So entertain me for a moment if you would, I want you to try to think back upon a time in which there wasn’t as much an overglut of superhero movies as there is now, much less the concept of the film universe except in non-film spin-offs like comic books or video games. It’s tough to imagine since movies based on comic movies were actually in existence for a long time well before you’d imagine. We have the theatrical serials of the 30s and 40s based on your favorite characters of Superman and Batman before they got their large scale feature film debut in 1978 and 1966 respectively (yeah, Burton’s film came out in ’89 and really brought out the Batmania but we forget Adam West introduced the world as we know it to Batman, however campy that Batman is). Hell, we don’t even necessarily have to stick out of superheroes to claim comic book movies an inconsistent practice, since we have Dick Tracy, Howard the Duck, Flash Gordon, and so many others roaming around to varying effect.
But we weren’t so saturated with superhero films as we are now (e.g., this year has us see the release of Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) to the point of them becoming a mainstay of cinema like Westerns in the early decades or Slashers in the 80s. That didn’t come from Superman or Batman‘s successes, as impressive as they were, for some reason or another. They were already cultural icons.
My personal suggestion is a 1-2-3 triple threat in the years entering the new millennium that truly kickstarted the free-for-all scramble studios made for as many comic book properties as they could get their damn hands on, knowing that even the worst of them were growing to be a money-printing industry. First, in 1997, Men in Black was released by Sony Pictures, loosely based on the Marvel Comics to a degree that I can’t entirely cover (having never read them) but I understand to be an extreme tonal shift. Yet, Men in Black became the first comic book movie ever to make half a million dollars at the box office and, while it wasn’t marketed as a movie based on a comic book so much as a Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle – the former being in the middle of his rise from The Fresh Prince into one of the biggest movie stars of all time, the latter a fresh Oscar winner – and effects extravaganza, and convinced Marvel Studios to continue its relationship with Sony Pictures by granting them the rights of a particularly recognizable superhero. That superhero being Spider-Man, which released in 2002, to even more astonishing success – making $821.7 million that overshadowed the success of Men in Black, being the first movie to ever make $100 million in its first weekend, and at the time having the largest opening gross of all time.
And yet between those two, the real ignition underneath Spider-Man that already had studios keeping their eye on how these superhero movies did was Fox’s 2000 release of X-Men, a movie Fox had gotten rights to in 1994 after the success of the animated series in the 90s and that had – at just $300 million – promised that at worst you’d make a whole lotta money and while Spider-Man promised at best you’d make all the money in the world and then some.
Following the comic book with relatively surprising fidelity, X-Men tells the story of a race of humanity that possess a variety of superpowers, known to the world as Mutants. They are all feared and mistrusted by the rest of the world, as we witness the United States Government early in the film attempting to figure out the best and safest way to decidedly marginalize and disenfranchise them, with psychic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) being the Mutant’s sole representative to these discussions and constantly being shut-out and shut down by vehement anti-Mutant Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). In the meantime, there is just as much in-fighting among the Mutants as there is the few Mutants that try to give a public front for America, namely Grey and her psychic mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the latter running a school for Mutants that doubles as a refuge from the alienation of the rest of the world. Xavier himself also has to keep eyes on his former partner and now nemesis, bitterly vengeful Holocaust survivor and master of metal manipulation Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Ian McKellan), who promises something very nasty for Kelly and indeed the entire world for threatening to put him through the same trauma again. And thus Xavier has the X-Men, a mutant team to keep the world safe from Lensherr’s own Brotherhood of Mutants.
It’s a very focused narrative for such a wide scope of issues that David Hayter’s screenplay tackles, based on a storyline constructed by director Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto. Especially ones so bluntly politicized as racism, runaway youths, immigration (not as easy to recognize without the foreknowledge that Wolverine is Canadian), domestic terrorism, and even others that can be applied based on the perspective of the viewer (the openly gay Singer had always approached the issue as he would homophobia while I actually found the movie to come to my life at the perfect point to acknowledge post-9/11 Islamophobia as a Muslim child, especially projected by the opening scene of X2: X-Men United). And it largely gets to clean itself up this way by focusing primarily on two points of views that I will get to later on in this review, but in the meantime, Hayter’s writing – while very mindful of keeping separate the way Lensherr and Xavier would express ideals and giving Kelly especially McCarthy-esque attitudes to exude – mirrors Singer in a manner that one doesn’t really realize until you probably have the retrospect a crapload of superhero movies since affords you: Singer’s direction and Hayter’s script is for the most part has a herculean amount of restraint, especially when you consider both have proven to be extreme fans of the X-Men comics that relished the chance to make this movie. I don’t know if it has to do with the still-shaky computer-generated imagery at the time but a lot of the story beats are grounded in dialogue between characters drawing lines in the sand than actual action setpieces, though there are plenty effects numbers to keep us satiated and stunned by what the characters can do. There are arguably two action setpieces and that’s it: the train station battle and the Liberty Island battles, both in the back half of the film (There is also the climax immediately after the latter on top of the Statue of Liberty but it is most certainly one of the times where the movie’s CGI fall most grievously apart). But there are smaller moments where the movie gets to interject some showcase of the Mutant’s capabilities and it’s almost always to the aid of the script rather than divorced from it. Meanwhile, Singer and his frequent cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel approach the film in a composed manner that compliments the anamorphic ratio of the picture without making it show off until the team gets into the Liberty Island’s head and grounds so much of the design of the movie in cold and tired blues and greens and browns without falter. This isn’t a movie that wants to pop, this is a movie that wants to feel like its in the real-world without sacrificing any of that realism. Which is probably why Hayter’s script is also so definitely grounded and to the point with every discussion, there’s no place for Joss Whedon’s quips in here (two of which survived an early draft of his and both of them astonishingly out of place, though “you’re a dick” at least made me laugh as a kid).
Hayter’s manner of grounding the film and streamlining all these incidents into one narrative is by starting with the point of view of one character, the runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), and deftly turning the perspective halfway through to the real breakout star of the film, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as both encounter Xavier and his School for the Gifted for the first time. Which explains why I tried to hold off talking about them for so long because, just as much as Singer’s winking love for these characters and attempts to visually sympathize with them in every manner, Paquin and Jackman’s performances are the secret weapons of this movie. Paquin doesn’t get enough love for her ability to communicate the sense of dislocation, unbelonging, and anxiety that a teenage girl forced to abandon her life would feel (as she absorbs the energy and powers of every she touches to their complete pain), with wide eyes and a coiled-up discomfort that she implies that she could turn every bit as jaded as healing knife-handed Wolverine while Jackman, in the role that not only made him a BIG DAMN STAR but also made me actually admire a character I otherwise hate in other medium (A small, hairy, smelly ball of anger? No thanks.), actively amplifies the primal nature of Wolverine’s personality in every aspect from his distrust and paranoia to his his paternal tenderness towards Paquin by only making surface expressions with a suppression of inner commentary, implying the fact that Wolverine doesn’t want to live inside his head for even the smallest while (something explored once again in the immediate sequel). Together, they make a very relatable pair of protagonists and their chemistry makes an interesting father-daughter dynamic based on how damaged they are as characters. Early on, Rogue asks with a stir of sympathy and fear if it hurts when Wolverine unleashes his adamantium claws (a very early effects shot shows one such claw tearing its way out of his middle knuckle in bloodless speed yet uncomfortable closeness) and Wolverine responds with a resigned sadness “every time”, a moment that marks how the two of them begin to relate in their hurt.
And they’re still only second-best to what may be the finest comic book movie cast ever assembled (only rivaled by its sequel, Spider-Man, and The Addams Family), one where every single actor selected smacks of inspiration from Singer and co-producer Tom DeSanto eager to see the characters they love brought to life. Stewart – already a star for his Shakespearean work and Star Trek: The Next Generation – is a complete no-brainer, Janssen carries an intellectual air to Jean while also juggling the subtle sexuality that puts her in the middle of a romantic triangle between Wolverine and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), Davison a self-satisfied despicability in his Senator Kelly followed by overwhelming terror as he turns into a Cronenberg character later in the film, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos a mysterious and dangerous aura that makes me kind of hate what Jennifer Lawrence has done to her shapeshifting Mystique since, and even bit roles like Ray Park and Tyler Mane as Toad and Sabretooth respectively have a very physical personality to their villainous henchmen to Magneto (a repulsively inhuman athleticism to the former, an imposing stature and feral facial features in the latter) that couldn’t possibly be done without the actors they used, even given their heavy make-up work. Best in show is of course McKellan as Magneto, who takes great relish in the villainous affiliation of the character, striding into every scene with confidence and underlining it by the pathos of the character’s justification to himself of the horrors he’s witnessed and his vehement refusal to suffer once again (the character was based in the comic by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Chris Claremont on Meir Kahane and his relationship with Xavier based on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X).
The ensemble cast is not entirely perfect: James Marsden as Cyclops doesn’t give agency to an already pretty bland “Boy Scout” of a character (and Cyclops is meant to be the leader) and Halle Berry as Ororo “Storm” Munroe has every bit of acting she can spare in the role eaten up by an awfully unbelievable Kenyan accent. Truth be told, X-Men is never anywhere close to a perfect movie – the climax blowing up in the movie’s face, Michael Kamen’s score being aimlessly bombastic (I can never not think of him as more of a metal composer), the overstuffing of the cast means that Hayter and Singer need to think of some dodgy ways to put some characters out of commission (always a problem in this franchise, though Singer is at least the one filmmaker who knows how to juggle as many characters as he can). Still, X-Men proved to be successful enough in all the things it wants to do – distinguishable characters, human-based narrative, impressive fight scenes, comic book imagery – that its sophisticated subduction of style makes it an interesting hallmark for a genre and culture in film that has just begun to get noisier and bigger without an ounce of the impact X-Men makes as a film on its own terms. The idea that we can have such an unabashed fan be willing to make hard decisions and watch over his aesthetic like this, as opposed to say Zack Snyder, is part of what made the X-Men franchise work out against all odds and keeps it rolling to this day.