Superman, Batman, Spider-Man. Like Hercules and the Greek Gods or King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; super-heroes are our modern myths. Just like these classic fables they take human traits and enhance them to an epic scale. At their best they are large-scale metaphors for the very things that make us human. This universal appeal might go some way to explaining the continued dominance of the super-hero at the box office. But how do the curators of these icons keep things fresh? As characters grow, actors move on and time passes, how can you keep audiences interested without losing the resonance of the very myths that define these characters?
The first cycle of comic book adaptations have a tendency to bring everything into the modern age. The X-Men wear leather, Iron Man hangs out with DJ AM and for some reason The Joker listens to Prince (I love Tim Burton?s Batman but there are ways it?s hugely dated). After the commercial if not critical success of X3 there was an initial push to stay in the present and push the X-Men in an even more youthful direction. Josh Schwartz (The OC and Gossip Girl) was even hired to write a draft of a teen-centric script. Then Bryan Singer (X-Men 1 & 2) was brought aboard first as director and then producer and things took a turn. Modernisation was out and Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (the director/writer team behind Stardust and Kick Ass) were in.
It?s weird how things work out. Matt Vaughn was originally set to direct X3: The Last Stand and was on board well into pre-production. He dropped out due to family commitments and a feeling that production was being rushed. He has since indicated he didn?t feel he was quite ready for a production of such size and needed to work on Kick Ass and Stardust (both adaptations) to hone his craft further. In the end Bret Ratner took the reigns and although his film had its moments it suffered from a tendency to introduce too many storylines and characters leaving little room for coherence or emotion. I?m sure Vaughn will tell you that things have worked out for the better. His last films have effortlessly combined commercial appeal with a quirky visual flair. He now not only has the experience but also the credibility to try something different with this film.
The plot ostensibly revolves around Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr and their journey from best friends and trusted colleagues to arch enemies as Professor X and Magneto. They are not the leaders of Bryan Singer?s X-Men films. Instead Charles is looser and more reckless and Erik is an angry young holocaust survivor looking for the means and methods of venting this rage. The trailer also shows the involvement of comic book favourites Beast, Emma Frost, Banshee and Havok as well as some James Bond-like spy action. It?s all very Sixties glamorous and that?s the thing that could set this film apart from the other big budget blockbusters. Instead of moving towards our time the film looks to immerse itself in its Sixties setting. All the tensions that informed the creation of what we recognize as the Marvel universe are there: nuclear fear, the civil rights movement and even the Cuban missile crisis as a big action set piece. The X-Men are all about what it means to be a persecuted minority and the Sixties provide the real life parallel to the mythic struggle.
X-Men 3: The Last Stand suffered from a sacrifice of ideas for action, spectacle and Oscar-winning actresses in bad wigs demanding additional screen time. It strayed away from what makes the X-Men myth resonate and by grounding this effort against real history Vaughn is looking to avoid that. The producers have stated explicitly that this isn?t intended to be a reboot but rather a prequel to the films that have come before. If it?s good enough though why shouldn?t it be? I applaud the producers for taking this unique approach to the characters but they shouldn?t restrict themselves with what has come before. This could be a myth that could be part of our culture rather than just a reference to it.