Bryan Singer’s fingerprints have been all over the X-Men movie series since day one. Even the films he hasn’t directed or produced have largely been following the stylistic blueprint that Singer set from the summer of 2000 onward. The original X-Men film deserves credit for ushering in the comic book movie millennium. Theatergoers embraced it, but as a ‘90s kid who grew up reading back issues of The Uncanny X-Men, collecting all the other new X-titles, watching The Animated Series, burning through quarters with the arcade game, and stockpiling the old Toy Biz action figures, I had my misgivings.
I trust that I need not whip out a complete Jim Lee trading card set (gold holograms included) to prove that the X-Men had a rogues gallery on par with that of Spider-Man or Batman. I always felt the movies did a disservice to villains like Sabretooth, Juggernaut (until Deadpool 2), and Apocalypse. They fell into a visible pattern of misunderstanding, minimizing, or cheapening important characters, forcing the franchise to course-correct and try and redo the characters in later movies.
Here we are again. Perhaps the most underwhelming aspect of the trailers for Dark Phoenix was that they clearly teased an earthbound saga. “Give us the Starjammers, you cowards!” I wanted to yell. Bad reviews, lackluster box office results on opening weekend, and another mishandling of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” are bringing the 20th Century Fox era to an end. And I wonder if this can’t all somehow be traced back to Singer banning comics from the X-Men movie set twenty years ago.
Fox’s X-Men series yielded six good movies out of twelve. That’s a batting average of .500. It asks a question: is the puddle in which a superhero drowns half-full or half-empty?
The franchise went on the upswing in the 2010s, rebooting itself and seemingly fixing its muddled timeline, only to recommence vacillating in quality as it ventured into R-rated territory, toward the ultimate prize of Logan (which remains the least connected and best of the series).
Singer has gone on record to say that he never read comics as a kid, and while this doesn’t necessarily make him the wrong man for the job of adapting them (an outsider’s perspective can sometimes prove beneficial to a franchise), you can see how a fundamental disregard for the source material informed his pseudo-realistic approach.
The X-Men of the comics had colorful costumes, blue fur, blue skin, metal skin, metal wings, ice bodies, and prehensile tails. Cinematically, it almost feels like another band of outsiders, the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy team — with its furry raccoons and green-skinned aliens — wound up being closer to the visual spirit of X-Men.
Beginning with their first appearance in 1963, the X-Men did sometimes wear matching yellow and blue uniforms in the comics, but Singer sought to normalize their color scheme, toning it down for mass consumption in the time before superheroes were cool. In doing so, he completely changed their look, giving them black-leather, Matrix-inspired costumes. Decades of comics history took a back seat to being derivative of the Wachowskis and short-lived movie trends.
“What would you prefer, yellow spandex?” quipped Cyclops to Wolverine. Years later, Hugh Jackman related how he had to sneak X-Men comics onto the set like contraband.
Singer’s outsized Hollywood influence spilled over into the comics when it should have been the other way around. In 2001, Marvel Comics launched Ultimate X-Men and rebranded another established series as New X-Men, with both titles giving the team standardized black uniforms, altering their look into something more reflective of the Singer aesthetic and Fox’s fledgling film franchise.
The Ultimate Universe existed in its own continuity but the mainline Marvel Universe would never be the same. No longer mere “Children” of the Atom, heroes who had once been students at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters suddenly became teachers.
The student body grew to incorporate so many other new young mutants that Scarlet Witch would later conclude the House of M event by willing most of them out of existence, famously screaming, “No more mutants!” I’m a teacher myself now, but when I was young, the last thing in the world that I wanted to read was a comic book about a bunch of super-teachers.
According to Jackman, the reason Singer banned comics from the set was that he didn’t want the characters in his movie to be two-dimensional. Yet by ignoring their rich comic book histories, he often wound up reducing fan-favorite heroes and villains to two-dimensional ciphers, glorified background characters.
The aforementioned Sabretooth — Wolverine’s greatest arch-enemy — became a brute henchman with barely any lines. Then they recast him with Liev Schreiber but he no longer looked the part.
Colossus showed up in X2: X-Men United, but again: very few lines there. He wasn’t a real character until Deadpool.
Bishop looked cool in Days of Future Past, but he was a virtual non-entity, as well. Nominally a “character,” his main purpose was to act as brand-name cannon fodder.
Singer’s method, in some cases, was to basically just slap the same superpowers on characters who bore little resemblance to their comics counterparts. Pyro sticks out in memory: he went from being an Australian with a flamethrower on his back to a plainclothes teen with a Zippo lighter.
Ultimately, this led to a lot of unrecognizable character dynamics in the X-Men movies. The relationship between Wolverine and Anna Paquin’s de-aged Rogue, for instance, seemed closer to the one between him and Kitty Pryde in the comics.
It worked having Wolverine guide the audience into the X-Mansion, similar to Kitty in the animated TV pilot Pryde of the X-Men, but since when was Rogue a schoolgirl in a class with Storm as her teacher? Meanwhile, live-action Kitty was reduced to a couple of cameos, with three different actresses playing her across one trilogy and only Ellen Page making her into a full-fledged character.
For every bit of perfect casting — Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Kelsey Grammer as Beast, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool — there were at least as many characters in the X-Men series who were miscast or poorly executed. Taylor Kitsch as Gambit? Silver Samurai as a lumbering exoskeleton? No thanks.
Singer can’t bear all the blame for this. Lauren Shuler Donner has been with the franchise since the beginning. She produced every X-Men film. Since The Last Stand, Simon Kinberg has also taken on an increasingly active role as a writer, producer, and now, director. Dark Phoenix is his baby. But what Singer did do was establish the business model for this flabby, freewheeling Blob of a cinematic universe, which couldn’t even be trusted to respect its own continuity, let alone Marvel Comics tradition.
The obvious retort to this whole line of criticism would be to say that the movies were juggling a lot of characters and they couldn’t afford to give each one his or her proper due.
In that case, why not keep a tight ensemble, focus on your principal cast members, and save the other unneeded characters for the next movie when you can devote more screen time to them, à la Nightcrawler? Was it just some misguided sense of fan-service that led Singer and other filmmakers to keep throwing in all these flimsy cameos?
Over and above the teen soap opera cast-offs that seemed to populate Xavier’s School, the X-Men movies would sometimes utilize lame new B-grade mutants when a more established comics character might have sufficed. Anyone remember Quill, the porcupine head played by Ken Leung?
The X-Men started out as a class of five. Professor X was the teacher. Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Beast, and Angel were his students. It was a small training academy.
Giant-Size X-Men #1 opened up the ranks and made the X-Men into more of a multinational team, but even as the roster continued to expand and split into two teams, Blue and Gold, you could easily do a headcount and know who was who. Young mutants were confined to the New Mutants and Generation X. Other former students might go off and join X-Factor or X-Force. Together, all these different teams made up the X-universe, which was its own imaginative corner of the Marvel Universe. You could devote a whole Phase of the MCU just to the X-Men.
It suffered from some of the same built-in franchise problems as the 2000s films, but First Class, at least, had a different energy to it. Director Matthew Vaughn brought a retro vibe and breakout star Michael Fassbender made Magneto into a more compelling villain. Then we got a Wolverine movie set in Japan, which had third-act problems but which made for a refreshing standalone with a unique setting.
Just when the franchise seemed poised to escape Singer’s shadow, he returned to the director’s chair with Days of Future Past. Against all odds, that wound up being one of the better X-Men movies. Maybe part of that was because of its supergroup old/new cast and because its ‘70s period setting confined the horrible costume aesthetic of past Singer films to a frame story set in the future.
Singer promptly followed up Days of Future Past with X-Men: Apocalypse, another movie butchering an iconic X-Men villain. Fox fired him from his next film, Bohemian Rhapsody. This severed their long business relationship, and now he’s an easy target: a director who has fallen into disgrace after a swirl of accusations.
For what it’s worth, Singer directed one of my favorite ‘90s movies, The Usual Suspects, but I don’t think his career ever matched the promise of that first feature. And when you do stop to consider the allegations against him, it makes his influence on the franchise all the more troubling, in retrospect. Utilizing LGBTQ actors like Ian McKellen and Alan Cumming, he’s the filmmaker who showed us Iceman coming out to his parents as a mutant. It doesn’t help the cause one bit to have the person who framed the X-Men as a big-screen LGBTQ metaphor be an accused sexual predator.
As far back as 2000, Singer seemed to recognize that he stood to receive “All the blame” as the field marshal behind X-Men. Latching onto his name, it’s easy to start scapegoating one person, but in some ways, maybe he was just a cog in the Fox machine. As a comics fan, I was frequently alienated by what the combined Singer-Fox effect wrought. It paved the way for superheroes … by keeping their bright spandex selves closeted. Under the pretense of being serious and grounded, its failure of imagination led to a wide swath of genre posers that were either ignorant of their comic book roots or afraid to fully embrace them.
At one point, the ‘90s kid in me started to believe that the real X-Men would only work on screen if you could somehow make a TV show with the production value of a movie. With the MCU, we now have something resembling that. If there’s any silver lining to Disney’s acquisition of Fox, it’s that the X-Men are back home now, with Marvel Studios controlling their future. Kevin Feige is an overseer who has been able to balance quality control with comics faithfulness better than any other studio head. He’s the guy Jackman turned to when Singer wouldn’t let him bring comics on set.
To fans who still hold Singer’s vision in high regard, the real inescapable shadow, now and forevermore, might be the one cast by his first three X-movies. Those fans have their X-Men. They can go back anytime and revisit the Fox era, enjoying a wildly uneven ride riddled with continuity errors, like a First Class team that doesn’t age between 1962 and 1992.
For the rest of us, as Dark Phoenix ends this first messy iteration of the franchise, is it too much to hope that we might one day get some truer character depictions? Who do I have to bribe to see Wolverine in his classic costume, fighting a Sabretooth who doesn’t suck?
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