An X-MEN Movie Was Almost Made in the 1980s at Orion Pictures and Here Are the Details
The world didn’t see the first big screen adaptation of the X-Men until the year 2000 under the direction of Bryan Singer. But that wasn’t the first attempt to bring the X-Men characters to the big screen. In the 1980s Marvel was pushing for one to be made.
Thanks to Polygon we have some details on the history of the project, which was inspired by the success of Richard Donner’s Superman. Marvel Comics was blowing up at the time, and Stan Lee was ready to start bringing their characters to the big screen.
Lee ended up sending out a Marvel ambassador, Alice Donenfeld-Vernoux, to the studios to try and spark some interest. There were a lot of rejections along way, but a Canadian studio called Nelvana, who was known for their animation work, saw the potential in an X-Men movie, and that’s what they wanted to do.
So, to educate the team at Nelvana about the X-Men, Marvel sent X-Men comic book writer Chris Claremont to introduce them to the world of mutants. He was also hired to develop a treatment for the film and he ended up coming up with two different story outlines for a movie. Those outlines included the characters Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Phoenix, Kitty Pryde, and Professor X.
Here’s the summary of the first outline:
“The first version, dated June 1982 and called Rite of Passage, specifically focuses on Kitty Pryde. Claremont enters the world of the X-Men through the life of Kitty, following her journey from new recruit to part of the X-family. The villain is the heroine’s father, who, after trying to kill Professor Xavier while being possessed by an evil mutant named Proteus, turns against his daughter and uses his senatorial power to turn the country against the mutants. Meanwhile, Professor X grows weak from the possession, prompting his pupils to rise up and save him from being trapped in the astral realm. At the end of the day, the gang saves Xavier, Senator Pryde’s love for his daughter wins out, and everyone is happy.”
Here’s the summary for the second outline:
“The second outline, from 1983, also features Kitty, but takes a more macro focus on a global conflict between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, putting their feud against the backdrop of the Cold War. At one point, Magneto raises an island from beneath the ocean and destroys a Soviet submarine full of nuclear warheads with his hands. Later, he creates a volcano in a distant Russian city and sets it off to send a message. At the end, after almost killing Kitty, Magneto realizes that he’s gone to far and turns to Charles for forgiveness.”
“It is too late to change, Charles,” reads the script’s only line of dialogue. “I am too old. I have lived too long with my pain and my hate. But ... I will try.”
I actually love the story concepts for both film ideas. It would have been really cool to see how these films would have turned out in the ‘80s! If you’re familiar with Claremont’s work on X-Men, these outlines were inspired by the work he had already done on the comics. However, neither of these X-Men film concepts made it past the script phase, and Claremont dropped out of the project to focus on writing novels, the X-Men, and also the New Mutants spinoff series.
The film project was then handed off to Marvel veterans Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, and they were brought on to the scripts, but they were not given a treatment to work from. They were never made aware that Claremont previously worked on the project. They ended up ended up writing three drafts for treatment, two drafts of the script.
Nelvana eventually secured a deal for distribution with Orion Pictures, which had seen huge success with films like Caddyshack, Excalibur, Arthur, First Blood, and The Terminator. Apparently the two producers assigned to the X-Men project didn’t have much producing experience, but they, of course, felt they were “totally qualified.”
Thomas and Conway’s first treatment, completed in January 1984, is similar to what Claremont imagined in his outlines. The focus is again on Kitty as she arrives at the mysterious academy for the first time. Proteus returns from Claremont’s first outline, though this time instead of mysteriously possessing bodies, he sucks the life out of bodies and has an alter-ego named Dr. Anton Lykos, who teams up with the Brotherhood (not the Brotherhood of Mutants … just the Brotherhood). In this version, Wolverine has his adamantium-soaked skeleton as the result of a car accident and at on point punches a man into a pinball machine.
“God, I love a good fight,” says a femme fatale right after Logan emerges victorious from his brawl. “It really gets the blood percolating.” As a subway gutter blows her skirt up, she gushes about Marilyn Monroe.
In the end, the X-Men team up to defeat Proteus and the enigmatic Brotherhood, and Kitty becomes part of the family.
The producers didn’t like what the writing team was producing. “The appeal, they felt, was too niche. So the duo wrote another treatment. Then another. And with each iteration, the X-Men movie deviated more and more from the X-Men comics, and Conway and Thomas grew more and more annoyed with the project.” But they ended up delivering a “off-the-wall” script that was born out of “frustration and producer meddling.” Here are the details on that script, which sounds awful:
In the film, Professor X and Cyclops travel the world to recruit superpowered humans in order to stop Proteus, who Conway and Thomas morphed from mere body possessor/life-sucker to an evil CEO who sucks life energy by night. He and a bunch of other world leaders want to take over the world. His evil plan: raise a continent from the depths of the Pacific Ocean.
There is no Xavier School. There is no seeded prejudice and struggle between the Mutants. Hell, there are no Mutants. The word is used once in the script, and even then it’s abbreviated, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it reference to “muties” from Logan. Also Professor X can walk.
Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, and Kitty are all back for the adventure, with Nightcrawler and Colossus also in the mix. But despite appearing in every iteration of the outlines and treatments, and being one of the most popular X-Men given after Claremont’s highly successful Dark Phoenix saga in 1980, Jean Grey does not make the cut.
In her place is a new character, Yoshi, a Japanese New Wave pop star with the power to transform materials. She likes all things cute, all things Godzilla, and all things Scott Summers. Yoshi is not as powerful as Jean Grey, but she does have a romance with Scott — and appeal to an international market. Conway says the producers asked for the character’s inclusion in order to pander to potential Japanese investors (though didn’t want to use the existing Japanese character, Sunfire).
Also joining the team is Kitty’s friend Bernie, who has no superpowers whatsoever, and is only let in on her secret because he followed Kitty to X-Men practice. Like in the treatments, Thomas and Conway’s script uses Kitty as the audience proxy, but producers insisted the viewpoint would turn off young boys. Enter: Bernie, who serves no purpose other than to poke his nose around and be a more age-appropriate love interest for 14-year-old Kitty than 19-year-old Colossus.
On the subject of distilling the core conflict of the X-Men — the struggle of acceptance in society and the different approaches and measures taken by Professor X and Magneto — Conway bristles.
“‘Mutants’ had a connotation that they thought would prejudice the studio against a project,” he told us. “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 X-Men’s final showdown happens on Easter Island, with the iconic statues playing a pivotal point. The villain and his daughter Carmilla, who earlier seduces Wolverine, are revealed to have a secret hideout in one of the heads.
“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, referencing a moment where Carmilla and Logan fight and she plummets from a statue’s nostril. “By that point, I think we were pretty punch drunk, just trying to get through another draft.”
Wow! Thankfully, this X-Men project ended up being scrapped when Orion started having some financial problems. They eventually ended up filing for bankruptcy. They lost the rights to X-Men, and that’s when 20th Century Fox swooped in to pick them up. Years later they finally made their first X-Men movie.
What are your thoughts on the ‘80s X-Men movie concepts that were presented? Would you have liked to see any of those brought to life on the big screen?