There have been five "X-Men" movies released in the 21st century. While comic fans will disagree until the end of time over the worth of every comic book movie (seriously, one of you commenters claimed the Sam Raimi "Spider-Man" movies were terrible), there’s pretty much a consensus around the X-Movies: "X-Men," "X2" and "X-Men: First Class" = good, "X3" = mediocre, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" = blight on humanity. I’m not a Hollywood insider, so I can only speculate as to why the latter two movies were so disappointing. Too many producers? Weak script? Not enough Ryan Reynolds? Too much Ryan Reynolds?
I could go on and on with the guesswork, but here’s one obvious answer: because Bryan Singer wasn’t involved.
When I was talking to Chris Claremont, he mentioned how he was the only "X-Men" writer involved during his run on the comics, and how he liked it that way. "I tended to be an extremely selfish writer back in the day because I didn’t want anybody else," he said. "I had worked at Marvel as an editor, and saw the conflicts that arose in different circumstances where you had Len Wein writing the Hulk, and Steve Gerber writing the Hulk in The Defenders, and the two of them getting into huge disagreements over how you portrayed a character, what he did, how he would interact with other people. It would drive them crazy. Writers tend to be extremely egocentric souls, and we rarely play well with others."
"By the same token, if you’re working in the group, all of your own impulses have to be subordinate to the overall demand and structure of that group," he continued. "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts sort of thing. I, for myself, prefer having all the fun."
I wouldn’t go so far to make a 1:1 analogue between overseeing a multi-million dollar film franchise in 2012 and essentially defining a tiny corner of the publishing world in 1982. Claremont was talking about being the sole decider; Singer is merely a strong voice among a room full of them, not the last word. But Claremont was talking about the need for a galvanizing force to establish creative precedence, and there’s no other way to look at it: three "X-Men" movies with Bryan Singer were good, and the two without him weren’t. The reason for that is a pitch for an oral history some day in the future, but it would seem to suggest that he was extremely capable of keeping the vision for the "X-Men" franchise in line, regardless of his exact influence.
What’s the role of having one voice above all to point a franchise in the right direction? It gives the movies a specific purpose, rather than a general one. With all of the Marvel Studios films aimed at building toward "The Avengers," unique creativity didn’t matter as much as the fulfillment of a goal. But the "X-Men" movies aren’t building toward any ulterior goal, which means that each movie only has to focus on the now. Singer’s sensibilities on the X-movies are apparent: an eye for complex plots that aren’t too bloated, even-keeled characterization that deftly incorporates multiple characters, purposeful action that shows what each character is capable of. Those elements weren’t absent in the Singer-less movies, but they weren’t nearly as well-defined as in the ones he worked on.
If you need supporting evidence for the power of a guiding voice, look across the aisle to DC. About the only modern example of a director given near-complete control over his movie mythos is Christopher Nolan, who was allowed to tweak and snip the Bat-verse until it fit his uber-realistic vision for how a guy in a bat suit would actually fight crime. Love or hate the Batman movies (and to be clear, most people love them), there’s no doubt that Nolan delivered his precise vision down to every last unmarketable step. (Because we imagine some directors would’ve folded under the external pressure to mention the Joker at least once in "The Dark Knight Rises.")
But as the first trailer for "Man of Steel" showed, a singular sensibility can’t be lacquered over any property like a general cure-all. Nolan’s the producer on the most recent reimagining of Superman, and while his dark eye was perfect for the nitty-gritty of what makes Batman hum, it felt a little stale when applied toward a hero who, by most interpretations, functions better as a symbol of hope rather than one mired down in his inner muck. Which isn’t to say that’s where the movie will go completely after all, we’ve only seen a trailer but the grim colors seemed to suggest a take that isn’t very happy-go-lucky. And how are we supposed to handle comments like this one, in which we’re told that "Man of Steel" is purposely meant to recapture the "edgy feel" of "The Dark Knight"? They might as well have put him in an electric blue outfit to show how radical he’s supposed to be.
All of which is to suggest that it’s complicated, but that the inclusion of Singer on "X-Men: Days of Future Past" should be encouraging, at least for now. There might be some other Svengali capable of properly ordering the X-franchise, but we haven’t seen one yet. Concordantly, that doesn’t mean Singer should be given unilateral control over every divergent property such as "The Wolverine" or "Untitled Banshee Solo Project" (joking!). But it seems like he’s got the right idea for the main universe for the timing being, which means he should be allowed to do what he wants.
This Mutant Life explores all corners of the cinematic X-verse, from the kids of "First Class" to the berserker rage of "The Wolverine." Suggest topics for future columns in the comments or on Twitter!
Previously on This Mutant Life: