Logan: This is what you guys wear?
Scott: Well what would you prefer, yellow spandex?
In acknowledgment to fan outrage of the change of costumes in the first X-Men film, the screenwriters included a line that referenced the choice of costumes. But the screenwriter chose to mock nerds and even the creators of the characters for the stupidity of wanting the actors of the film to wear the preposterous yellow spandex. To a degree this is fair, some costumes such as Spider-Man and Iron Man’s Extremis Suit can be seen onscreen as acceptable. Others such as Captain America, Robin and Wolverine’s costume are harder to accept. But this throwaway line of dialogue represents part of the greater problem of the X-Men film franchise. Those that adapted the material viewed X-Men as not only a flawed source material but even laughable. Considering this the writers and directors took X-Men as a concept to apply their own liberal interpretation that would be as anti-superhero and supposedly realistic as possible. A single line of dialogue did not poison the well of the X-Men film franchise. But the line was a demonstration that the series was created by people who thought they could “fix” the property. The creators felt that key aspects to the series that had been cherished by thousands for decades was stupid.
To be blunt, the X-Men is a series that does not greatly translate to film. X-Men in comics is a soap opera within the superhero genre. The draw of the series is always the drama of the characters and their interaction with themselves and the world. It’s a testament that Chris Claremont had people clamoring to know about Scott and Jean’s relationship as much as they were thrilled at the high-concept superheroics. Even Mark Millar’s bombastic blockbuster storylines in Ultimate X-Men was dependent on the ongoing development of the main characters from story to story. The X-Men franchise is an ensemble piece with each character working to compliment the others. Film is a more truncated form of storytelling, and the larger the ensemble the harder it is to tell a cohesive narrative without marginalizing characters for the sake of the narrative. The best medium for X-Men outside of an ongoing comic is television. This is why the 1990s X-Men animated series is more genuinely admired among X-fans while the film series is polarizing. To be fair, to do a live action X-Men television series would not be financially feasible in 1999.
The X-Men film franchise is not a great film franchise. Only two of the films transcend simple enjoyable entertainment. But to be equally fair, no X-Men film commits the greatest sin of all in entertainment of being boring. As incredibly flawed as X-Men: The Last Stand is, it is actually entertaining to watch when compared the unbearable Green Lantern and Superman Returns. The series has flaws that far transcend the annoying continuity errors. There are more important disappointments in character execution and tone throughout the series.
The first X-Men film was not a spectacular film, but it demonstrated if nothing else an excellent introduction to the world of the X-Men. Compared to most superhero films, X-Men resisted the temptation of providing an origin story for the X-Men. Instead the series began with an established Xavier Institute and team of trained mutants. But the first film does not leave a great impression on viewers as only four characters are given significant development. The fantastic Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart gave an excellent gravitas to their characters. Jackman and Oscar winner Anna Paquin were equally fantastic in creating an excellent paternal relationship between Wolverine and Rogue. But beyond this, most of the characters felt second-tier and underdeveloped. Unfortunately this was not greatly improved as the series progressed.
X2 did give something to define the characters beyond their powers. But characters such as Jean Grey and Cyclops were defined solely for their romantic relationship. Jean was solely being defined by her possible feelings for Logan and her loyalty to Scott. The film showed in hindsight that though an ensemble piece, only Wolverine was considered worthy of being the central focus of the drama and development of the series. This insistence of focusing on Wolverine as the central protagonist relegated Wolverine’s foil of Cyclops to be an off-screen character that was ultimately unlikeable. By the time he was unceremoniously killed in X-Men: The Last Stand no one could truly care for Scott Summers dying. No character felt developed by the conclusion of the X-Men trilogy, with Storm feeling 1-dimensional despite ostensibly leading the X-Men in The Last Stand.
Characters in the X-Men franchise would be continually marginalized and underdeveloped as the series would continue. Most characters were utilized less for their actual personality or depth but for the powers that defined them. In two different appearances in Origins: Wolverine and First Class, Emma Frost was simply defined as a girl who could turn into diamond in the former and was also evil in the latter. One knew less and less who these characters were and one was meant to simply know them by their powers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the latest film Days of Future Past. The amount of praise for the film confounds the mind as it is was a fairly dull and subliminally stupid. Alex Summers, a character who was more defined and likeable in one appearance than Scott had been in three movies was given the same treatment of his brother in Days of Future Past. Havok appears in a single action scene and is never seen or mentioned again after. Which is borderline insulting to fans of Havok when Toad was shown in the climax of the film. Similarly the likeable and three-dimensional Banshee is killed offscreen. Only Beast was kept around for X-Men: Days of Future Past, but what is his purpose in the film? What is his arc as a character? Hank McCoy still carries around his self-loathing, but this crippling inferiority complex is not explored as he is able to successfully disguise himself as human save for a convenient action scene. Hank is given no real reason to not be in Beast make-up other than that the studios or actor wanted him to appear that way for most of the film. Is Hank supposed to be a drug enabler for Charles? A pointless romantic interest of Mystique? There is no real purpose or character in Hank McCoy other than to provide some arbitrary exposition and provide an idiotic McGuffin to the story.
Similarly, the character development of Charles Xavier is lacking as it is moronic. Beyond the sheer lunacy of being able to regain the ability to walk after losing telepathy[i], his characterization of being depressed and uncertain is an arbitrary change. There is no real reason for Xavier to be depressed, especially considering how optimistic and engaged he was for the future at the end of First Class. Similarly Xavier reviling his mutant abilities defies logic when he was bragging about it in the first film. Only Mystique and Magneto have logical character progression, but in an ensemble piece that demonstrates an incapability on the writers to find depth with most of your characters.
As for the popular clawed mutant himself? Wolverine was well developed in the franchise but certain decisions go against his character arc. Logan accepts not knowing his past by the conclusion of X2 and akin to Douglas Quaid of Total Recall, Logan accepts his new identity as a proud mutant rather than find the answers that Stryker offers. But audiences could not accept mystery and studios tried to push for a genuine origin for Wolverine, the result was a film that had a rushed production and relied on a first-draft script that was not perfected due to a Writers Strike. Wolverine made peace with his demons by the conclusion of the fantastic The Wolverine and was left to have adventures with Yukio. His arc having been completed makes him a relatively flat character for future films. He was relatively useless to the X-Men in Days of Future Past, spending most of the film as a cheerleader and then being soundly defeated by Magneto in three seconds. I suppose if one has Hugh Jackman in the cast it would feel wrong not to utilize the character, even if there is little to actually do with him.
What we are left with by the X-Men franchise is ultimately four characters who are regarded as important enough to develop and humanize as the series progresses. Out of a cast of thousands in the X-Men series filmmakers have chosen Wolverine, Professor X, Magneto and Mystique as worthy of developing. Even though Wolverine’s character had been already finished by the second film the series will continue to utilize these four characters. All the while undermining and under-developing many interesting characters until they become nothing but a spectacle of superpowers.
[i] There is suspension of disbelief and then there is stupidity. I can accept human evolution suddenly having numerous members of an evolved form of humans having superpowers. I can accept superpowers onscreen. I have no difficulty in believing in drugs that can surpress mutant abilities. I have difficulty accepting that a power suppressant could temporarily heal a shattered spine.