This is a longer version of a story that will appear in the Sunday Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times and also on the cover of Brand X.
Through the years, comic-book films took audiences to all the predictable places, including the grim streets of Gotham City and the doomed spires of planet Krypton, but, a decade ago, a new type of comic-book film had the audacity to set its opening sequence in a truly unexpected place — the gates of Auschwitz, where Jewish families were being marched through mud on their way to death and despair.
From those first moments, “X-Men” set itself apart from the entire Hollywood history of comic-book adaptations and marked the beginning of this current era of fanboy cinema, which has dominated the box office and elevated San Diego’s Comic-Con International into something resembling a Cannes for capes.
“The opening, it really was a declaration of intent,” producer Lauren Shuler Donner said of that sequence, which showed a terrified young boy exhibiting mutant powers as his family was separated by German guards. “It said to the audience this is a serious film, grounded in the realistic and the historic and somewhat dark. It was so smart. And it was all totally Bryan.”
That would be Bryan Singer, the director of “X-Men” and its first sequel, who was sitting next to Shuler Donner in her office on a recent afternoon. The pair both had big smiles on their faces — they had been reunited by an invitation to reminisce about the legacy of the July 2000 release, which they were happy to do, but the conversation kept veering into giddy plans for the future. Singer is returning to the “X-Men” universe, it’s clear now, for a project called “X-Men: First Class“; it’s all just a matter of timing.
“I had lunch with Hugh Jackman today,” Singer said, and Shuler Donner, after asking for an off-the-record moment, pressed the 44-year-old filmmaker for details. A few minutes later, with the recorder back on, Singer said he is mightily enthused to work again with Shuler Donner, who has produced two X-films without him, the Brett Ratner-directed “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006 and the Gavin Hood-directed “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009.
“I genuinely like the people, and my personality meshes more with this universe than it does with other universes, I think; I see that now at this point,” Singer said, no doubt referring to his defection to the DC Comics universe to make the oddly lifeless 2006 movie “Superman Returns.” “I feel a connection to the X-Men characters and also the ensemble nature of the films. If you look at ‘Usual Suspects’‘ or my last film, ‘Valkyrie,’ I feel especially comfortable with ensemble juggling. In the space between all the characters you can disguise a central thought that’s hidden in all the discourse. I missed that with the singular relationship story of Superman. And, well, it always gives you something to cut to…”
More on the future of “X-Men: First Class” in a moment, but first let’s cut to the past — 1999, when the Hollywood approach to comic books was a far different one.
It was the year “Mystery Men” was released as yet another campy spoof of the masked-man sector. Still fresh in the public mind, too, was Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” (1997), which stripped away any psychological elements of the orphan-turned-vigilante tale and instead gave the world the questionable innovation of putting nipples on the bat-suits. Marvel Comics, meanwhile, was a joke when it came to the silver screen, with only three wide-release films based on its characters — “Howard the Duck” in 1986, “Punisher” in 1988 and “Blade” in 1999 (that last one was actually satisfying for movie fans but had very little in common with the comics and was based on a relatively obscure character from the “Tomb of Dracula” comics of the 1970s).
Considering all that, the plan for “X-Men” was nothing short of revolutionary. Singer and his team, working from a script credited to David Hayter, would take the mutant superheroes of the wildly popular “X-Men” comics and treat them as believable outsiders in a reality-based world. Instead of spandex suits, though, they were outfitted in black leather, following in the fashion-savvy footsteps of “The Matrix,” which hadn’t been a comic-book movie but certainly felt like one.
“Some reviews were brutal and some lovely, but we had a $21-million Friday, a record at the time, and we knew we had turned a corner,” Singer said.
The movie became the opening salvo in an onslaught of superhero movies that were like night-and-day when compared to the films of the 1990s and earlier. “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” three “Spider-Man” films, “Iron Man,” two “Hellboy” movies, two “Hulk” films and “Watchmen” all followed “X-Men” in tone and spirit. There are many, many more to come: “Iron Man 2″ arrives in May, “Thor” has just begun filming, and “Green Lantern,” “The First Avenger: Captain America,” a third Batman film and reboots of Spider-Man and Superman are gearing up. That’s just a few; there are three dozen other comics-based projects at various points in the Hollywood pipeline, which was unimaginable in the days after “Batman & Robin,” when the source material was considered radioactive in studio boardrooms.
Shuler Donner has watched the legacy of “X-Men” grow but she says that, at the time, in the closing days of the editing process she wasn’t sure what kind of movie Singer had on his hands.
“There wasn’t anything else like this; all the other superhero movies were made with a different tone and we were nervous,” Shuler Donner said. “You lose perspective, and now in hindsight it seems like the right choices were made but at time it was scary, believe me.”
Singer was feeling the fear for sure. In the editing bay, at one point, the director wondered if the train was about to leave the track. “I was in the cutting room and I got up and went for a walk with [Twentieth Century Fox executive] Peter Rice and I said, ‘When this thing fails critically and financially, I will never have the opportunity to make this kind of film again.’ I was very depressed. Peter said, ‘Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t fail. That was his advice.”
Singer was no comic-book fan growing up; his compass point for heroic tales was Richard Donner’s “Superman” film in 1978, which made it no surprise that he jumped at the chance to work with that director’s wife on “X-Men” and then jumped ship after two films — with the blessing of both Donners — so he could re-conjure Metropolis for a new generation.
Even without the comic-book passion of, say, Sam Raimi, the director of the three “Spider-Man” movies, Singer knew that “X-Men” would need to win over the true believers who had been reading the comics for years. The characters of Wolverine, Magneto and Cyclops were hardly household names like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, and the director believed that the Hollywood tradition of dismissing hard-core comics fans would be a disaster in this case.
“Ultimately, the comic-book fans are your first core audience, the ones that are going to embrace it and talk about it and embrace it or reject it,” Singer said. “They were the first people we worried about.”
Shuler Donner nodded. “If the fans didn’t embrace us, we knew we were in trouble. We wanted a wider audience, but it began with the comic book fans. The approach was to do a more realistic approach to the characters that the fans loved. They second-guess us a lot, still, but we did win them over.”
The film made a star out of Hugh Jackman, who was a late-in-the-game replacement for Dougray Scott, who was tied up on the set of “Mission: Impossible II.”
Jackman arrived on the set late in the day and Singer took a good look at him. “I thought, ‘Oh his face is rounder than I thought.’ It was important that Wolverine have a round face and I thought Hugh’s face looked longer in the tape I had seen. He also wasn’t as huge as I thought he would be. My opinion was, ‘Maybe this isn’t as impossible as I thought it would be.’ ”
To make the final call, Singer had two cameras set up in the lobby of Roy Thomson Hall, where the crew had been shooting a U.S. Senate scene that day. Jackman and Anna Paquin, who played young Rogue in the film, were seated in two folding chairs put side-by-side so they could run through a scene where they are driving in a pickup truck together.
On the second take, Singer stepped away from the monitor so he could just filter everything out and listen to Jackman’s voice. A janitor working for the venue sidled up to the baby-faced filmmaker and, mistaking him for a production assistant, began whispering a question.
“He didn’t want to bother anyone important, so he sees me, this kid, and walked up and whispered, ‘Hey, is that the guy they got to play Wolverine?’ And I thought, ‘Hmm, this is the moment, take the leap.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ The first guy to know was the cleaning guy. And he said, ‘Cool.’ It’s a good thing he didn’t say, ‘Ugh, are you kidding me?’ ”
Singer offered the role to Jackman then and there. It took a month, though, for the actor to really find the feral center of his character.
“He’s a real sweetheart,” Singer said. “He’s the most loving guy, and someone who came out of musical theater. I send some ridiculous note, ‘I need anger, that rage, that Russell Crowe side, get into a fight with your wife or something.’ The next day he came up to me and said, ‘Bry, I thought about what you said but if I ever got in a fight with Deborra, I would show up for work in tears.’ I realized that’s the other side of Wolverine and we didn’t want to lose that either — he’s a guy you wouldn’t want to get into a bar fight with but you’d let him babysit your kids.”
Jackman was the breakout star but the cast was an especially deep one. Paquin would go on to the success of “True Blood” and Halle Berry would a year later win an Oscar for “Monster’s Ball.” Ian McKellen (who had worked with Singer on “Apt Pupil“) was a year away from his signature role as Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and, along with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” veteran Patrick Stewart, he brought a gravitas to the superhero film that kept it from slipping into a camp affair.
“I was a big Trekkie, so I was excited to go see Patrick and meet him,” said Singer, who dropped by the set of Richard Donner’s “Conspiracy Theory” to make his pitch to Stewart. “He didn’t know much about the X-Men at all, we had to explain it all. As for Ian, he liked the idea of the movie because of the gay allegory — the allegory of the mutants as outsiders, disenfranchised and alone and coming to all of that at puberty when their ‘difference’ manifests. Ian is activist and he reality responded to the potential of that allegory.”
How did Fox respond to Singer’s plan to start a superhero movie with a Holocaust scene and infuse it with subtext about the struggle of homosexual teenagers in modern America? Singer said there were really no battles to be won. “There was no particular expectation, really, or pressure — it wasn’t an enormous budget — and there was no template because these characters were not Superman or Batman. There was no issue of content or even tone.”
The reviews were generally good (the film stands at an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but not fawning. For instance, Kenneth Turan, writing in the Los Angeles Times, was supportive but not dazzled: “While ‘X-Men’ doesn’t take your breath away wire-to-wire the way ‘The Matrix’ did, it’s an accomplished piece of work with considerable pulp watchability to it. And having a self-referential sense of humor (‘You actually go outside in these things?’ Wolverine says when face-to-face with an X-uniform) makes the special effects go down that much smoother.”
The first “X-Men” film made $296 million worldwide, but its sequel, “X2: X-Men United,” with the benefit of a bigger budget and story elements already in place, rang up $408 million worldwide and 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. The biggest win, though, was in the hearts and minds of Hollywood. As time went on, people began to see Singer’s “X-Men” films as special. David Denby, in the New Yorker, wrote in praise of “the liquid beauty and the poetic fantasy of Singer’s work.” Denby didn’t feel the magic with replacement director Ratner, however, whom he dismissed as “a crude synthesizer of comedy and action tropes.”
The third X-Men movie made the most money at the box office ($459 million worldwide) but many fans found it unsatisfying, and Shuler Donner, choosing her words carefully, made it clear that she is ready for Singer to come back to the mutant universe. “He has an authorship, I feel, and I love all of my directors but with Bryan I would send him e-mails saying ‘Where are you? You should be here.’ ”
That’s why Shuler Donner went to Singer with “X-Men: First Class,” a prequel to the 2000 film that shares its name with the eight-issue comics series that began in 2006 and was written by Jeff Parker with art by Roger Cruz. Singer says the film will find its axis in the relationship between Professor X and Magneto and the point where their friendship soured. It will also detail the beginning of the school for mutants and have younger incarnations of some characters with new actors in roles of Cyclops, Jean Grey, the Beast, etc. (He only shrugged when asked if Hugh Jackman might appear as Wolverine, the one character who doesn’t age at the same rate as humans.)
The premise has compelling elements to it, Singer said. “Just doing younger mutants is not enough. The story needs to be more than that. I love the relationship between Magneto and Xavier, these two men who have diametrically opposite points of view but still manage to be friends — to a point. They are the ultimate frenemies.”
Before Singer can dive into casting, he has a rather large problem — the fact that Warner Bros. has the filmmaker on the hook to direct “Jack the Giant Killer.” Fox, flush with money from “Avatar,” is eager to move forward with its mutant franchise in all of its permutations, so there are negotiations that need to be done.
Shuler Donner also has pitched Singer on doing a fourth installment of the previously established “X-Men” franchise and Jackman had that lunch with Singer to coax him into a project as well, which may or may not be a “Wolverine” film, which Jackman has said will be set in Japan and released in 2011. “I wish I could be four people,” the director said with a moan. “I could make everybody happy.”
Singer turned to Shuler Donner and said of “X-Men 4″: “Hold that one off for just a little, I’m fixated on the other one right now.” She nodded and answered, “I will, I will … I’m holding it open with high hopes. It’s totally different [from ‘First Class’] and it will be so interesting for you.”
At that point, Singer and Shuler Donner asked for some more off-the-record time to talk about the future instead of the past. Then, with the recorder rolling once more, Singer was asked if he believed his first mutant movie would be remembered as a pioneering moment in Hollywood.
“I don’t know if people followed in our footsteps or maybe we were just the first of a group going down the same path together,” Singer said. “I can tell you this: I remember when Marvel Comics was in bankruptcy and I bought stock for a friend as a joke. That was before ‘X-Men’ and it was one of the reasons we had so much freedom. And now Disney paid $4 billion for the company. That sort of caught my attention. I just think we made some good movies. And now we’re going to make more.”
— Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
PHOTOS: Top and sixth: Bryan Singer and Lauren Shuler Donner (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times); Second, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (Fox); Third, Ian McKellen, Rebecca Romijn, Jackman and Halle Berry in “X2: X-Men United” (Fox); Fourth, Berry as Storm (Fox); Fifth, Bryan Singer and Ian McKellan on the set of “X-Men” (Attila Dory / For The Times). Seventh, “X-Men First Class” the comic book (Marvel).