Friday, 13 June 2014

X Marks the spot

Superheroes have soared from comics and Children’s television to consistently top world-wide Box Office returns for the last decade and a half.  Smash… biff… how?

 We’re surrounded by superheroes at the cinema these days, which conjures an amusing image of capes getting caught in fold down seats and pointy bat-ears obscuring the screen for unfortunate citizens seated behind.  But it does beg the question – when did all this begin?
The Donner Superman and Burton Batman are the twin peaks of ‘comic book cinema’, but they more-or-less book-ended the distant 1980s, and were certainly not surrounded by the platoons of powered-up poseurs which we find today.  In fact, it’s an enduring mystery that a Batman film and big-screen outings for other characters didn’t follow far sooner after the massive success of the first two Superman films.

So when did the modern superhero film come in to being? As with the ‘big two’ mentioned above these productions are often typified by exemplary state-of-the-art effects, a big-name portrayal of the mentor and/or chief villain and an obligatory ‘origin story’.  The difference now however, is the sheer profusion.  Characters with nowhere near the public recognition of ‘Bats’ and ‘Big Blue’ are being propelled into multiplexes by a torrent of money which could pay off a small country’s national debt and publicity campaigns muscular enough to get a President elected.
And as relatively obscure as these costumed creations might be, the trend is now to reference and interconnect even lesser-known figures and plot-points, building, (as any documentary on a Marvel movie DVD will tell you), ‘an entire universe ™’.

For my money, the starting point for the modern superhero film was, perhaps fittingly, the year 2000.  A young director who had enjoyed recent success with a film prophetically starring Kevin Spacey as the villain, caught the attention of 20th Century Fox.  Bryan Singer’s film The Usual Suspects convinced the studio that his skill with a large ensemble cast made him ideal for a property they had purchased from Marvel comics, on the strength of a strongly-performing animated adaptation on children’s TV.  Singer originally baulked at the idea, until the bisexual director read some of the original comics perhaps found he could relate to the alienation and prejudice which the characters faced through being born different to the accepted norm.

Marvel’s X-Men had been around since 1963, drawing inspiration from the civil rights movement of the time to depict the tribulations of mutated humans in a mistrusting society.  Although they didn’t enjoy the brand recognition of DC comic’s previously- filmed icons, or even the cache of some of their own Marvel stablemates, the X-Men consistently out-sold them all on the comic book stands. These angsty characters seemed to speak to anyone who’d ever felt different or discriminated against - everyone, in other words.

But would a big budget film version have the same appeal?  The most recent superhero film up to this point had been Batman and Robin: the camp, over-turned toybox which marked the ignoble end of the original Batman franchise.  The genre was hardly left in a healthy state.
Undaunted, Singer assembled a promising cast: Sir Ian McKellen (allegedly lured by the appeal of wearing a purple cloak) and Patrick Stewart (originally under the misapprehension that this was to be an X-Files film).  Scottish actor Dougray Scott found himself delayed by Tom Cruise’s ego on Mission Impossible 2 and lost the chance to play the most recognisable X-Man: Wolverine.  The part ended up going to an unknown Australian appearing in a stage production of Oklahoma at the time.  Halle Berry and ‘Bond Girl’ Famke Janssen rounded out the familiar faces, while martial artist of the moment, Ray ‘Darth Maul’ Park, again played a villain – evil mutant ‘toad’.

It’s easy to overlook the impact that X-Men had upon its release - this ground-breaking, media-transcending success of a property largely known only to comic book readers was a miracle which has been replicated many, many times since. Such a high concept production could have been incomprehensible to the general public, but the enormous success of The Matrix was still in the air, showing that audiences were prepared to enjoy action between their mental synapses as well as on screen.
Many expected a similar visual ethos to The Matrix, but ‘bullet time’ was already being done to death; X-Men was its own ‘Beast’ (although it took him until the third film to put in an appearance).  
The last two Batman films had flirted with computer generated imagery, whereas X-Men exploited it to the full, boldly rendering characters and visions only feverishly imagined in comic book panels.  Less boldly realised were the characters uniforms, establishing yet another trope for this contemporary genre – black, or at least very muted colour was a requirement for characters making the leap from the bright, four-colour world. X-Men was savvy enough to even reference this in one of the film’s most self-aware lines.

A superb piece of cautionary artwork by ‘Jinkauai’, showing what a film cleaving
closer to the costume aesthetic of the comics could have looked like.  Evangeline Lilly
might be happy to wear pointy elf ears, but this would surely be a step too far…
Fox’s instincts about Singer were correct, he delivered a character-driven ensemble film which served everyone well, but most of all the audience.  Where the dying gasps of the previous era of superhero films had relied on ‘batty’ stunt casting, X-Men simply gave us perfect casting.
McKellen and Stewart were the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of this scenario, and loaded the preposterous plot with so much gravitas that we instantly believed everything we heard and saw, and even sided with their cause.  We felt sorry for the X-Men while at the same time envying their spectacular abilities. And that aforementioned Australian actor became an overnight star.  Compared then to a young Clint Eastwood, Hugh Jackman continues to shine brightly enough to have even survived Van Helsing and two indifferently-received Wolverine spin-offs.
Most of all, Bryan Singer’s X-Men left the public, and studio, wanting more.

X-Men sequels followed, the second part establishing another contemporary superhero trend of arguably surpassing its parent, while the third was perceived to stumble somewhat. Two outstanding ‘prequels’ have since restored this series to robust health and it’s heartening to see that the forefather of the modern superhero film still has the X-factor for audiences.  

Predictions from no-lesser sages than Steven Spielberg warn us that this hugely expensive superhero boom cannot last, and the shockwave of their eventual plummet from the skies will probably redefine the entire motion picture industry.
But let’s enjoy it while we can, as we did 14 years ago when a smart young director last changed the landscape of popular cinema by lining up a team of very Unusual Suspects.

(insight on the performance of current Superhero cinema can be found at Mr Simian's blog, here:
and Jamas has reviewed Days of Future Past here:

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