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X-Men First Class – A Lesson in Adaptation

JediCole here, throwing my hat into the ring in the ongoing discussions of X-Men First Class. Will it suck? Will it be great? It is just a little too early to tell with certainty. What is certain is that for some, no matter how good a story it tells, it will suck. For others it will be good if lacking in some key areas. And for others still it will deliver on so many levels it will become a new favorite. Are any of these people intrinsically right or wrong? No. And that is today’s lesson.

On a whole the X-Men movie franchise is an adaptation. Novels are adapted (and have been adapted) all of the time. The recently released Water for Elephant was based on a book and very likely changed a great many aspects of the source plotline to be viably consolidated into its 120 minute running time. Adapting any medium to film requires often drastic change. But the difficulties facing screenwriters converting a book to a screenplay are magnified when addressing a comic book. A novel is finite. It tells one story from beginning to end within the confines of its covers. A comic like X-Men however is a never-ending tale.

When cobbling together the first X-Men movie there was certainly no shortage of history to cull from. The X-Men have been around since the 60’s! And over the decades that followed their creation they have seen a great many incarnations, good and bad. The core X-Men (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Iceman, and Angel), while dynamic in their day, suffer today from being largely overshadowed by characters that followed in their footsteps. One need only look to the 80’s relaunch of the title (in Giant-Size X-Men #1) to see this fact illustrated. Only Cyclops remained when the modern team was assembled. While Banshee was not a brand new character, with the exception of Wolverine all of his contemporaries were created specifically for the new X-Men team.

I bring this up to make a point. When reviving or adapting something that has been around for some time to put in front of a new audience, it is often necessary to make drastic changes. This is why in the continuity of the X-Men movies we fast-forward to Wolverine and Rogue, albeit in drastically different form on Rogue's part, and give a back seat to Iceman. Marvel Girl starts out as Jean Gray (a reversal of her comic career) and Beast and Angel are nowhere to be found. This is all part of adapting the vast history of the X-Men to the screen. And doing so in a way that will be appealing to modern audiences.

The comic mini-series X-Men First Class took a look at the classic X-Men team with a fresh pair of eyes. While the series was undoubtedly popular with hardcore fans, I suspect there were many who passed on it due to its lack of characters like Wolverine, Gambit, and X-23. The “new guard” if you will. A mix of the old and new was necessary to appeal to every level of fan when adapting X-Men to the big screen. But you must also bear in mind that any movie based on a comic, at its best, must appeal to the non-fan as well. The strongest example of this would be The Dark Knight. Many were the people I talked to when it was in theatres who had never picked up a comic in their life, did not care about Batman in the least, and had never seen a comic book movie yet they went to see this movie and loved it. And in many cases saw it more than one time!
Why was The Dark Knight so successful? It certainly did not follow any formulas from the over a half-century of Batman comics. It wowed audiences because it was a great movie that just happened to be about Batman. Will X-Men First Class achieve this level of support by the fan and non-fan community? I doubt it very seriously. However, what success it does enjoy is going to be based on exactly the same circumstances – how well it speaks to the members of the audience who are not X-Men readers.

For this reason X-Men First Class, by nature, must draw from as many sources as possible. Sure Mystique, in the comics, might be as old as Wolverine. Frankly I was unaware of that particular aspect and I was a long-time X-Men reader. The reason I did not know this is because this was not always the case! Over the years new writers and editors have access to the X-Men mythos and add their own touches. When Mystique was first introduced it is unlikely that her creator had in mind that she be an ageless mutant, that was someone else’s take on her. Certainly John Byrne did not have in mind that Aurora and Northstar were in fact not mutant humans but some mystical fairy people! And yes, that did happen in the comics! So undoubtedly there are older X-Men fans who feel that Mystiques suggested age is an affront to all that came before in the way that fans of the more recent work will feel the movie just gets it wrong.

At the end of the day the filmmakers are taking what has come before and tying it in to the retrofitting of the movie saga. Since the arrival of some of the core movie mutants into Xavier’s camp has been well established they must out of necessity elect to write Cyclops, Iceman, Marvel Girl, and Angel out of the “first class” mix. Havoc makes a serviceable stand-in for Cyclops (especially after the movies made him something of a non-entity), Beast skirts the fine line between the original and later hirsute incarnations of the character, and including Mystique helps fill in the blanks as to her seeming familiarity with the X-Mansion in the earlier films. X-Men First Class, in other words, is not an attempt to tell the comic book origins of the X-Men but rather to give the background to everything that has been presented previously on film.

Certainly there are going to be the odd pitfalls. The inclusion of a character who was almost certainly meant to be Emma Frost in X-Men Origins: Wolverine complicates her seemingly older appearance in X-Men First Class. Personally I am looking at that as an invitation for fans to completely ignore the Wolverine movie. More so than they are already doing, that is to say. The Angel Salvadore character seems an awkward attempt to prybar in a replacement for Angel. A surrogate flying character who’s first name happens to be the same as Warren Worthington III’s code name. A bit of a stretch I am sure we will all agree. However, apart from what appears to be her employment in the naughty Hellfire Club (as suggested by her appearance in the trailer) it is impossible to know how much of a part she plays in the action of the film. I certainly have seen nothing of her in X-Men blue and yellow! So she may well be a non-entity when you get right into the meat and potatoes of the action.

So when it comes to adapting comics to film there has to be some give and take. In the case of a team book there is a lot of give and take, especially when you are talking X-Men. That said I would suggest that everyone who is already a fan of that famous mutant team as they appear in comics look upon this movie as a different kind of X-Men tale. Take it as a “What If?”. Look at it as being in the same vein as the Ultimates line. A re-imagining of the whole X-Men saga from a different perspective. Like building the team on a MMORPG format, the sky is the limit. Only in this case a limit has been set by what has come before. In other words, let this stand on its own and enjoy it for what it is. The more support we comic fans give to comic movies the more comic movies we will receive in the years to come.

My review of the film will follow next week.


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