"Smothering Our Babies: Generation X (1996)"

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy

Let's face it. After Howard the Duck failed on a spectacular level, The Punisher went straight to video, Captain America barely grossed 10 million worldwide, and The Fantastic Four never even made it to release, Marvel Movies were at a low point.

To be fair, DC's film output also took a hit as the Nineties rolled on. Batman Returns had been impressive, and while Batman Forever grossed more, it was not exactly critically acclaimed. 1997's Batman and Robin would effectively kill the franchise for nearly a decade, and we won't bother mentioning Steel for fear of giving anyone nightmares. Even Image's Spawn failed to live up to the potential of its source material.

Marvel, in a shrewd tactical move, shifted their focus back to television films, where they'd had their most success. Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk were still fondly remembered, with the Hulk TV movies garnering decent ratings even if they didn't succeed as the backdoor pilots they were intended to be.

On February 20, 1996, just after Batman Forever scored big at the box office, Fox Television premiered Generation X, based on the comic by Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo. Like the source material, the Generation X team was mentored by Sean Cassidy (Jeremy Ratchford, who had provided the voice for Banshee in the X-Men cartoon from the early Nineties) and Emma Frost (Finola Hughes – Blossom, All My Children, General Hospital).

The characters Skin (Agustin Rodriguez), M (Amarilis), Mondo (Bumper Robinson), and Jubilee (Heather McComb - Profiler, Party of Five, The Event), were translated directly from the comic (although Jubilee was no longer Chinese-American, as the part was originally supposed to be Dazzler, but was changed at the last minute due to Jubilee's popularity in the comics), with new characters, Refrax (Randall Slavin) and Buff (Suzanne Davis) added to avoid the effects budget needed to incorporate more of the original cast.

The villain of the piece was played with scenery-chewing abandon by Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, Lawnmower Man 2, Dawn of the Dead, Eureka), who seemed to be doing his best to capture the same energy that Jim Carrey had brought to The Riddler in Batman Forever. It would be both a good and a bad thing for the production.

The film was written by Eric Blakeney, a ten year veteran of television writing for series such as Crime Story, Wiseguy, and 21 Jump Street. It was directed by Jack Sholder, the man responsible for the lamentable A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and the gloriously fantastic The Hidden.

This is one of the few examples of a Marvel Movie where the creative element really doesn't have much of a history in comics, science fiction, or horror, and few went on to do much in relation to comics, science fiction, or horror. Sholder, while experienced in similar fields, never really did anything as good as The Hidden. Only two cast members actually went on to a solid career in genre work, and both of them, Bumper Robinson and Lalainia Lindbjerg (who plays Skin's townie love interest), became voice actors for genre animated series like Dragon Ball Z, Transfomers, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

I wouldn't be surprised if this didn't play a large part in just why this film ultimately didn't work. Overall, I blame a lack of pedigree, a lack of commitment, and a lack of financing. This film actually has just about everything one could ask for when setting up a television series, but they seem to hold back too much to really engage with the audience.

I do want to give credit where credit is due, but I can't find who was specifically responsible for the look of the film. Again, as in Batman Forever, there is a vivid use of color and many scenes are shot at dramatic angles, emphasizing the comic book nature of the story. But even the stylized presentation falls short of actually emphasizing thematic elements and ultimately just seems to be thrown in haphazardly with no real forethought.

With all that said, though, Generation X is nowhere near as bad as voices on the Internet would have you believe. It's much like all the other Marvel films so far. It's not that good, but it's not that bad. With a creative team that had a distinctive vision for the project, along with the budget to realize that vision, it could have been something special. But, as with Return of the Incredible Hulk and Trial of the Incredible Hulk, there just wasn’t enough thought put into how to make the Marvel Universe believable on-screen.

The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk both avoided incorporating super-villains for a reason. The suspension of disbelief is far easier when we're only dealing with the heroes and they're both examples of freak accidents. As the freaks begin multiplying, it becomes harder and harder to buy into the fantasy. Unless, of course, the work has a pretty high standard of quality. The bizarre, freakishness of Spider-Man's and Hulk's comic villains would immediately up the demand for rationalization and justification.

Hell, just look at Howard the Duck.

By beginning with subject matter that went so far outside the believability threshold of the audience, while still limited by the technology available, the filmmakers were almost required to eliminate everything that made the comic work as satire. And when the satire was removed, all you had left was a guy in a duck suit – a bad duck suit – fighting a stop-motion monster. Throw in a girl band and how could it not work?

Generation X works as well as it does, mainly because the filmmakers knew that they didn't have the budget or the technology to really stretch the viewers' believability. None of the characters' powers have anything to do with anything. They may as well not even have them. Frewer's character exhibits the most dynamic use of special abilities, which makes him as central a character as the students.

The powers are there, essentially, to just make them all feel like outcasts, or to make the audience believe they feel like outcasts. Only their mentors, Banshee and the White Queen, actually have powers that are proactive in any sense of the word in the context of the story. This serves to alienate the audience that would naturally be looking forward to the film, and provides nothing tangible enough for an audience that was just dipping their toes in the water experimentally.

That's really where it fails.

There are more than enough places online where you can read snarky comments about what doesn't work with this film. They're not all entirely accurate, and some of them say more about the reviewers than they do about the film. But looking at it objectively, or as objectively as possible, there was enough enjoyable to make me feel sad that it wasn't picked up as a series. Given a commitment to a season's worth of hour-long episodes, Generation X could have really come into its own.

For example, this is a world where mutants are widespread enough and public anxiety about them is high enough, that the Mutant Registration Act has been passed. There is a government agency entirely devoted to policing mutants and if you're not registered you are shipped off to Mutant Camps for "assimilation". Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is, as in the original comics, a secret from the general populace. Only the students and their families really know what's going on there. Some of the families, anyway.

By the way, the set for Xavier's school is Hatley Castle, which also served as Xavier's school in all three X-Men films, beginning just a few years later.

Another example is that in this world, as in the comics, Emma Frost had an earlier team of young mutants called The Hellions. They were all killed somehow, and Emma feels responsible. She's training Generation X because she feels that if she had done a better job with The Hellions, they might still be alive. This is only barely mentioned in an aside, but it begins to lay groundwork for promised character exploration to come.

Also, while Matt Frewer was decidedly over-the-top in his performance, his character, Russel Tresh, was both interesting and threatening. Not only is he a technological genius, he wants to cut open a mutant brain and inject himself with parts of it, so he can mutate himself and access the Dream Dimension at will, as he assumes all mutants can already do. It's a great combination of paranoia and self-aggrandizing. And if he doesn't get his way, he threatens to mind-rape a child!

Although, to be fair, that might not have made it into the Fox TV version. The release I'm reviewing is the European cut, which includes more risqué banter and one scene of extreme cursing by Jubilee.

The Dream Dimension itself is something worth exploring, too. Taking into consideration the budgetary constraints, there's an interesting idea here that borrows heavily from the imagery of Hellraiser II: Hellbound. Unfortunately, having no money means that all we really get is a mat painting or two, some swirly computer effects, and bad green-screen work. But the idea is solid. The idea, I like.

The way that Emma manipulates minds to make them see and think what she wants is another interesting, and decidedly gray moral area, that could use more exploration. She makes a nice contrast to the sort of leader one would normally expect to see in this sort of role. Sure, that comes with the source material, but on TV it should have been fresh. With more money and talent behind the scenes, it could have been.

All of the actors do the best they can with the script they were given. And the script is functional. It does what it sets out to do and doesn't try to overreach. Even Ratchford's painful Irish accent grows on you after a while, and hell, he provides a geeky connection to the X-Men on television, which for me, gives him enough street cred to let the accent slide. If it was good enough for the X-Men cartoon series, I'll accept it here.

Especially since the chemistry between Ratchford and Hughes as Cassidy and Emma is decent. They banter and snipe back and forth with a casual familiarity that would only get better if given the time to explore their relationship.

When all is said and done and the credits started to roll, I wanted to see more. And that's what this film was supposed to do. It wasn't supposed to be a completely stand-alone film, and bitching about only getting to see the costume from the comics in the last twenty seconds is entirely missing the point. The costume looked good and we would have gotten to see plenty of it if more people had watched and cared. As it was, I think it was at least as watchable as Batman Forever, and just for that, it shouldn't just be dismissed.

I think that's really a problem with the comic fan community, if I might digress for a moment here at the end. The vocal majority of fans seem to be operating at cross purposes. We want to see more comic and genre material on TV and at the movies, but we have entirely unrealistic expectations about the end results. Any flaws and shortcomings are magnified and shouted about with all the snark and sarcasm that we can generate.

I don't know if that's some sort of defense mechanism, where we're afraid that outsiders are going to use any weakness to attack and dismiss us, so by doing it ourselves, and loudly, we cut "them" off at the pass? I don't know. But comics fans, and a lot of the more vocal genre fans, are usually the hardest on works that fall short of their expectations.

That any film gets made at all is just short of a miracle. The act of coordinating all of the talent to put a production together requires a balancing act of such magnitude that I'm surprised there aren't more nervous breakdowns in the industry. Hell, maybe there are, but we just don't hear about it.

Not only do we have directors and writers who have to work together, entire casts have to be wrangled and orchestrated. Then there's the entire technological aspect of the production. And when we're dealing with a property that has anything remotely science fictiony or comic booky to do with it, that complexity is magnified. And it is rare (does it ever happen?) when a story actually starts with a bang and is running at top speed from the opening credits.

It's easy to be lazy when doing a movie of the week about the topic of the week, so I don't mind taking something like a cop show or a hospital show to task. They lack inspiration from the start and usually just connect the dots and collect the checks. And they're a dime a dozen. Rarely do they even bother with season-long arcs or real character development. They're disposable.

Genre shows, practically by definition, buck that definition and need our support. I'm not talking about blind obedience, here, but I'm talking about patience. Or at least avoiding slagging something off after just the pilot (or before). Quitting on a show after just one episode (or just part of one episode) does nobody any favors. Panning a show after watching just one episode (or just part of one episode) is useless attention-seeking.

It's easy to make fun of something. It takes no real wit to mock, as a quick jaunt around the Internet will prove. Mockery does nothing but call attention to the writer, not the work (note I'm not calling this criticism or calling them critics). Shouting "Look at me!" doesn't accomplish anything when talking about the work and should be avoided.

We'd do ourselves and our community a service by concentrating on the positives and emphasizing what a production does right, while not ignoring the missteps. That's what constructive criticism is all about: being honest, but being supportive. If a production isn't working for you, discuss why and then leave it behind. At least until there's just nothing more that can be said about a work.

Until we can, as a community, accomplish this, we'll continue to smother our babies because they weren't born fully grown.

Community Discussion