The X-Men Movies And The Case They Make For Self Contained Stories

The X-Men film universe gives me a headache.

I know intellectually that I should take them in in the same way I do comic books – not worrying about the timeline, just relaxing into the story and not questioning it – but there’s something about having an adaptation, live action or otherwise, that makes that harder. Even though I know it doesn’t make sense, I find myself questioning timelines, questioning how the thing that happened in one movie ties into what happened in the previous one, trying to find in-universe explanations for retcons or inconsistencies. I get a little tired of the constant debate of how different things – even those that are explicitly not in the same universe, like The Gifted and Legion – fit into a timeline that at best can be interpreted loosely. And that doesn’t even get into how exhausting continuity lockout can be. A movie should be a complete story on its own. It should stand alone without needing to watch three other movies and read all the companion material. A multiple part story is one thing, but even then, that story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, based on a pre-existing plan, not an endless number of instalments tacked on, because comic book movies are not comic books. Having more self contained stories, rather than pushing the idea of a “cinematic universe”, would solve all these problems.

Having a predetermined number of movies with a clear overall arc would lessen the debate of how things fit together, because there’d be a clear answer: they don’t. If it floats your boat, you could make a case for how they could, but when it comes to the actual story, the answer is they don’t. It would allow for viewers to just go in and watch the movie or the series without having to watch a bunch more movies to avoid confusion. It would allow for more creator freedom, because their work would depend on, at most, a couple other movies in a series, not a dozen of highly variable quality and comprehensibility. For the viewer, it makes it easier to just reject what you didn’t like. It seems to me like a much more enjoyable experience.

I’m sorry, but I didn’t enjoy Logan. From my perspective, it relied too heavily on existing fondness for the Hugh Jackman Wolverine and Patrick Stewart Xavier, because neither of them were very sympathetic in the film itself. It was more manipulative than well written. I didn’t like the concept, because it felt disrespectful to all the other X-Men and Old Man Logan doesn’t do it for me. And it wasn’t particularly well thought out, either, because when asked if it was in its own universe, everyone involved gave a different answer. But you know what? If it had been explicitly an separate story – with different actors, maybe, something to show that it’s a different universe – all that could have changed.

Part of the reason it bothered me so much was because of what it means for other X-Men movies. It wasn’t all of it, but it was certainly some of it, because it meant we were never going to see the original cast again. They’re never going to get the sendoff they deserve, that I was hoping for after we saw them again in Days of Future Past. So I’ve thought a lot about what it would be like if Logan were in a different universe and hadn’t slammed that door closed. In that case, it wouldn’t have turned a whole franchise into something even more annoyingly Wolverine-centric. It wouldn’t have turned the whole franchise into a giant Shoot the Shaggy Dog story where nothing the X-Men did in past movies or will do in future ones matters. It wouldn’t have presented Logan as the most important X-Man, despite the fact he’s arguably barely an X-Man and doesn’t fit at all with the metaphor for the oppressed that they’ve been since Chris Claremont defined them. Saying, hey, this is a movie about Wolverine and Professor X that has nothing to do with those other movies about them would mean it could be judged as a story, not as an entry into a franchise, on its own merits, rather than being Hugh Jackman’s swan song. In that case, we could have learned if it was actually good beyond the emotional manipulation. I might have actually liked it.

On a similar note, we have Days of Future Past. Now, I love this movie. I think it was one of the peaks of the franchise. But it also has a lot of glaring flaws. Some of these, I think, would have been fixed by making it and First Class a separate duology, or maybe even adding a third movie to put it into a trilogy that had nothing to do with any other movie. What’s one of the biggest complaints about that movie? That’s easy: Kitty Pryde being sidelined from being the lead character of the story to being Wolverine’s Uber driver. But every time that gets brought up, people jump to defending why it “had to be Wolverine”. There are two ways they use to argue this – Watsonian or Doylist. Intradiegetic or extradiegetic. In-universe or real world.

The in-universe answer is that Wolverine was the only one alive at the time they had to go back to that could handle the trip and for the way the story’s version of time travel worked, they couldn’t send someone else. For argument’s sake, let’s ignore the fact that the writers could change those time travel rules. Setting it in a separate timeline from the other movies could make that not true – boom, done, Kitty was alive in the time she needed to go back to, she could go.

The other argument for why it “had to be Wolverine” is the real world answer – people were attached to Wolverine, not Kitty, who only had about fifteen minutes of screen time in the series. So sending back Wolverine made for a more poignant story. You know what that indicates? Precisely my problem with Logan – a story that’s manipulative and relying on existing fondness for a character, rather than actually giving them an arc that we can be invested in. If DoFP was a “standalone” (though part of its own, shorter series), none of this justification for not sending Kitty would be valid, because Wolverine wouldn’t have any more history in the story. All history would have to be built in the movie itself. Every minute would have to count. And that’s how you can tell a good story from something that’s not – a good story can make the audience sympathize and root for and feel attached to the character on its own. It doesn’t need a whole preceding series.

It’s funny – the original X-Men trilogy was hugely important for the development of superhero movies. They demonstrated how great sequels to these movies could be. They very probably paved the way for shared universes as it pertains to superheroes, all of them existing together. Without them, there would be no MCU or DCEU. It doesn’t matter whether or not you love them, you have to acknowledge that they matter. But I think they also have reached a point, eighteen years in, where they make it clear that this really isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Logan  and Days of Future Past clearly demonstrate the value of standalones.

It reminds me of something that there was a lot of debate about which on Twitter recently – Zack Snyder’s comment that, in his five movie plan, he would have killed Batman. A lot of people were shocked and glad that didn’t come to pass. But I think that’s just another indication of what Snyder’s preferred method of storytelling is. And I think that method of storytelling would work amazingly for the X-Men.

Snyder believes in story arcs, not universes. He draws inspiration from various sources, blending them into one coherent story, where instalments connect to each other, but there’s also an end in sight. His movies have very little excess bulk, with every minute of footage serving a specific purpose. He makes bold choices, such as killing off iconic characters like Bruce Wayne, in a way that all Snyder fans know would be respectful and poignant. Some people were talking about how Dick Grayson could become Batman after Bruce’s death- an idea which I love, Dick as Batman is one of my very favourite things – but I don’t think that’s the point here. The point is that Snyder’s vision wasn’t more and more instalments with more and more characters that ended up all sharing the screen. It was thinking through all the details, planning ahead, and making a story that doesn’t go on forever. It’s not really a style loved by executives in this age of sequels and remakes. It’s very different from the MCU brand. But it’s fascinating to watch. It’s a beautiful style from someone that believes in self contained stories, the kind that would be perfect for the X-Men.

The X-Men movies have felt a bit like the result of a bunch of unplanned sequels being tacked on to a finished product, for no reason other than they make money. For someone that loves the X-Men and loves quite a bit of what’s in the X-Men movies, it’s kind of heartbreaking. I know they’re going to reboot. And presumably pretty soon. I just wish that when they do, it would be in a way that follows the tradition of self contained movies or trilogies, rather than the MCU brand of sticking everything together, because who cares about art when there’s money to be made.

It’s unlikely that we’re going to go back to the age of standalones any time soon. Not after the MCU has demonstrated how much money there is to be made like this. But I hope someday we do. The cinematic universe model has been a great experiment, and it was fun while it lasted, but I really would like to go back to self contained series now.

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One thought on “The X-Men Movies And The Case They Make For Self Contained Stories

  1. Pingback: Chris Claremont And When Characters Should Get To Move On – Nerd With Words

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