Film: Blockbuster with Heart

Director Bryan Singer strived to make a thoughtful comic book movie

Apr 30, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

Mutants Wolverine (left), Nightcrawler and Storm play the heroes in X2: X-Men United.

Bryan Singer, director of the 2001 blockbuster X-Men as well as its hotly anticipated sequel, climbs the stairs of a swanky Los Angeles hotel and surveys the scene. Sitting around him are a few dozen journalists eating lunch and making small talk.

Singer knows they're talking about his new baby, X2. He can feel it.

X2 was screened the night before, and Singer knows the critics have questions. He guesses they might not have completely followed the film's true-to-its-roots, comic book storylines. He's pretty sure he knows the X-Men universe better than anyone in the room. So he pulls up a chair and dives into the conversation.

"Can I help explain anything for you guys?" Singer asks confidently.

Such is life for the young director of summertime blockbusters. Before the first X-Men film opened, Singer was eager to show the world he knew his way around computer-generated effects.

When 20th Century Fox handed him the keys to the important X-Men film franchise, there were more than a few "Bryan who?" comments. Singer had established himself in the indie film world with smart movies like Public Access and the critically acclaimed The Usual Suspects, but before X-Men his biggest studio film was the Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil.

Now, with the box-office success of the first film and with X2 in the can and ready to open the summer season, Singer says he was cocksure and content on the set. It helped that he survived directing the first one.

"No fans killed me (after X-Men was released)," he says proudly. "It made for a much smoother operation this time around. More relaxing and more pleasurable."

Singer says he worked hard to avoid expectation. Such talk and thoughts would get in the way of his telling the story. With a massive $120 million budget behind him as well as a huge ensemble cast of regarded thespians (Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart), chiseled leading men (Hugh Jackman, James Marsden) and strong women (Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), he had enough to worry about.

In fact, he says actually directing his X-Men troupe — all of the originals who survived the first film, plus new mutants played by Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore and Aaron Stanford — was the least of his worries. He intrinsically trusts all the actors, and he needed to provide each with moments in the film that would let them individually shine.

Better yet, this episode of X-Men gives the women in the cast more powerful roles. Singer says empowering the female X characters wasn't his intention, but he's happy it turned out that way.

"The men are unusually castrated in this film," he says. "It's kind of fun that way. It just evolved when we were making it. We had a little more freedom, a little more time, a little more money. We just decided to exercise more of one's imagination. Instead of Storm making one tornado, she can make 20 of them and really save the day."

Singer knew when he took on the project in the late 1990s that adapting a comic book could be a lot of fun. He also realized he'd have to answer to established fans and their strong-willed opinions. Before the first film was released, he'd heard how his decision to forgo the mutant heroes' colorful uniforms for simple black ones created ripples.

But Singer is a comic-book fan and an often noticeably giddy one when he gets talking about the X-Men universe. So he respects the delicate position he's in.

He has to deliver a movie that doesn't alienate the comic book fans and simultaneously satisfies the general movie-going audience, many of who never read a single X-Men issue. One solution was to layer the script with obscure references to comic book characters and situations. It worked so well in the first film he says he did it even more this time around.

For example, in one X2 scene when Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) breaks into a government computer, there are dozens of files on the desktop whose names hard-core fans will giggle at.

"To a non-fan, it's just texture," Singer says. "To a fan, it's a very special moment. By just adding that, it all makes sense in the universe."

Jackman, who plays the razor-clawed hero Wolverine, says Singer definitely loosened up during the making of the sequel and credits that to the first film's financial and artistic success.

"Bryan was scared the first one would be cheesy," Jackman says. "He took pains to make it a real movie, to root the whole thing in reality. And I think the second one is better in every way. The actors got to have more fun, as did Bryan. That's largely due to the foundation of the first movie."

The day's questioning inevitably leads to talk of a third X-Men feature. The stars were signed on for just two films. And some, like Jackman and Berry, have become A-listers since first donning the X-Men uniform.

Getting them back together could be a challenge. Singer says it's too early to talk about a third movie, and the official party line from Fox is to wait and see how X2 performs, especially after The Matrix sequel, The Matrix Reloaded opens two weeks after X2's debut.

Regardless of the business end, Singer says he'd get back in the director's chair only if he believed he could advance the ongoing story line. And many of the stars say they'd only sign on for more X action if Singer came back.

"If the actors say that, it's because they know I wouldn't come back if I couldn't carry the universe forward," he says. "If I can't, if I'm taking it backward or stagnating it, then we all suffer. We would have wasted enormous amounts of energy and time."

But the X-Men stories remain worth telling, he says. With the comic's birth in the middle of the civil rights moment in the 1960s, there's a wealth of thoughtful material about what it means to be an outsider. That's what has made his X-Men experience so rewarding, Singer says — he has the rare opportunity to make a blockbuster with a conscience.

"Beyond having fun and enjoying the process and trusting each other, we recognized that in the 40 years of X-Men history it's had a social conscience," he says. "Everything from socio-political issues to growing up. For as much fun as we're having and for all the fireworks, at its core there's something more going on. If there wasn't, it wouldn't be great entertainment." ©