Last week, the X-Men universe got a big surprise: Rather than returning to reprise his directorial role for “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” Matthew Vaughn elected to jump ship to direct Mark Millar’s “The Secret Service,” instead. (Though rumors persist that he left in order to become a frontrunner for “Star Wars: Episode VII,” a nifty bit of heresy that nevertheless remains a blast to speculate over.) Replacing him would be the prodigal son come home, Bryan Singer, who famously left the franchise after directing “X2″ in order to helm a not-entirely successful take on Superman. (A column for another day.)
Given the somewhat unexpected news, I wanted to talk about was how Singer’s return impacts the franchise in terms of vision and in tone. Doing that requires taking a look at his personal filmography, which is surprisingly short outside of the three comic book movies he’s done. While “The Usual Suspects” might be the best movie-movie Singer’s ever directed, it doesn’t feel entirely relevant toward what “Days of Future Past” is probably going to be about. (My guess: Not a whodunit mystery regarding the identity of a murderous psychopath, and certainly nothing to do with a Baldwin brother.)
But there’s certainly enough to chew on in those three films, enough to inform what Singer might do for his fourth.
Vaughn certainly has stylistic chops, and no one who watched the kinetic action of “Kick-Ass” or the tense Erik-in-Argentina scene of “First Class” would disagree with that. But speaking personally, I thought there was something a little leaden in the secondary and tertiary characterization with regards to characters like Darwin and Angel, who came and went without making much impact. Obviously, not every character is going to get their proper screen time, and no one’s complaining that Azazel didn’t get his fair shake. (Though the lack of explanation for Emma Frost’s existence was a missed opportunity.) But the heroes should get their due, because we’re spending the most time with them — and, thinking back to “X-Men” and “X2,” Singer did an immensely deft job at sprinkling in meaningful characterization for all of the characters we spent more than a few sentences with.
Think about the range and roster displayed in those two movies: Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Storm, Rogue, Iceman, Pyro, Nightcrawler and Professor Xavier get key bits, along with villains like Magneto and Mystique. That’s eleven characters over four hours who get woven into an action-packed plot without suffering for depth and gravitas — no easy thing to do for a few characters in a comic book movie, much less close to a dozen. (Seriously, check out “Green Lantern.”) Vaughn’s a good director, but Singer seems to specialize at the balancing act required for a large entourage — and, actually, we can point to “The Usual Suspects” in this regard.
Another underrated talent of Singer’s was his ability to decouple characterization from comic book history in order to render his characters true to the spirit of their on-paper incarnation without the pressure of adhering toward the nuts and bolts of continuity. Consider the subtle brilliance of opening up “X-Men” in media res, with the team already assembled with all its particulars, in order to avoid the exposition of a montage — or worse — explaining how we got here. Consider, also, how he found natural ways to introduce Wolverine, Rogue and Nightcrawler to the team without having to spend too much time with their personal history. (Except for Wolverine — who, judging by “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” may have done better with a “less is more” approach. Fingers crossed for “The Wolverine”!)
Taking into account the time traveling ambition of “Days of Future Past” and the expanded cast it’s sure to have, it seems like Singer’s ability to jump right into things while juggling multiple elements would be highly valued. And it’s why, despite the decade in between dancing with those Marvel mutants, the decision to bring about his return would seem to be a smart one by the men in charge.
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:
» Sentinels? Yes Please!
» “Wolverine” Gets Modern
» Mark Millar Rights the Ship
» Can Mutants and Marvel Heroes Coexist?
» Is Phoenix Rising?
» Wolverine’s Film History In Photos
» Should Patrick Stewart Return as Charles Xavier?
» How Much Does Continuity Matter?
» The Value of Bryan Singer
» Talking “Wolverine” With Chris Claremont
» Claremont Looks Back on “Days of Future Past”
» Why “Wolverine” Should Stick To His Own World
» Hopes For A “First Class” Sequel
» The Status Of “X-Men” On Film