Greetings, true believers. BAADASSSSS! is here with the fifth exciting issue of my ongoing series of articles The Ten Best Unproduced Comic Book Movie Scripts. I apologize for the lengthy delay between installments; apparently I have worse trouble than Kevin Smith and Dan Harmon when it comes to meeting deadlines.
If you haven’t checked out my bloated, unwieldy nerdgasm of an introduction to the series as well as a complete week-by-week breakdown of clues to each entry on this list you may do so here.
X-Men by Andrew Kevin Walker
Like every billion dollar movie franchise based on a popular comic book 20th Century Fox’s immensely profitable X-Men series traveled its own long, hard road to the silver screen. A movie based on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby‘s uncanny super-team of mutant outcasts had been in various stages of development since the mid-1980s. First up was the Canadian animation powerhouse Nelvana (best known to Star Wars fans for producing the animated short introducing Boba Fett that was the undisputed highlight of the Star Wars Holiday Special), but their attempts to make a live action X-film fell apart so fast that its development history is barely remembered.
Several years after Nelvana dropped the ball James Cameron and his production company snapped it up and began making plans for the first X-Men feature film following a successful pitch by Lee and legendary X-writer Chris Claremont in 1990. The intention was for Cameron to produce the movie and Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron’s wife at the time as well as the future Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, to direct. The deal seemed written in stone until the topic of conversation turned to making a live action Spider-Man movie, which seemed to pique the interests of Lee and Cameron even more.
During a March 2012 Q & A session at Columbia University Claremont described what happened next:
“About 20 minutes later all the Lightstorm guys and I are looking at each other, and we all know the X-Men deal has just evaporated. Kathryn goes off and writes a screen treatment for X-Men that was eaten alive by all the idiots who have a piece of Spider-Man because Marvel during its evolution has sold off the rights time and time and time again.”
While the project was set up at Lightstorm – based out of Carolco Pictures at the time – screenwriter Gary Goldman (Big Trouble in Little China, Total Recall) was handed the assignment of writing the movie. His subsequent effort Wolverine and the X-Men was a decent enough script that was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, but it felt less like a legitimate X-Men feature and more like the work of someone with only a passing interest in the characters.
Four years following the quick collapse of Lightstorm’s attempt to bring Marvel’s mutants to the big screen, producer Lauren Shuler Donner purchased the movie rights for 20th Century Fox after their television division had experienced great success with a Saturday morning animated series based on the comics. The characters had also experienced a resurgence of interest in the comics world when Marvel’s October 1991 debut of X-Men Vol. 2 became the biggest-selling comic book of all time, selling between three to four million copies and landing in the Guinness Book of World Records. The uncanny ones were hotter than they had ever been since Lee and Kirby created the team in 1963.
Six years elapsed between the project surfacing at Fox and a movie finally hitting the big screen, and in that time several screenwriters took a crack at adapting the classic comic into a script that delivered each of the necessary marketable elements for the studio to move forward on the film. One such scribe was Andrew Kevin Walker. Walker, the native of Altoona, PA and former employee of Tower Records and Video in New York City, moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to become a professional screenwriter. His original script Seven was soon purchased by New Line Cinema and the movie version directed by David Fincher reached theaters more than three years later. During that time he took on writing jobs wherever he could find them, including scripting the techno-horror flick Brainscan, and a year before Seven came out and made his career Walker found himself the latest writer to try his hand at the X-Men.
Throughout 1994 Walker produced two drafts of his screenplay. The second, dated October 17 of that year, begins with Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants (Toad, Blob, and Sabretooth) bringing the Citicorp building in New York crumbling to the ground like a house of cards. The massive death toll and ensuing panic brings about a wave of hate crimes directed towards mutants all over the country. The government calls for all mutants to register, and after hearing her adopted parents discuss the matter teenage Jubilee runs away from home. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood attacks an armored car carrying new member Juggernaut to Riker’s Island, though their plans are interrupted by the arrival of the X-Men: Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, and the youngest team member Iceman. The battle ends in defeat when Juggernaut escapes from his mighty confines and the Brotherhood escapes, leaving all but Jean beaten to hell.
Professor Xavier is introduced on page 15 as he watches a Senate session on C-SPAN concerning the perceived mutant threat, and in particular the mysterious “X-Men” who refuse to be registered. Cyclops enters and the discussion turns to a certain mutant who works as an agent for the Canadian government. His name is Logan but he operates in the field as “Wolverine”. After deciding to give up one dangerous line of work for another (James Hudson, a.k.a. Guardian of Alpha Flight, makes a cameo in this part of the story), Logan goes searching for clues to unravel a past he can only recall in flashes. Xavier, Cyclops, and Jean approach him about joining their team, which he initially refuses. Later Cyclops, Jean., and Iceman literally run into the homeless Jubilee while she is fleeing from security guards in a mall. They accept the wayward girl into their ranks. Logan decides to reconsider Xavier’s offer after a brutal fight with his old partner-in-espionage Sabretooth in a ritzy Niagara Falls restaurant lands the adamantium-clawed one in the drink.
Though Logan proves to have the right skills necessary to be one of the X-Men, Cyclops distrusts the man’s motivations and the occasional tendency to unleash an unpredictable beserker attack, as Logan does during his first Danger Room session. But the professor is willing to accept the risk as Magneto and the Brotherhood’s attacks on New York reach critical mass and all-out war between mankind and mutantkind becomes increasingly inevitable. Non-mutant X-villains Henry Gyrich and Bolivar Trask are also brought into the mix to illustrate the lengths those who fear mutants will go to in order to justify their bigotry and then eradicate that which they irrationally despise. Magneto secretly approaches Gyrich to turn over Xavier and his team, leading to the capture of Beast. After making an overture to become the new leader of the X-Men ends badly, Logan successfully tracks down Beast and brings him back to Xavier’s mansion. While the professor is trying help Logan unlock his past by entering his mind, the others realize that Beast was implanted with a tracking device that brings Gyrich’s forces to their front yard. Among them are two Sentinels (one red, one black) that launch a devastating assault on the mansion. The professor and Jubilee manage to lure one into the Danger Room and crush it with a battering ram, and the other is disarmed by Wolverine and finished off by one of Cyclops’ optic blasts.
During the battle Magneto seizes the chance to take over Manhattan (while offering to compensate the mayor by paying for the island what the Indians received – a chest full of beads and trinkets). The island is evacuated and the X-Men, now with Logan as an official member, head for the city to meet their enemies in an epic confrontation. Against the professor’s orders Jubilee covertly tags along in order to prove her own worth to the rest of the team.
Over the course of 127 pages Walker delivers a rousing comic book adventure with everything the fans have come to expect from a great X-Men story well told: widescreen action, emotion, solid character development, and embedded social commentary. He bases the narrative around Wolverine’s quest to recover his past, but does not allow the fan favorite mutant superhero to dominate the proceedings. Some of the dialogue tends to fall into cheesy action flick one-liner territory, thought that’s a modest flaw in the grand scheme of things. With the exception of Chris Claremont’s monumental run on the various X-titles, the comics were never loved for their witty and hyper-literate dialogue. Besides, compared to the script for X-Men: The Last Stand Walker’s draft is on the intellectual level of Paddy Chayefsky.
Walker doesn’t just put the X-Men through a string of blockbuster action set pieces; at times he manages to nail the team dynamic better than it has ever been portrayed in a movie, particularly the heated rivalry between Cyclops and Wolverine. He also injects some unexpected heart and soul into the material. To wit, in one scene that takes place after Beast has been taken into custody and tortured for information, Xavier finally breaks his silence to the others about the true identity of Magneto and his plans to make mutants the dominant species on the planet. Logan questions Cyclops’ ability to lead the team and insists on a democratic vote. Cyclops remains team leader by just one vote, but later it is revealed that he cast his vote for Logan. “You should believe in yourself as much as the others do”, the professor tells him, before he voices his own guilt at not being able to help his friend Beast. Emotional and character beats such as that have not exactly been common in the X-Men movies made so far.
The action scenes would have required a huge budget and a ton of nifty visual effects – both practical and digital – to kick ass on the big screen. At the time only Warner Bros. had a bankable superhero franchise with the Batman movies, though the studio was also trying desperately to get their Superman series back on track. Summer event movies were becoming increasingly expensive by the year, but the Walker-scripted X-Men could have been made on a budget that would have not drained Fox’s coffers nor looked cheap and cheesy as a finished product, but only as long as the money was spent wisely.
Two years after Walker’s involvement with the initial X-flick was brought to a close Fox released the alien invasion action-drama Independence Day in the middle of a sticky hot and crowded summer and reaped financial rewards beyond their meager expectations. The movie was made for a shockingly modest $70 million but director Roland Emmerich eschewed casting mega-wattage movie stars in the major roles and utilized a combination of models, miniatures, old-fashioned pyrotechnics, and the occasional bit of expensive CGI. Coupled with a brilliant marketing campaign, Independence Day was practically crowned the box office champ of 1996 long before it opened in theaters.
The script has a few problems that would have likely been taken care of with some additional rewriting. Scaling down to Sentinels from building-sized to normal size lessens the threat they pose to the X-Men; in this draft they’re like RoboCop clones, only nowhere nearly as cool or even funny to watch. The interplay between the Gyrich and Trask characters often gets into irritating bickering meant to play for comic effect, but it’s not funny and would have died on-screen. Finally, Jubilee’ arc doesn’t generate as much sympathy or excitement as it did when it was given instead to Rogue in the movie that was eventually made. There is no sense of tragedy to the character and she doesn’t get enough scenes in the script to grow into a three-dimensional personality.
Walker’s drafts received good notices from the studio, but they were not enough to move the development of an X-Men feature forward. Writers like James Schamus (The Ice Storm), John Logan (Gladiator), and future Marvel Movieverse overlord Joss Whedon were all hired to pen subsequent drafts, with only two lines of dialogue from Whedon’s effort making it into the film that was ultimately made. Five years before winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for writing his loving and literate tribute to the enduring power of comic book storytelling The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, author Michael Chabon wrote a treatment for an X-movie that was never turned into a full screenplay. None of these drafts were good enough for Fox to give the movie the treasured green light.
It wouldn’t be until the Batman franchise was on the wane and Marvel properties were gaining serious attention thanks to the success of New Line Cinema’s Blade and the resolution of the complicated legal matter regarding the Spider-Man movie rights that the studio finally felt confident to take a chance on X-Men. Despite being handed a skimpy production budget and a abbreviated shooting schedule that would make most studio filmmakers cringe in horror, director Bryan Singer was able to make an effective and entertaining movie that ended up a solid summer hit in 2000 and spawned two sequels, a Wolverine solo movie, and the well-received prequel First Class. In the past year Singer made his return to the X-franchise to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is set for release on May 23, 2014.