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05: On Professional-Looking Writing Samples

June 25, 2011

X-Men Coach: The lackluster blockbuster and the role of source material in adaptations

I’m about to say something that’ll make most of you stop reading this article:

“X-Men: First Class” was a terrible movie.

Before you start typing an angry comment, at least let me explain myself.

All my life, I’ve been a geek. The bookish kind with a love of fantasy who scoffed at people who called graphic novels comic books. I saw every “Lord of the Rings” movie opening weekend, and nearly every comic book movie adaptation that’s hit theaters these past few years. A middle-schooler in the late 90s, I watched the TV show “X-Men: Evolution” religiously, and groaned alongside the rest of the fanbase when “X2” and “X-Men: Last Stand” royally tanked in comparison to the original. Although I must grudgingly admit “First Class” was a better film than either of the last two movies, its inability to stick to a coherent understanding of the source material left the movie feeling rushed and confused about its message.

“First Class” has been called a prequel by some and a reboot by others. In attempting to be both, it fails at being either. In the second act of the film, young Magneto and Xavier used the mutant detection device Cerebro to find and recruit young mutants to join in fighting Evil Kevin Bacon – I mean—Sebastian Shaw. They walked into a bar where the audience saw Hugh Jackman, who promptly told the pair to leave in a way only Wolverine could. The audience laughed and cheered, and I admit – so did I. Though it was a brilliant bit of fan-service, upon closer reflection the cameo made no sense.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” though an even worse movie, uses the same actors as the original trilogy and is therefore thought to be a prequel to the first X-Men film. But if you saw the same movie I did, you’ll remember an appearance by a much-older-than-McAvoy Patrick Stewart…without the aid of his wheelchair. Spoiler alert, guys – Professor X is already wheelchair-bound by the end of “First Class.” Not only that, the rift between him and Magneto is full-blown, which throws out multiple sources in both canon and the first X-Men movie that suggest a working relationship of many years between Xavier and Magneto before their split.

I could go on about the flaws of the movie – like the fact that Azazel and “the guy who controlled wind” were basically non-characters, and how everyone that wasn’t white either died or went evil (and became a non-character), and why was Shaw trying to get the Soviets to start WWIII if he was planning to go nuclear himself? Anyway, that’s what movie critics get paid to do. My critique of the movie is based on it drawing very arbitrarily from source material in ways that simply didn’t make sense, even in the context of canon established earlier in the same film. If Mystique’s powers allow her to constantly change her cells to never age, why does she age from the little girl we saw at the beginning? Never mind that the comics put her at over 100 years old.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I…actually pity “First Class.” It’s a tough job to take decades of comic book history, hundreds of episodes of television, four movies worth of both good and bad storytelling, and condense it into a workable prequel. Don’t forget that it has to speak to audiences who haven’t heard of X-Men, too. I don’t believe that source material should have to absolutely restrict the types of stories adaptations tell – in the context of the X-Men franchise, there are in fact too many stories being told that could logically have happened all in the same universe. However, it is possible to respect canon while also telling original stories.

“X-Men: Evolution” was a cartoon run on KidsWB in the early 00s, showing the X-Men coming together at the Xavier Institute as high school students. While very age-appropriate, the stories were smart, compelling, and showed an understanding of the source material, if not always a faithfulness to it. For example, Mystique was identified as Nightcrawler’s mother, Juggernaut as Xavier’s brother, and the development of Cerebro from a desktop device to the massive dome seen in the first film. (Oh, and did I mention “First Class” claimed Cerebro was built by the CIA? I’m telling you, this movie had more plot holes than “Battlefield Earth.”)

Of course, this isn’t the only franchise to struggle with its baggage. Every other movie that’s come out this past decade seems to be based on a book or a comic or even a previous film. Some handle the burden well and some…not so much. I commend “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy for doing such a fantastic job of staying so close to the books, and when they didn’t, the changes made sense. In the novels, Arwen was basically window dressing, not the kick-butt rider who saved Frodo’s life. But without her, the movies would have been even more of a sausage fest, and her actions within the movie made sense.

On the other hand, let’s take the recent “Last Airbender” movie, based on the widely popular Nickelodeon show “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The movie suffered from an egregious lack of respect for the source material. Not only was the casting blatantly racist, the movie drew plot elements from episodes in the first season that had absolutely no bearing on the overarching plot. It was as though the creators watched the show from another room. With the sound off. And took frequent bathroom breaks.

I wish I could say the solution to these problems was simple. To just say “hire better writers” and be done. We can’t aim to appease the fans because the fans themselves are divided on what they like. We can’t include every aspect of the source material because then movies would be six hours long, and what works in one medium doesn’t necessarily work on film. I think this is what added to the success of the Nolan-verse “Batman” series. While it’s not completely true to the Batman canon, it feels like it could be. It feels like Nolan actually sat down and read some Batman comics. It feels like he understood the material and understood what the fans wanted, and that’s the recipe for success.

Writer Charlaine Harris – you might have heard of a little show called “True Blood” based on her novels – has said fans need to treat the show and the book as two separate entities, and not expect one to follow the other because it’s boring to see on screen something exactly like what you read. While I agree, changes shouldn’t be at the expense of quality. If something is changed, change it for the better, not because it lets the studio use more special effects, or because you don’t have enough sexy girls to draw in the teen male audience, or (so help me) to dumb down the source material. The success of a film like “Inception” shows audiences are willing to sit through something smarter than the average summer blockbuster. We’re not children…except for the moviegoers who actually are, physically, children. And even then, all the more reason to make them think about stuff and not just throw cool explosions at them in 3-D just because you can.

So maybe I was a little harsh. Maybe “X-Men: First Class” wasn’t a terrible movie – it just had an infestation of plot-eating termites that eventually consumed its foundation. It needed someone to come in and examine the support beams a long time ago, or at least someone to call an exterminator before it got released…and I think I just took this metaphor too far.

Anyway, the key word here is respect. Respect your source material and respect your audience. It’ll be tough, but who said filmmaking was easy?

We’ll reward you for the hard work, we promise.

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