Monday, June 10, 2019

No, Hollywood, That is Not Why We Didn't See the New X-Men (or Godzilla)

oh, no.  I couldn't possibly.  No, thank you.

The Hollywood Reporter posted an article today explaining why X-Men: Dark Phoenix underperformed at the box office.  It's an article that explains how the execs at Fox were wrong about what went wrong with X-Men: Apocalypse and how they mis-course corrected with Dark Phoenix.*

I'll argue, the article is no more correct about what went wrong (re: why people didn't show up) than the condescending treatment it gives the execs trying to sort things out in the days after the poor performance of Apocalypse.

Firstly: X-Men from way back in 2000 doesn't actually look all that great in a post Avengers: Endgame world.  But for what they were, a step up from the general cockamamie badness of 90's superhero movies, at the time, the X-Men movies were revolutionary.

They started strong with Rogue as a POV character, allowing us to enter the X-world as someone scared, in a bit of shock and in awe of the people we met along the way.  We got familiar with the conflict of mutant versus the world AND co-habitation mutant versus militant mutant.  The cast was smallish, and everyone had fairly obvious roles and were readily identifiable.  Also - we gradually met everyone, person by person.   We saw how they fit in, who they were.

X2 built on that notion (really weirdly sidelining Rogue, but whatever), leaned into the premise, but kept the story smallish even as the stakes were tremendous.  We saw more of the same characters and actors, we learned a bit more about Wolverine and some of the dangers befalling mutants.  We had a tragedy.

And, from here, things got weird.  X3 was just flat out dumb.  They killed Cyke in an obvious FU to James Marsden for doing a Superman movie.  Professor X was whacked for reasons I couldn't begin to fathom/ his contract was up.  And the movie couldn't decide which of three plots it was about, and, hey, let's just keep introducing characters with no backstory, role, rhyme or reason. And!, we're gonna show Magneto could do all sorts of damage, but then fail to actually *do* anything with it.

It turns out Brett Ratner kinda sucks at movies.

After that, we're on to the "back in the past" movies that jump from decade to decade, and I literally couldn't tell you how many of those there are.  I've seen them!  I vaguely remember one had Kevin Bacon.  Somehow the X-Men either caused or ended the Cuban Nuclear Missile Crisis.  Something about J-Law wearing a 70's wardrobe and maybe Peter Dinklage.  I dunno, it gets hazy.

Here's what I do know -

The number of explosions and epic scale were not an issue, as per the assumptions of the Fox execs.  And maybe the Fox execs need to realize they are all less smart than Chris Claremont.

The movies did nothing to build character stories.  Marvel's Avengers franchise has a simple formula: character first.  Everyone gets a story.  Everyone gets an arc.  Only Maria Hill ever just shows up.  The storylines may not jive as well as we remember them doing in Marvel's outings (here I'll pitch our PodCast as we trace our way through the movies, acknowledging what comes after), but the character stuff lines up and evolves (except for maybe Avengers: Age of Ultron).

The X films just started casting new actors into familiar roles but never actually *doing* anything with those characters.  I just counted, and there are 7 movies about the X-Men proper, and they pop up in Wolverine and Deadpool movies, too.  But can you tell me anything about, say, Beast?  Or... wait, who IS in these movies that isn't Wolverine, Mystique, Professor X and Magneto?  Was Jean Grey in X-Men: Apocalypse?  Was Cyclops?  I kinda remember Storm and Nightcrawler appearing, and certainly Psylocke, but...

Look, one last time for WB/DC, Fox, and the kids in the back... the reason Avengers movies work is because we already know stuff about these characters as individuals (unless you really are one of those people who thinks John Wick has deep character moments).  If the execs thought the end of X-Men: Apocalypse was "too big", that was probably them not realizing they were reacting to the fact that they were seeing a lot of things occurring, but nothing happening.  I literally can't even remember a scene with the big bad of the movie sitting upright... my entire memory is of him laying down for some reason.

You don't have to have individual movies for everyone (see: Guardians of the Galaxy), but you do need to make sure everyone has a role and purpose.

Ironically - this was the specialty of Chris Claremont, the guy who made X-Men by far the best selling comic for years and years, bridging the 70's to about 90, if memory serves.  In a single 12-issue-per-year title, he wove stories for all of the X-Men, giving them spotlights and their own mythologies and histories that came together and allowed them to be explored as unique characters working alongside one another.  In many ways, the character work of that era of Uncanny X-Men got me into comics (I had a run from about 165-340 or so at one point), and I'm baffled every year that neither DC nor Marvel has a title that manages a cast in true soap opera fashion, with romance and grudges and heartache and personal growth.  I'd give my left arm for a comic that had characters who have important conversations while digging through the refrigerator when everyone else is asleep.

Stop recasting.  Marvel also figured out that you don't just drop a 20ish actor into a suit and hope they show up sober for work so the real actors can use them as props.  You forget now, but people *liked* the actors and characters in the first films.  No one knew Hugh Jackman from Hugh Jabroney in 2000, but by 2002, he was wildly popular.  But, a lot of us liked Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn, and that original crew.  Find people who work and lean into it. You don't get a Dave Bautista by assuming you'll recast by next movie.

And, while you're at it - ditch the matching suits.  Give us some reason to tell these nerds apart out of close-up.

Stop using good actors badly.  You had Ellen Paige as everyone's comic book girlfriend, Kitty Pryde, and you didn't do anything with it.  You had Halle f'ing Berry as Storm and you let her go.  You hilariously put Kelsey Grammar in a furry suit and then forgot you cast him, apparently.

I cannot imagine.  What a world.

The decade hopping wore thin.  I kind of liked a 1960's setting, but by the time we hit the 1980's... I was bored, man.  It just felt like a weird creative conceit with no payoff.  And the adherence to actually making sure extras and sets looked era appropriate was generally lackluster, anyway.

Two out of seven movies shouldn't be the same story.  Yeah, Ratner is a garbage director (and probably a garbage human), but I would assume fans of the series had streamed X3, no matter their age.   Why would you cover the same territory 4 movies later?  Phoenix is kinda THE X-Men story.  When you do it again, we notice!  It's crazy, I know.

Now combine two of these points.  If you were to do Phoenix again - why not build up to it over two to three movies?  Why not X-Men Go to Space.  Then X-Men: What is going on with Jean?.  Then, X-Men: Phoenix.?  I mean - how much impact do you expect when the last time we got a performance that made any of us care about Cyclops and Jean was in 2002 or so?  Why not earn some character moments?

I had literally just stopped caring.  I mean - how else to say it?  Sure, put a star like Chastain in your movie.  But after recasting, rebooting, time hops and endless shuffling... 7 movies in and 20 years on (plus those Wolverine films), re-doing a story you'd already done once in what's my adult-era memory...  Plus, honestly, only like 2.5 of these actual X-Men movies were good and maybe 2 had stories coherent enough to be memorable...

Look, there's a reason ballparks can't sell seats when a team is in last place.  You can have all the promotional giveaways you want, but if you figure you're showing up for disappointment (and, no, I didn't know about or care about reshoots.  That's inside baseball stuff on this franchise), especially in comparison to the spectacular that was Avengers Endgame - which is still also the same cost for a movie ticket as this film...  or the half dozen other summer releases out at the moment...  And I know this will be streaming in 3 months...  I can skip it.

Also your trailers were boring.  Your trailer is your sizzle reel there to trick me into coming to the movie.  The movie is there to be good enough to get me to come back for a rewatch, to buy the DVD, the t-shirt and the action figure.   Your trailer told me "Jean will get out of control again like in that other movie, only not with Famke Janssen being Jean."  I saw no actual Phoenix Effect.  I saw no space stuff.  I saw no Cyclops.  I saw... a bunch of shots of stuff that all looked like this franchise is still stuck in 2006.  And I have so, so many more options for things to do, read and watch.

Apparently no one was *aware* of Dark Phoenix, which was pretty funny considering the fairly substantial marketing push.  But that also says: everything in your trailer and TV ads looked so generic in a 2019 sci-fi and superhero rich landscape, it just evaporated on people's brain pans.  So - maybe next time do something that has a distinct look or point of view?  Maybe remember that X-Men is actually an allegory for something, and that something is not "what if that girl in your math class was an atomic bomb?".

You want me to show up, show me something to show up for.

Bonus:  Why I didn't see Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I had tickets to see the movie the Monday after the Friday release.  Over the weekend I had two completely separate conversations with two people who don't know each other who were... pissed.  Like, really angry at this movie.

I didn't like Godzilla 2014 all that much, and in trying to rewatch Kong: Skull Island over that weekend, I remembered; oh, yeah, this is really bad, too.

So, promises of giant monster fights aside and knowing it'll be on cable in 5 months, I got a refund on my tickets.

Look - I don't know what they're thinking with the American Godzilla franchise, but look to Toho's work and take the best... stop trying to show them how it's done  You're embarrassing yourself.

*Dark Phoenix is not a good name for a movie, btw, if you have only referred to a character as "Jean" for 20 years.  Also, it sounds like a lesser Cult album.


mcsteans said...

Oh, if this could only make it in front of the appropriate studio execs. Also, I would totally dig a Maria Hill movie.

Stuart said...

I've just recently re-watched all the X-Men movies (except Logan). I liked the timehopping ones more than you, except for Apocalypse. (By the way, the bad guy *does* spend a lot of time lying down in that one!) But now that I'm at the end with only one last movie to go, it kind of seems like homework and I don't really want to.

Like, I'm trying to be a good, loyal fan. But should it feel like work? Shouldn't I be actually excited to see what happens next? Or barring that, interested? I expect whatever happens in Dark Phoenix will be less if a disappointment than X3, but that's still setting the bar pretty low.

What would get me in the theater is the thought that, with the franchise ending, what I'd they just let her win? What if they let Phoenix just absolutely *destroy* the Fox Marvel Universe? I would go see that. But I'm sure instead it's another passable entry in a tired franchise.

Stuart said...

I genuinely feel bad about not liking Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It's the kind of movie that you can explain individual things happening in retrospect that are cool, but watching it feels like a chore. Ugh.

The League said...

I think I liked the time jumps until Apocalypse, and then I was like "what are they even doing?". Apocalypse showed up in the 80's, sure. But all the stuff from the movie was 90's stuff, so it wasn't referring to that. I dunno. It just felt like they had an idea, they ran with it, and didn't care if it wasn't really working.

I had no idea, btw, that this was the "final" X-movie until I read the article. Again - more bad planning (and advertising). What happened in the wake of Phoenix in the comics was as important as Phoenix.

Simon MacDonald said...

It's weird because I totally forgot there was a movie between "First Class" and "Apocalypse". I even liked "Days of Future Past" but this series has become utterly forgettable to me. Even before "Apocalypse" came out I dropped the Fox X-Men movies to only on a plane viewings.

The League said...

Everyone has their yardstick, but I don't know how Fox has been looking at what they did with X-Men and thought "we're really killing it!". I had moved to "maybe on InDemand" with these movies when I saw the trailer for Apocalypse, and even that felt like a minor mistake. First movie I've watched in forever where I pulled out my laptop partway through.