When the Bryan Singer-directed first film in the X-Men franchise first hit theaters in the year 2000, there was not yet a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man and Hulk movies were still to come, and Robert Downey Jr. was a Wizard Magazine punchline rather than Tony Stark. Batman Begins and DC’s cinematic success from Christopher Nolan wouldn’t arrive until 2005. Although the first Blade film came out two years earlier, X-Men was really the first big-screen Marvel movie success to feature costumed heroes from the comic books. It spawned several sequels and is a franchise that continues to this day.
Part of what made X-Men a success, beyond giving us our first chances to see Wolverine’s claws pop out for the first time or finding out what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning, is that the story was relatable to anyone who ever felt like an outsider. A specific moment in the sequel X2: X-Men United sticks with me to this day, when Bobby Drake a.k.a. “comes out” to his parents as a mutant — with the parents’ response “have you ever tried not being a mutant?” — mostly because of the parallels. The incredible and uncanny thing is that the X-Men franchise has been telling these kinds of stories since 1963, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the first issue of The X-Men.
Anyone who has ever felt like one of the “other” — whether it’s because of race, sexual preference, gender identity, or just being bullied for no reason — can latch on to the world of the X-Men, and that combined with some incredibly well-crafted storytelling is why the characters have endured for decades within the pages of Marvel comic books and in the movies. In the very divided real world of 2017, the difference between being an “other” and those who might have a bias against anyone different has been greater and even more relevant, which is why a TV series like The Gifted is so well-placed. Appropriately, it’s director Bryan Singer who’s helming the pilot episode, which airs October 2 on FOX, from a series created and executive produced by Matt Nix (Burn Notice).
Among the many things that works in FOX’s one-hour pilot is that it’s a concept that would appeal both to comic book fans and non-comic book fans. For comic book purists like myself, there’s nothing cooler than seeing characters like Blink (Jamie Chung), Thunderbird (Blair Redford), and especially Polaris (Emma Dumont) in live action. The opening moments, as Blink is being pursued by police, feel like they’re right out of X-Men comic pages, and likewise, a standoff with police outside of a building where the mutants are hiding feels like it’s right out of an X-Men film. But what especially works there, which is an area where ABC’s Marvel series The Inhumans kind of fails, is that these characters would be interesting even if they weren’t characters known by comic book fans for decades. Does the notion that Polaris could be the daughter of Magneto make her more interesting? Of course. But also consider that Marcos Diaz, a.k.a. Eclipse (Sean Teale), isn’t even a character from the comics, and he’s one of the most interesting of the bunch. I will say the Marvel/comics connections so far are a lot of fun, however, from an X-Men animated series shout-out all the way to the obligatory Stan Lee cameo. John Ottman, who scored many of the X-Men films, also scores the pilot.
But going back to the non-comic book fan thing: The show is also relatable because it’s about a family, and not just the mutant underground. The Strucker family keeps things grounded, and I’d imagine younger viewers especially can identify with what Andy (Percy Hynes White) and Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) are going through. There will be comparisons to Heroes in that their father, like H.R.G., was involved in the prosecution of mutants; however, unlike H.R.G. (who I should point out is a character that I loved), Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer) wears more of his heart on his sleeve, and his emotions at least outwardly seem more transparent. Amy Acker’s casting as Caitlin Strucker is also something that I know generated a lot of positive online buzz, and her role as a concerned parent is one I haven’t seen a lot of from her. I’m very curious to see more of her. The family being pursued by a Sentinel Services agent named Jace Turner (Coby Bell) adds to the danger, giving them their very own “Jack McGee” in a situation that is all too familiar to some people in the United States right now. The question is, of course, if Turner will remain an antagonist or if he will soften through the series’ run.
There is a danger of the show becoming schizophrenic between being a series about “hardened mutants in jeopardy” and “a family with two teens;” by the end of the pilot episode, that difference seems to converge. I am a bit curious to see how the show will meld those two worlds in the long run, but for the pilot, at least, it is working. It is that convergence that makes the title of the show work so well: I was curious why the series wasn’t just called “X-Men” which would surely have been more marketable, but no: This isn’t just about the superheroes. This is about the folks who are gifted with these abilities. To call it “The X-Men” would take away half of what makes this show what it is. Now I understand.
Do I have any things about the show that I’m not completely on board with? Of course. I do admit I question the use of the name “Strucker” for the family at the core of the show; it’s surely a nod to the comic books, as Andrea and Andreas von Strucker are a brother and sister mutant duo, but in the comics, they are also descended from Baron von Strucker, who was a leader in Hydra (read: Nazi), and do we really want to open that can of worms? I’ll trust that there was a very good reason this name was chosen, but for now I’m a little puzzled by the choice. Also, calling the father “Reed” does little but to remind me that I’d really, really like to see a TV series from Marvel and FOX about another fantastic Marvel Comics family… you all know which one I mean. Those are just minor things, and non-comic book fans surely won’t care, so I’ll just move on from that right now.
I also admit I kind of hate that the pilot episode is so good that I’m going to have to wait a week to find out what happens next. Darn you, show, for being so engrossing.
And finally — though it might be a temporary thing in the screener given to critics — I’m curious about Blink’s appearance. In some scenes, she looks very much like the Blink that we see in the comic books, with the purple hair and big green eyes; in other scenes, she looks more like a regular person. Perhaps this is something she can turn on and off? In any event, I was not sure.
Ultimately, The Gifted is the kind of TV show Marvel should have made when they first started with their studio, and it’s interesting that it took a FOX collaboration to make something that works so well. It’s unlike Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in that from the get-go it featured characters from the comic books that people know and love, and it has characters and situations that are identifiable to the general audience; not many of us are also spies or fly around in a Helicarrier, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s also unlike the Marvel Netflix shows, many of which are brilliant but are not series that you’d allow a ten year old to see. It’s also unlike DC’s TV offerings, especially those on The CW, in that there are no costumes and I don’t think there will be, at least not for a while, and that’s okay. It’s an early Smallville/Heroes approach where you don’t need tights or a mask to be a hero, which means, again, that you don’t have to be a comic book fan to enjoy it.
One other major credit I have to give this pilot: So often big-scale TV pilots set up a Big Bad or an overarching threat to go through the first [and often times only] season. There is no such setup in The Gifted pilot; at least not the version given to critics. I’m so burnt out on the season arcs that I love that – that this story is about the Struckers and their new allies in the mutant underground on a week to week basis, and that the danger they put in is the only real “big bad” we’ve seen thus far. It means nothing to “save the cheerleader” if we don’t care yet about who the cheerleader is, metaphorically speaking… here, we’re getting to know and like the Struckers and the other mutants. The season arc can come later.
The Gifted is a show that makes me think, wonder, and speculate. In several ways, it reminds me of that great first season of Heroes — and since there are people involved from Marvel who were there for Heroes Season 1, I am confident that they know what mistakes to avoid. I will say, though, that if the series keeps up the momentum from a very well done first episode, I am absolutely on board for the entire ride. It was my favorite pilot of the 2017-2018 TV season that I’ve seen so far, and I have a feeling that if people find it, it’s going to be something huge. You can see a trailer below and you can find more of KSiteTV’s Gifted coverage here.