APOCALYPSE: Needing to Stage Him as Larger Than Life

Staging a character — whether within a camera frame or on a storyboard panel, can be the difference between success and failure.  We just screened the recent feature X-MEN: APOCALYPSE.  There was all sorts of cool stuff in this movie (way too much — a bit of a “kitchen sink” problem).  One of the few things that I felt was mishandled had to do with the title character.  Oscar Isaac is a great actor.  His lines weren’t bad, and his interpretation had weight and intensity.  His costume worked (not a small thing with a “living god”), and he had majestic, scary powers.  Why, then, wasn’t I overwhelmed by him as I was by the Apocalypse in X-MEN:TAS?  True, John Colicos’s voice was awe-inspiring — but there are many ways to sound formidable, and Oscar Isaac’s was fine. It was something more subtle: it was where the character was placed and how and why he moved.  The Apocalypse in X-MEN:TAS was massive, immobile.  His opponents “crashed against him” (see just below).  In the movie, the filmmakers sometimes worked to keep Apocalypse larger-than-life, but often they neglected to, as in the scene below, where 5’9″ Oscar Isaac (the man can’t help his height) looks like adolescent Storm’s playmate.  If Apocalypse is larger-than-life, he can’t be smaller than Michael Fassbender.  Also, there are scenes where Apocalypse walks over and interacts with people (including a fist-fight with skinny, 5’7″ James McAvoy).  Our Apocalypse didn’t walk over to interact with anyone — they came to him.  I doubt we were even aware of this as we wrote him and posed him and drew him.  It was just his nature.  And in that subtle lack of physical deference (posing, movement) to the character’s stature, the movie lost something for me.

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YOU CAN’T ESCAPE YOUR PAST: SIDNEY’S PICTURE

We  did a lot of time travel episodes in X-MEN:TAS.  Always intriguing, always hard to keep the logic straight. We have all had moments when we wished we could go back in time and change something.  Well, I have living proof here that the key hands-on executive of Fox’s golden age of TV animation might have just such a desire.  Sidney Iwanter (“I want her!”) personally lorded it over such timeless treasures as Beetlejuice, Batman:TAS, X-MEN:TAS, The Tick, and Spider-Man.  Hundreds of half-hours of subversive childhood memories were affected by one addled visionary.  We can thank/blame his boss Margaret Loesch for letting him loose on hundreds of millions of impressionable young minds.  Despite his impact, Sidney is an elusive creature — little is known about him, and images are few.  That’s why, when I discovered a high school photo in a ’90s Fox Kids magazine, I couldn’t resist sharing it.  Seeing that haunting adolescent image today, I’m sure Sidney would love to go back to 1967 and change many things.  Maybe Forge can build him a time machine.  I’d watch that episode.

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HOLLYWOOD OFTEN DOESN’T GET IT: X-MEN DVDs

We all waited.  And waited.  X-MEN:TAS originally aired from 1992-1997.  It ran in syndicated reruns all over the planet.  A decade and billions of episode views later, there still weren’t any DVDs available (besides bad pirated ones on the web).  Finally, in the second half of 2009, Disney/Marvel came out with the 76 episodes on five separate DVDs.  No extras.  Minimal production effort.  Not in the right episode order (nobody asked us).  But because of the level of fan love for the series, the basic DVDs were huge best-sellers.  That was seven years ago.  You’d think simple self-interest would prompt the studio to put together a nice boxed set of the entire series.  The cast and artists and writers that I have been interviewing for the “Making of…” book would be eager to participate in a glorious package of extras material.  Outside companies (like the excellent Shout Factory) would love to do all of the work on, say, a 25th-anniversary boxed set.  But no.  Nothing.  I’ve asked.  I recently discovered that the company that has the rights to the episodes for the European market (Clear Vision: see below) actually has a full boxed set.  But again, no extras.  A proper tribute edition wouldn’t need a lot of money (the current DVDs don’t look bad), just a lot of care in its organization.  Those of us who worked on X-MEN:TAS are willing to contribute that care.  The fans of the show deserve no less.

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DISTRIBUTION: WE HAVE NO CONTROL

You work and plan for months and hope for the best.  You are thankful that someone is paying you to make TV shows, so, since it is their money, you really have no room to complain.  But still…  One of the great regrets we had on X-MEN:TAS was that some of the episodes were aired out-of-order.  Production problems delayed a few episodes, special events preempted a few more.  During the first season this was not an issue — Margaret Loesch at Fox bravely delayed the premiere, at great cost, for four months (September to January) as we got the episodes right.  But after that, I never understood the network’s inability to manage to keep things in order.  The biggest problem had to do with Jean Grey’s poignant sacrifice at the end of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” (episode #33).  This crushed Scott.  We wrote “No Mutant is an Island” (episode #34) as a direct follow-up.  Scott, believing his love to be dead, angrily quits the X-Men.  Unfortunately, “No Mutant” was delayed (it was set as ep. #66 on the 2009 DVD — way out of position).  Many episodes with a very alive Jean showed in between, and suddenly a new story starts with a memorial for her death??  At this point, grieving Scott quitting the X-Men made no sense.  Oh, well…  Maybe one day we will be able to help assemble a boxed set of the 76 episodes, in presented in the order we intended.

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JEAN SACRIFICES HERSELF:  Episode #33

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 GRIEVING SCOTT QUITS THE X-MEN:  Episode #34 (shown much later)

GOD IN A SATURDAY MORNING ACTION-ADVENTURE CARTOON

I’d never seen it — focusing on the question of God’s existence in a Saturday morning cartoon.  But I couldn’t help but ask if we could try.  The story for “Nightcrawler” came about in the usual way.  I looked through a list of the major X-MEN characters that we had yet to introduce.  Kurt Wagner, true to character, lept out at me.  Here was a mutant superhero whose major defining trait was that he was a devout Christian!  Exploring that would lead to a unique TAS story.  The challenge was that TV networks live or die by keeping their advertisers and viewers happy.  Parents are particularly sensitive to what is being shown to their children, and religion is the most sensitive topic of all.  The usual kids-TV rule is to not mention of it and to show no images of it, period.  Luckily, my Fox Kids Network supervisor, Sidney Iwanter, is a born troublemaker.  Sid insisted we do it.  So we sent the idea — complete with images of the guest lead character looking like a devil with a tail — to our Broadcast Standards censor, Avery Cobern.  It took her a week or two to get over the shock, but gradually, in her courageous wisdom, she came around to letting us show her that we could do a sensitive job.  We specifically hired a writer who was interested in exploring issues of faith, our old friend Len Uhley, to do the script.  Of course then we pushed it.  Not only did we show Nightcrawler  to be a devout Christian, we introduced him as someone confronting our series star, Wolverine, who had lost his faith.  We set the story in a monastery, which we burn down.  We show Gambit proclaim he’s an unrepentant unbeliever.  Yet in the end, Kurt Wagner’s words resonate with our world-weary star, Logan, and the final images are of an astonished, conflicted Rogue watching Wolverine kneeling in church.  Faith and Saturday Morning superheroes: never before and never again…

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DVDs: APOCALYPSE, X-MEN:TAS

Today is an X-MEN fan day.  The feature movie X-MEN: Apocalypse will be joining our DVD libraries.  Of course we buy them all.  I spent four years living with these characters, so I have to keep track of them as they try new things.  This is a day to celebrate the villain Apocalypse, only recently created in the books (1986, Simonson, Guice, Harras), but who seems a timeless presence.  We loved writing for him because of the world-class voice we got (the late John Colicos) and because we so enjoyed giving depth, doubt, and introspection to a larger-than-life creature who was originally conceived as the incarnation of ruthlessness and destruction.  The character Apocalypse has experienced 5000 years of humanity. What a vantage point to ponder the nature of existence!  There will be arguments about the movie version of the character versus our X-MEN:TAS version.  They are different art forms.  There is room for both.  Before you slip your new disc into the blue-ray player today, however, we thought you might enjoy a fabulous YouTube video that a fan (maninthemask) threw together using highlights of our Apocalypse from the show.

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CONNECTING OUR STORIES TO THE MARVEL BOOKS

X-MEN:TAS has a complex relationship with the many series of X-MEN comic books that we respectfully mined as source material.  Many fans have made lists of the connections they see, where adaptions may have been made from book to screen.  Some are easy: the “Phoenix” sagas and “Days of Future Past” were direct, intentional, adaptations of well-known comics stories.  Few others were.  I had no agenda in adapting or not adapting stories from the books.  Some of the TV writers knew and loved the books; others didn’t know them at all.  There was only one rule for choosing which stories got made: which would play the best in series TV animation.  The result was that only a handful of stories, like “Days,” originated with a writer saying: “We gotta do the —– book!”  Far more often a writer would have a character or idea from a book, or of his or her own, and we built an original TV story from there, using names and places and characters from the books to suit our stories.  Or in today’s case — the four-part “Beyond Good and Evil” — an original story was “tied in” to the Marvel Universe, late in the process, by the cameo appearance at the end by an established comics character.  Writer Mark Edens created a new character, BENDER, a Robin-Williams-like, Lear-foolish jester, to hold the time-bending story together.   Super-fan producer Larry Houston came up with the tag at the end, where Bender morphs into Immortus, an appropriately larger-than life Marvel character.  Fans might imagine that Mark and I were trying to tell an Immortus story from the beginning.  We weren’t.  But Larry’s insertion of Immortus  was a perfect example of X-MEN:TAS bringing the Marvel Universe into our stories in every way we could.

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