A few years ago, 20th Century Fox realized they needed a way to extend the cash-cow X-Men franchise into infinity and beyond, so they decided to create a new X-Men prequel. This prequel would focus on the relationship between two iconic X characters, tracing how they went from best friends to mortal enemies. Although based on comic book mythology, every aspect of this relationship was reinvented for the film: How the two characters met, their history of working together, the nature of their friendship, how they became nemeses, everything.

But this prequel would also need to introduce a new variety of mutant heroes and villains — action figures must be sold, spin-offs must be spun, attractive young actors need work. So the prequel would feature a cavalcade of characters plucked, apparently at random, from nearly half a century of collective X-Men history. Most of these characters had never even interacted in the comic books. Almost everything about them — motivation, age, general temperament, personal history — was altered to fit the resettled movie timeline. The average moviegoer wouldn’t notice any of this. The average comic book fan would be driven mad.

The prequel would feature a cute but somewhat nonsensical cameo from a major character from the original X trilogy. It would awkwardly plug its central characters into key historical events. And it would end with a completely invented sequence involving an uncannily well-placed bullet — a magical mythology bullet, considering how much that single gunshot would define the character’s future.

That prequel was, of course, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a critically derided movie that’s widely recognized in the fan community as a low point for the X franchise. (Despite the massive grosses, even the studio seems to realize Wolverine didn’t go over well; note how adamant Fox has been that the sequel, dubbed simply The Wolverine, will essentially stand apart from the original film.)

And yet, I also just described the just-released X-Men: First Class, the best-reviewed film in the franchise since the sanctified X2: X-Men United. So if these two movies are so similar on paper, what makes Wolverine a bad movie, and First Class a good one?

Comic book fans, by and large, tend to put a lot of value on adaptations that stay true to the comic books. This is understandable: If you have endured the 1990 Captain America (Red Skull = Italian?), or Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel (an unjustly overlooked possibility for the Worst Movie Ever Made Award), or the latter Christopher Reeve Superman movies, you can understand why fans would be naturally anxious about making any sweeping changes to their beloved characters. With the rising importance of the Comic-Con demographic, studios tend to stress their devotion to the original material — there’s a reason that practically every Marvel movie still makes room for a Stan Lee cameo, as if the mere presence of the iconic comic book creator could serve as a rubberstamp for “authenticity.” Call it Adaptation Anxiety.

And yet, in actuality, most of the best comic book adaptations decisively break from the source material. The original X-Men turned Rogue into a teenager, and X2 completely reinvented iconic villain William Stryker, from a fundamentalist preacher into a corrupt military scientist. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 scarcely resembles his comic book namesake. That’s also true of one of the most iconic onscreen supervillains: Heath Ledger’s Joker. Essentially everything about Dark Knight‘s Joker — the Taliban-esque obsession with bombs, the Glasgow Smile, the complete lack of any origin story — was invented for the movie.

You could argue that Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Joker was thematically true to the comic books, if not objectively. And you’d be right. But that’s also true of all the Freudian stuff in Ang Lee’s Hulk, a film that radically reconfigured basically everything about the iconic green giant besides his tendency to get bigger when he gets angry. Comic book fans tend to hate on Hulk. But Marvel’s attempt to reboot the character with the vastly more comic-bookish The Incredible Hulk weirdly falls even flatter. (Likewise, the Garth Ennis-inflected Punisher: War Zone is markedly worse than the “In Miami, Why Not?” Thomas Jane version of The Punisher.)

I was a voracious comic book fan growing up. But I’m also a movie fan, and I tend to prefer films that daringly depart from the source material. The slavish Sin City and 300 adaptations have all the overbearing machismo of the Frank Miller source material with none of the quiet power. Watching them is like watching a motion comic, and good holy Lord, there is nothing worse in this life than watching a motion comic.

And the bigger problem with Adaptation Anxiety is that people tend to focus on the wrong issues. Zack Snyder spent years of his life assuring everyone that he was doing his level best to provide a note-perfect translation of Watchmen from the page to the screen. And indeed, the resulting movie looked incredible: It’s a beautiful love letter to Dave Gibbons’ original artwork. But the film completely bungled Laurie Jupiter: Such a chainsmoking force in the comic book, she became little more than a wan galpal, which turned Watchmen into even more of a dudes’ movie than it had to be. Watchmen looked perfect… but looks can be deceiving.

All of which brings us back to the X-Men prequel duet, to Wolverine‘s generally observed badness vs. First Class‘s generally observed goodness. I think it comes down, ultimately, to one major difference: First Class is a movie that happens to be about superheroes, while Wolverine is a “superhero movie.” By which I mean, First Class feels, for much of its running time, more like a spy thriller from the ’60s (or a Dirty Dozen-ish gang-of-hoodlums film) than an imitation of Spider-Man.

Nearly every great superhero movie picks a genre and sticks with it: The Dark Knight is a Michael Mann thriller with a couple of dudes wearing costumes; Hellboy II is a fantasy film; Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man both feel like screwball comedies occasionally interrupted by action sequences; and Superman Returns, which I will defend until my dying day, is basically The Passion of the Christ, except more realistic. Conversely, films like Ghost Rider, Daredevil, the first Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, the first Wolverine, and even Thor feel essentially very similar: An origin story, a love interest, an enemy with lots of henchmen, and a non-ending that serves as a tease for a potential sequel.

That’s my theory, but I’m interested to hear what you think, comic book fans. Do you think that superhero movies succeed depending on how much they adhere to the source material? Or would you prefer that filmmakers feel less strait-jacketed to the comic books? And what did you think of the specific changes made for X-Men: First Class? Seriously, what’s up with all the magic mythology bullets in these X prequels?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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