Jul 12 2012

Learning Writing Skills from X-Men: First Class

(Please see the movie before reading this review).

 

1. A lot of the relationships really work, but the characterization would likely have been stronger if several characters had been removed. In particular, I think Xavier-Magneto and Hank-Mystique-Magneto alone were worth the price of admission. In the ten-minute training sequence, we see some really interesting threads, but they aren’t explored as fully as they could have been–for example, there’s a hilarious bit where Xavier and Hank only barely trust Havoc’s accuracy, but nobody ever mentions his accuracy again after that. Instead of having him prove his accuracy by shooting down Angel later on, it might have helped to force him to try a highly-dangerous trick shot to save an ally. Havoc gets a few lines being an ass to Beast, but again it didn’t really go anywhere. Cutting some of the minor characters might have helped buy more time for these plot threads to develop. Between Darwin, Angel, Havok, Banshee, Riptide (the unnamed tornado villain), Azazel (the demonic villain) and maybe Moira, 4-6 could have been easily removed.  In particular, introducing Darwin just to kill him immediately strikes me as a waste–he didn’t make enough of an impression for people to care about his death.

 

2. Notably, action plays a secondary role to character development. If you’re writing a superhero story which isn’t mainly about combat, I think First Class is probably the most helpful example from Hollywood so far.  I would definitely look at how the characters interact, how character traits are developed, and whether you would have subtracted and/or added characters.

 

3. Mystique is exceptional, but the other female characters could probably have been eliminated easily. If you’re having trouble with female characters, I’d recommend watching this movie again, comparing Mystique to the disastrous Emma Frost and Angel. Notably, Mystique isn’t mainly here as a love interest, and the closest she gets to a romance (her flirting with Hank) is sweet and ultimately tragic. She has goals and motivations besides being a love interest. I can only guess what motivates Emma Frost and Angel, but they have no discernible personality traits and are not developed beyond sex appeal. Emma doesn’t actually do anything when the villain reduces her to getting ice for his drink. (Ma’am, the first rule of being treated like Darth Vader is acting like Darth Vader, and the only ice Darth Vader gets is frozen smugglers).

3.1. Mystique’s dialogue has notably more personality than Emma’s. Compare these two exchanges.

  • XAVIER: “You should go with [Magneto]–it’s what you want.” In response to this kind encouragement from her best friend, she doesn’t just say “thanks” or “I know.” She actually says, “You promised you wouldn’t read my mind,” which strikes me as a much more interesting way of thanking him for encouraging her to follow her own path.
  • SHAW, with anti-psychic helmet on: “What am I thinking?” EMMA FROST: “I don’t know.” Wasted opportunity here. I would have much preferred if she had offered a guess which developed one or both characters. Even “How does she get into that skirt?” would have at least given her a bit of charm and helped show what she thinks of him. Instead, she comes across as rather helpless without her superpowers.  (One recurring problem with Frost is that she’s absolutely useless in every scene where her powers don’t work. She contributes literally nothing to the plot besides her psychic abilities, whereas Xavier gets interesting relationships, conflicts and unusual decisions).

 

4. I think that the revenge arc for Magneto was very effective–the bank and bar scenes made him come across as scary and at least vaguely likable. If you’re struggling with revenge-driven characters that are not as likable, I would definitely recommend checking out his dialogue there.

4.1. Giving Magneto a role in the murder of his mother was sharp–Shaw kills her because Magneto can’t move a coin in time. That helps develop Magneto’s burning desire for revenge, raises the stakes moving forward, and builds urgency into the development of his superpowers. (In addition, there might also be a subtle comparison between the death of Magneto’s mother and the crippling of Charles Xavier–in both cases, a bystander to the conflict pays the price).

 

5. The protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts were very satisfying. Some notable examples:

  • Xavier vs. Magneto. This was much more interesting than anything we saw involving the antagonists. Both characters are three-dimensional and mostly-likable, which bodes very well for conflict. Moreover, even some of their agreements exacerbate conflict. For example, Xavier escalates Magneto’s stand against the CIA’s request that humans help in the recruitment of mutants.
  • Mystique (and eventually Magneto) vs. Hank. The aborted romance here is touching and the evolution of their goals and self-perceptions is smooth.
  • Xavier/Magneto/MacTaggert vs. the recruits in terms of maturity. This conflict would probably have been more interesting if there had been consequences—the recruits blew stuff up, but nothing came of it. That said, I do like how they interspersed the scenes of the recruits getting rowdy and the CIA bosses wondering if these untrained agents were actually ready for field duty.  It might have helped if the CIA had forced them to prove that they were ready and/or threatened to cut the program.
  • Mystique vs. Xavier–she resents that he doesn’t have to hide and that he’d rather be part of a world she’s at war with.
  • Havoc vs. Beast was a bust. It might have helped if Havoc had received more development besides a one-dimensional ass. Removing other characters to buy time for development would probably have helped here.
  • The U.S. government vs. everybody. I would have liked to see moral complexity here–the U.S. officials were mostly one-dimensionally dickish. More on this later.

 

6. The movie would have been more interesting if the government characters had been less one-dimensionally evil. Great protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts generally pit likable and mostly-justified characters against each other (e.g. TDK’s Batman vs. Lucius over the surveillance program or Avengers’ Nick Fury vs. Thor over weaponizing the Tesseract). The conflicts are more believable and satisfying if the writers respect viewers enough not to push them to take a side. In contrast, there were many points at which First Class pushed against U.S. officials. For example, the U.S. inexplicably betrayed its own agents. It would have helped if the motivation had been better here (perhaps the X-Men did something which might have looked traitorous). Second, before writing off Agent MacTaggert so asininely, maybe a U.S. commander could have at least wondered if it would be possible to extract her or get her to cover before opening the bombardment. (Even if it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t practical, at least raising the option would add some depth to the decision to write her off). Third, the U.S. officials sounded more like Hollywood boogeymen than actual people. For example, “The laws apply to human beings… at times like these, security matters more than liberty.” I think the characters would come across as more complex and interesting if they sounded like they believed what they were saying. For example, maybe something like “What good is liberty if we’re all dead?” instead.

 

7. I really like the plot strand introducing MacTaggert to Xavier. 

A. The CIA agent hears about genetic mutations while investigating a major case.

B. The investigation gets blown by mutant superpowers and the agent loses the trust of her superiors.

C. She starts looking for an expert on genetic mutations.

This is a very elegant chain of events–A and B raise the stakes for C, and it all fits together very logically.

 

8. The villains needed a lot of work. They were probably the weak point of this movie. It might have helped if Shaw’s goal to cripple humanity had involved something other than a nuclear war (which would also have crippled mutantkind). For example, it might have made more sense if he had been trying to release a virus which was targeted to kill only humans.  It was pretty obvious that the writers wouldn’t let him succeed in starting a nuclear war, so his plot was less suspenseful than it could have been. I would also have recommended cutting out most of the villains and overhauling the survivors–giving Emma Frost a personality and some role besides sex appeal and psychic powers would probably be a great start.

 

9. If you’re having trouble with intelligent characters, I’d recommend checking out Xavier and Hank here. I could definitely see Xavier’s erudite pickup routine working and his thesis successfully raises the stakes while sounding vaguely academic. Hank is a bit different than what we’ve seen in most other superhero movies: a very intelligent character that isn’t very confident/assertive about his intelligence. This leads to memorable exchanges such as “Are you sure [jumping out a window] will work?” / “Anything is possible.”  Additionally, I really like that Hank makes mistakes. His initial work with Banshee and Havok turns out fairly badly and his cure is a disaster. He’s unreliable enough that Banshee says, “I trust you [Xavier]–I don’t trust him [Hank].” Hank’s unreliability adds some conflict and suspense.

 

10. I didn’t quite buy the introduction of the characters’ code-names. The scene felt less realistic than the rest of the movie and the names were unimportant enough to the movie that they could probably have been cut out altogether. In contrast, the exchange introducing the phrase “X-Men” strikes me as more natural. (XAVIER: “We’re still g-men, just without the g.” MOIRA: “No, you’re your own team now. It’s better. You’re X-Men”).

 

11. The movie did a great job in terms of giving major characters unusual choices. Some of the minor characters are sort of missing here, though.

  • Xavier blackmails the CIA into only recruiting mutants with mutants.
  • XAVIER: “You ready for this?”  / MAGNETO: “Let’s find out.”  I really like that he’s not excessively confident in himself. That’s especially refreshing for an antihero.
  • The CIA wants to abort the mission against the Russian general, but Magneto pushes on alone. Xavier won’t leave him. Additionally, Xavier stops to help the Russian guards that Magneto has tied up in barbed wire, which helps develop the differences between Magneto and Xavier.
  • When CIA agents mock the mutants, Beast passively closes the curtain rather than reacting more aggressively.
  • The villain lets the mutants freely choose whether to come with him or stay.
  • Darwin marches out alone and gets cut down trying to save Angel. This was the closest he came to a personality.
  • Xavier attempts to disband the team after Shaw attacks, but the recruits refuse.
  • Xavier really pushes his teammates, leading to conversations like this. XAVIER, while holding a gun to Magneto’s head: “I don’t know about this…” MAGNETO: “Don’t worry. I can deflect it.” XAVIER: “If you know you can deflect it, you’re not challenging yourself!”
  • Magneto kills Shaw even though Magneto agreed with Shaw that mutants should be ruling over humans. It turns out that murdering mothers is not the best way to make friends and influence people, especially their sons. PS: Emma Frost, please take notes on this while you’re growing a spine.
  • Even though MacTaggert tells Xavier she won’t reveal anything to the CIA, Xavier wipes her memories of the mission anyway. Erasing the kiss was especially cold. I think this helped add some depth to Xavier and foreshadow some of the threats Xavier envisions (e.g. hostile psychics).
  • Xavier encourages his best friend Mystique to go with Magneto because it’s what she wants to do. It’s pretty rare for a main character to make a sacrifice for a friend that is less central to the plot.

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Learning Writing Skills from X-Men: First Class”

  1. YellowJujuon 12 Jul 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Feels good to suggest an article.

  2. B. McKenzieon 12 Jul 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks for your help.

    Incidentally, it is one of my favorite superhero movies.

  3. Milanon 12 Jul 2012 at 11:34 pm

    I am really enjoying these Learning Writing Skills from… articles. Even ifI don’t totally agree with the interpretation, the focus on storytelling elements is great. Sometimes I think my story has a bit of what it will take, but often I am the grasshopper.

  4. Chihuahua Zeroon 13 Jul 2012 at 6:32 am

    You should make this more of a regular series. You’re really showing me what superhero movies I should watch. Usually, my Writer’s mindset can’t wrap itself around a movie, but I might try looking at The Amazing Spiderman with a critical eye.

    Have you watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer yet?

  5. Aj of Earthon 13 Jul 2012 at 6:38 am

    Great article. First Class is definitely one of the best superhero flicks to date – and part of a planned trio of films too, I understand. Dig that.

    I really agree with the points made here. Including, sadly, the one-dimensionality of the villains. Shaw notwithstanding (Kevin Bacon was superb), the Inner Circle really lacked that extra punch that would’ve made them truly formidable antagonists. Emma Frost chief among them. For her level of involvement, which was pretty significant as Shaw’s right hand, her dialogue and character development was pretty lackluster. Which is a shame as her character, especially as it relates to Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club, is complex and full of shadowy, treacherous intrigue.

    As for Riptide and Azazel… Mostly forgettable. Riptide especially.

    Conversely, Magneto was one of the most interesting, effective and tragically flawed anti-heroes I’ve seen in film. The bank and bar scenes were stellar; perfect reflections of what moves beneath the surface for Magneto, what really drives him and why. They were dark and resonant and did a fantastic job of relating the gravity of a holocaust survivor confronting the murderers of his people. Chilling and fearsome.

    Mystique, though, is the one character I feel who had the most development and experienced the most growth through the entire film. Her struggles were real and apparent at every turn in her arc and we as audience got to experience her making authentic decisions, both proactively and reactively, that would later shape the character Mystique eventually grows into. In fact the entire Mutant Allegory, owning and accepting that which makes you different, facing/overcoming the insecurities that stem from that process in a society that overall shuns and fears and hates Other-ness is relevant I think to everyone. It’s not a struggle that is mutant-exclusive, or even fiction-exclusive, and I feel it was expressed astutely, and the most genuinely, with Mystique. Mutant [insert any marginalized, disinfranchised and abused minority or demographic here] and Proud.

    Two thumbs up.

    And of course, Charles Xavier’s my main man. Nuff said.

  6. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2012 at 11:01 am

    “You’re really showing me what superhero movies I should watch.” It would take 100-150 hours to watch every (theatrically-released) superhero movie that has come out in the last 50 years–there are 63 of them, by my count. I’d recommend watching as many as possible. There are some things I’ve learned from really awful movies that I didn’t see in the excellent ones–for example, Green Lantern’s scene transitions are awkward and disjointed, but the scene transitions in really great movies are so smooth as to be invisible. Watching the horrible movies helps me recognize what the really good movies are doing better.

  7. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2012 at 11:13 am

    “Conversely, Magneto was one of the most interesting, effective and tragically flawed anti-heroes I’ve seen in film.” Agreed. I think it’s safe to say that he contributed a hell of a lot to the movie. Kickass’ Hit Girl and Big Daddy and (depending on your definition of antihero) Dark Knight’s Batman also come to mind here.

    “Mystique, though, is the one character I feel who had the most development and experienced the most growth through the entire film.” The growth arc was definitely effective and believable. Besides Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and Black Widow in Avengers and probably Elastigirl in Incredibles, I can’t think of any other female characters that have contributed nearly as much to a superhero movie as she did here.

  8. Goaton 13 Jul 2012 at 5:39 pm

    I understood Mystique’s main story but her relationships confused me. I couldn’t tell if she liked Charles, Magneto, or Beast the most or if they were steps on her journey to find herself.

  9. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2012 at 6:37 pm

    “I couldn’t tell if she liked Charles, Magneto, or Beast the most or if they were steps on her journey to find herself.” My interpretation was that she did not particularly like Magneto… I thought she decided to go with Magneto more because of what she wanted for herself (i.e. not hiding and being proud of her mutant-ness) than because she liked Magneto more than Xavier. At least, that’s how Xavier characterizes it (“it’s what you want”) and I think she confirms that by (probably playfully) accusing him of reading her mind. I think there’s more evidence that she is personally fond of Xavier as a friend than she is of Magneto.

  10. Leegirlon 13 Jul 2012 at 9:16 pm

    I remember distinctly that Mystique and Beast did have some sort of a relationship in First Class, but I don’t think that she and Charles had anything going on.

  11. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2012 at 10:05 pm

    “I remember distinctly that Mystique and Beast did have some sort of a relationship in First Class.” Yeah, Mystique flirted a bit with Beast. I think they kissed once. I think the brief romance goes to hell when she’s explaining that she doesn’t want the cure and he responds with “You’re beautiful now” [i.e. as a hot human rather than blue Mystique].

  12. Goaton 14 Jul 2012 at 1:05 pm

    I was confused by the Xavier and Mystique thing, I was pretty sure that they were just sibling-esque but then there were moments that made me question myself. I don’t think they’d EVER get together but I felt like there were times where it hinted she wanted to (her eyes changing in the pub, turning blue in front of him, asking him if she’s pretty) but I guess it was just that she wanted *anybody* to think she was beautiful.

  13. B. McKenzieon 14 Jul 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Ah, that’s an interesting point. I would interpret the Xavier-Mystique relationship as mainly nonromantic. She asks him fairly early on if he’d date someone like her, but I’m he quickly shuts that down (because they’re too close, I think). As for the eyes changing color, it might be jealousy and/or annoyance with Xavier’s pickup routine.

  14. JPon 14 Jul 2012 at 9:10 pm

    B. Mac I’d really like for u to do one for Green Lantern film. Yes, it wasn’t nearly as good, but I’d really like an analysis as to why. The movie had so much promise, there was a lot there to make it a great superhero flick, but it ends up fizzing out. An analysis as to why so I wont make the same mistakes would be really appreciated!

  15. B. McKenzieon 14 Jul 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Alright. I should have GL done before The Dark Knight Rises comes out. I just need to watch it again.

    “The movie had so much promise…” In what way? The movie scored 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even in an alternate universe where I had complete control over the script, I could probably have gotten it to 40% by rewriting virtually every line of dialogue and tweaking the plot, but I don’t think I could have gotten to 50% without blasting everything and starting from scratch*. I don’t think a good Green Lantern movie could have looked or developed anything like this one.

    *UPDATE: I glanced through a recap of the movie and this was an overstatement. More on that in the full post.

    In particular, if I had to reboot the Green Lantern movie, I think these three vaguely comparable movies would be most helpful.
    –The Matrix (just the original). It got MUCH more mileage out of a sci-fi premise than Green Lantern did. Notably, it’s the closest thing we have to a great sci-fi superhero movie. Bonus points for revolutionary fight scenes, a fun origin sequence which hinges on bravery and curiosity, and a split-setting between a modern Earth and a dystopian/futuristic Earth which might help writers having trouble coherently handling GL’s split between GL’s modern Earth and the Lantern Corps’ homeworld.

    –Iron Man. As far as superhero action-comedies go, it is nearly in a league of its own (but is probably more applicable than Avengers or Kick-Ass because it’s closer in tone and plot structure*). In particular, Tony Stark commands his scenes, whereas Hal Jordan mostly blends in without many memorable moments. I’d probably want to give Hal a more obvious personality, including some flaws more original than recklessness.
    *Most notably, Green Lantern and Iron Man both introduced characters, whereas Avengers’ main characters had already been established by other movies.

    –Captain America. More on this in the full post.

  16. JPon 15 Jul 2012 at 12:40 am

    Thanks! I was just thinking it could’ve been WAY better though, especially with how high the bar has been set for superhero movies. Came in to watch it with really high expectations and there was nothing…

  17. B. Macon 15 Jul 2012 at 4:14 am

    It took me 2 hours to watch the first 30 minutes, just constantly rewatching scenes and taking notes. My main impressions so far are that 1) most of the first 30 minutes is more salvageable than I remembered, 2) at least a few minutes are quite good, and 3) the scene with the Green Lantern Oath is one of the worst viewing experiences I’ve had in the last 10 years. I think the review will be more helpful than I had been anticipating.

  18. B. McKenzieon 16 Jul 2012 at 12:08 am

    After 10 hours of effort, I have watched Green Lantern and taken 6500 words worth of notes. It came out to 16 single-spaced pages. Within a few days, I’ll have something more concise.

  19. tmwjrimaon 16 Jul 2012 at 4:45 am

    Wow. Congrats. That’s a lot of watchin’. I look forward to the review!

  20. Slickon 29 Jul 2012 at 11:37 am

    B.Mac, you should really do an article on Learning Writing Skills from Hancock or Hellboy or something like that!!

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