by David Bentley, published on November 16, 2010 - 12:15 AM |
Comic book legend Chris Claremont has become synonymous with the X-Men.
He revived the Marvel title in 1975 with a new international team that included the now-classic characters Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus.
The book featuring the previous line-up had been cancelled five years earlier because of poor sales. But the relaunch proved a massive success.
In an era of women's rights and space exploration, the weather-controlling Storm was the first black woman to play a major role in the comics while Jean Grey was transformed into the virtually omnipotent cosmic being called Phoenix, whose apotheosis and downfall was charted in the epic space opera now known as the Dark Phoenix Saga.
Over the years, Claremont also co-created such mutants as Mystique, Gambit, Rogue, Psylocke, Shadowcat, Emma Frost and Sabretooth. Today, he is the writer of Marvel's X-Men Forever series.
The scribe has now seen his X-Men brought to the big screen in four 20th Century Fox movies (X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, and X-Men Origins; Wolverine). And there are more on the way: X-Men: First Class, a second Wolverine movie (apparently called The Wolverine) and a Deadpool spin-off.
As we mentioned last week, I had chance to interview Chris recently. He was in the UK for the London MCM Expo and also spent a day on the set of X-Men: First Class at Pinewood before flying back to the States. It was an ideal opportunity to ask the X-Men writer about the big-screen interpretations of his popular comic book stories.
At the start of the conversation, I first asked if he could tell us anything exciting about upcoming developments in his ongoing X-Men Forever title.
He revealed they were about to embark on a storyline involving a character called Ghost Panther. It follows the death of Black Panther at the behest of Storm who, as Chris explains, "loved him but wanted his throne more and became his successor." The Ghost Panther plotline will be introduced by the end of this year, he said.
Chris's imagination has already proved a rich source of material for the films. We saw an adaptation of his God Loves Man Kills story in X2; the Dark Phoenix Saga built to a climax through the first three X-Men films; and his deeper characterisation of Magneto (by adding a wartime backstory) has also featured on screen.
So what does Chris think of the films? He told me: "Well, firstly, there is the thrill of seeing someone enjoying the concept and characters enough to adapt them in the first place.
"I have to say the X-Men franchise has been extraordinarily fortunate in working with producer Lauren Shuler Donner on all five films so far. She is someone who has all the commitment and professionalism anyone could hope for.
"All of the films have had the most eclectic and amazingly gifted cast of actors you could imagine, starting with Hugh Jackman. He was initially in musical theatre, and he wasn't even going to be Wolverine at first, but then Dougray Scott couldn't do it and they saw something in Hugh that was perfect. And just look how well it turned out.
"And then we have Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Halle Berry and all the others, carrying all the way through to the next Wolverine and X-Men: First Class", he continued.
"The casting has been essential to these films and their success - movies are about faces and the interaction of bodies and faces, and there is a huge challenge in making a film that's good and that conveys all the heart and soul of the script."
He believes he's in an ideal position to judge whether what's being done is working or not. Claremont recalls several discussions at conventions where fans have argued that what he's done with a character in the comics is "wrong" and, ultimately, he's had to point out that he's the one who actually created the character so he should know what's right or not.
But that's just the comic book world. There's a whole other level of discussions and arguments among fans about the changes made in the films, with some displeasure voiced over the character developments in Brett Ratner's 2006 release X-Men: The Last Stand.
And yet Chris had a cameo in the opening scene of the film and also wrote the novelisation. Clearly he isn't part of any angry mob.
He explained his stance: "Film is a different medium altogether. The director and screenwriters have different creative impulses. For instance, take Wolverine and Storm, their heights in the films were totally switched from the comics [where Wolverine is 5ft 3in and Storm 5ft 11in, as opposed to Jackman's 6ft 2in and Berry's 5ft 6in].
"But who the heck cares?," he shrugs. "The characters work, the relationships work, therefore you accept the different, 'what if' reality of film as an entity in itself. You go for the essence. And that's what they did."
Claremont had been to the set of X-Men: First Class the day before our conversation, so I hoped to prise out some details, or at least get his reaction on whether this next instalment has also captured the essence.
"Making these films is an incredible challenge," he told me. "Co-ordinating all the people involved is breathtaking. I was on set watching. With me, it's a matter of sitting at a computer screen and creating whatever is in my imagination just by hitting the keys on my keyboard; with them it's a matter of co-ordinating a small army."
So what did he see as director Matthew Vaughn and producer Lauren Shuler Donner marshalled the troops into action at Pinewood?
"I have no idea what the end result is going to look like, I have not read the script or viewed any of the dailies [raw, unedited footage]," he cautioned. "I was there on a tourist's visit."
Although he wouldn't give any details, he told me: "What I saw them doing was really, really good. The only criticism I have is having to wait until next June to see it!"
And Chris has been happy with what he's seen on screen in the previous films. "A film has to be defined in its own terms from its beginning to its end," he says. "And when they decided to take my structure for Magneto's life and make it part of film canon, I was tap-dancing as I watched the movie. And when Logan says 'I'm the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn't very nice' in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I was howling with joy and my wife was looking at me and everyone in the auditorium was looking at me. But that's my line and I was in heaven. It showed they were paying attention to the mythos and that was so cool."
As for the next Wolverine movie - based on Claremont's own comic book series in which Logan goes to Japan and learns the ways of the samurai - the scribe is confident that it has the ingredients to be a great film: "The screenplay is brilliant, everyone who has read it has said so", he says, adding that he hasn't seen it himself. "They've been talking about doing this story for 12 to 15 years and now it's finally happening."
It's a shame, I said, that the franchise appears to have proceeded without much of an obvious overall strategy to map out the series and where it's all heading. So far we've seen several directors and writers come on board and add their own ideas, so although the series does hold together surprisingly well (as I can attest from viewings of the quadrilogy box set), there are variations along the way.
"The success of the first X-Men caught everyone by surprise", says Chris, pointing out that comic book adaptations weren't a surefire success back then, so no one had dared to commit to a whole series of mutant adventures.
But he admits: "If Bryan Singer had been able to do the third X-Men film, the evolution of the Dark Phoenix Saga would have been different. But we had a situation where we first had Matthew Vaughn, and then Brett Ratner came in with just a few weeks before they started shooting. We had all the rewrites and replacements on top of all the existing production requirements."
"I do wish X3 was longer", he said, "with more time to develop the characters and the complexity and richness and interaction, giving more depth to the characters."
I told him that I had once enquired about the possibility of an extended edition and was told that no other cut of the film exists.
Chris added: "Well, as far as I am aware, there was a lot of stuff in the concept stages, and in the form of notes on the script, but they were on an incredibly tight schedule and didn't have the time or budget to discuss it all, let alone do it. These films are huge undertakings at the best of times."
I asked what he thought of the characters brought to the screen by Marvel Studios itself, so far consisting of two Iron Man films and a second Hulk movie. After all, they are all part of Marvel's comic book canvas and have interacted with Claremont's X-Men from time to time on the printed page.
"With those films too, there is something for me personally to enjoy and take pride in", said Claremont. "For instance, in Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow used the alias Natalie Rushman. I created the Rushman identity in a four-part Marvel team-up, so I saw my idea right there on screen once again."
Overall, you can sense he feels great pride in how his characters, stories and ideas have moved from comics to cinema. So has he had any direct influence, I asked, particularly with the X-Men, which first arrived on the big screen back in 2000?
Claremont reveals: "Back in 1998 I was editorial director at Marvel. I sat down and wrote a 10-page single-space memo to the studio outlining the characters, concepts and structure of the X-Men, explaining that this is what you need to do and how you need to get there.
"That catalysed the whole thing for Fox, Lauren Shuler Donner and Bryan Singer. So deep down in my heart of hearts, I can take a measure of responsibility and credit for jump-starting the whole thing.
"After that, it's in the hands of the gifted professionals that went on from there to make the films we all know."
So what's on Chris's wishlist for future X-Men movies? "I have to say I would like to see the Shi'ar [alien empire], and Xavier with Lilandra (pictured left, Empress of the Shi'ar) in the romance from the comics," he said. "And if Marvel's Thor is a success, which it looks like it could be, one day we might even see the X-Men go to Asgard."
But what about the film rights? Thor (along with Captain America, The Avengers and many more) is with Marvel's own studios, but the screen rights for X-Men (as well as Fantastic Four and Daredevil) are owned by Fox, while Sony has Spider-Man and Ghost Rider. While the fans might want more crossovers and dream of a united superhero world on screen, the scattered character rights don't make it seem very likely that we'll see the X-Men in Asgard, I suggested.
"One day it might happen", says Chris, optimistically. "We could see it one day. You never know."