The scriptwriters who worked on two of Marvel Studio’s three major releases, May’s Thor and this month’s X-Men: First Class (although how much of their final work made it to the screen in that case is open to debate, as director Matthew Vaughn contends that the final shooting script was his and Jane Goldman’s), brought a comic attitude to the plethora of panels held as part of May’s London MCM expo. Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz jovially responded to a geekish inquisition about the characters and themes of their latest work, with equal enthusiasm for the subject matter.
Besides their contributions this year to Marvel properties, Miller and Stentz were responsible for inadvertently prolonging Frankie Muniz’s career with their first big screen collaboration, 2003 spy-nager classic, Agent Cody Banks.
The pair has also written for and produced several genre TV shows, including sci-fi auteur J.J. Abrams’ excellent Fringe, and Terminator continuation The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Miller and Stentz met in the early Noughties on a Gene Roddenberry concept subsequently retooled into a vehicle for legendary demigod, Kevin Sorbo, Andromeda. Both gentlemen evidently have fingers in an array of nerdy pies.
Beginning with a preview trailer that was well received by the audience and showed more of the emotional depth to X-Men: First Class than had been hinted at in earlier promos, the panel proceeded quickly to the most important question of all. What are Miller and Stentz’s guilty pleasure characters from the X-Men comics?
“Dazzler,” answered Miller with no hesitation, showing an odd affection for Marvel’s disco diva.
Stentz thought more carefully about his unabashed favourite. “Cable, post-Messiah CompleX.”
The audience eagerly pinned down Miller and Stentz over their character choices for X-Men: First Class. Foremost among reasons were the powers each could bring to the movie, and the pair singled out Banshee’s sonic scream as a good example.
Achieving something new as a production and bringing the characters together as an ensemble were equally influential in decision making. Stentz mentioned that New Mutant, Sunspot, had been toyed with as a supporting villain, as the ‘fire and ice’ duality of that character’s power, together with the diamond body of bad girl, Emma Frost, could have been visually compelling.
Clean-cut X-Man, Havok’s familial relationship with original X-Men lead, Cyclops,was brought to Miller and Stentz’s attention by several fans during the session. Miller and Stentz both commented that the Cyclops in the core movies would’ve had to be a very youthful fifty to appear in First Class. While it was confirmed that Havok was Summers’ brother, the extent of any link between the two characters in the movie universe was “so far down in the detail, nobody knows”.
The writers joked about Havok and Cyclops’ comic book father, Christopher Summers, leader of a band of space pirates. “They didn’t call him the Starjammer for nothing!”
Skirted over was the decision to portray the teleporting sire of X-Men 2 star, Nightcrawler, Azazel, from the much loathed Chuck Austen run on Uncanny X-Men, as one of Hellfire Club leader Sebastian Shaw’s henchmen. Both writers were open about their process of playing “fast and loose” with established comics for the sake of a compelling movie, stressing that the film continuity of the X-Men movies is key to which characters made the cut. Azazel was included, as the writers wanted a demonic teleporter and hatchet man “from Hell itself” for the Hellfire Club, who would work visually and cinematically, while helping to tell the best story.
It was decided to use the Hellfire Club as X-Men and X-Men 2 director, Bryan Singer, had dropped the nefarious organisation from the third movie. Miller and Stentz revealed that Singer originally hoped to cast Sigourney Weaver as an older Frost. One audience member asked if other villains would be seen in any future mutant movies. The writers stated that the most interesting conflict is between the Xavier and Magneto characters. “Nobody’s really talked about Apocalypse or other villains.”
Both hinted that if First Class proved successful, two tracks of the franchise could continue, with films following from the modern trilogy and its 60s prequel.
Responding to a question about writing a period movie with a largely teen and twenty-something cast, Miller and Stentz emphasised the 1960s ‘vibe’. The screenwriters said they drew on their own youth for inspiration. “Even a big superhero movie can be very personal,” confessed Stentz.
Historical events also play an important part in the story of X-Men: First Class. A tip of the hat to the success of AMC hit show Mad Men‘s male/female dynamic is comics stalwart Moira MacTaggert’s new movie continuity role as an agent in the overtly-masculine CIA, a result of the writers wanting to ground the movie firmly in its time.
Civil rights movements of the mid-Twentieth century were a major influence on the new X-Men movie’s script. One audience member asked if the conflict of viewpoints among mutants, that’s at the heart of the X-Men story, made it difficult for Miller and Stentz not to take sides during the writing process. Both pinpointed the analogous separation between opinions of African-American rights leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Different attitudes to the same issue arise through life experiences.
First Class shows how Xavier and Magneto formed the perspectives they held in the established movie series. Miller added that speeches were avoided and the characters would communicate their rival ideologies through action.
For Stentz, the approach taken towards the battle of wills between the two mutant activists in First Class is summarised when Magneto quotes Malcolm X: “Never again.”
One fan wondered if Marvel was aiming at a darker, more realistic reboot with First Class to echo Warner Bros success with Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. Miller and Stentz quickly pointed out that Singer’s first X-Men movie began in Auschwitz and helped build a more mature approach to superhero cinema. Believing the new prequel to be a perfect match for X-Men and X-Men 2, the panel commented that The Dark Knight is about losing hope until its final frame. They felt First Class returned with a sense of hopefulness in a way the third X-Men movie did not.
Some lighter questions followed. The writers tried to remain practical when quizzed about their dream mutant abilities. “To turn any substance into coffee,” admitted Miller. Stentz added, “Teleportation. Just not inside a wall.”
Asked what characters they’d love to make a movie out of, the twosome showed signs of a desire to work on a broader range of comics influence than just Marvel’s.
“Fantastic Four,” chimed Miller immediately, feeling that the two recent film versions missed the point. “They’re not superheroes,” he said. “They’re adventurers.”
Showing signs of a desire to return to their family movie beginnings, Stentz cited a property with a similar dynamic, Powerpack. He also named Grant Morrison’s more mature run on DC’s Doom Patrol as a personal favourite, admitting, “It’d make ten dollars.”
Discussion moved on to May’s Thor, which brought some effusive praise for director, Kenneth Branagh. Miller credited him as an inspiration for their script, feeling that Marvel was not far removed from the British thespian’s repertoire. “Shakespeare wrote for the cheap seats!”
Stentz gushed to the audience about the Asgardian sets compared to green screen’s computer-generated backdrops. “You can’t believe they brought this thing to life.”
The panel concluded with an eye to the future for Miller and Stentz, one fan obviously hoping to see more of the team’s work bringing to life a more diverse range of comic book characters. What would their ideal project be for Marvel’s distinguished competition, DC Comics?
Miller felt Wonder Woman had consistently suffered a hard time, particularly with Ally McBeal-creator David E. Kelley’s pilot for a new TV show passed up this year by NBC. Stentz picked a more leftfield option, expressing an interest in DC’s magical characters, Dr. Fate and Zatanna.
Animated and overflowing with enthusiasm for their source material, the writing duo almost finished each other’s sentences. Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz seemed happy to be answering fan questions and it was easy to see that they loved being on stage, chatting about their work. Marvel seems to have chosen wisely.