Finally, In 2014, X-Men: Days of Future Past enacted justice. Not the justice of Magneto, Trask, Phoenix or Apocalypse, but the justice that really counts. The fifth ‘main’ X-Men film took well over $500 million in two weeks, crushing the diabolical record set by X-Men: the Last Stand in its puny hand. Now comfortably over $700 million it looks like the X-Franchise’s future is secure off the screen… And one of its tricks was taking a trip back to school…
IT’S BLOODY GREAT TO BE ABLE TO SAY THAT X MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST IS THE BEST FILM IN THE X- FRANCHISE SINCE X2. It really is. Good for comics, cinemas, the genre, competition… But it’s been a rather long and painful 11 years. Not just for Fox’s stuttering franchise, for the hopes of a real Magneto standalone, for a mostly limping Wolverine, of for Fox. The studio has sat on the consistently best-selling comic book for 15 years, but in last half decade they’ve watched their partner/rivals Marvel slip into the comic slipstream like a Mario Quicksilver.
“Let’s a go!”
As we all know, it was 1998’s Blade that kick-started the ongoing comic boom, not Bryan Singer’s X-Men that followed two years later. It’s true that film did add veracity, even a little realism – or perhaps better put, actor gravitas – to proceedings. But in finding a hook in the core of black leather-bound mutant superheroes, the results were a little under-powered. At a lean 104 minutes, it could certainly have added an extra action scene. But more importantly, it would have benefited from marrying its intoxicating themes of division, segregation and real-world history across a longer run-time.
Three years later, X2 consolidated its predecessor’s subtlety as a strength. It built on every aspect, teasing new metaphors while keeping mysteries close to its characters and at the heart of the story. Most importantly, its phenomenal cliff-hanger hasn’t been troubled since. It set expectations so high that the third film, popularly characterised as a trilogy-closer – would always have struggled. It must have been the tacit realisation of that which led the filmmakers to surrender at the first hurdle. X-Men: the Last Stand squandered its predecessor’s set-up and frankly, the less said about it the better. It rocked the box office hollowly, leaving a franchise lurching more to toward the wasted chances of spin-offs than recapturing its previous highs, and on to inevitable reboot.
It took Marvel Studio’s determination to build an interlinking and self-selling franchise for Fox to appreciate what they had. Perhaps it was an easy mistake to make in the era of ‘back-to-back’ filming and in-built fashionable ‘trilogies’. It may have been inadvertent, but when Fox finally woke up to the promise of their licensed IP, they found everything was in place to not only quick establish a spawning franchise they could build summers around, but also one that lived up to the scope, ambition and behemoth status of its parent comic book.
It just took a few risky hires and a spot of time travelling. A wry step back to the decade the comic was born in.
The 1960s – X-Men: First Class (2011)
The children of atom form the first class of the Xavier school…
The first ‘reboot’ film, wasn’t a film that could change things single-handedly, but what a start it made. To think First Class could have been released ash grammatically-troubling X-Men Origins First Class is chilling. We should be thankful to X-Men Origins Wolverine for something.
Behind the lens, they couldn’t have chosen a better team for the reboot. Still better known as a British producer, Matthew Vaughn’s main qualification was 2010’s Kick Ass, an edgy, positively un-family comic adaptation that established a fine relationship between Vaughn and that comic’s creator, and former Marvel Comics stalwart Mark Millar. His hiring was an unpredictable but astute move by Fox. After the earnest blockbuster pretensions of the first three films, the first couple of which lent towards the artistic if anything, rightly recognising that this early realignment required new and risky energy. There was a distinct link to the past though – Vaughn wound back the X-Men back to school from their futuristic beginnings with franchise midwife Bryan Singer present as producer alongside the director’s own trusty lieutenants, including writer Jane Goldman.
It would be totally partisan to suggest that British weight added a lot to the film, in front of and behind the camera, but it certainly didn’t hurt – just as Singer’s securing of two RSC alumni elevated the original trilogy. That said, this film was taking the superhero genre to period and any creative team would have struggled to mess up the 1960s.
First Class just works in that setting. Sure, there’s a little creative flourish: the setting in the early 1960s isn’t particularly 1961/62 in fashion, music or scope. It’s a generic 1960s, run through popular consciousness and particularly the prism Bond. It wisely references the mid-decade free-wheeling highs of that franchise. Crucially, for all the sheen of the era, it doesn’t shirk on contemporary politics, tying the plot into the backbone of metaphor that supports the X-universe. Crucially, it uses the past to find a new way of looking at the future – essential for a franchise established in a strange and fast-dating near-future and a huge part of its pacey, comic propulsion.
“We are the children of the atom” is Sebastian Shaw’s repeated mantra, reasserting a key mantra of the X-Men at source, when the threat of nuclear war was never stronger. The children of atom that emerge form the first class of the Xavier school.
Cultural landmarks that familiar characters can grow against
The politics of the 1960s is woven into First Class‘ plot to a satisfyingly surprising degree – feeding on the era’s paranoia, building on the period other-worldliness, and adding a real weight to the young cast. In the immediate aftermath, First Class‘ major success was clearly rendering any repeat of a film like X-Men Origins: Wolverine utterly impossible. Fox had stumbled on a conceit that marked them out from the meta-competition but also side-stepped the horror of bland contemporaneity. It presents a different futurism to the one that 1999’s X-Men presented, and thanks to the weight of history and the radical social change of the 1960s, does so more effectively.
In another shrewd move, First Class copies X-Men’s opening, almost creating a divergent timeline and serious agenda that feeds into Erik Lehnsherr’s Boys from Brazil hunting, and James Bond globe-trotting, even if villainous comic mainstay, but by no means a household name, Sebastian Shaw is a little too conveniently tied into that plot point. When it comes to the mutants parallel history however, Shaw and the Children of the Atom fare a lot better.
First Class’ palette is far more varied than its predecessors thanks to its mid-Twentieth Century setting. At the heart of Shaw’s emphatic reasoning, the Cold War takes on a new resonance. But rather perfectly, it’s both central and disassociated from the plot, reinforcing the necessary mutant sub-culture, even if their threat is far greater. Unexpectedly, the proto-X-Men are formed by the CIA, but they soon learn to live without them. The plot survives Shaw’s marked disinterest in politics; the Nazis and the Russians are merely tools to forward his agenda – a precursor to Magneto’s quest, even if it’s significantly different and more, if we can say, Apocalyptic.
The proto-X-Men benefit from growing against the backdrop of significant cultural landmarks. While the Russians gift Shaw what will soon become the classic Magneto helmet, America gives Lehnsherr and Xavier the background of the Lincoln statue to mull over freedoms, liberty and implications that will come to hit the franchise in the future past. These themes were present in the first scenes of this and X-Men and the franchise requires their continued exploration.
First Class’ nods to its politics are only matched by riffs on contemporary pop culture. Xavier and Lehnsherr’s first meeting comes on the back of a set-piece taken from a a generic Bond memory. It’s a very Thunderball moment set at a time when the Bond franchise was only just arriving at the cinema. Naturally, it needs a great soundtrack to match and duly serves up the best in the franchise. The ‘60s themed titles/credits are a wonderfully thought out and implemented and the audio quality continues until the anachronistic introduction of Take That at the end – one British contribution it could do without. And alongside these bits and bobs, First Class packs in some fine action – responding to the criticisms that met Bret Rattner’s brash direction in The Last Stand and doesn’t short change like the original X-Men. On the way, Shaw’s CIA breakdown manages to compete with the sublime and legendary White House incursion that kicked off X2 – and that’s praise indeed.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely
The CIA set-piece demonstrates how superb the casting is, particularly Kevin Bacon’s wicked turn. It helps that no one else in the franchise has yet rivalled Magneto (and no, The Last Stand‘s Dark Phoenix does not count). But Sebastian Shaw’s contrived origin is followed by a character journey that is just a little bit too sketchy to stay in the franchise memory. His “We don’t hurt our own“ adage may sound convincing, but it can’rt survive as he nears the end of a road unbridled by any kind of moral purpose. His main purpose is in crafting a prototype Magneto – from application to helmet. Not only a crucial part of the genesis of the franchise’s main villain, but also during those crucial formative years, when the rogue was taking on a succession of ‘real’ human names before being replaced by mutants who take on ‘real’ mutant names. On one level Shaw is just the truism inside the larger metaphor – that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Interesting in the overall arc, it’s a shame that there isn’t more room to develop the Bond Villain or his ‘henchwoman’ Emma Frost.
Elsewhere, aside from another range of forgettable evil mutants (a series trademark), surprisingly stable seeds are set for the trilogy we’ve already bought into (those days of future past once again). A great deal of that, perversely comes from the strength of the mutants who are yet to fall. There’s the older Mystique in-joke of course, while Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence capture the menace and echoes of the future, and on a satisfyingly more even level. This is another in a long line of films that puts The Phantom Menace in the shade when it comes to the genesis of evil. It’s not surprising that Magneto’s is the most compelling is not surprising, but it is impressive is that Xavier’s isn’t far behind, mainly thanks to the well structured dynamic with Mystique.
First Class is all about sewing those seeds, but coming as an actual origin story four films after ‘the origin’ film, it takes the wise approach – and all credit to Vaughn for retaining his fresh Kick Ass sensibilities – of having fun with it and refusing to pay too much lip service to the rules of an established franchise. First Class that treated Mystique in the same way as as it’s preceding trilogy is unthinkable. Thank goodness for those rounder, new comic book-era style story lines the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ushered in. Mystique’s strong ties to Xavier are essential to the drama and The sequel would build on this even more impressively.
Previously Wolverine had carried the humour, here the others can let loose
That is not all that would be built on. First Class’ greatest contribution may be humour. There are the in-jokes, particularly around Xavier’s surprisingly lush hair, but also a general wryness that was greatly missed in its earnest forbears. The Wolverine cameo, with the judicious use of “Go fuck yourself” (the target certificate allowed for one use) is a major crowd-pleaser. it takes its leads out of character, threatens the timeline and derails the plot for a split-second all for comic effect. When X-Men Days of Future Past comes to reference the joke it’s not as effective. The second ‘prequel’ would need to raise the stakes to ensure the Canadian hairy one’s involvement, so this flash of a scene also makes it clear how destabilising his presence, or absence, can be – something the comics have struggled with for four decades as well. Previously, Wolverine had carried the franchise’s humour, but now the other are free to let loose. That the feral antihero had his own solo mission to undertake, poor as that was, probably saved the franchise.
For some time afterwards, First Class was talked about as the start of a trilogy to rival the original. Fortunately the ‘rising phoenix’ of Marvel and some behind the scenes jiggery-pokery made sure that the X-Franchise had far greater aims. And so a plan was hatched that would draw on the original comics more than ever, the sterling work of X-Men’s main Brit/American: Chris Claremont. And following the 1960s, it was only right that we’d pick up on the children of the atom’s adventures in the 1970s.
Next up on X-Men through the Decades: Flares and New Romantics…
“There’s little worse than a dull X-Man. Except Solemno there, sitting quietly in the corner waiting for Apocalypse… “