Being an X-Men Fan: The Futility of Hope
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
I’m about to confess something that is generally frowned on in the Superhero Nerd community: While I have a deep love for Superhero media and the stories surrounding them, I did not grow up reading the comic books.
My first exposure to anything from the world of superheroes was through TV. Due to a fairly conservative upbringing, we were often dissuaded from reading books or media that were overtly secular in nature (aka bye bye Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies and any other Lords I may have missed out who weren’t explicitly related to our Lord and Saviour). This restriction also, with few exceptions, largely extended to comic books and other superhero texts. The only real opportunities I had to anything superhero related was through Saturday morning cartoons on Fox Kids or Jetix’smorning cartoon block. It was through this programming block I was first exposed to shows like Spider-Man, Spider-man and His Amazing Friends, Spider-man Unlimited… basically just a whole load of Spider-Man shit. During this indoctrination into the cult of the web, a few other Superhero shows snuck into the mix as well, Including The Fantastic Four, The Justice League, Batman, and in my opinion, one of the most important animated shows of all time, X-Men: The Animated Series. X-men, was, to my knowledge, one of the first times I was ever really exposed to fairly complex storytelling. The season long arcs, character development and overt social themes displayed on that show were, for my young child brain, mind-blowing to say the least. I fell instantly in love with the characters and their struggles, some of which, I felt, mirrored my own.
The constant struggle for acceptance experienced by the characters on that show was something I heavily related with, and as a result, I fell in love with the X-men characters. This love affair is one that has continued from my childhood to the present day, as the X-men and the surrounding media related to them have become some of my most beloved pop culture properties. When I was around eight, I was introduced to the X-Men movies featuring Sir Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen and Halle Berry. I thought they were incredible, and to this day, still credit the first and second movie for creating and solidifying a genre. I honestly hoped they’d continue making these movies till the sun burned out.
Unfortunately, I think they took that literally.
I am a big believer in endings. I believe that respecting the natural progression of a character arc, and knowing when to let that character bow out, adds even more weight and significance to that character’s story. I also believe that the best endings are the ones that you choose, not the ones that are forced on you. Natural endings are great. Endings that are brought about by the behind the scenes machinations of large corporations are not. Unfortunately for the X-men series, the diminishing quality and level of interest that has been experienced by the series over the last few years has led to the once-great series concluding in a whimper, not the all-out bang it deserves.
It’s hard to believe it now, but when the X-men series began, it was once regarded with the same level of reverence as the present day MCU. The first two movies were critical and commercial darlings, with the second film being a particular fan favourite, which still holds cult-classic status to this day. Characters like Nightcrawler and Mystique were brought onto the screen as fully fleshed out characters for the first time, and weight and depth were given to their actions and motivations. The opening scene with Nightcrawler in the white house is still one of my favourite action set-pieces in all of Superhero media. I remember watching that for the first time wide-eyed and open-mouthed. My eight-year-old brain simply could not believe what I was witnessing. This series could never be bad. Nothing that existed in a universe like this could ever be bad.
And then The Last Stand happened.
What has followed in the years since that atrocity of a movie has been a series of false starts, course corrections and uncertain direction. The X-men movies, once existing as a vessel for sure-footed, if heavy handed allegories for sexual identity and discrimination, now exist purely to fix the past mistakes of their own franchise. This issue first reared its head in Days of Future Past, a movie which, while competent, in my opinion, exists as an exercise in retconning, with the main goal of that movie being to make the events of The Last Standlargely irrelevant. Telling a good story became a secondary goal for this series after this movie, with the main objective shifting towards style and flash with very little substance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in X-men: Apocalypse, which… what even was that movie? Like, what was that? Why did I pay for that? Why would they do that to me? Why? What is the point of attempting to fix a timeline if you’re just going to break it in the next movie? Why does no-one age? Why is this universe so incoherent? Why?
Another issue that became glaringly obvious for me in relation to this franchise was the use of future hope as a means for excusing a mediocre present. “Oh, the next movie will fix everything” has become a battle-cry for faithful X-men fans? Yes, that’s all well and good, but the current movie at hand? “Oh, don’t worry about that, the next movie will fix EVERYTHING”. Well. Here we are. At the end of the road. There is no next movie to fix everything. It’s Dark Phoenix and then it’s over. No more second chances. And I don’t know how I feel about that. Part of me is sad, because endings make me sad, especially the ending of something I’ve practically grown up with. Part of me is cautiously optimistic, because knowing it’s the end might have made the filmmakers more determined to give the characters a fitting send-off. And part of me is just happy it’s over, regardless of how it ends. As an X-men fan, I have felt like I was in a relationship with a smooth talking, yet wildly unfaithful partner at times. My love affair with the franchise has been characterised by the movies making promises they can’t possibly keep, and me, the wide-eyed Ingénue, hopefully buying the bullshit every time. Unfortunately, hope eventually runs out, and even the most naïve, optimistic lover gives up in the end. With the number of mediocre-to-bad X-men movies almost equalling the number of good movies at this point, it’s fair to say my patience is running thin.
I attended an X-Men: Dark Phoenix fan event in London a few weeks ago, which gave me the opportunity to hear from the director and cast members directly involved with the making of the movie. I also got to see some footage from the final film, and… sigh… once again, I am cautiously optimistic. Despite the slightly questionable CGI, the film looks good, and the three clips we were shown included some great moments that I am not going to spoil here, as well as some interesting plot developments that I kinda wish weren’t spoilt for me before I got to see the full film. However, I would be a fool if I didn’t take into account the fact that the director was present and the event was likely studio mandated in order to generate more fan interest in the series’ conclusion. It would also be foolish of me not to point out the fact that the clips we saw were provided by the filmmakers as an example of the movie’s best moments, and the overall film may not reflect the possible return to form teased by these clips. In saying this though, I cannot pretend I was not giddy with excitement at the sight of the X-Jet leaving earth for the first time in the series, and the possible story directions this could lead to. I can also not pretend that the return to the Dark Phoenix storyline doesn’t fill me with trepidation and an overall nervous curiosity as to how they would handle bringing this iconic saga to screen for the second time. Nevertheless, as well all slowly filed out of the theatre at the end of the event, I was once again filled with a familiar, apparently inescapable emotion: Hope.
I guess some people just never learn.
Written by John Alone for The Nerd Council