Extra Medium #2: The X-Men of Denny’s

Written by Comics and Graphic Novels, Extra Medium, Film

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Comics don’t stay in comics. For better or worse, most comics are produced in the hopes they will lead to films, cartoons, action figures, video games, backpacks, beach towels and bubble baths. Extra Medium is my column about all these things and more.

During my handful of Limbo years between high school and college, Denny’s was the place to be; more specifically, the Denny’s on Western Ave. in Albany, NY. The Denny’s on Central Ave. was the rallying point if the one on Western was too crowded, and the Denny’s way out on Wolf Rd. – near the Albany Airport – was just barely acceptable  if all other hope was lost. Sadly, all of the local Denny’s except for the one on Wolf Rd. are all gone (or happily, depending on how you feel about saturated fats).

We were too young to get in bars, and too old for the high school hangouts. Denny’s was open all night, it was cheap, and you could smoke. That’s all there was to it.

This was around 1993-1994. There was a regular cast, many of whom are too deep in the periphery of my mind to recall names or even faces. But there was a regular core group I hung out with. We talked politics, sex, religion, movies, TV, books, whatever. It wasn’t rare to roll into the Denny’s parking lot at 9 or 10 at night and leave at 4 or 5 in the morning.

I don’t think any of us collected comics at that time but quite a few of us had grown up with them, and one of our most oft-repeated topics of discussion was who should play who when the X-Men movie was eventually made. Someone would manage to produce a notebook or a legal pad and something to write with, and while we slurped up patty melts and flicked ashes all over the table, we argued and made lists.

With the release of X-Men: First Class at the end of this week, I started feeling a little nostalgic and figured I’d talk about some of our casting choices. It’s perhaps a little pathetic that while I can’t remember all of the names of people I debated this important issue with, I can clearly remember the lion’s share of the casting picks we talked about around 15 years ago.

PROFESSOR X = PATRICK STEWART

Yes, I’m aware that, in fact, Patrick Stewart did play Professor X in X-Men and its sequels. It’s noteworthy that our esteemed Denny’s Casting Council was always, without fail, unanimous on this point: Captain Picard had to play Professor X. There was no other choice. No other candidates were considered. No matter what else you think about the choices of franchise’s various directors, the casting of Professor X was an unquestionable good. So sayeth the Council.

COLOSSUS = ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

Like the choice of Patrick Stewart as Professor X, this was unanimous. Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly had the body to play Colossus and he’d proven he could work a Russian accent opposite James Belushi in Red Heat. Considering Colossus is a relatively quiet and introspective X-Man, he wouldn’t really even need to do much acting. Just pick a spot on the wall and stare at it while everyone else was talking. Maybe he’d have a few of those patented Schwarz-wit lines right before he punched someone with those steel fists like “Do you like music? Why not try some HEAVY METAL.” Pow.

Just as we shared a prophetic certainty that Stewart would eventually play Professor X, we knew Schwarzenegger would never play Colossus. I imagined his ego wouldn’t allow him to appear in a superhero team movie in which he wasn’t the top dog. Not to mention that considering the price tag range his services demanded, the studio would only have a few more bucks left to fill in the rest of the team. I suppose if they could get the phone numbers of Kevin Smith’s classmates who starred in Clerks, they might still be able to throw something together.

MAGNETO = MALCOLM McDOWELL

Ian McKellen did a wonderful job as the vengeful Magneto. But in the early ’90s I don’t think I had any idea who Ian McKellen was. I’m sure I’d watched Six Degrees of Separation, but I doubt I knew the guy by name.

So, when tasked with choosing one of comicdom’s more sympathetic bad guys, Malcolm McDowell seemed like the natural choice. He was the right age, he has the perfect hair color, he has more experience than most playing bad guys (I can’t think of a single movie I’ve seen outside Clockwork Orange in which McDowell played anything other than a villain), and he’s European. Of course, he isn’t German like Magneto but as far as accents go in Hollywood, English seems to be the default for all of Europe  (and since it was ultimately another Englishman who was chosen, and that Englishman chose to not change his accent, I think I was right on that score).

It wasn’t until years later that, in spite of McKellen’s great performance, I realized it would’ve been at least a little cool if McDowell had been chosen since he and Stewart ended up starring opposite as hero and villain in the Trekkie-hated Kirk Killer, Star Trek: Generations.

NIGHTCRAWLER = KEVIN KLINE

I can’t always remember who in the Denny’s Casting Council chose what. In the case of Kevin Kline as Nightcrawler, I know it was my idea because as hard and long as I fought for it, I couldn’t get a single Denny’s patron to agree with me.

The usual response was that he was too old for it, and I guess that argument has merit. Around the time the Denny’s Casting Countil was making its lists, Kline was in his mid-forties. And I can’t think of a role he’s played as physically demanding as Nightcrawler.

Regardless, I still think I had a good idea here. The two Kline movies I was most aware of at the time were A Fish Called Wanda and I Love You to Death. In both, Kline was not only hilarious, but really seemed like he was having a great time. I generally get that notion from Kline. He comes off like a guy doing exactly what he wants to be doing, exactly when he wants to be doing it. He also had a lot of fun with accents in various movies, and I thought the notion of a Kline-rendered German voice calling out “Unglaublich!” would be too funny to pass up.

If you aren’t an avid comics reader you may not realize Kurt Wagner used to be a lot of fun. He wasn’t the mopy guilt-machine Bryan Singer and Alan Cumming gave us in X-Men 2. When I first started reading Uncanny X-Men, it was Nightcrawler’s fun-loving, swashbuckling spirit that defined him, and I thought Kline could’ve done a great job with the character. Sure, maybe he was already a little long in the tooth in the early ’90s to play an action hero, but hell, if Harrison Ford can do it…

CYCLOPS = KEVIN COSTNER

This was another one of my choices, and I don’t think it was a particularly popular one even though this was before Waterworld and The Postman took the public’s opinion of Costner’s work and drop-kicked it off the side of a cliff.

Costner, I thought, was great at playing characters who were often stoic to a fault and, when roused to action, intimidating. That’s pretty much how I saw Cyclops.

Others in the group thought he was too old, but not only did I think of Cyclops as older than the rest of the team both because he was one of the first X-Men and the fact that he came so naturally to leadership, but because I just didn’t see the X-Men as young as they were portrayed in Bryan Singer’s movies.

In both this case and that of my choice of Kevin Kline as Nightcrawler, it may be useful to remember that the most celebrated super-hero movie of my teenage years featured a 38 year-old Batman and a 52 year-old Joker. I didn’t see any need for super people to look like they were college freshmen.

STORM = IMAN

This one, I remember, was not my idea but that of my buddy Jay. While I think at least part of Jay’s reason for picking her was because of her marriage to Jay’s favorite singer, David Bowie, I don’t fault him for that.

It was a good choice. It was often mentioned in the comics about how Storm’s own people saw her not as a mutant, but a goddess. Iman has a perfectly majestic quality and, like Storm, is African. I don’t know if she’s a particularly good actress, but since the Singer films were, basically Wolverine and His Amazing Friends, she wouldn’t have needed to be.

What is funny and certainly pathetic from a pop-culture-knowledge standpoint is that I did not realize until I started writing this column that I was wrong about something for many years. At the time the Denny’s Casting Council was making these incredibly important decisions, I thought Jay chose well with Iman as Storm but I didn’t think it was a perfect pick. I thought Iman would work better than just about any other established talent, but that she just came off as a little too bizarre for Storm; just a little too weird.

It was not until I began work on this column and searched for images of Iman that I realized I had no freaking clue who Iman was. This entire time, I thought Jay was talking about Grace Jones.

BEAST = ROBIN WILLIAMS

Like Schwarzenegger as Colossus, this was a choice too perfect to actually happen.

Hank McCoy’s character has changed a bit over the years. When I first started reading comics, he was the fast-talking, witty scientist who could often be found hanging from the ceiling of a lab, taking notes with pens and notebooks wedged between his toes while his hands worked glass beakers or the knobs and buttons of computer banks.

What struck me about the character the most was unlike other super-heroes who were physically mutated into something that didn’t look human, like Ben Grimm for example, Hank McCoy didn’t suffer any angst over his condition. He reveled in what he was and didn’t make any attempts to hide the blue fur that immediately marked him as different.

Williams would be great playing a character using his sense of humor, his intellect, and his fun-loving nature to let the world know how little he cares about what it thinks of him. My only concern would be whether or not Williams would rein himself in, but I think he would. He’s proven over the years that, when he wants to, he doesn’t have to fall into the trap of Robin Williams playing nothing more than Robin Williams.

WOLVERINE = MICKEY ROURKE

This was, as you can imagine, one of the Denny’s Casting Council’s most contentious debate points. Many of my friends argued that whoever played Wolverine, his real life height would need to reflect that of the comic book Wolverine. I responded that, as far as known qualities were concerned, that would limit our choices to Danny DeVito and Danny DeVito, but no one seemed to listen. The only other reasonable height-correct suggestion I remember hearing was Glenn Danzig, and there are a few articles stating he was being considered for the role in an earlier and eventually abandoned X-Men project, though that would be taking nothing but height into consideration.

I thought of Mickey Rourke because I had seen him in three, and only three, movies: The Pope of Greenwich Village, Barfly, and Angel Heart. And that’s how I saw Wolverine. I saw him as a guy who came off as a sleazeball on first impression – and probably on second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth – but who would would eventually prove to have a core of good.

I hadn’t seen him in any action movies, though Sin City, The Wrestler, and Iron Man 2 would later convince me that – regardless of how poorly the rest of the council looked upon my choice – my idea wasn’t half bad.

There were other casting choices I’m sure I’m forgetting. I bet we argued about whether it should be John Goodman or Louie Anderson playing Blob. We probably came up with every redhead we could think of as potential candidates for Jean Grey (though even I would’ve admitted Susan Sarandon was  too old). As I think about it, I have memories of casting we may have come up with then or I may just be making up now. Rutger Hauer as Cable. Gabriel Byrne as Banshee.

I don’t smoke anymore  and I’d like to think I’m not as big a fan of saturated fats as I used to be so I probably won’t be sitting on another Denny’s Casting Council, but I’d like to think that the work we did wasn’t completely futile. It was. It totally, totally was, but I like to think it wasn’t.