In Bryan Singer’s X2, his 2003 sequel to X-Men, one of the young students at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is forced through outside circumstances to tell his family that he has not, in fact, been attending a normal boarding school – that he has mutant powers, and he is attending a school that is nurturing and guiding him in the wielding of those powers (and also teaching literature, history, and so on, though possibly not the “art” that Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine tersely claims to specialize in). Because it’s pointedly treated as a coming-out scene (“Have you tried not being a mutant?” a parent cluelessly asks), this is probably one of the more famous of many X-Men movie scenes where “normal” humans must reckon with a loved one with special abilities. But there are plenty to choose from; the X-Men series has often come across as a procession of various origins—the X-Men have been formed on screen almost as many times as Daniel Craig has “truly” become James Bond.
This probably irritates diehard fans who just want to see the mutants in action, fighting as a big, unwieldy team and reckoning with some of the thorniest and most tangled comic-book continuity ever forged. But so far, it’s been a productive way for the movies, which are generally a pleasing mix of the bizarre and the grounded (for a mix of reasons practical/executive-mandated and artistic), to stay relatable—even relevant—as the X-Men cinematic universe (the XCU, as no one calls it) continues to expand.
And boy, has it expanded. As I’ve noted in these virtual pages before, X-Men is the longest-running superhero series going, somehow lasting close to 20 years with only the softest of reboots through recasting, wonky continuity, some medium to heavy time travel, and spinoffs that either make relatively obscure characters into one of the world’s most popular heroes or the hero of a mind-bending prestige drama.
The Gifted, which debuted tonight on Fox, is not the latter. After big-screen departures like Logan and Deadpool, and small-screen ones like Legion, it falls in line with your more “traditional” X-Men movies. It has a premise that should be irresistible to fans of the series, based on that tendency to revisit young people grappling with their powers: Basically, it follows the kind of family often glimpsed in the quieter moments of X-Men or X2 with an additional hook: What happens to potential X-Men, or even just mutant students, who aren’t getting recruited by Charles Xavier?
The Gifted doesn’t really need to provide an elaborate reason why teenager Lauren Strucker (Natalie Alyn Lind) and her brother Andy (Percy Hynes White) aren’t approached by Xavier or his associates in the opening moments of the series; surely the School for Gifted Youngsters doesn’t catch every single young mutant before it’s too late. Maybe that’s especially true for mutants whose father Reed (Stephen Moyer) works to prosecute mutants as a district attorney for the government’s “Sentinel Services.” But The Gifted supplies some additional reasons anyway, with customary vagueness about how it fits into a greater continuity: The X-Men as the public knows them have “disappeared,” and it’s (intentionally) difficult to tell whether this is an early step in the process that leads to the mutant-light world of Logan, the mutant-annihilating alternate timeline of Days Of Future Past, or just a contemporary version of the periodic X-Men recessions that seem to plague the earlier incarnations of the team (Days Of Future Past and Apocalypse have both Xavier’s school and his injustice-fighting squadron expanding and receding as needed – part of that infinite-origins deal the X-Men movies traffic in).
The neat idea that The Gifted happens upon when discarding the X-Men as a major force is the mutant version of an Underground Railroad—more experienced but still-hunted mutants who agree to help the Struckers when they go on the lam following the discovery of the kids’ powers. Based on the pilot, I’d call The Gifted’s political relevance casual and glancing rather than bone-deep, but it can’t be an accident that the bully who torments Andy to the point of him snapping into power mode sports a haircut that seems vaguely inspired by the style of “alt-right” (which is to say modern-day white supremacist). The X-Men movies have always gotten a certain charge out of their connections to the bigotry, hatred, and strife of our real world, and The Gifted has a chance to update that material for the current moment.
Understandably, it doesn’t go all-in on that material for the pilot. Even the show’s jokes about woke-ness have a throwback element, like the way it revives the old slur “mutie,” much to Lauren’s protestations. More importantly, it doesn’t have any scenes quite as affecting as the best Bryan Singer X-Men movies. Singer even directed the pilot, and it seems like it should be a bigger deal than it is; sure, Apocalypse didn’t do that well, but the dominant creative voice on the film series pretty much boils down to Singer and, to a lesser extent, screenwriter Simon Kinberg (who has wriggled his way into the director’s chair for the next main-team X-Men movie) and director James Mangold (who worked wonders with his two Wolverine pictures). Singer doesn’t currently have another X-Men movie on the docket, which makes his participation here seem all the more crucial.
Though he’s become an underrated action director, Singer’s real strength in this series is finding the moments of humanity in an ensemble of superpowered craziness. It’s unfortunate, then, that Singer and series creator Matt Nix don’t quite nail that stuff here. Though there’s a fun C-team of non-X-Men working the underground mutant assistance program (including Blink! From Days Of Future Past! Though here she’s played by Jamie Chung, not Fan Bingbing), the emotional core of the story is supposed to be the Strucker kids plus their parents Reed and Caitlin (Amy Acker). While it is touching to see the parents, particularly Reed, willing to jump into the mutant-human conflict fray without thinking, as soon as their kids’ safety demand it, it’s too bad that it has to be expressed in such boilerplate terms: “There’s nothing more important to me than my family,” poor Moyer has to intone at one point. This does not make his character interesting. It makes his character a parent.
Moyer in general doesn’t come off great in this pilot. He often speaks with a whispery intensity that the show tries to lampshade in an early scene with Acker, where he threatens a school administrator with legal action over the bullying of his son before (when the administrator leaves the room) asking his wife if he went too far with the scary-lawyer voice. But when shit really goes down at his kids’ school dance and he’s forced to protect his family, the whispery intensity returns with a vengeance, and not a lot of interest. Similarly, Acker doesn’t have time or opportunity to show off much of her charm in this introduction; she’s stuck in protective-mom mode.
Yet at this point, The Gifted still holds a lot of promise. It’s got a snappy pace, introducing a bunch of new mutants, a bunch of powers, the family that has to go on the run, the government agency that’s after them, and a couple of serial-friendly cliffhangers both immediate and longer-range. For the immediate future, there’s the fact that the episode ends with Reed on the wrong end of a Blink-produced portal. His family has successfully eluded pursuit and hopped to another location, but he didn’t make it (cut to black). And for the longer-term, metal-controlling Polaris (Emma Dumont) has been plastic-prisoned, Magneto-style, and pregnant, raising the question of what kind of powers we might expect from an eventual kid with Polaris and Eclipse (Sean Teale) for parents. All of these characters and dimensions to another mutants-versus-government conflict could seem unfocused, but because many of the dimensions cover stuff we don’t get from the main X-movies, I’m game for it. My hope now is that a series seemingly based in part on the grace notes from other movies—those coming-out analogies—will find its own smaller moments in the margins to make it more than a fast-paced mutant chase.
- Hi, I’m Jesse, and I’ll be watching The Gifted with you guys this season. I promise all of the reviews won’t be this long. There’s always a lot of table-setting when you’re diving into the X-Men universe—and with that out of the way, I also promise that future reviews will not talk endlessly about one of my favorite movie series.
- And with that said: If you want some background on my love for the XCU, I’ll directly you again to my Run The Series piece. It was written before Logan came out, so those of you who love the ranking stuff can slot that movie in around, oh, I guess 3 or 4. Probably The Wolverine should have been ranked ahead of Apocalypse, too, but I also probably like Apocalypse way more than you do.
- So the kids’ mutant powers: Andy seems to have the kind of destructo-wave powers that humans most fear in the X-Men world, because they lend themselves so easily to Carrie-style situations. But I’m more into Lauren’s weird protective-bubble-production power, because one of the fun things about the X-Men is how weirdly specific (and sometimes unhelpful!) their powers can be. I’m sure these particular powers have more scientific names in whatever comic books they’re based on.
- Polaris is probably Magneto’s daughter, right? That seems to be what the behind-the-scenes folks have admitted in the run-up to this premiere. Of almost-equal importance: This makes her Quicksilver’s sister! (Presumably half-sister, anyway.) I know Michael Fassbender isn’t booking any TV any time soon short of some kind of HBO thing, but Evan Peters does TV every year! Will Quicksilver zip into the frame? The answer: probably not. But it’s fun to think about.
- I know it’s just a pilot but they didn’t try too hard with that Stan Lee cameo, did they? “Guy walking out of bar” isn’t exactly a delightful wink so much as an obligatory nod that makes a reasonably entertaining pilot feel a little like a poor man’s feature film.