The release of the new Empire Magazine covers featuring X-Men: Days of Future Past have the internet abuzz, but in the worst way: these character designs suck, and fandom is kind of taken aback. Most egregious is the terrible, Walkman-wearing Quicksilver, and many people have taken to Twitter to broadcast their belief that the Avengers: Age of Ultron version will look way better. We can't know that yet, but it's going to be an interesting compare and contrast situation, with each version representing very different aesthetic choices when it comes to superheroes. The difference in aesthetic, of course, is that Marvel Studios embraces the nature of their superheroes while Fox seems to be absolutely ashamed of the colorful costumes these characters traditionally wear.
Some historical context is valuable here. For a certain segment of the audience it's hard to remember a time when theaters weren't glutted with superhero movies. But before X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man the superhero genre was in a bad place. Superhero films were novelties, if occasionally profitable ones. Richard Donner's Superman: The Motion Picture had shown that four color heroes could make the leap to the big screen in a way they never had before, but nobody - including the people making future Superman movies - truly capitalized on that. Tim Burton's Batman made a ton of money, but that series also slowly descended into absolute awfulness (and looking back today at the Burton Batman movies we can see that these supposedly darker takes on the character are actually super goofy). Everything hit a real low in 1997 with Steel. The less we speak of that, the better.
And then came Singer's X-Men. At the time it seemed impossible that this comic, a complicated soap operatic story of mutants living among us, could ever crossover into the mainstream. This was the true geek stuff (seriously, 2000 was like a different world). But Singer and his team figured out a way to make X-Men work for mainstream audiences, and that was mostly to rip off the look of The Matrix and Blade (a massively underestimated force in the revival of comic book characters on the big screen). There's even an in-joke in the film, where Wolverine criticizes the black pleather outfits and Cyclops says, "What would you prefer, yellow spandex?"
At the time we were all like 'Oh ho ho, yes he's right, that would be silly.' Buckled black pleather, we thought, was much more serious and real looking. Why would anybody wear goofy yellow spandex? There was a lot of self-loathing that came with being a grown-up superhero fan, a sense that we needed to distance ourselves from the kiddie elements of the characters (see: the entire 1990s in comic books). We were pretty much just happy to have these characters on movie screens. We were so psyched that there could be a Dark Phoenix movie that we figured these aesthetic changes were necessary. The story, we reasoned, was more important than the outfits.
That's a correct thought, by the way. The inside of the character is always more important than the outside. But what turned out to be not as correct was the idea that black pleather was the only way to go. In 2002 Sam Raimi's Spider-Man gave us a fairly accurate Webslinger (although a bastardized Green Goblin). Then came the Marvel movies, which gave us familiar characters in costumes that quite closely resembled their comic book origins. Captain America, for instance, was changed up to look a bit more practical, but his outfit is clearly the same color and design as it was in the 1940s. The trend to fidelity continues in a big way this year with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which has an almost breathtakingly comic-accurate Spider-Man costume (but in grand Spidey tradition the villain is totally fucked up).
We wouldn't be here without Singer's X-Men. While I have revisited those films in recent years and found them profoundly lacking - X2 is so bad I can't even finish watching the whole embarrassing thing - I can't deny their place in the evolution of superhero movies, the dominant form of modern blockbusters. Singer's costumes sucked, but they were part of the process that opened the larger door so that we could have The Avengers: Age of Ultron (both in terms of making superhero movies popular and teaching Marvel Studios how to do it right). Much respect. But that respect is for the past - which is where these terrible designs should stay.
Yet every new image from X-Men: Days of Future Past shows that Singer is wrestling the franchise back to its ugly, shitty-looking roots. At the end of X-Men: First Class (the best film in the series, says I) the team had finally donned their yellow and blue outfits, a great look that worked onscreen. The history of X-Men comics is filled with strange, cool costumes that could be reinterpreted for the new era of superhero movies, an era where a Star-Spangled Avenger totally works onscreen. So why does Quicksilver look like that? Why are we back at a place where it seems likely the character could make the joke, "What would you prefer, green and silver spandex?"
The modern superhero movie has moved on from Bryan Singer's 'vision,' and yet here he is trying to bridge the strong final look of Magneto in First Class with the dismal look in his films. It's movement in the wrong direction. He's shoving his superheroes back in their closet.
It's possible that despite the awful designs X-Men: Days of Future Past will be good (possible but, in my opinion, hugely unlikely - at least based on Singer's actual filmmaking track record), but I worry more than ever that this aesthetic means one of the greatest, most fantastical X-Men stories is in the hands of someone who never actually understood superheroes. I'd have settled for that in 2000, but fourteen years later I know nerds like us should expect better.
Now all eyes turn to Joss Whedon...