Chris Claremont’s X-Men: The Outsiders, by Tyler Smith
Chris Claremont’s X-Men, directed by Patrick Meaney, is a bare bones documentary that often plays like a Blu-ray special feature. It is composed of several talking head interviews, ultimately adding up to a kind of oral history of the X-Men comics. It will be interesting for those like myself, who grew up reading X-Men, but others will likely find it boring, partly because the filmmaking itself is so straightforward and stripped down.
The film is all about writer Chris Claremont, who was given the X-Men comics in the 1970s and proceeded to work wonders with it. Many of the iconic characters that we’ve come to associate most with the X-Men brand were either created or further developed by Claremont. Marvel Comics appeared to be perfectly fine with a single person making all of the decisions for an entire comic line, partially because it was never remarkably popular up until that point.
In fact, it was Claremont’s contributions that made X-Men into a popular book with beloved characters. Appropriately, along with singing the praises of Claremont’s dedication to the X-Men and their daily struggle as mutants, the film slowly turns into an examination of corporate interference. Once X-Men became more popular, Marvel slowly became more involved, demanding that Claremont expand the brand, leading to the New Mutants and X-Factor comic lines. There was also an emphasis on big crossover events, which began to undercut the emotional arcs that Claremont worked on so meticulously.
In the end, Claremont’s tenure as the writer of X-Men went out with a whimper. Flashier writers and artists – like the controversial Rob Liefeld – were brought in and began to steer the stories into more outrageous territory. But, wisely, the film doesn’t end on a sad note. Instead, it includes stories of people for whom Claremont’s characters were sadly familiar and oddly comforting. Even before Claremont’s contributions, the X-Men comics were about social misfits trying to find their place in a world that wants nothing to do with them. Chris Claremont further developed these themes until anybody who felt like an outsider – which, as it turns out, is almost all of us – could read these stories and see themselves in the characters, and find a promise that they could eventually find a community where they belonged and could be themselves.
The content of the film is so effective that it’s a shame the filmmaking isn’t better. In an era when even the lowest budget documentaries about the most niche of subjects can still welcome viewers in through stylistic flourishes, Chris Claremont’s X-Men is frustratingly flat. Yes, it does sometimes cut to people dressed as Claremont’s notable characters, but the occasional flashy cutaway can’t make up for an otherwise boring visual aesthetic.
It’s possible that the filmmakers didn’t want to drown the substance of their film with an overwhelming style, which is an understandable concern. However, as we know from Claremont’s own creative choices, it is possible to balance style and substance so that the audience is engaged both with what is being said and how. Ironically, the film may be about Chris Claremont’s artistic achievements, but it isn’t really informed by them.
Something that I have learned from the story of long-ignored Batman co-creator Bill Finger is that hardcore comic book fans like to give credit where it is due. With a long running series like X-Men, it’s possible for writers to be pushed aside in favor of their stories, as though these characters somehow created themselves (which, admittedly, can be a testament to the developed personalities of these creations). As the X-Men brand continues to grow, this film attempts to point the fans back to where the modern era of X-Men began: with a writer whose passion for engaging characters and engrossing storylines made for some of the best comic books of all time.