With the release of the first X-Men film in 2000, audiences not only witnessed the dawn of the modern day superhero film boom, but also the beginning of a complicated franchise that would span sixteen years and nine films. With X-Men: Apocalypse on the horizon, Kayleigh Hearn and a rotating cast of merry mutants are revisiting the X-Men films from the very beginning, and examining the comic book storylines that inspired them. What would you prefer, yellow spandex?
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
By Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson
Kayleigh: X2 is the first X-Men film to be adapted—however loosely—from a comic book story: the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills. Despite being an X-Men fan since childhood, I had never heard of this story before X2 was released, in part because it had never been adapted by the ‘90s X-Men series. Reading God Loves, Man Kills for the first time, I was surprised by what a serious, philosophical, even somber story it was. With its explicit themes of racism and religious bigotry, it is not a particularly fun story, but I can see why Singer would choose to adapt it.
Max: It’s interesting that the actual canonicity of God Loves, Man Kills was up in the air until this movie came out, pretty much solely because it’s so intense and adult. It’s cool to see Claremont really go all out in a story he couldn’t have done in the regular Uncanny X-Men and Brent Anderson (most famous for his stellar work as the co-creator of Astro City) is a very good choice for this.
Kayleigh: Neal Adams was originally slated to do the art for God Loves, Man Kills. As much as I love Adams, he is very much a “superhero” artist, and Brent Anderson gives the comic a grounded humanity that is really vital to the story and essential to what makes it work. This book is serious and heavy. (In my brand-spanking new X-Men Omnibus vol. 3, God Loves is immediately followed by Paul Smith’s “Professor X is a Jerk!” comic, and the art and tone could not possibly be more different.)
Max: Most X-Men comics, especially up until this point, really just paid lip service to the mutant-as-racism allegory. Claremont and Anderson open this with two black children being murdered in cold blood, it’s shocking even reading this in 2016. Magneto finding their bodies strung up is such an excellent humanizing moment for him, you mourn with him.
Kayleigh: X2’s biggest takeaway from “God Loves, Man Kills” is the villain William Stryker. In the comic, he’s an anti-mutant crusader modeled after the gaudy, frequently despicable televangelists of the 1980s. Chris Claremont’s criticism of the religious right is as over the top as any X-Men comic as he would ever write; at one point, Professor X is brainwashed to imagine himself as Jesus Christ crucified by his own students, who look like demons. There is nothing redeeming about Stryker, though he is a compelling villain for how plausible he is. Aside from Nightcrawler’s Catholicism, the religious aspects of the comic are understandably removed from the big splashy superhero sequel—how does Brian Cox’s Colonel Stryker compare to Reverend Stryker?
Max: Anderson’s version of Stryker is so distinct, he looks so much like Gregory Peck that I can only hear his voice in my head when I read lines like “YOU CALL THIS THING HUMAN?”
Kayleigh: Oh man, Stryker as Earth-3 Atticus Finch (or really, Go Set A Watchman Atticus Finch) is brilliant.
Max: I got a real Boris Karloff vibe off Magneto in a few pages too, it’s gotta be intentional on Anderson’s part. Comics Stryker’s a cool villain because even he seems kind of out of his element with the supervillain aspects of his own plan? His own henchman has to reassure him that using insane sci-fi tech to Kill All Mutants is what God wants. He’s so committed to his mission that he’s willing to do anything it takes. While Movie Stryker was clearly a not great guy driven to evil by his traumatic experiences with his son, it’s deliberately ambiguous that there was even anything “wrong” with Comics Stryker’s infant son before he murders him (and minutes later, his own wife).
Kayleigh: God Loves, Man Kills features a notably different lineup than the assembled team in X2, and comparing them is an interesting study in how the team dynamic changed in the 20 years between page and screen. Like, Kitty Pryde is a major focal point character in God Loves, but merited only a cameo in X2.
Max: The X-Men movies have never been very good at actual team dynamics since they’re basically “Wolverine and his friends, The X-Men” up until First Class. Wolverine pretty much supplants Kitty as the viewpoint character of the X-Men movies, even in stories she was specifically the lead in like this or, later, Days of Future Past. It’s interesting that God Loves, Man Kills was loosely canon for a while considering a minor character like Illyana Rasputin is just *there* without any real explanation for a new reader.
Kayleigh: When we were talking about this earlier you asked, “Is Wolverine even in this?” which is a hilarious testament to how thoroughly this story was rewritten to be centered on Wolverine. X2 was smart to introduce Nightcrawler, though; even without the overt religious commentary that contrasts Kurt’s “all men are brothers” faith with Stryker’s hatefulness, you need Nightcrawler here. His whole deal is that he looks like a demon but has the soul of a saint, which makes him one of the most X-Men-y of the X-Men.
Max: The mutant gene sure loves irony! It’s interesting that X-Men: The Last Stand, in a kind of roundabout way, adapts another really great moment in this comic: Stryker’s #1 henchwoman Anne discovers she’s a mutant and is killed by Stryker (on national television!) when she begs for mercy. The Last Stand does this, to, uh, mixed effect, when Mystique is shot with the mutant cure and abandoned by Magneto.
Kayleigh: X2 is a fairly loose adaptation of God Loves, Man Kills, but were there any particular moments from the comic that would have been interesting to see on the big screen? Re-reading it, I was surprised that “Cyclops is ineffectual and captured for most of the story” is right from the comic!
Max: The cop doing security at the rally shooting Stryker dead when he tries to kill Kitty is a pretty crucial moment that they don’t really carry over into X2. We get a little of that with the President being extorted into deciding to do the right thing, but you occasionally need some kind of indicator in X-Men stories that humans have some inherent decency.
Kayleigh: I totally agree, the cop shooting Stryker is a real pivotal moment that the movie lacks. That’s arguably a big problem with the film franchise—the human characters in the X-Men films are all a bunch of bigoted, fearful white guys like Senator Kelly, Stryker, and, uh, Richard Nixon. There are good eggs like Moira MacTaggert and Mariko Yashida, but in the X-Men movies humanity hardly seems worth saving. In God Loves, Man Kills, if a single human being can stop someone like Stryker, there’s hope for all of us.
Next week: Giant-Size X-Education with Professor K #1! Dylan and I tackle not only the misnamed X-Men: The Last Stand, but also The Dark Phoenix Saga and Astonishing X-Men!