With the highly-anticipated Days of Future Past movie currently hitting cinema screens, it’ll be time again for X-Men comics devotees to react, positively or negatively, to the obligatory round of new characters featured; in this instance that means Quicksilver, Sunspot, Blink, Warpath and Bishop.
Judging from trailer footage, none of them – apart from maybe Blink – look particularly good, but maybe they’ll come across a lot better in their proper context, as there’s only so much we can glean from a trailer. Blink is probably the one I’m most curious to see and is also the oddest choice for inclusion in the film, but Quicksilver might be the most important in terms of his significance in the X-Men and broader Marvel universe.
Fan reaction to the characterization of much-loved comic-book characters in the X-Men movies has always been mixed, ranging from mild approval to satisfied nod and even utter hatred. Of course in a two-hour movie it’s very difficult to furnish a character with all the complexity and associations that several decades of comic-book history may have imparted, particularly in a large ensemble film like X-Men. It’s a more difficult task in an X-Men film than, say, in the Avengers film, simply because X-Men plots are so complicated most of the time.
The best really that can be done is to make the character click right visually and afford them enough of a personality in-tune with the comic-book source as possible – and of course to make a good casting choice. A case in point – Nightcrawler in X2, ticks all the boxes. A case not in point – Gambit from X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Seriously, who’s idea was that?
Casting choices in the six films to date have been a mixed affair, some of them being very good, while others ended up irritating countless long-time X-Men fans. There’s nothing quite so grating as a comic-book devotee to watch one of your favorite characters poorly translated in the transition between mediums (the pity we must feel towards die-hard Green Lantern comic fans). I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say anything good about Halle Berry as Ororo Munroe; doesn’t look like her, certainly doesn’t sound like her at all, and in short doesn’t embody anything that fans of Storm from the printed page would’ve been looking for. Beyond that, two attempts at Sabertooth have fallen flat and the less said about Taylor Kitsch as Gambit the better.
Another, for that matter, that bugged me was Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggart in First Class, who somehow is no longer Scottish and is also now a CIA agent and not a scientist; basically an entirely new character who should’ve just been given a different name and not sold to us as Moira MacTaggart.
There are also all the barely-featured characters who get a name-check in the end credits but blink and you’ll miss them; given how densely populated the X-Men comic book world is, it’s inevitable that not every character can be made space for in the limited time of a two-hour movie. From the moment the end-credits were rolling in the cinema for the first X-Men movie in 2000 the geek-custom of checking for character names was initiated; yeah, we all do it – we all strain our eyes to see characters listed who we didn’t even notice in the film.
I still can’t remember Jubilee being in the first X-Men, but apparently she was.
Often the characters not chosen for inclusion in these films are just as interesting a subject as those appearing on screen; it seems astonishing to have had 4 major X-Men releases by now and yet only seen such quintessential X-Men figures as Nightcrawler and Archangel in one of them each, while also not having seen Psylocke at all. That said, I’m sure a number of comic-book loyalists would prefer that, taking the attitude that at least Psylocke, for example, hasn’t been ‘ruined’ by being poorly represented in the transition.
All the negatives aside, however, it’s fair to say the X-Men franchise has had more hits than misses as far as casting is concerned. Characterisation itself is a different matter; for example, I think Cyclops was well enough cast with James Marsden, but wasn’t particularly well characterised – those are two separate issues. There’s a lot of ill-feeling towards the Cyclops presented in the films, but he was well enough portrayed; I’d put him in the same category as Emma Frost’s depiction in First Class – adequate as a ‘presence’ for that character in the cinematic X-Men world, but without the degree of personality to be found in the comics.
Aside from that, the main problem is that there’s usually barely enough screen time to properly capture in film what’s great about a character in their original comic-book form; for example, I liked the version of Banshee/Sean Cassidy we had in First Class, but there was only really enough screen-time to basically just put across that he’s a cool character and not much else.
In effect anyway, for fans of the books, the portrayals we see in these movies are just ‘versions’ of characters we know and like better in their longstanding original forms and original medium; and not definitive versions for those versed in their origins. Their existence as film characters doesn’t really damage or threaten their integrity as comic-book characters, so long as those in control of the writing in comics don’t become unduly influenced by what’s going on in movie adaptations.
Below are the 10 primary characters that have worked well in their big-screen incarnations and have had their stature – if not necessarily enhanced in all cases – at least effectively maintained…
Jean Grey/Famke Jansenn
Interestingly made one of the two central characters in the initial trilogy of X-Men films (along with Wolverine), this, however, making sense in the context of Jean Grey’s central role in some of the X-Men comic world’s best-known storylines, particularly the Dark Phoenix Saga, which was somewhat explored in the initial trilogy of X-Men movies, though only to a very limited, highly selective extent.
Famke Jansenn was one of the best casting choices in these films, in my opinion making a perfect Jean Grey and suitably getting the most heroic moment of any character in the movies by sacrificing herself at the end of X2 and foreshadowing the rather botched attempt at the Dark Phoenix story that later followed in X3. Having said that, the Jean/Phoenix elements of the X2 and X3 films gave us some of the better scenes.
Professor X/Patrick Stewart & James MaCavoy
There was really only Patrick Stewart who could’ve played the all-important role as Charles Xavier; it was so obvious a casting choice that most people would’ve called it long before it was announced. Bringing the appropriate degree of sympathy and tenderness to the role, watching Stewart and McKellin playing off each other on screen was one of the best things about the first two films and it raised the quality level of the entire enterprise. I also was surprised to find myself really liking MaCavoy’s Xavier in First Class; he brought so much enthusiasm and the appropriate degree of young-man idealism to the role and it off-set the darker, brooding Erik Lensherr really well. MacCavoy’s Xavier was a brilliant bit of casting.
The moral and idealogical heart and soul of the X-Men mythology, Charles Xavier has been entirely well handled in these films.
Mystique/Rebecca Romjin & Jennifer Lawrence
The coolest, if not necessarily the best, character in the X-Men film franchise. Unlike most of the characters in these movies, I’ve actually come to associate the character Mystique so much with her depiction in the films that I actually can’t even remember what I thought of Mystique before the films existed. I mean I remember always knowing she was an incredibly cool character in the comics, but it wasn’t until the first two movies that I really became bewitched by her.
This is in contrast to most characters in comic-book movie adaptations, who conversely have been either diminished by their depiction on the big screen or have failed to make enough of an impression to risk overriding my pre-existing perception of them from the comics.
Mystique probably more than any character in the films is written to embody the dual preoccupations of being a Mutant – the intense self-consciousness, the desire to ‘fit in’ while also retaining self-pride and identity.
This theme is most pointedly explored in regard to the younger Mystique in First Class, where Raven has to be influenced by Erik to have self-respect for her true form, but by the time we’re seeing the older Mystique in the earlier films she is the living epitome of “Mutant and proud” and has the key line to that effect in X2 when Nightcrawler (not her son in the movies, I’m guessing) asks her why she doesn’t use her shapeshifting abilities to “look like one of them” and fit in, to which she replies “because we shouldn’t have to.”
Both Rebecca Romjin and Jennifer Lawrence have been just as good as each other in the role. My only fan-boy wish now regarding Mystique in these films to have her appear in her classic white outfit.
A central character in the first X-Men film, I always thought Anna Paquin shone as Rogue, even though she wasn’t much like what I would’ve imagined a film version of the character would be. In X1 Rogue and Logan are the audience’s eyes as they enter into the unfamiliar (for non-comic readers) X-Men world, not unlike 3PO and R2 in the first Star Wars. The relationship between the two characters in that first film was probably the strongest, most endearing inter-character dynamic in any of the X-Men movies – except for maybe Charles and Magneto.
And Anna Paquin’s Rogue provided a highly sympathetic character and an emotional core to that movie that hasn’t to my mind been accomplished by any other characters in any of the other films, with the exception of Erik Lenshher in First Class, though that was a different sort of emotional core. It’s a real pity that Rogue has been left standing around without much to do in all the subsequent films.
As bored as I am of Wolverine in the X-Men films – I know he’s the poster-boy of the franchise both in films and in comics, but the character just takes up far too much screen-time in every single movie, not to mention getting two whole movies to himself – it’s easy to forget just what a revelation Hugh Jackman was as Wolverine at the beginning. I was already getting bored of Wolverine by X2, but he was excellent in X1. Like Robert Downey-Junior’s Tony Stark, this was a spot-on bit of casting.
It’s easy to forget just how wrong it could’ve all gone if Wolverine had been poorly cast, as he’s one of those characters that could easily end up looking and sounding stupid (though never as stupid as in the infamous ‘Pryde of the X-Men’ cartoon from the eighties, which I seem to somehow hate and love at the same time). Some of the subsequent boredom in regard to Wolverine isn’t anything to do with Jackman’s performances, which are perfectly fine, but more the sheer amount of Wolverine coverage in the franchise, particularly at the expense of other potential characters.
As a case in point, I personally am of the opinion that the current Days of Future Past film should’ve maintained the comic-book source material’s premise of having Kitty Pryde be the one to travel back to the past instead of doing the commercially obvious thing of letting Wolverine be the focus again.
I’m saying that as someone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, however – it’s the initial reaction I’ve had for months; that the creatively braver thing to have done would’ve been to let Kitty retain that central role and let Ellen Page really have a much better role to work with than she’s likely to have been given. None of that is a reflection of Jackman’s quality as Wolverine, however; but a reflection of the filmmakers’ unwillingness to take a chance on someone else to center the action around. I didn’t particularly like the Avengers movie that much, but that was an example of how to do an ensemble-character film of this kind, in that there was no star – each of those characters was afforded equal prominence. I would like to see the X-Men movies start to do that more too.
Magneto/Ian McKellin & Michael Fassbender
A character that was always going to be absolutely essential to get right, the portrayal of Magneto over the course of the movies has been a mixed affair in terms of writing and characterisation; he was fascinating in X1, interesting for most of X2, and then pretty poorly written in X3 where he was stripped of most of his complexity and made a silly villain more in keeping with the cartoonish version of Magneto from the pre-Claremont eras.
The balance was very well restored in X-Men: First Class, however, with Michael Fassbender portraying the younger Magneto. How the character has been written is one issue; but in terms of how he’s been cast, there can really be no arguments with either Sir Ian McKellin or Michael Fassbender. McKellin brought real gravitas and charisma to the role, particularly in the first film – from the first moment we see him in X1 in his brief encounter with Charles it was clear we would be seeing an interesting, worthwhile portrayal of Magneto, even if not a definitive one.
Though I do have to wonder how much better Magneto could’ve been written in the subsequent films and the potential of Sir Ian Mckellin being given something really powerful to work with, something more poetic than silly supervillain lines. Meanwhile on a fan-boy level, I still wish they’d found a better overall look for Magneto in these films, even in terms of just the colour of his outfit and the shape of his helmet, neither of which have looked ‘right’ enough to me.
A highly overlooked and under-used character even in the comics, the inclusion of the character in X1 was a pleasant surprise when I first saw it. Coolly embodied by Darth Maul portrayer Ray Park, he was super-cool in every scene he was in. A version of the character does apparently appear in Days of Future Past.
Kelsey Grammer as Hank McCoy was one of the most spot-on casting choices imaginable. Grammer played that role so perfectly in X3, tone, mannerisms and all and became the quintessential big-screen version of the Beast for all time – it’s hard to imagine his version being bettered. He was precisely what I’d always imagined Hank McCoy would be like. And like Nightcrawler in X2, it proved to be a one-movie appearance only, but he was probably the best thing about that third film.
Forget Frasier Crane or even Sideshow Bob, the Beast it seems is the role Grammer was born to play.
One of my all-time favorite comic-book characters, Nightcrawler appeared in only one film – X2 – and he stole the show, his intro-scene (and the opening scene of the film) being probably the best intro any of the characters ever had. At a point where Storm and Wolverine were already starting to get tiresome, Kurt Wagner, ably brought to life by Alan Cumming, breathed new spirit into the mix with his endearing dialogue, awesome teleporting and suitably freakish appearance.
And just like in the comics, he got most of the best little moments and bits of dialogue. Even as Jean is giving up her life, it’s Nightcrawler and not Scott or Logan that provides the most poignant reaction with his quiet recitation from scripture in the background. The film managed to capture a lot of what’s so lovable about the Nightcrawler we know from the comics – the humour, the faith, the almost child-like deviousness. It’s a crime that Nightcrawler hasn’t featured in any subsequent movies, including the current Days of Future Past extravaganza. And if another ‘origins’ movie ever gets made it should be his.
Kitty Pryde/Ellen Page
Was always going to be tricky casting a character so beloved to comic-book X-Men loyalists, especially as she doesn’t feature until the third film. However, Ellen Page made a very good Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat in X3: The Last Stand, just as Anna Paquin made a pretty good Rogue in the first film.
She did, however, seem to displace Rogue in prevalence in the movie, which was a little unfortunate. Still I hope Kitty has more screen time in DOFP; and she should, given Kitty Pryde’s key role in the Uncanny X-Men #181 – 182 source material – though it’s evident that she doesn’t play as important a role as she did in the comic, losing out to Wolverine on that front. More’s the pity – Ellen Page can carry a scene, and it really should be time for other characters in the ensemble to get more of a spotlight.
Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat was at the heart of the Days of Future Past Uncanny X-Men story; it’s only fitting that she should be given prominence in the film adaptation of those highly influential issues of the comic – issues that were released before Ellen Page was even born (and just after I was born, for that matter) and that might now be the basis for the most ambitious, and we can hope the best, comic-book movie adaptation to date.
While it’s perhaps unlikely that Blink, Sunspot or any of the newly-featured characters in Days of Future Past will compete with these central ten (like Angel in X3, they’re likely to be too peripheral to the key scenes to make too strong an impression), there may be some surprises.
If Blink or Quicksilver, for example, gets as much as coverage as Callisto did in X3, that may be window enough to make a strong enough impact to necessitate inclusion in subsequent films. Having said that, Nightcrawler made an impression in X2 and he hasn’t been brought back, so maybe a lot these random character choices are more of a pick n’ mix than a meaningful inclusion. Anyway, talking finished – bring on the movie…