If you think Dark Phoenix was bad, you haven’t heard anything yet. The X-Men almost hit the big screen in the 1980s, and if they did, they would have been barely recognisable.
In 1982 Canadian animation studio Nelvana optioned the rights to the X-Men, because they wanted to make the move into live action.
Nelvana brought in X-Men writer Chris Claremont, who delivered two story options, both of which sound infinitely better than what the studio ended up with.
One Claremont idea saw Professor X possessed by an evil mutant named Proteus, another saw Magneto raising an island from the ocean, destroying a Soviet submarine full of nuclear warheads with his hands, and creating a volcano in a distant Russian city. Which, if nothing else, sounds like cool imagery.
After some delays, Claremont left the development process, and Marvel writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway were brought in to work on a script.
Nelvana also signed up with Orion to distribute the movie, and they had their own ideas about the project. Two (unnamed) producers started to contribute ideas, and that’s where things really started to go wrong.
“Neither one of them had any real experience as producers,” Conway said, “but they - to our misfortune - had read a book on screenwriting, so they felt they were totally qualified.”
The subsequent script removed so much from the comics, it was barely recognisable. Professor Xavier could now walk, the Xavier school didn’t exist and - worst of all - the word ‘mutants’ didn’t appear. Almost as if they’d been snapped out of existence.
“‘Mutants’ had a connotation that they thought would prejudice the studio against a project,” Conway said. “A mutant was a monster if you were completely ignorant to comic book mythology, which one had to presume that a studio would be in the early 1980s.”
The producers wanted a set-piece on Easter Island, using the famous statues as a location.
“Easter Island statues are nowhere near as tall, obviously, as we have them in the script, but for the sake of having some fun, my favorite bit was just plunging out of the nose,” Conway says, describing a moment where villain Carmilla and Logan fight and she falls from a statue’s nostril. “By that point, I think we were pretty punch drunk, just trying to get through another draft.”
Read more: 'X-Men' 2000 cast: Then and now
Luckily, the film never made it past the script page, after Orion went bankrupt in 1991, the rights went to 20th Century Fox. Fox waited until 2000 to release the most faithful X-Men movie possible at the time. It was a huge hit.
“God, we got almost to the starting line, but not quite,” Claremont says. “[X-Men (2000)] changed the game, because up until then everybody had looked on superhero films as losers. Then, the X-Men rolled in with a nine figure opening weekend, which nobody saw coming.
“That in turn set up Spider-Man, which in turn set up Captain America. And 20 years later we are in the world of today with Black Panther pulling in three Oscars and Into the Spider-Verse getting Best Animated Film.”
“It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right project and ultimately the right creative and commercial talent on the other side to bring that project to life. Those stars back in the early ’80s weren’t in alignment.”