With X-Men: Days of Future Past imminent, this documentary is an interesting glimpse at the history of the comics the film series is based on, with one writer’s work looming large above all others.
Chris Claremont’s X-Men is a simple talking heads compilation, put together simply and without any attempt at visual complexity. Nor does it need to do so. Among the most interesting aspects is the way it edits a discussion between Claremont, Louise Simonson (editor and writer on various X-Men related strips), and Ann Nocenti (editor of X-Men and related strips) with the reflections of then Marvel editor Jim Shooter. Hindsight has given them time to reflect, though Shooter’s methods still seem to have left his contributors with a grudging respect at best.
Claremont and Simonson are also interviewed alone, which helps focus their thoughts somewhat away from the other interview’s blether-among-friends tone. We get some relatively in-depth insight into the creation of the Dark Phoenix arc, and the interviews tell us more about Chris Claremont. Being so protective of his creations led to some great successes and mistakes. When it comes to his leaving the X-Men, the lack of interviewees telling the other side of the story means we get few details, just a sense of regret. Indeed, the roster of interview subjects isn’t ideal, even if those we talk to are engaging enough. We don’t have enough people here to go into detail on some big topics.
Fortunately, Chris Claremont is an interesting man and speaks clearly and thoughtfully on his ways and methods, and so a documentary that focuses on him should be of interest to anyone interested in writing. His legacy is unveiled bit by bit, and the debt the X-Men movies owe him is obvious. What isn’t dwelt on, however, is that the X-Men movies themselves are hugely influential when it comes to the current state of superhero franchises, and so in many ways Claremont is responsible for the state of contemporary cinema.
While a tight group of talking heads might not sound interesting, Chris Claremont’s X-Men is only 40 minutes long and doesn’t outstay its welcome, despite the simplicity of its presentation. The lack of dynamism isn’t a problem for such a short piece, but the documentary attempts to rectify this with some stylised scenes of actors in costume as various X-Men, which draws attention to it and the lack of budget. Essentially, it’s just some rather static and lonely cosplay used to break up the talking heads.
Also, while we get a glimpse into the world of Marvel comics during the 80s, that’s all we get. Aside from a brief mention of the laissez-faire attitude within the offices, there’s no context to place Claremont’s work in, no mention of how writers operated on other strips to compare him to. It would be useful to distinguish Claremont from his contemporaries by showing us what the larger comic world was like at the time, and it’s not as if the extra ten minutes spent doing this would drag the piece down into a slog.
As it is, its focus sees it aim too narrow, and the interviewees involved have the writing and editing experience to give a fuller picture of the situation. There’s no comparison points made to, say, a television creator (Joss Whedon’s work on Buffy would be the obvious one to make) or many examples offered of the influence Claremont has had on film and television, with his approach now commonplace in big screen franchises. The more knowledgeable might know that Stan Lee was less involved in the comic book side of Marvel at this point, but the documentary doesn’t explain this. It assumes a level of knowledge (and, it must be said, a title) that limits its initial appeal to the more hardcore fan, whereas there is plenty here of interest to the casual fan.
For fans of the comics, the brazen honesty with which Marvel’s inner workings are discussed (at least, in relation to Claremont and his team) is fascinating, if a little too informal to be entirely comprehensible. For those of us who are more familiar with the X-Men movies than the comics, this is definitely worth your time and will provide a starting point to explore the comics from. It also demonstrates that, especially compared with other franchises, the X-Men’s movie stories mainly derive from the work of one author. This remains unique among all the superhero franchises.
While it could have been more, Chris Claremont’s X-Men is still an appealing look at a major cultural figure, and at worst will have you seeking out a copy of the original Dark Phoenix saga.
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