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How Bryan Singer brought the X-Men franchise back to life

X-Men: Days of Future Past
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Fox/Marvel

Welcome to Vox's Summer Movie Week, as we look back at the movies of summer 2014.

This post is about Bryan Singer's talent as an artist. He was (both Singer and his accuser now want the lawsuit dismissed) the subject of a lawsuit alleging sexual assault earlier this summer, and this post does not reflect that.

Summer Movie Week

In order to fully appreciate the greatness of X-Men: Days of Future Past, you have to take into account what the movie was up against.

Brett Ratner single-handedly ruined the X-Men franchise with X-Men: The Last Stand. The powers at Fox/Marvel fed two movies and four years of deft and nuanced story-telling to Ratner, the cinematic equivalent of a wood chipper. He shredded the franchise into a gory mash of stringy plots, curdled characters, and left the X-Men fan base marinating in resentment.

Add to that, Marvel's push for The Avengers. With successful movies like Captain America, Thor, and all those Iron Man flicks at its back, Marvel released The Avengers — the first movie to bring six iconic heroes together.

Bruised and bloodied from Ratner's reign, and Marvel's unbridled success, it seemed like the X-Men might be better off with the Marvel Studios team.  First Class stopped a bit of the bleeding. But in order to restore faith in the franchise, prove First Class wasn't a fluke and, at the same time, right Ratner's wrongs, Fox turned to Bryan Singer.

And it was the right choice, because there is no director out there who has figured out the way to translate the  pages of comic books into motion pictures the way Singer has.

X-Men powers are more complicated than The Avengers

The X-Men and villains in the X-Men franchise are a bit more complicated than your typical superhero. Take the Avengers for example: all of them are pretty great at fighting. Some, like Hulk, hit harder and some, like Hawkeye, are good with certain weapons. This is pretty easy to translate into a movie scene — make a bigger sound when Hulk hits something or have Hawkeye never miss.

What makes the X-Men a bit more complicated is that their powers are a bit more robust than super strength. Yes, some of their powers (e.g. Cyclops, Wolverine) are pretty explicit in that a character needs to shoot beams from his eyes or have metal claws come out of his skin. But, there are also some characters who have telepathy, teleportation, shape-shifting, and mind control as their gifts.

Translating that in a way that the audience can understand is hard (ask Ratner). Singer is really good at this, and has a way of translating superpowers onto the screen without hefty explanations. And Singer trusts the audience. There's a small scene from X-2 that begins with Professor X standing — a clue that he's under the control of Jason, a mutant with the power of illusion:

ProfessorX

(Fox/Marvel)

Singer's best talent

Singer, more than any director today, has a gift in bettering what he sees on comic book pages. The action in comic books rely on the imagination of a reader from panel to panel. Comic book panels serve as a skeleton of sorts, and readers fill in the gaps. And the reader controls the pace of the action.

Take Nightcrawler for example. In the comics, he has the ability to teleport. And in comic book pages, it's a series of static blurs and poses:

Nightcrawler

(Marvel)

Movies don't have this luxury. If they operated the way comic books do, it'd just be a series of jump cuts. There needs to be constant motion, and there needs to be thought as to how these clouds move and expand, how Nightcrawler moves, how everything else reacts to this. And Singer is fantastic at figuring out all these moving parts:

Singer

(Fox/Marvel)

What Singer did in X-Men: Days of Future Past...

The most-talked about scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past … is Quicksilver's jailbreak scene (which we unfortunately don't have a  full clip of yet). Quicksilver's power is simple — he is gifted with super speed. Running fast would be the easy way out. Singer achieved something more brilliant by not taking the easy way, but by throwing everyone not named Quicksilver into slow motion:

The other impressive feat Singer accomplished is bringing the mutant Blink into the movies. Blink has the power to transport objects and people through the use of little pink energy daggers. In this panel, from the X-Men's "Necrosha" story arc, she teleports Angel's wings away in a pink flash:

Blink

(Marvel)

Singer tinkered with the visuals of her powers a bit and, instead, made Blink's daggers rip holes into space and time (in the comics she has this ability, but it works a bit different). Visually, there's more of a payoff in Singer's treatment:

Blink

(Fox/Marvel)

Granted, there's a lot more to X-Men: DOFP that helped it right a lot of Ratner's wrongs (e.g. Jennifer Lawrence turning in a marvelous Mystique; the chemistry between Michael Fassbender and James McEvoy; the American Hustle-esque costumes)—these epic fight scenes only make up a short portion of the movie. But when you're paying for a superhero-driven summer blockbuster you want fantastic super powers. And Fox picked the best man to give us that.