12 Jun

X-Men: First Class, revisionist origins and why I’m okay with mangling Marvel continuity

Posted by Bryan White | Sunday June 12, 2011 | Comics,The Android's Dungeon

It’s been too long since I’ve had a proper Android’s Dungeon column. Way too long. Truth be known, those article tend to fall in the middle of long comic book binges where I spend more time catching up on trades than I do watching movies and since I haven’t bought a comic in a very long time, it’s only appropriate that I leave the topic uncommented upon. I recently caught X-Men: First Class, though, and it nearly inspired me to go dancing through the streets like Gene Kelly on MDMA. So let me be clear and get a couple of things out of the way:

Uncanny X-Men #253My first comic book was actually a fantasy book called Killer. It had some Frazetta style cover that caught my eye. The first book that I bought and really liked was the final issue of that Punisher limited series in the 80′s that became the Punisher regular series but the first comic that I bought and became a fan of, the book that lured me into the world of comics in complete was Uncanny X-Men #253. Why this book? I can’t really remember. The cover, when compared the covers of other Uncannys of the time, is actually kind of a clusterfuck. When you figured two issues prior, the cover featured a Marc Silvestri illustration of Wolverine crucified to a giant X, this one doesn’t say shit. It was also a terrible book to start a series like X-Men with. I landed right in the middle of an exceptionally convoluted story that planted the only two active X-Men of the time, Forge and Banshee, in the middle of a search for the rest of the team after they had escaped The Reavers by stepping into the Siege Perilous, whereupon they lost their memories and were scattered all over the world. Psylocke was even turned into a Japanese girl ninja. Meanwhile, Wolverine and Jubilee (his then-latest relationship with a minor that was only a little less inappropriate than Batman and Robin) are floating around what looks like the set of Pirates of the Carribean only it’s in Japan or something. It was fucking nuts but I stuck with it and witnessed the long, slow demise of one of Marvels then-most innovative and hyper melodramatic books. How bummed was I?

I caught the comic book wave right around the same time that a lot of new blood was entering the mix. There was a new generation of artists working for Marvel and DC at the time and their young perspective on comics took old dogged books and breathed new life into them, even if that life was sometimes made rancid by the heavy hand of Rob Liefeld. The problem, however, was that as I aged, the books failed to grow with me and while my tastes were becoming more sophisticated and my expectations grew, super hero comics, X-Men in particular, failed to grow with me. The books multiplied as their popularity flourished but all this meant was that there were now more mediocre comics on the market than before, selling more books than any other series before them. Each one of these books had devolved into teenage soap operas involving more complicated romantic relationships between characters than interesting rivalries and conflict between heroes and villains. I became very bitter about supers books at this time but I never let go of that fondness I had for Uncanny X-Men during its glory days. By that I mean that period of the late 70′s into the mid-80′s where the book began to fall into insane sci-fi storytelling that had Professor X jumping in and out of his wheelchair almost on a monthly basis thanks to alien technology that could fix him and the awful shit that Magneto did to put him back in the chair. It also turned out that Jean Grey wasn’t dead, Madeline Pryor was a clone of Jean and Cyclops’ parents, long thought dead, had retreated into space where they were now cutlass wielding space pirates. Or something. No matter how wound up and twisted the canon became, I still loved it and still love it today. Which is one of my major gripes about Marvel Comics.

When Marvel became Marvel, they did something that few people genuinely understand these days. In the context of comic books, few publishers had a huge stable of super hero books. Most published a handful on a monthly basis and of those, maybe one was popular. In the early 60′s, comic book publishing was in the middle of a major decline. Marvel went against the business grain and created a massive glut of new titles in a sagging market. They also pitted them within the same framework and setting so The Fantastic Four could cross over with The Amazing Spider Man if it wanted to (and it did). This was practically unheard of. From a storytelling perspective, it gave writers a whole new dimension of opportunity to tell great stories but from a marketing perspective, it introduced new characters from other books to readers who may not have encountered them and created new sales. Great idea, right? The problem is that this model doesn’t scale very well and over time with characters jumping in and out of each others’ books, not to mention whole decades of continuity, the threads become tangled and you wind up with absurd bullshit like Nightcrawler finding out that he’s the rotten womb-spawn of an unholy – not to mention completely unlikely – union between Sabertooth and Mystique. So here I am finally getting to the fucking point.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class falls into a weird spot in Marvel movie history where Marvel and Hollywood finally seem to be getting the recipe right. This is unfortunate because in the mad rush to capitalize on comic book box office, they burned some of their flagship titles in absolutely terrible movies. I think the first X-Men is an adequate movie with maybe too much emphasis on Wolverine, a character that I haven’t much cared for since I was 15. I liked the first two Spider Man movies but the train ends there. The rest can suck a dick. Now it seems they’re figuring out how to do it but a period X-Men flick has to contend with an established timeline. You can’t use Cyclops because in the Bryan Singer flicks he’s a 20-something in contemporary America. In a movie about 60′s X-Men, you have to use his brother, Alex, Havok. The problem is that Havok is actually younger than Cyclops in the comics. If you really want to get down to it, Cyclops’ brother would actually wind up being much older than him in this context since we can assume that by the movie timeline, Cyclops and I were probably born around the same time.

X-Men: First ClassIn order to put Professor X in a wheelchair you either start him there and then introduce Juggernaut or you throw Juggernaut into the mix and explain the history of those two characters. Since most writers in Hollywood are in love with the MLK/Malcolm X relationship between the Professor and Magneto, nobody ever touches Juggernaut, which is a shame.

Another problem with putting the X-Men in the 60′s is that early X-material was really fucking awful. There are archives out there of those early Jack Kirby books and as much as I love Kirby, those early books are pretty bland. It’s really no wonder that they shelved Uncanny X-Men for a few years. Of that time there’s really nothing worth adapting. So you’re basically left with a great setting, the turbulent social condition of 60′s America, a really great idea in a team of extremely misunderstood heroes charged with saving the very people who hate them, a jumbled timeline of characters to pool for your script and a slightly restrictive framework to work within thanks to suck-ass movies that gobbled up the prime properties way too early in the game. So how do you make a good movie with working conditions like this? You fucking wing it.

Not a single fuck was given that dayThe results were awesome. I absolutely loved X-Men: First Class and a lot of it had to do with the script from Vaughn and Goldman. They both tooled Kick-Ass and changed it from the big ‘fuck you’ that the comic book was into one of my favorite movies from last year. This year they took an impossible situation, adapting the X-Men into an origin story that both worked and was exciting and somehow managed to pull it off. How they did this is they threw caution to the wind and gave absolutely no fucks in the adaptation department. This process of ignoring comic book authenticity drives fans insane and to be completely honest, I used to be one of those guys on AICN talkback bitching about so and so’s costume and how the comics were betrayed by Hollywood writers who didn’t know what they were doing. These days I don’t care. Tone and theme is far more important to me than the nuances of the X-Men costumes. Though I will give Vaughn major credit for creating a series of uniforms that were far more faithful to the comics than those leather suits from the Singer movies. Tone and theme in First Class was spot on and what appealed to me most was how it came off the screen and into my world as an origin story written by Chris Claremont, whose Uncanny books were the ones that pulled me into comics in the first place. In spite of everything being just a little bit wrong and not much caring about how things were working in the actual Marvel Universe, this movie managed to feel like everything I loved about the X-Men in the first place.

In closing: fuck continuity. First Class stood apart from the comics using the general X-Men idea and a few familiar characters but it wove in new characters from the Marvel alternate storyline, Ultimate Marvel, and it turned in a movie that was an awful lot of fun and felt more like Marvel than any Marvel movie to come before.

2 Comments 

  1. June 12, 2011 8:10 pm

    Nap

    I know exactly how you feel, and I couldn’t agree more. X:FC was probably the best Marvel movie I’ve seen to date, and worlds better than any of the other atrocious X-films. I have to admit that I have a special place in my heart for writers that can twist continuity into great story fodder — for example, consider Grant Morrison’s recent Batman RIP run.

    However, the honest truth is that it’s often more of a burden than anything else, especially in the hands of mediocre writers (which the medium is unfortunately full of). Continuity is important, but it’s not everything. And it should never get in the way of telling a great story.

  2. June 14, 2011 6:52 am

    E. Christopher Clark

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. As I think I said on Twitter, I’m having an argument with someone over on GF5 about this flick right now and you have spelled out my argument (or parts of it) better than I did/could.


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