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AICN WORLD EXCLUSIVE!! MORIARTY Reviews The Current Draft Of X-MEN 2!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

I’d like to thank my anonymous benefactor.

Saturday night, I spent most of the evening showing my girlfriend THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, since she’s never seen any of the STAR WARS films and she wants to go to the 12:01 screening of it with us on Wednesday night. It’s fun watching them through fresh eyes, and she’s warming up to them as they go. When I came home, though, I found an envelope just inside the front gate of the building with one word scrawled across the front: MORIARTY.

Happens all the time. Mysterious packages appear on my doorstep, and I have no idea where they come from. People get edgy when they’re sending you things that are current or volatile or hard to find, and they do their best to cover their tracks. After all, I can’t give a source away, even accidentally, if I don’t know who they are.

So I get inside and I open the envelope, and there’s X-MEN 2. Clean. Just came out of a copier somewhere. 109 pages, with “PRODUCTION DRAFT 4-30-02” on the title page. It’s credited to David Hayter, with a story by David Hayter and Bryan Singer, and current revisions by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris. By now, we’re all fairly familiar with the stories about Zak Penn and David Hayter developing separate drafts of the scripts, almost like a competition, with the studio eventually choosing what they felt was the stronger of the two ideas, picking the bones of the other if there was anything worthwhile. I thought it sounded like a terrible way to develop a sequel, and I was particularly discouraged by the idea that Tom DeSanto wasn’t involved, considering how important his input was on the first film. His was the pure heart of a fan that Singer used as his compass, and no matter what odds seemed stacked against X-MEN while it was in production... and there were times when it seemed like it would have to be a catastrophe... somehow they managed to create a film that delivered on the spirit of the X-MEN, that brought the team to full and vivid life and promised even greater things to come.

Well, get ready, because X-MEN 2 is poised to take the winning streak of Marvel Films to a whole new level. It’s smart, fast-paced, filled with page after page of superhero action that we’ve never seen onscreen before, and it manages to not only introduce new characters successfully, but also fleshes out the mythology of the world and the characters we already met in a deeply satisfying way.

First things first: forget what you think you know about the film. If you do a search of the Internet for rumors about the storyline, you’ll find a lot of blather about Sentinels (both human and machine) and The Legacy Virus. Well, neither one is true. There are no Sentinels on display at all. Not even a hint of them. And there’s no Legacy Virus. Instead, this is a story that picks up right where the first film left off, and instead of trying to shoehorn some storyline from the comics into the film, they’ve chosen to build their own continuity.

The film starts off with a sequence that left me shocked in the very best way. First, there’s a voice-over by Xavier about the ongoing struggle for mutants to find their place in the world. It underlines the ideas of the first movie in a very simple, direct way. At the end of the voice-over, as the armored door of Cerebro slams closed, we see the Seal of the President of the United States.

Suddenly we’re in the White House, taking a tour. A tour guide reads a placard below a portrait of Abraham Lincoln: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection.” That phrase is key to understanding the constantly shifting alliances in X-MEN 2. This is a movie in which good guys and bad guys aren’t who you believe, and from moment to moment our expectations about how these characters will behave are challenged by the circumstances in which they find themselves.

For example, as the tour group approaches a security checkpoint, one man stands back, away from the group, eyeing a janitor’s closet on the far side of the checkpoint.

And the first time I read BAMF!, I cheered.

The man, whose face we still haven’t seen, vanishes in a puff of smoke, then somehow steps out of the closet, only to be stopped by a Secret Service agent. When he looks up, we get our first look at “THE FACE OF A DEMON: Skin so blue it appears black. His eyes are YELLOW, dilated, and glazed over. This is KURT WAGNER, aka NIGHTCRAWLER.”

As the agent reaches for his gun, Nightcrawler’s tail whips up and slams the agent to the ground. In a series of moves, Nightcrawler scurries up walls and across ceilings, teleporting directly into the Oval Office. He single-handedly disarms a circle of Secret Service agents, then attacks the President himself. Nightcrawler draws a knife and is just about to stab the President when he gets shot in the wrist. His eyes seems to clear, and it’s as if he suddenly realizes where he is and what he’s doing. He disappears, and the Secret Service moves to retrieve the knife, which is stuck in the desk, with a ribbon hanging from the handle that reads “MUTANT FREEDOM NOW.”

Needless to say, the climate is no more favorable for mutants in this film than in the first. If anything, it’s gotten worse. The incidents on Liberty Island have raised awareness of what can happen when mutants go bad, and mistrust has become an everyday thing. A simple field trip to a museum becomes a challenge for Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers, Storm, and a group of Xavier’s students including Rogue, Kitty Pryde, Bobby Drake, and John Allerdyce, also known as Pyro. It doesn’t help that the students are still kids, prone to all the temperamental displays of typical teenagers. What begins as a simple field trip ends up becoming a tense, uncomfortable showdown with several local teens. Rogue and Pyro and Bobby and Kitty are all well-written, defined quickly with simple details, each of them given distinct personalities. Right up front, there’s a better balance to this film. Yes, Wolverine is still front and center. An early scene picks up with him searching for some clue about the Weapon X project at the abandoned Alkali Lake military base in Alberta. But this thing moves. After the field trip, Jean, Storm, and Scott end up meeting with Xavier, trying to sort out the truth of the assassination attempt, all of them convinced that Magneto must be behind it, despite being incarcerated. They’re afraid that an incident like this is going to create an even greater rift between mutants and society, reintroducing the Registration Act or even worse.

They’re right, of course. At the White House, we meet William Stryker, a man in his 60s. He’s meeting with the President to present him with evidence that ties Xavier and his school, a well-kept secret, to the attempt on the President’s life. They’re joined at the meeting by Senator Kelly, who seems particularly interested in what Stryker has to say about Magneto, who he says gave him all the information on Xavier’s school. Stryker wants permission to take a military envoy into Xavier’s school to see exactly what’s going on inside. Senator Kelly seems to be sympathetic to mutant rights now, and when he follows Stryker out of the Oval Office, he tries to push Stryker for more details. He’s cut off by Anne Reynolds, Stryker’s assistant, though, and it’s obvious that Stryker wants nothing to do with Kelly. As he walks off, we get a glimpse of yellow in Kelly’s eyes, a sign that he might not be what “he” seems to be.

By the time Wolverine returns to Xavier’s school, frustrated by how little he’s learned, the pieces are all in place for the explosive set piece that is the heart of the first act and that puts everything else in motion. Cyclops and Xavier go to visit Magneto in his plastic prison while Storm and Jean go to try and track down the mutant who is being accused of the near-assassination. Before Cyclops and Xavier can see Magneto, though, he’s visited by Stryker, and we see that he has been horribly mistreated in prison, beaten regularly. He’s unable to lift a finger to help himself, and a particulary sadistic guard named Laurio is happy to help Stryker get information out of the humbled mutant. Stryker has help from another source, though... an odd yellow liquid that burns into the back of the neck of whoever it’s used on, sapping their will somehow. It’s awful, and Stryker comes across as a cold-blooded sonofabitch. In anything, you end up feeling sorry for Magneto. All of his worst fears about humans seem to be borne out in the way he is treated by his captors.

While Jean and Storm track down Nightcrawler and learn about the truth of the attack, Wolverine finds himself in charge of the students at Xavier’s school for the evening. He decides to spend the time sharpening his instincts a bit, as well as burning off some aggression. And any fan of the X-MEN comics knows what that means:

Danger Room, baby. Awwwwwwwww, yeah.

Keep in mind that all of this is before page 25 or so of the script. It’s all set up. What kicks the rest of the film off is the assault on the school that takes place while the X-Men are scattered on their various business. And it’s a hell of a sequence. Frightening, intense, with appearances by all sorts of mutants that will make fans squeal with pleasure, it’s intercut with the springing of a trap that catches Xavier and Cyclops unaware. The action sequences in this film suggest that these X-Men are very powerful, more focused than in the first film, but that their opponents this time are ready for them, able to counter each of their displays of force with something stronger. The students of the school do their best to evacuate, and many of them are able to escape. There are many deaths, though, both human and mutant, and this begins the intentional muddying of who is wrong and who is right in the film. When Wolverine skewers and kills a soldier, he’s saving a student, but there’s still a dead man laying on the ground. Even worse, when Wolverine comes face to face with Stryker during the raid, he is told that Xavier has been lying to him, that Xavier knows the truth of the Weapon X project, and that Wolverine’s origin might be a secret he’s better off not knowing. He manages to make Wolverine doubt himself, doubt Xavier, doubt his entire search for the truth. Before Stryker can subdue Wolverine, though, Rogue and Bobby manage to save him. With Pyro, they hit the road, running for some kind of safety.

I don’t want to reveal the twists and turns of the second and third act, because they’re tons of fun. The way this story unfolds keeps you constantly guessing, constantly working to keep up. Singer and his writers have managed to paint in shades of grey here. Enemies end up working side by side, and friends find themselves at odds. It’s intense, reading a full-blown fight between Jean Grey and Cyclops or seeing Mystique and Wolverine fight side-by-side. Even worse, the thing that Magneto and Xavier created to help unite the mutants of the world, Cerebro, is the cornerstone of a plan to destroy all of them in one fell swoop, with Xavier himself serving as the detonator. I’ll admit... I read the script twice before sitting down to write this because of how dense it is with action and story points. I’m impressed not only by the scale of this story (it’s huge), but also the control of it.

Marvel Films appears to be in the midst of doing something that DC and AOL/Time-Warner can only dream of. They are creating a universe on film. Looking at this past weekend’s box-office for SPIDER-MAN, it’s obvious that these characters connect with mass audiences when they’re handled properly. I’ve always felt that X-MEN’s opening was a signal of a huge desire to see these particular characters brought to life, and that its rapid drop-off was due to the fact that the film felt like an almost, like a solid double instead of a home run. The casting was great. The characters were strong. The build-up was excellent. But it felt like it ended just as it was getting started. This time out, they’ve learned their lesson, and the film starts big, then gets bigger. Scene after scene, each of the mutants plays a valuable role in what’s going on. No one is relegated to the background. Even the supporting characters end up shining in smaller moments. Pyro makes a strong impression here, as does the burgeoning romance between Rogue and Bobby Drake, the Iceman. Mystique comes on strong this time in several scenes, including an excellent quiet moment in a tent with Wolverine, where she offers him all of his fantasies made real, morphing into Jean Grey, Storm, and even Rogue. Magneto has a bruised dignity here, worn out from his months of abuse, but still unbowed. For the first time, his philosophy about humans makes sense. Watching how they treat Xavier and his students, once gets the sense that mutants will never be able to make peace with the larger world.

Everything eventually leads the characters back to Alkali Lake, where we are given answers about Wolverine’s past, and where the fate of the world is determined in a battle so intense that comic fans are going to find themselves on their feet, cheering and hollering at the things they see made real.

Of course, that depends on whether or not they’re going to actually shoot this film.

Like I said, the draft I read was dated 4-30-02. We’re talking about 14 days ago. When you’re as close to shooting as X-MEN 2 is, that can be a lifetime. From what I understand, the entire cast and crew is already starting to migrate up to Vancouver, where they’ll be rolling film in less than a month. Dougherty and Harris are supposedly under contract still, working to incorporate notes from a dozen different directions.

And I know how it is. When there are a number of producers and executives involved, all with their own personal agendas, things can begin to get frantic and overwhelming. Everyone starts to second-guess everyone else. Rewrites are ordered out of panic instead of genuine creative need. Right now, I’m in the position of being the first pair of outside eyes to be able to comment on the script, and I don’t come to it with any sort of agenda at all. I’m simply a fan, someone who enjoyed the first film, who enjoys the characters and the potential of the franchise, and who wants to see something bigger, something bolder this time out.

When I picked the script up, I was worried, as I said. The process I’d heard about on this film scared me. The absence of Tom DeSanto scared me. All the rumors I’d heard about human Sentinels scared me. And what I read changed my mind completely. This is such a rollicking piece of entertainment that I thought at first I must have misread something. I couldn’t imagine something so assured, so determined and focused. At the rate they’re going, Marvel Films has the chance to trump themselves each time out. BLADE was good. X-MEN was better. BLADE 2 was better still. SPIDER-MAN is excellent. DAREDEVIL has a great, promising script that might just be the foundation for a great film. X-MEN 2 could take it to another level. And then HULK goes on a rampage right after that. One film after another, all of them delivering the goods. Why? What did they do that has made this possible?

Well, for one thing, Avi Arad seems to actually be giving the projects to talented filmmakers and writers who just happen to also be fans of the material they’re dealing with. David Self is a rabid scuba enthusiast and a SUB-MARINER fan, so he’s doing the film version. Mark Steven Johnson would sit outside his local comic store as a child, waiting for the store to open on the day the new DAREDEVIL was delivered. Sam Raimi had Spider-Man sheets on his bed. These guys have carried these dreams around for a while. Bryan Singer has confessed that he wasn’t familiar with the X-MEN before DeSanto brought him up to speed, but in the two years since he made the first film, he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the world he created. He didn’t have to come back to do this new film. He could have just walked away and done something new, something different.

Instead, he’s been bitten by the bug. Not the radioactive type, but the creative type. He’s fallen in love with these characters and this world, and as a result, the writers he’s working with have been given license to dream big. The only thing that worries me is the timetable of the project. They’re not shooting yet, and they’re supposed to bring this FX heavy action film out in May next year. HULK, which comes out afterwards, has been shooting for weeks and weeks now. MATRIX: RELOADED, which comes out just after X-MEN 2, is already in post-production. If Fox waits until closer to the release to suddenly move the date, it will be seen as “blinking,” moving because they’re scared of the competition. It will be overanalyzed to death, and you’ll immediately hear the buzz about how the film is “in trouble.”

Save yourselves the trouble. Move the date now. You released the original X-MEN in July. Why not claim that date for each time you do one of these? Besides, that will give John Ottman time to work on the original X-MEN (he’s allegedly recutting and rescoring the first film for DVD) as he also works on the new movie. There’s no way he’ll be able to handle the workload if you try to heap all of this into less than a year. Give this creative team the time and the money they’ll need to make this film as special as it can be. They’ve got a script that works right now. This draft is solid gold. If you shot and released this as is, reviews would almost universally point out how much better written this is than even SPIDER-MAN, the new “gold standard” for comic-book adaptations. It’s funny... I read a review recently that railed on SPIDER-MAN because the dialogue was flat. “It’s certainly not David Mamet,” the reviewer wrote, obviously trying to be glib. Well, I read the David Mamet draft of SPIDER-MAN, and it sucked. As much as I adore much of Mamet’s work, he was wrong for the property. You don’t have to go out of your way to hire some giant-name A-list writer to get these films right. Dougherty and Harris have no other credits in the IMDb, but a little poking around the Internet revealed a website where you can get a peek into the mind of Dougherty, at least. He’s a geek, an animator, someone who knows the world of fandom from the inside out. It’s taking chances on talent like this that has put Marvel Films on track, and I’d hate to see the efforts of these writers, as well as Hayter and Singer, sidetracked in a rush to reach the screen.

If this film delivers on the promise of these oh-so-brief 109 pages, then we may well be ushering in a golden age of superheroes realized on film. Right now, there’s no doubt Sony is in the business for as long as they can ride out their successfully-launched franchise. I mean, they made the cover of TIME magazine this week, with a major story about what makes SPIDER-MAN so identifiable. Fox, though, is sitting on not one, not two, but THREE of these major properties. X-MEN 2 and DAREDEVIL are both coming next year, and their success could finally allow us to see THE FANTASTIC FOUR done right. Michael France’s original draft of that project still stands as the best superhero script ever written. At the time it was penned, it would have cost well over $175 million to bring to the screen. As these films become more profitable, though, technology becomes sharper, and the price of these films is actually becoming more manageable. I find this enormously encouraging.

There’s a lot of material in the script that I tapdanced around. There’s a lot of specific action beats that I didn’t describe. There are dozens and dozens of surprises that have been packed into the script that I would hate to ruin. All I know is... I’d love to be in Vancouver as this thing shoots. I’d love to see this cast and crew bringing this incredible vision to life. And next summer, I plan to be first in line to see what Singer manages to make of it all.

In the meantime, I have to go figure out why my tape recorder won’t play back my Art Linson interview properly, and I have to try and finish my RULES OF ATTRACTION review, and I have to hurry up and finish my Ebertfest pieces. Man... there’s a hell of a lot of work to do. Let me get out of here.


"Moriarty" out.

Hey folks, Harry here... from the sound of this script, it looks like they are either borrowing heavily from or have out and out adapted Clairemont's brilliant Graphic Novel: GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS... which is literally one of the all time best X-MEN stories ever written. Just fantastic. If so, then jump in the air celebration time. This wasn't just a showy action epic, but was amongst the best written Clairemont work committed to paper and into my collection. Here's the cover to refresh that mutie memory of yours...

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