Like every other geek in the universe who has access to the Internet, we here at the Big Bad Blog have long known that the X-Men franchise is not dead, that a new film (X-Men: First Class) was in the offing.
Because as a geek, we love superhero movies.
But, like most other movie-lovers out there, we expect a new X-Men film to be bad. Because once the quality of a movie franchise begins to wane, it tends not to recover. Given that X-Men 3 was awful, why, two movies later, should we expect a quality product on the screen.
Then we saw the trailer, and got excited:
And we challenge our assumptions — perhaps it is origin stories that make for good films?
Then we saw Batman on TV — you know, the Tim Burton one from 1989 — and realised that it did not tell of Batman’s origins. It was the villain — the Joker — who made that movie.
So what elements make a quality superhero movie?
Origin stories are the backbone of the superhero genre, not because they are necessarily better stories, but because they connect us to the characters. An origin story, of course, does not guarantee that connection. And those connections can be formed without the origin story.
But the origin story is a useful trick to a connection between the audience and the character on screen. It allows the actor to make a human connection with us before they have their super powers, helping the audience to understand and connect with the super powered version later in the movie.
Here at the Big Bad Blog, our instinctive expectation is that superhero sequels should be more successful than their non-superheroic brethren. The source material, after all, is neverending. There are many, many great story arcs in the comics using the already-established heroes.
Origin stories are actually pretty rare. It should actually be easier to find quality non-origin source material.
But with subsequent movies, your lead actor does not have the opportunity to present the audience with the “before” picture of the hero. New audience members do not connect with the lead’s portrayal with the same veracity as previously. Old audience members have increasing difficulty recreating that connection.
Mix in the fact that big Hollywood blockbusters — particularly when they are sequels — tend to function as design-by-committee, and it should (perhaps) not surprise that the actors and directors have trouble making a connection without the shortcut.
Design-by-committee dilutes the story, the connection is gone.
The franchise withers.
Superheroes, it should be remembered, tend to be bland.
Superman? Boy scout.
Batman? Dour, hiding in the shadows. Rich boy.
Spiderman? Photography geek.
Don’t even get me started on the Fantastic Four.
What really makes a superhero piece is a quality villain. There’s a reason why Batman movies featuring excellent portrayals of the Joker — the 1989 version and the Dark Knight — rise above the rest. Or the Christopher Reeve Superman flicks, with Gene Hackman’s Luthor.
Ian McKellen’s Magneto, in the X-Men series provides a well-played villain of stature.
Every hero needs a villain, a nemesis. Too many movies forget this, and try to do too much. Spiderman 3, for example, could not decide who Spiderman was fighting.
This is unforgivable. The comics are full of excellent villains. Pick one, and hire a good actor.
Following the success of the new Christopher Nolan Batman films, the popular thing to do these days is “reboot” franchises.
Superman has had an (unsuccessful) reboot — trying to re-connect with your audience with different actors after twenty years is, not surprisingly, an unsuccessful strategy.
Spiderman has an upcoming reboot.
And this X-Men film.
I worry about it. It is an origin story, which increases the chance of a connection. But origin stories are also short-cuts to that connection; we need to ask why the X-Men franchise keeps throwing origin stories our way.
Is it a lack of creativity?
Is it a fundamental misunderstanding of why the origin story connects with audiences?
Magneto is, again, the bad guy. Will this work, or is the studio just throwing the same villain out there because it worked last time? Will Michael Fassbender be able to carry the role of lead villain? Can he follow up McKellen’s portrayal with something that resonates as well?
Whatever the answers, and despite the fact that I anticipate not liking the answers, the marketing department has been successful – I’ll be watching.