Few would dispute that since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel's series of Avengers films has become, at least from a business and financial perspective, the most important modern blockbuster franchise in Hollywood. Moreover, Marvel's model of an expanded universe, with a potentially limitless web of interconnected films will undoubtedly define the mindset of major studios for the foreseeable future. However, I would argue that 20th Century Fox, owner of the X-Men series, has its own share of responsibility for the current state of Hollywood superhero franchises, not only because the original X-Men kick-started the prevalence of modern comic adaptations, but also in its almost-accidental creation of a shared universe with a haphazard collection of sequels, prequels and spin-offs. In my final post on the X-Men series, I want to suggest that both the Marvel and Fox expanded universes, while ostensibly deriving inspiration from their comic-book roots, actually mirror much of what Universal achieved in the 1940s with their series of monster-mash up horror films.
What I find particularly interesting about the X-Men series in general is the way it plays with concepts of otherness and monstrosity, refiguring the monsters as heroes. It’s well documented that the X-Men, both in film and comic form, with their freakish abilities and position as marginalised and often feared outsiders, are effectively thinly-veiled monsters reconstructed as superheroes. In fact, I argue that in paying homage in one scene to the 1931 version of Frankenstein, James Mangold not only makes a passing reference to this reading of the X-Men, but more importantly, draws an intriguing comparison to the production of modern superhero franchises, and that of the Universal horror cycle of the 1930s and 40s. In a cinematic landscape awash with conservative vigilante fantasies (Batman) and government backed, super-secret strike forces (Avengers Assemble), the X-Men films are unique in their continuing story of the fight for mere acceptance. Furthermore, The Wolverine is particularly interesting with regard to monstrosity in the way that at one point it makes overt reference to the Frankenstein monster, perhaps the greatest example in pop cinema of the misunderstood and feared 'other'. For example, during the scene where Wolverine tries to extract the robotic device in his chest, the laboratory setting and his position on an operating table alludes to the creation of the monster in Frankenstein. In contrast to the Frankenstein monster lying unconscious as the mad scientist operates on him,Wolverine operates on himself, asserting an autonomy and self-direction usually denied the monster in cinema. Shingen's question to Wolverine in the same scene, 'What kind of monster are you?', and Wolverine's furious answer, 'The Wolverine!' hammers the point home. Unlike Frankenstein's creation, however, this monster has a name, as he unambiguously asserts as 'The Wolverine!', before dispatching Shingen in a characteristically brutal fashion. Wolverine's answer here acts both as the reassertion of his lost identity, as well as a play on the trope of the monster without a name. In a series that, at its best, is about the discovery and assertion of identity, this is a great, if rather unsubtle, moment of pop bildungsroman.
|Compare and contrast: Frankenstein Meets The Wolverine|
The Wolverine's allusion to Frankenstein in this scene reminds us that even though the Avengers series feels fresh and innovative in its approach to story-telling (having itself been influenced by the early X-Men films), universe building across connected franchises is nothing new in Hollywood. We’re encouraged to think that Marvel and Fox’s current shared-universe approach to their franchises is experimental and innovative, and to an extent that’s true, but it isn’t the first time that this has been attempted. Universal studios performed an almost-identical trick over seventy years ago, when they began to combine their horror series together, most notably with Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. Beginning with silent films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, the so-called Universal Horror Cycle moved into the sound era with Dracula in 1931, the success of which meant it was quickly followed by James Whale's Frankenstein in the same year. Both of these received their own sequels with Dracula's Daughter (1936), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). 1941 saw the release of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., who would then play the monster in the fourth Frankenstein picture, the abysmal Ghost of Frankenstein, released the following year in 1942, as well as the ubiquitous Count (or is that his son? There seems to be no consensus) in the second (sort of) sequel to Dracula, entitled - of course - Son of Dracula, released in 1943. With Chaney starring in Universal's three major monster franchises, it seemed to make sense to mash them together and see what happened. So, 1943 also saw Chaney return to his werewolf role with the release of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, an enjoyable slice of trash that simultaneously served as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man and the fifth Frankenstein film.
Similarly, just as The Wolverine is the second Wolverine film, it is also a sequel of sorts to the third X-Men film, and yet is somehow the sixth X-Men film overall. Following Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein was released in 1944. This one features Dracula as well, this time played by a delightfully hammy John Carradine, making it the third Wolf Man film, fourth Dracula film and sixth Frankenstein. 1945 saw the release of House of Dracula, featuring all three monsters in a confused mess of a mash-up, that serves as part-sequel and part-reboot to the previous film: no mention is made of the deaths of either Dracula or the Wolf Man from House of Frankenstein, but the film goes to lengths to explain the resurrection of the Frankenstein monster, who also met his end at the end of the last one. Similarly confusingly, X Men: Days of Future Past will serve as a direct sequel to not only The Wolverine and The Last Stand, but also to First Class, making it a direct sequel to three (!) different films, the second direct sequel to The Last Stand, and the seventh installment in the series overall. This means that if we were numbering the films, Days of Future Past could be legitimately called X-Men: First Class 2, X-Men 4, X-Men 5, X-Men 6 or X-Men 7. And that's before we consider that X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the First Class era, and another Wolverine film, almost certainly set before the events of Days of Future Past are both in production, which if we're numbering the films based on their internal chronology (and after all of this, why the hell not?), it means that Days of Future Past, the seventh in the series, might as well be called X-Men: First Class 3, X-Men 8 or X-Men 9. This beats even the Universal series for sheer convolutedness, and I know of no other film series whose sequels, like the tendrils of some Lovecraftian monstrosity, knot and tangle over each other so excessively, and yet so beautifully.
Sequels such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Dracula are little more than cheaply produced cash-ins, made to ride on the coattails of their successful forbears, but they do demonstrate that the concept of successful (financially at least) shared filmic universes is nothing new. It's fascinating to me that a film like The Wolverine, which in many ways is an average comic book action film, existing only to keep a variable franchise afloat until the arrival of its next 'proper' installment, can unlock many of the relationships its parent series has with the past and ongoing history of cinema, even if those relationships mainly lie in the confusing and artistically dubious nature of sequels. I hope that it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that that the release of Days of Future Past, a film about returning to the past for the survival of the future, foreshadows what lies ahead for the superhero genre as a whole: looking to the past, whether by paying homage to James Bond and gothic monsters, or by unconsciously mirroring the insane mash-up-sequel-logic of the Universal Horror Cycle, has reaped rewards for the X-Men franchise, a series which, if nothing else, seems to excel at reinvention and rejuvenation. Perhaps, then, if the superhero genre is to find its place in the future history of cinema, then it must look backwards, to its forbears, to do so.