The two films that birthed the popularity of modern superhero films were Spider-Man and X-Men[i]. The two films were massive successes and demonstrated that there was interest in superhero films. The two films also were perfect reflections of the tones that most superhero films would take. X-Men was a serious and dark action-film that emphasized realism and story. Spider-Man was a film that, while having a strong emotional core, included lighthearted comedy and primarily focused on the character. X-Men gave precedent to serious superhero dramas like The Dark Knight, The Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man would set the tone and approach that would be reflected in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But X-Men’s dark realism wore out its welcome for the mutants by the second sequel. While fans and critics responded disproportionately positive to X-Men: Days of Future Past, the tone and approach that was continued by Bryan Singer was a dead-end.
Singer chose to ground the X-Men series in realism and dark overtones to lend credibility to the main thematic concept in X-Men. Singer understood the concept that the X-Men are representations of the disenfranchised. Claremont popularized the concept that mutants stood for any member of society that faces prejudice. Singer, eager to lend credibility to the science-fiction allegory, was compelled to take the concept far more seriously than others would. One of the methods of doing such was applying more practical costumes for both superheroes and the supervillains. The gaudy costumes were feared to undermine the serious issue of prejudice onscreen. Other examples of higher-realism include the logical presentation of superpowers, with Mystique being nude before using her shape shifting to mimic clothing.
The serious focus had a great power at first. At a time when the neoconservative movement was surging, Singer dared to be counter-culture with a mainstream action film. X2 dared to hammer home the allegory of mutants representing the disenfranchised with a scene of Iceman “coming out” to his family. The unabashedly liberal film had a shocked and saddened Mrs. Drake ask, “Bobby have you ever tried, not being a mutant?” Part of the bravery of the film was that it resisted the urge for the Hollywood comforting message. The Drakes reject Bobby Drake and never see him again. Pyro chooses the Brotherhood for his adoptive family rather than the X-Men. The second film was incredibly powerful, but its power did not come from its dark realism, but from its willingness to explore high-concepts while developing characters. Unfortunately, following the second X-Men film, characters stagnated in development and few new concepts were introduced.
One must understand that the lasting appeal of the X-Men series has always been the continuing evolution of characters and introduction of high-concepts to the series. The dark and serious tone of Singer’s approach to X-Men was similar to what Chris Claremont had done in his defining of the X-Men. But Chris Claremont had so many concepts introduced, ranging from new characters, to alien species, and differing factions in the mutant community. The X-Men can function as a serious series, but they thrive more than anything on new ideas and concepts being introduced. Grant Morrison’s brilliant run on the New X-Men brought new approaches and developments to characters while at the same time introducing concepts such as mutant drugs, evolving machines and mutant culture developing a generation gap. Brian Michael Bendis focused on the high-concept of time travel and themes of legacy in his addictive All-New X-Men. These innovations illustrate that X-Men thrives on new ideas, while taking the concept of mutants representing a disenfranchised seriously.
The films stagnated after X2, as no major new ideas were introduced and characters became static as the series continued. X-Men: The Last Stand had brilliant concepts that were worthy of exploration. The notion of a “cure” for mutation was spectacular and worthy of a character driven story of self-identity and the pressure for conformity. But the script haphazardly combined this concept with the Dark Phoenix Saga, which began to demonstrate the franchise not choosing to develop characters or major concepts. Instead the X-Men films became progressively joyless as they attempted to be serious action thrillers while never properly being able to develop the concept of mutants as the disenfranchised. The only exception to this trend being X-Men: First Class. X-Men Origins: Wolverine continued the ludicrous seriousness, save for some jarring slapstick moments. Most of the concepts again were excellent, but poorly developed, with the potential serious drama of brothers clashing like Cain and Abel while also exploring Wolverine as a government assassin. Ironically it would be the videogame tie-in to the film that properly understood the proper tone for the story and development of the character. The videogame was a meditation of a violent man constantly being exploited until finally breaking free and persevering against all strife. No concepts in the X-Men franchise were properly developed. The X-Men franchise represents so many terrific concepts that are underdeveloped for the sake of action and display of superpowers onscreen.
As alluded to before, X-Men: First Class is a glaring exception to the major trends of the X-Men franchise. While not introducing major new concepts, the film was excellent for establishing a much more optimistic tone and a sense of joy during the film. The film was much more powerful than most of the films that had come prior or since as it focused on characters and had dynamic growth for the entire ensemble. This sense of joy was because (much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe) the film was written and directed by those who loved the material and understood how the series works best. While X2 is a better film, First Class is a much more enjoyable film and has greater re-watchable value. If anything First Class represented the potential of a cinematic X-Men film realized. A strong character drama while delivering the concept of mutants being the disenfranchised. Mystique finds herself on the side of the Brotherhood, yet she is able to boldly proclaim, “Mutant and proud,” while Beast is still left with self-loathing at his condition. Even more resonant was Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr coldly stating, “I have been at the mercy of men ‘just following orders’ all my life. Never again.” The film was an exciting and effective reboot that was able to truly breathe life and potential in the cinematic X-Men.
The Wolverine similarly played to the strengths of focusing the narrative as a solo Wolverine film rather than including many X-Men. While its tone was dark and serious it felt much more appropriate for the character as the film was a meditation on the concept of immortality. But all of the potential for the X-Men cinematic universe was then ruined by a return to the dark grounded realism of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Fans seemed so enraged at X-Men: The Last Stand that they embraced Singer’s Back to the Future-style ending as evidence of great storytelling. But this ending effectively cancelled all of the X-Men films other than the first X-Men and perhaps X-Men Origins: Wolverine [ii]as Jean Grey is alive, cancelling her poignant sacrifice at the end of X2.
The tone of X-Men: Days of Future Past is unbearably bleak. While darkness is welcome in any story the moping attitude of characters is not given any proper justification. The film is so downbeat that no audience member feels genuinely happy by the conclusion as there is no major sense of achievement or change. If the entire “happiness” is from undoing X-Men: The Last Stand, then all audiences are left with is a gigantic apology and factory reset through a generic and unmemorable time-travel film. The genuinely downbeat tone is not salvaged by captivating action, as the film is seldom visually interesting save for an early scene involving Blink and a captivating moment with Quicksilver. The film represents much of what the X-Men franchise ultimately amounts to. A magnificent opportunity for high-concepts and character drama sullied by a dark melancholic tone that takes their concepts in a too grounded and serious approach.
[i] Blade while an incredibly successful film was intentionally anti-superhero and considering the character’s lack of popularity within the comics’ community, the film did little to breathe life into the superhero genre.
[ii] Although there is the problematic rescue of Mystique by Wolverine, how he gains his metal claws and later joins the X-Men is confusing.