have a character that audiences love."
This combination has made the Canadian-born crusader one of the most popular of all the X-Men. Numerous comic book series and specials have been based on the gruff guardian of mutated youths. In the comic world, this loner has always had a soft spot for tormented teens, taking on young female sidekicks like Jubilee (which comic book fans might see glimpses of in the film's version of Rogue). The struggle between his tough exterior and gentle heart is a classic characterization much like other popular movie heroes like the Terminator, Rocky and every single character John Wayne ever played. He could be called a modern cowboy torn between his life as a lone drifter and doing the right thing. Arad describes Wolverine as symbolizing the "objective part of being a mutant. Initially he doesn't care and then he understands you cannot stand on the side. You have to take a point of view. You have to decide which way the world is going."
In The X-Men feature, the way the world is going pivots between two opposite philosophies: mutants living peacefully with humanity vs. mutants, as the next step in human evolution, ruling the human race. The characters Prof. X and Magneto represent these two polar points of view. Prof. X and his X-Men fight for peace among mutants and humans even though humanity resists at every turn. Magneto, with his power of magnetism, and his Brotherhood feel that survival of the fittest means the fit mutants should rule the weaker humans. Magneto shunned by humanity sets out to rule it. Like many isolationist groups in the world today, Magento views mutants as the superior race and the rightful heirs to the world. Whereas, Prof. X feels educating the general population will bring about harmony.
The Story Lies Within...
Within these two philosophies lies the impetus for The X-Men movie. As a loner, Wolverine comes to the X-Men walking the fence. The story follows his journey from rebel to warrior. However which side does he choose? From this question, the filmmakers chose their cast of mutants. Prof. X and Magneto represent the two philosophical views on humanity. But humanity may be the key factor in Wolverine's final decision. Like the comic, humans play a key role in The X-Men tale and U.S. Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davidson) represents them at their worst. Kelly is like former U.S. Senator Charles McCarthy. Instead of systematically accusing and hunting suspected Communists, Kelly hunts mutants, and his propaganda creates hate in the population. Thus, Wolverine has two ways to go, but like Jean Grey, Cyclops and Storm, with the help of Prof. X, he can come to believe fear leads to hate, but education leads to truth. The students of Xavier are all mutants, but they understand that though they are hated for being different, it doesn't make them any less human.
This is where Rogue enters the story. A teenage mutant that can absorb the powers and even the life of a person by a simple touch of skin to skin. She is confused by her new powers and angered by the hate that the world suffocates her with for being who she is. Wolverine identifies with her feelings and becomes her protector. In this relationship, comic book fans might see where the Rogue and Jubilee characters from the comic book are combined. However, the filmmakers decided to take the story of Jubilee as an alienated teen and combine it with the more dramatic power of Rogue, who would give anything to just be able to touch someone. (In the comic book Jubilees powers where big flashes of light that came from her hands.) The film story called for a tormented teen because with loners like Wolverine there is something that alienated him or her; something that made them choose their solitary life.
Wolverine sees himself in the eyes of the bitterly confused girl, Rogue. With every moment of, 'Why me? Why am I so strange?' combined with every mean word from a stranger or questionable glare from a passer by, this confusion grows into hate. The kind of hate that justifies Magneto's belief that mutants should rule. If humanity won't accept them then they will destroy them.
The X-Men Isn't Just Explosions
Without a doubt, this superhero film will have action like all the rest. The movie's visual effects were lead by Michael Fink, who worked on Braveheart and Batman Returns. Arad boasts, "There was no way to tell this story five years ago. An excellent effect is one that is seamless, that doesn't seem like an effect. And with that, this movie delivers big time." Fox wants to make this picture a franchise with multiply sequels. The award-winning cast, which features the American debut of Australia's biggest star Hugh Jackson, has all signed three picture deals. Arad confirmed that other major The X-Men events from the comics will be the basis of future films.
When asked whether non-comic book readers will be interested in this film Stan Lee says, "People who don't read comic books still go to action movies. I'm sure all the people who went to see The Terminator aren't avid comic book fans." In addition, both Arad and Lee mentioned the quality of the director Bryan Singer and his fan following. Lee explains, "One of the challenges [of bringing The X-Men to the screen] is to make characters with such fantastic superpowers seem believable. I'm happy that a director like Bryan Singer is shepherding this project because he's an intelligent man who makes intelligent movies. And I expect he will be able to bring an intelligence and a believability to them." An interesting fact is that Singer hadn't ever read the comic book before the project was brought to him. With other upcoming superhero flicks like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, the directors were self-proclaimed comic book fans. What would bring a drama director to a superhero special effects flick? This question circles back to what both Arad and Lee said when asked what would be the key to The X-Men's success -- the characters and the issues.
"With such a big mix of characters, there is at least one hero a reader or viewer can identify and empathize with," Lee says. Arad agrees, "Every kid with braces and glasses is a mutant at least to themselves initially. Until they look around and say, 'I'm not that bad. There are other kids like me.'" The X-Men animated series ran for six years and a new version is scheduled for the fall. In every country it ran it created debate over these same issues. Each character is an archetype for a greater meaning. When coming back to the question, 'Will people from all walks of life go to see this superhero picture?' I think Arad sums it up best, when he says, "The compelling thing is that this is a very dramatic movie, laden with action. This isn't just an action picture. It has a message. It has an intelligent touch to it. It deals with something that two minutes into the movie your going to feel pretty involved -- pretty interested. You'll look at yourself and say, 'I remember me being a mutant. I remember my friend who was a mutant. I remember people mistreating people for all the wrong reasons."You'll walk out of the movie thinking."
By day, Rick DeMott is the Associate Editor of Animation World Network and writer of AWN's Animation Flash. By night, he fights crime under the identity of Yam Boy and baffles his enemies with his keen power of reciting useless facts about movies, comic books and sideshow freaks.