One of the cool things about the iPad is the way you can read comics on it. You can get page-by-page and panel-by-panel, and you can dial up individual issues and they’re just there. One thing that having access to this range of materials means is that you become absolutely clear on the availability of different, for want of a better term, streams of the comics. Comics, rather than being a linear narrative, are like a braided stream. Fundamentally they cross, intersect, diverge, meander and re-cross heading forwards in time. New titles are often like tributaries, eventually reaching the braided channels to cross-contaminate.
Quite aside from the deliberate “what if” episodes put out, there is generally more than one “authoritative” narrative available, which nevertheless inevitably influenced by the other versions of the story. Looking at the “X-Men” franchise, there are several major options for a narrative. There’s the original X-Men serial, which continues more-or-less seguing through various sub-titled works. Then there’s the classic ’90s cartoon, which was my, and I’m sure many of my contemporaries, introduction to the world. The X-men also received a treatment in Marvel’s “Ultimate” reboot series. And probably eclipsing all of these in terms of current public consciousness, the three recent movies.
None of these are really different, but none of them are exactly the same. One significant point of interest when picking up any new version is a compare/contrast about the differences: what was changed, and for the better or worse?
I recently complained about Hollywood’s dependence on the origin story, and my main problem with Heroes was this same stifling inability to let characters go, cycling and recycling the same tired characters into different roles and stories. But I may have missed the mark entirely, because I can see now that this is actually a structural feature of the creative/artistic world of Comics. And not only that, but actually this is a not-uncommon feature of most creative/literary endeavours, including Chaucer and Shakespeare, the two greatest creative forces in English literature to date.
Disentangling X-Men: First Class, from its mass of antecedents and alternates is impossible for someone with my level of exposure to the X-Men mythos, because first and foremost, that is deliberately what it is: an entanglement of references and mythos. In both its use of the “original” material of the comics, and its references to the chronologically later films, it is designed and intended to be taken as one perspective on the familiar history of Professor X and Magneto.
Naturally some changes were good, some bad, some references pointed, some far too blunt, and inevitably small continuity errors crept in. But crucially, unlike the execrable Last Stand, this film is as strong as its sources. It adds, in my view, very little. It does not challenge or critique that material, but if you like the story its based on, if you like the key players in that material, this film should happily pass a few hours for you. Go see it: you won’t regret it.
P.S. Many people have been saying it is better than X2, and I can see why: it has far more verve and better pacing. But I think that for me the crucial difference is that at moments the characters in X2 pushed beyond being recitations of the X-men story into being agents in their own internal lives. Just moments: it was, after all, a hollywood blockbuster. X:FC never gave me that feeling, which I think it certainly could have. In part, I thought its very strength, of energetic pacing, robbed the film of those necessary moments of introspection and revelation that could have elevated it to being the best X-men film in my opinion.