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Nobody ever dies

In their storytelling, comic book movies have become like comic books themselves.

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Updated: June 7, 2014 12:42 am
The Sentinels are programmed to eliminate all mutants, a mandate they carry out with ruthless efficiency. The Sentinels are programmed to eliminate all mutants, a mandate they carry out with ruthless efficiency.

Roy Thomas was struggling to find a good ending to his tale. Thomas was a “schlock jock” for Marvel, as comic book writers were dubbed in 1969. He was writing an issue of the X-Men featuring giant robots called Sentinels. These mechanical monsters steal the show in the latest blockbuster, X-Men: Days of Future Past. The Sentinels are programmed to eliminate all mutants, a mandate they carry out with ruthless efficiency.

A young office boy offered a suggestion. Why not have the Sentinels try to destroy the sun? After all, solar radiation is the major cause of mutations. Not only did Thomas promptly incorporate the idea, he even gave a “plot assist credit” to this precocious gofer.

That credit would mark the beginning of a glittering career for 19-year-old Chris Claremont. An immigrant from London who had had a difficult childhood settling in New York, he was the perfect choice to write about mutants — the ultimate outsiders. Claremont would go on to become the definitive writer for the X-series, including the “Days of Future Past” story arc, which forms the basis of the film. This idea of destroying the sun is typical of Claremont’s big-screen inventiveness.

The film, directed by Bryan Singer, is great fun, heralding a return to old-school comic book style filmmaking, in marked contrast to the doomy gloom of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. At its heart is a preposterous plot involving time-trips (not physically, which would be too normal, but by transferring consciousness back through time). To add to the meta-fun, it also retcons the franchise’s previous entry, X-Men: The Last Stand, which killed off all the main characters. Retcon, or retroactive continuity, is one superpower all fans possess. A mutation that enables them to suspend belief, as it were.

Singer translates the inventiveness of the plot with great visual pizazz, reaching a glorious culmination in the Pentagon kitchen, of all places. The highlight is a delirious sequence involving the mutant Quicksilver. Not since The Matrix has bullet-time been so much fun. This bravura piece shows what comics can do.

Above all, DoFP, as it has been invariably christened, is a treat for fans — a film for and by them. There is a special thrill if you are au courant with the twists and turns of the X-franchise. DoFP plays fast and loose with continuity — a given because of the time-travel and the associated, parallel realities that spawn as each change occurs in the time stream. There are different versions of us, echoing across the stacked realities.

The man behind this was Michael Moorcock, who coined the term “multiverse”. Moorcock’s greatest creation was Elric, a sword-slinging anti-hero who rampaged in various avatars across the dimensions.

Comics immediately embraced this exuberant style of storytelling. This sprawling fictional universe with myriad branchings and diversions was perfect for superheroes to cavort in. As one of Moorcock’s character says, “The multiverse isn’t a globe. Time isn’t cyclic. There is no real linearity. The multiverse is a tree root and branch, a living organism… Forever adapting and changing”. One of the best examples of this, Bryan Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, featuring the eponymous hero careening wildly across the continuums. This sprawling narration, spread across parallel time-streams, was a critical hit and helped influence a generation of writers since.

The other concomitant of such storytelling is that characters who have got the chopper in previous films spring back to life. This is one of the most venerable verities of comics. Nobody ever dies in comics. After all, “comic book death” has its own entry on Wikipedia. X-Men is really the longest-running soap opera in the world, putting Mexican telenovelas or our very own Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in the shade. Characters are resurrected from the Lethean embrace of death by all the tricks that schlock jocks have at their disposal. Transferring one’s mind into a clone is hardly outré. For example, the Marvel database mentions in passing that “to escape death, Professor Xavier transferred his mind to the body of his brain-dead twin brother”.

Critic Ryan Britt has said, “Comic book movies… are becoming more and more like comic books themselves: serial adventures in which each instalment leads to the next instalment. Each movie gives you a fix of superpowered shenanigans, but doesn’t fully conclude much of anything at all, in the hopes you’ll be back for another dose. It’s said that no one in science fiction stays dead; this is only truer in comic books, where it appears that no one can even catch a nap”.

And soon enough, for those of us who waited for the post-credit sequence, a new supervillain popped up in ancient Egypt. All set for X-Men: Apocalypse, destined to hit the screens in 2016.

Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

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