The 1980s 'X-Men' Movie That Didn't Happen

In 1979, no one wanted to make a Marvel movie. Alice Donenfeld-Vernoux, a former vice president of business affairs at Marvel, had one mission during the late ’70s: Bring the comic company’s heroes to the big screen. The executive, who later helped Filmation launch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe , founded Alice Entertainment, and wrote a few novels (ranging from erotic romances to canine-themed mysteries), now lives an idyllic retired life down in Mexico, and can only laugh thinking about the pile of gold she tried to hand off. “I’ve often wondered if any of the guys that I pitched to at the majors thought about the fact that they had turned down Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk,” Donenfeld-Vernoux says. “I often wonder if they rue that day.”Donenfeld-Vernoux’s chase for Marvel cinematic glory came four years after Jaws, two years after Star Wars , and a year after Richard Donner’s Superman, at that point one of the most expensive movies of all time. Despite the ’80s launching a handful of ripe-for-franchising blockbusters and the next comic book event film, 1989’s Batman , Marvel couldn’t sell Hollywood on its “niche” roster. In 1996, the company filed for bankruptcy. Marvel’s last-ditch effort for cash was a character licensing bonanza, an effort that finally brought the characters to the silver screen (starting with 1998’s Blade) . But the movie that changed show business’ perception of comic books, and kicked off a franchise that lasted until this month’s Dark Phoenix , was 2000’s X-Men — a movie Donenfeld-Vernoux wanted to make 20 years earlier.Of all the Marvel rejections, X-Men was the concept that almost happened in the ’80s. But after speaking to those who wanted to bring the comic to life, and reading treatments and scripts for multiple adaptations generated at that time, an alternate timeline in which the movie actually happened is one fans might be happy was left out of canon.Image: 20th Century Fox via Polygon“Every one of them would say to me, ‘We’re not going to make a movie of any of your dumb superheroes. The theaters are going to be dark at night. We can’t play kids movies after 6 o’clock at night. It’s not worth the money,” Donenfeld-Vernoux recounts dryly. “I wish I had a buck for every time I got thrown out of one of the majors pitching a superhero movie.”Fueled by an uptick in Marvel merchandise licensing, some headway in the animated cartoon world, and the success of Superman at the box office, Marvel was ready for its own box-office smash in 1979. The order came right from the top, with Stan Lee leading the charge, sending Donenfeld-Vernoux off to pitch anywhere and everywhere.She introduced the characters and showcased the artwork. She touted the sales numbers and key demographics. She marched from boardroom to boardroom, from executive to executive, bouncing from Los Angeles to New York to the Cannes Film Festival in hopes of finding a buyer. But no matter what she and Lee tried, no studio wanted in. In 1982, Donenfeld-Vernoux got a bite: Canadian animation studio Nelvana optioned the rights to the X-Men. Known for animated television, the studio was readying to release its first feature-length animated film, Rock & Rule , in 1983, and was interested in live action. Nelvana founder Michael Hirsh also understood Donenfeld-Vernoux’s vision; he found his way into animation after being a comic book die-hard.“I had grown up with the Marvel Comics [...] and one of my partners at Nelvana, Patrick Loubert, had read the comics as well,” Hirsh says. “As we built our company Nelvana, which was actually named after Nelvana of the Northern Lights from the Canadian comics, we always kept an interest in comic books.”The deal came together quickly: Nelvana would make the movie, and Marvel would run point on merchandising and supplement promotion with the books (at that time, the publisher sold nearly 5.5 million comics a month). A letter from Donenfeld-Vernoux to Hirsh in 1982 emphasized just what a big deal this was for Marvel:> I am secure that the usual reluctance on the part of licensees to go with film properties can be overcome in this instance as these characters are well known to our readers and will continue to be supported by our regular publishing plans. This allays the usual licensee’s fears of the movie coming and going leaving product with no visible media support.> > Michael, I cannot stress how eager everyone is to work on this project, we feel this is our first major film and the excitement level is high. Soon after the deal was signed, Donenfeld-Vernoux left Marvel to join Filmation; she’d originally pitched the Marvel heroes to Filmation founder Lou Scheimer, who ended up pitching her right back, luring the executive onto He-Man and the Masters of the Universe . But the X-Men movie was in motion. Finally.Image: 20th Century Fox via PolygonAudiences had some idea of what Marvel looked like in live action. In 1944, Captain America made the jump to black-and-white serial film as part of a deal with Timely Comics. The 1970s saw CBS’ The Incredible Hulk series and a slew of hokey made-for-TV movies that boasted titles like Captain America II: Death Too Soon . That helped the merchandise licensing, Donenfeld-Vernoux said, but the studios remained skeptical of how that success would translate to a theatrical film.Hirsh insisted that Nelvana intended to make a live-action blockbuster out of their Marvel deal, and that the X-Men were chosen for their popularity. By the early ’80s, X-Men was Marvel’s highest-selling title, with their powers befitting the cutting-edge visual effects of the era. To write the movie, Hirsh made an obvious hire: Chris Claremont, who revamped and quickly defined the modern X-Men. Hirsh flew him up to Toronto for a few — in his words — “get-to-know-you sessions.” “These are the characters, this is the story, this is the world. Is this something that you guys are interested in playing with?” Claremont recounts to Polygon, describing the meetings.Claremont, who would go on to be involved with many attempts to bring the X-Men to the big screen (including a ’90s incarnation with James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), recalls that there was discussion of the Nelvana project being animated ⁠— a litmus test of sorts to see if a live-action theatrical movie would even work out for Marvel. Whatever the case, the movie would push the material as far as technology would allow at the time.The writer penned two outlines for the potential X-Men movie, both starring Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, and Wolverine, and Professor Xavier. 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. 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.” Claremont eventually stepped off the project to focus on writing novels and X-Men comics. (His book New Mutants launched in September 1982.) Nelvana, wanting to see the live-action project through, tapped comic writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway to take over treatment duties. Claremont wasn’t surprised by the handoff.“[Roy and Gerry] were more senior in the hierarchy of Marvel, and had more experience in doing media work screenplays and more familiar with it,” he says.Conway, though, says he never even knew Claremont was involved. In fact, the writer recalls the whole project with a particular distaste. From the get go, he says, the whole project felt off .“We were approached by the producers, who asked us to write a screenplay for them without a treat ...Read more

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