by D.W. Lundberg

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Part Two of our X-Men movie retrospective, in which we take a visual tour of the franchise's special (and not-so-special) pleasures.

So we've already established some of the many Easter Eggs and character cameos which make up Marvel's mutant movie universe. This includes, during an early sequence in X-Men: The Last Stand, a direct homage to Claremont/Byrne's two-part Days Of Future Past, in which our heroes are rounded up and herded into WWII-type internment camps.

That the latest X-Men sequel to enter production is also called Days Of Future Past raises some interesting theoretical questions, namely: Did they plan this sort of thing from the beginning, with every intent to revisit this particular story thread in the future? Or did the producers of X-Men 3 simply include the scene as a shout-out to fans, because they couldn't find room for it elsewhere? Evidence seems to suggest the latter, though wouldn't it be fun, in today's post-Avengers climate, to think that the makers of this $1.9 billion franchise had a particular endgame in mind?

Callbacks and Flash-Forwards

Watching the movies again for our most recent Franchise Face-Off, I couldn't help but notice some striking similarities between sequels. While most of these are intentional (Logan's constant flashbacks to his mysterious past, say, which pay off during X-Men Origins: Wolverine), others, I'll bet, happen purely by accident. Consider this shot from X2, in which Senator Kelly/Mystique (left) and Col. William Stryker argue the virtues of launching an all-out war against mutantkind:

Here they are, two men of principle (okay, so one is a hardened military zealot with a secret score to settle and the other's a blue-skinned shape-shifting vixen disguised as a man of principle, but still) in the corridors of the White House, and who should come between them but John F. Kennedy - golden boy of American democracy himself? You could argue that JFK's marble mug is meant to echo the mutant's plight - that our 35th POTUS faced his own sort of bigotry and prejudice during the early '60s, and so gets a healthy refresher here. Or you could argue that the framing is just a coincidence. I am reminded of this scene from X-Men: First Class, in which our fledgling team of super-mutants learns firsthand from the President, via television, of the impending Cuban Missile Crisis:

Could the writers of First Class have been influenced by such a simple scene from X2, especially when formulating their ideas for the prequel? Perhaps not, but it's a tantalizing idea nonetheless.

The following shot, also from First Class, pushes the POTUS point even further. Here, plutonic partners Erik Lensherr and Charles Xavier speak at length about their fellow mutants' place in 1960's society:

Talk about themes of bigotry and prejudice! And on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial no less! Viewers will unequivocally equate Charles and Erik's topic of conversation with the anti-slavery movement, Emancipation Proclamation, and even (thank you, Todd Alcott!) Martin Luther King's famed "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, on these very steps.*

X-Men 2000 reaches back even further in time - all the way to 313 A.D., as a matter of fact - to make a tenuous connection between Emperor Constantine I and Magneto's self-righteous quest for mutant domination. A deleted scene in which Storm/Ororo Monroe teaches students about Constantine's conversion to Christianity (which ended the Christian persecution in the Roman Empire) was initially meant to foreshadow the movie's turn- everyone-to-mutants climax at Ellis Island. In the finished film, however, that footage is reduced to a single shot, with Ororo's lesson scribbled on a chalkboard:

Character motivations and complex moral codes, too, are reverse-engineered to appear "earlier" in the series rather than "later" (such is the appeal of the almighty prequel, to show us "how it all began"). Early in First Class, Young Raven/Mystique and Young Hank McCoy/Beast bond over their desire to appear "normal" - i.e., the same as everyone else. They almost kiss, but Erik interrupts them, telling her (in regards to her natural blue form), "If I looked like you, I wouldn't change a thing."

This will echo again later (or is that before?) in X2, when Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler asks the Elder Mystique why she simply refuses to stay in disguise all the time ("You know, look like everyone else?"). To which she replies, "Because we shouldn't have to."

And the student, as they say, becomes the master. (Further synergy: In the comics, Nightcrawler is actually the biological offspring of both Raven Darkholme and the "demon" Azazel, who appears in First Class with the same forked tail and ability to teleport. This connection, however, has yet to be confirmed in any of the sequels so far.)

Other examples of these narrative payoffs can be found within the context of each individual film. One of the many complaints about X2­ is that it's way overcrowded - packed with so many characters, archetypes and superpowers that the screenplay can't possibly service them all. This is true to a point - it is an ensemble picture after all, some characters are bound to fall by the wayside - but not, I think, for lack of trying.

Iceman/Bobby Drake's visit to his parents' house, for example, is like a mini-movie in itself, complete with rising/falling action and a discernible three-act structure. Act One begins as Bobby, Logan, Pyro and Rogue arrive in Boston (following the attack on Xavier's mansion), and concludes as Mom, Dad and little brother Ronny return home:

Act Two continues with Bobby's attempt to "come out" to his family, the characters' subsequent stand-off with the police, and Pyro unleashing his fiery fury on our unsuspecting boys in blue:

And finally, Act Three resolves the action. Rogue saps Pyro of his powers as the X-Jet arrives to wisk them all away to safety. And Bobby is allowed one last forlorn look back at his brood, who've been watching from an upstairs window:

This is perhaps the sequel's signature scene. Hidden within it, however, is a beat so subtle you're likely to miss it. While Bobby and Rogue head upstairs to change clothes, Pyro wanders the house looking at family photos. Note the rack focus of this shot, which toggles from the Drakes' happy faces to Pyro reflected in the glass:

Such a simple shot, yet it speaks volumes about the character's particular mindset. Imagine the pain one must feel to be shunned by everyone on a regular basis; even worse to be alienated by those who are supposed to love and accept you despite all your differences. Surely Pyro must feel that old familial pull, either for someone he lost or something he can never have. (Literally, both he and the family photo are never in sync within the same shot.)

This deep-seated need for acceptance will pay off later on board the X-Jet, when Magneto regards Pyro's flame-on abilities with obvious awe: "You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different." Bad guy or no, the older man is able to break through the younger man's defenses in a way no one else has. And Pyro is immediately smitten:

(The irony here is that Bobby's family also rejects him for what he's "become," though even he refuses to run off with the villains at the end. The difference being that Pyro is already witness to life's harsher truths, while Bobby's disillusionment has only begun.)

No such subtleties exist at all during X-Men: The Last Stand - though, to be fair, the movie does cater to the demands of classical narrative structure. Action beats introduced early on inevitably circle back again, so that the plot feels well-rounded and contained. Wolverine and Colossus' patented Fastball Special, as mentioned before, happens twice during the movie - first in the opening Danger Room session, and then again in the film's apocalyptic Alcatraz climax:

Notice, too, how imagery from the first sequence is often repeated in the second (for each example below, the Danger Room image is on top, with the corresponding Alcatraz image underneath):

And that, my friends, is what is commonly referred to as "structure." Even for substandard Comic Book fare, that's pretty impressive.


Up next: Our final look at the X-Men series through imagery, in which we find our heroes cribbing not just from each other but from competing franchises as well.

* Fans will also note the characters' ongoing affinity for chess, which will come back around during X-Men and X-Men: The Last Stand.

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