storytelling lessons from the first class

I just re-watched X-Men First Class on DVD and I think there are some good lessons to learn.

There will be some spoilers.

Always remember which stuff is the good stuff.

The first half of the movie is so strong because it's focused on Erik, Charles, and Sebastian Shaw. They are the strongest characters, and their relationships with each other (or, really Erik's relationships with the other two) are by far the most complex and interesting relationships in the movie. The second half is less engaging because more and more time is devoted to the newly recruited X-Men, who are not all that interesting.

The best action scene is in the first half, too (the confrontation between the Coast Guard and Shaw's yacht and how that plays out). Way more compelling than the ending (except, of course, for the final scenes between Erik and Shaw and Charles).

There's been some good discussion of this question ("what is the good stuff?") over at Bunny Ears & Bat Wings, in response to my guest post.

Some things do need to pay off.

As I talked about in the post about Chekhov's gun, not everything needs to pay off, but some things do.

Sebastian Shaw praises Emma's beauty, and then sends her out to freshen his drink (like "a good girl"). Her resentment at this is obvious, but it's never referred to again.

Two of the CIA men talk about getting information about Shaw through "a back channel," indicating that somebody on Shaw's team is really working for them, but this is never referred to again either.

What messages are you sending?

In general, and especially because this is a movie that uses mutants as a metaphor for real minorities, the final good/evil breakdown is unpleasant. Of the X-Men, who ends up on the good side of the ledger? All the generic non-ethnic white men. Who ends up evil? The Jewish guy and the two women. And, of course, the Black guy died early (google "the black guy dies first" to get some idea how predictable this is).

Think through what you're saying.

Throughout the X-Men movies, Charles and Erik debate how humanity and mutants could, or could not, co-exist. Erik always asserts that humanity will try to wipe mutants out. Charles always holds out hope. The events of the movies always show that Erik is right, but the movies never acknowledge this. I gather there will be more sequels, so maybe at some point one of the students will say something like, "Yo, professor, we like you, and we're learning a lot at your school, but, dude, you really need to wise up."


I'll throw in one more.

Sometimes the geeks are right.

Comic book enthusiasts sometimes get worked up when the movies take liberties with comic book stories and characters. I'm pretty relaxed about that, since I realize that changes need to be made, for a variety of reasons. The main thing I want is for the movies to get the characters right, even if the story-lines and relationships are altered.

That was one of the pleasures of the first X-Men movie: it got the characters right (so I didn't really mind the idiotic story). And when I heard that this movie would have Emma Frost (The White Queen), I had high hopes. Emma Frost, at her best, is one of the best characters I've ever read in a comic book. A former villain, still capable of cruelty, she is smart, sarcastic, witty, and complex. (I have a character who is somewhat inspired by her, in fact, though both are really the daughters of Angelique from Dark Shadows.) In the movie, as one critic pointed out, Emma has two characteristics. His words were "bosomy" and "sullen," and that pretty much says it.

What a lost opportunity. At one point, Emma Frost was supposed to appear in the last movie, played by Sigourney Weaver. That might have been something to see. But, of course, a strong female character like that might not have fit that well in such a boy-oriented movie as this one, where the two main female characters spend most of their time trailing along after the men. When Raven says she's been Charles's pet all those years, she's pretty much nailed it – and her solution is to switch her allegiance to Erik instead.

Which is also quite different from Mystique in the comics...

But don't get me started.

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10 Responses to storytelling lessons from the first class

  1. Tiyana says:

    LoL, yeah. Don’t get me started on how minorities are handled in movies… I know N. K. Jemisin picks up on this stuff, too, and she had a bit to say about it herself

    I was ROFL (mentally, anyway) ’cause I knew that was coming.

    I agree: it would have been nice to see more done with the White Queen. But what can you do…

    I actually didn’t mind the ending. It’s so typical to end on the up-note of hope and I appreciate that this movie really displayed the complexity of the situation of mutants living amongst humans–because sometimes things get much worse before they get better. They didn’t try to dumb it down or sugar coat it–which, imo, was refreshing.

  2. Tiyana, thanks for the comment, and for the excellent link. I had not thought through that Darwin would have been treated differently (my bad, since I was alive in that era and I remember segregation). I was just reading about the Washington Redskins, in fact (you can fill in a comment about the name), which was the last NFL team to integrate (in 62, by coincidence).

    I did like the ending-ending, so I guess I wasn’t clear. What disappointed me was the big action scenes near the end, which were very rote. Pretty disapponting from the guy who directed Kick-Ass, I thought. It may be because I was so uninterested in Banshee and the others to begin with.

  3. Tiyana says:

    Ah, I see.

    Yeah, I think climatic action scenes are probably the hardest scenes to get right. So many ways to leave viewers/readers unsatisfied… I still have to tweak mine, eventually.

    For one, I think if they hadn’t advertised Erik raising the submarine out of the water so much, that could have had a much larger impact. (I hate when trailers prematurely reveal some of the coolest moments like that–even if it is a strong way to wow people and lure them in.) It was still cool seeing it play out again, though, on the big screen.

    But yeah, I forgot why Banshee was even flying around out there at the end in the first place…

  4. There are a few different ways to handle the big climactic action scenes so they don’t disappoint (I’m sure there are more than I’ve thought of, since I’ve never written one myself).

    As I said, you can do what Kick-Ass did, which was some great action (and stunt-action, not just special-effects “action”), some humor, a few “did _that_ just happen?” moments, and very effective use of music.

    The other extreme was Kill Bill, as I talked about in my review. The “big fight scene,” which has been built up for about five hours, lasted less than 20 seconds and both combatants were sitting down throughout. And it was great.

    That’s what the best directors (and writers) can do: make you think you’re waiting for one thing, give you something entirely different, and leave you completely happy.

  5. sonje says:

    I can’t agree with you enough about pay off. It aggravates me a great deal when a writer introduces something significant and/or interesting and then does nothing with it.

    In light of that, I’ve actually been thinking quite a bit about Chekhov’s gun–fairly literally. I gave my PI a gun in book #1, and now I’m thinking about taking it away. I don’t ever do much with it, and therefore Chekhov advice would be to get rid of it.

  6. Here’s two thoughts about the gun question.

    1) What I left out of my original post — as I realized when talking about this on FB with my Very Smart Sister — was that Chekhov was talking about genres where a gun is unusual and therefore attracts interest. My examples — because of what I read and write — were from genres where guns are more common. As I said over at Alexis’s blog, detectives, bodyguards and mass murderers carry guns, in some cases, because of what they do. The audience will not have the same expectations as they will in a Chekhov play.

    2) As I’m sure you’ve considered, taking your PI’s gun away now will be different than if she’d never had one to begin with. The readers will expect this change to pay off in some way. Unless you’re going to go back and remove it from the earlier books, too. To me, the question is more whether she would carry a gun or not (based on her personality and training).

  7. sonje says:

    1) It’s an interesting point that you make about genre. Thinking about it, I agree with you that it’s probably okay for her to have a gun and not really use it because of what she does. However, I also wonder if it adds anything.

    2) I meant take it away from her from the beginning–eliminate the gun from her entire history so she never had one. Since nothing’s published yet, I still have the freedom to do that. Which I LOVE.

    • I imagine you rubbing your hands together and going “Mwaahaahaahaa! I can take away your gun like you never had it!” 🙂

      I’m thinking about that question, since I’m going over my mystery stories before putting them in a book. I know this is my last opportunity to make those sort of changes. None have come to me yet, but they might (::ominous chuckle::).

  8. Aly Hughes says:

    I like that you brought up the fact that Charles seems to blindly believe in humanity not wanting to kill mutants. Especially in the first X-Men movie and X-Men First Class, I so wanted there to be more examples of non-mutants helping Charles or other mutants to justify to us, his belief in humanity. Although now that I think about it, it kind of makes me draw correlations between Charles’ view of non-mutants and vegetarians views on not harming animals. You could twist it and say that Charles feels sorry for humans, or even views them as helpless, so he feels obligated to save them.

    And as a female comic book fan, I also lament the fact that movies are seriously lacking in the portrayal of awesome female characters.

    Very nice post, and I like the lessons you’ve given through the movie. I will eagerly be awaiting the Underworld and Resident Evil post!

  9. Pingback: storytelling lessons from all over » Anthony Lee Collins

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