[6 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s happened again. Another good—nay, arguably great—film has opened to less than spectacular box office and the pundits are positioning themselves with excuses and rationales. Some think it’s part of an overall industry slump, ticket receipts down across the board. Others argue that the slack performance was the result of a reboot no one was really asking for. But in truth, the underwhelming $56 million made by X-Men: First Class over the 3 June weekend was not the result of some slowdown in movie attendance or fan rejection. Instead, it’s all the fault of Messageboard Nation and the conclave of cyber soap boxes that doomed the film from the start.
You see, among the various comic book calling cards carried by your certified geek, love of the X-Men is the top trading card. It’s as much a part of the dynamic as adoring Watchmen, dismissing the ‘60s Batman, and arguing over the DC/ Marvel catalog. Stan Lee’s subjective take on racism and adolescent angst, balled up inside a mythology so dense it would require a doctorate degree to decipher, was a stepping stone for many a funny book fan. After all, it referenced the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement, and the muscle brawn butt kicking that kept the pubescent and their pals coming back issue after issue. While the lessons were often lost in the fascinating four panel artwork, the core concepts came across loud and clear.
So when Bryan Singer decided to turn the franchise into a feigned examination of homophobia and prejudice, he was playing to a prepared demo. The first X-Men movie was good, the second is considered great, and the third supposedly shit on all that had come before. A Wolverine solo outing couldn’t salvage things, and it looked like everyone’s favorite mutants were down for the commercial count. But then Fox got the smart idea of going back in time, of tying the fate of America during the Cuban Missile Crisis to the rise of Dr. X and Magneto, and the founding of the soon to be celebrated (and censured) collective. Sure, it sounded like what Columbia was doing with Spider-man, removing Sam Raimi and returning to the webslinging superheroe’s awkward teen years.
But the difference between X-Men: First Class and the standard example of the genre are massive. Without repeating the review already posted, this is a serious undertaking, using the more realistic Dark Knight approach to dealing with politics, nuclear threats, and the growing pains of young people with special abilities. Sure, there is the spectacle we’ve come to expect, but the camp and kookiness have been toned down for serious discussions about life, duty, and the already reactionary judgment of normal humans. During a significant conversation between Charles/Dr. X and his then friend Erik/Magneto, the question of tolerance is taken apart, retested, and then left as a wedge that will slowly drive the duo to exchange their powerful bond for an equally terse adversarial one.
Well directed by Matthew Vaughn and expertly acting by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kevin Bacon, it’s an amazing achievement, especially when placed alongside other wonky wannabes. So why the low turnout? Why did a movie poised to be one of the year’s best end up being the source of speculation and studio disappointment? The answer, again, is you…the members of the blogsphere and the trolls tracking the various comment blocks of film reviews everywhere. Like any uncontrolled and unfiltered free market, the web allows any opinion, no matter how considered or crude, thoughtful or idiotic, to become part of the critical discussion. Then, thanks to democratic misdirection of the process, the loudest voice or the greatest consensus becomes the truth, whether or not it deserves such Gospel reverence.
Take the case of X-Men. A Google click across will unveil a wealth of communal conversation, most of it going a little something like this: “the first film was great, the second RAWKED!!!, and everything else sucked…and sucked hard.” Within that simple set up, word of mouth is already scripted. Unless Bryan Singer has something to do with it (not just in a producer’s role) and it follows the formula set up by the 2003 sequel, X-fans want little to do with it. They will winge and rant, setting their feet solidly in the cement of their own fevered beliefs. There is no room for compromise, no value in differing ideals. For them, X2 is the standard… all other attempts (including this one) have failed.
By connection—and a quick glance at several forums on the subject—it’s obvious that there was little buzz for such a revamp. Devotees argued over the necessity for this film (what they’d rather see is the proposed Magneto vehicle) and claimed, without seeing it, that it would disappoint. Deconstructing their already set conclusions about the series, they couldn’t see anyone saving it from itself, and implied - rather effectively - that it would be more of the same, to wit: a studio-driven mess that leaves the wants and needs of true fans out of the mix while screwing with the sacred comic mythos. The trailers didn’t help, as they were more iconic than informational and the fifty year old setting—that’s right, the Cuban Missile Crisis was indeed five decades ago—didn’t argue for its potential contemporary cool.
So just as they push something forward that should, perhaps, have never been offered up in the first place, Messageboard Nation ‘panned’ X-Men: First Class before it even had a chance to defend itself. Even today, three days after release and a constituency of glowing reviews later, many who’ve made up their mind are not budging. There’s a hint of reluctance in their screen avatar persona, an opening in case they every decide to see the film and then decide to like it, but for the most part, the mantra remains strong. Granted, some who took the time to see it have changed their tune, and others found the experience only confirmed their worst fears. But in a day and age where marketing means everything to a questionable cinematic risk, the Twitterverse might not help, but it can sure hinder. X-Men: First Class deserved to stand on its own. In actuality, it probably deserved a better kind of fan as well.