Released: July 2000
Director: Bryan Singer
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $75 million
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Famke Janssen, Ray Park, Halle Berry, and Bruce Davison
The world is divided on its opinions of Mutants, individuals born with fantastic powers who inspire hate and fear in the public. After discovering her potentially-lethal powers, Marie D’Ancanto/Rogue (Paquin) goes on the run and crosses path with Logan/Wolverine (Jackman). When the two are attacked by the henchmen of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (McKellen), they are rescued by Professor Charles Xavier’s (Stewart) “X-Men” and introduced to a nigh-inevitable conflict between Man and Mutant of which both Mutants will play a pivotal role.
The X-Men have been a staple of Marvel Comics since their introduction way back in 1963. Alongside long-time collaborator Jack Kirby, Stan Lee created a team of hip, young teens who had a built-in excuse for having their various and fantastic powers; they were Mutants, born with a latent “X-Gene” that activated at the onset of puberty, since their debut, more and more Mutants have appeared and, in some cases, dominated Marvel Comics, with the superhuman offshoot of humanity standing in for a variety of social issues including oppressed creeds, genders, and minorities everywhere through their deep and complex stories. Perhaps the greatest impact of the X-Men outside of comics was the popular and much-renowned animated series produced between 1992 and 1997 but development of an X-Men movie began as far back as 1984 and struggled to get off the ground for quite some time.
After the success of the X-Men animated series, however, 20th Century Fox purchased the film rights and development of a live-action movie truly began to take shape. At the time, superhero movies were a bit dead in the water; Batman & Robin (Schumacher, 1997) had been a devastating critical failure and, while Blade (Norrington, 1998) had proven successful and lit the fuse for the explosion of superhero movies that were to come, it was far too dark and violent to capture a wider audience and we were still a couple of years away from Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002) truly capturing that intended audience. So, to say X-Men was a risk is not an understatement; featuring a cast of relative unknowns, bolstered by Stewart and McKellen’s classical training and professionalism, X-Men was a risky venture that paid off dividends, earning over $290 million, catapulting breakout star Hugh Jackman to superstardom, and kicking off one of the most profitable film franchises ever seen that brought comic book movies into undeniable prominence.
X-Men begins with one of the most striking and affecting scenes in a superhero movie, one that instantly grounds and legitimises the film and its intentions. It’s 1944 in Nazi-occupied Poland and a young Erik Lehnsherr (Brett Morris) is being marched into an Auschwitz concentration camp and, most likely, his cruel death. Separated from his parents, the pain and trauma activate his Mutant ability to control metals and immediately you know everything you need to know about the future Magneto’s motivations: he has seen first-hand the atrocities of humankind and the oppression of his people and he has vowed to never again allow himself or his people to suffer at the hands of “Homo sapiens and their guns”.
Director Bryan Singer’s approach to Marvel’s colourful and bombastic comics characters is to ground them in a realistic world, one set in the “not too distant future” and strikingly similar to ours. That means relatable characters, realistic costumes, and an abundance of science-fiction over the more fantastical elements of the comics. As a result, when the film jumps ahead in time, we’re thrust immediately into the ongoing political debate regarding Mutants. Senator Robert Kelly (Davison) is adamant that Mutants need to register with the American government so that their abilities and level of threat can be established for the safety and security of all Americans, however his motivations are so pig-headed and blinkered that they can only be from a place of extreme fear and prejudice.
With the threat of Mutant registration hanging in the air, the now adult Lehnsherr decides to finally put into motion a plan to level the playing field. He has assembled a group of like-minded Mutants, the Brotherhood, and constructed a machine that…somehow…uses his magnetic powers to generate an energy field that will trigger unexpected mutations in ordinary humans. As this machine drains Magneto’s powers almost to the point of death, he sends Sabretooth (Mane) to capture Rogue, whose mutation allows her to absorb the powers of other Mutants, so that he can sacrifice her life to make his point.
However, thanks to the way the narrative is framed, it initially appears as though Magneto’s target is Logan, a Mutant with a superhumanly fast healing factor, heightened animalistic senses, and an indestructible metal called Adamantium surgically bonded to his skeleton (and claws). Suffering from amnesia and content to fight for money, Logan is unwittingly brought into the world of the X-Men when he and Rogue are saved by Xavier’s pupils; initially, he is a loner with no interest in their cause or the coming war but he develops a soft spot for Rogue and comes to begrudgingly team up with the X-Men in order to save her.
Once Logan is brought to Xavier’s School for the Gifted, the movie really blows open; suddenly, Stewart’s dulcet, soothing tones are expositing information in easy to digest bites as the lore and scope of this world are related to us, the audience, through our two surrogates (Logan and Rogue). The school is built into Xavier’s childhood mansion and is a public front for the massively elaborate tools and resources of the X-Men; they even have a military-style jet under the basketball court. It’s a bit crazy when you stop and think about it but it’s probably best not to and just accept that, somehow, Xavier was able to build all his X-related stuff either without arousing suspicion or by wiping the minds of countless contractors.
Central to the film, and Xavier’s exposition, is the relationship between Xavier and Magneto; though they share very little screen time together, Stewart and McKellen’s presence and gravitas instantly elevate the film above many of its peers. Xavier’s dialogue and the way he talks to and about Magneto really develops the sense of a fractured relationship, a long brotherly friendship destroyed by their clashing ideals. There’s a respect and an admiration there and it’s clear that they both appreciate how powerful the other is and have no real desire to fight with each other but will do so, if necessary.
Despite being an ensemble piece, the film’s breakout character was, of course, Wolverine. Jackman’s natural charisma and impressive physique and commitment to the role saw him return to the character again and again, dominating Fox’s X-Men movies and largely accounting for the success of the franchise. Despite being far taller than the character is usually portrayed, Jackman certainly looks the part and captures the tortured, animalistic spirit of the role. Haunted by nightmares and struggling with his true origins and identity, Wolverine is initially dismissive and antagonistic towards Xavier’s ideals and his pupils; he laughs at their Mutant code-names, mocks the idea of training and preparing Mutants to defend and live alongside humanity, and immediately clashes with the X-Men’s field leader, Scott Summers/Cyclops (Marsden).
Sadly, Cyclops, the characteristically straight-laced and officious leader of the X-Men, doesn’t really get a lot to do here. He mainly stands around, looks cute, and bickers with Wolverine over his unpredictability and the fact that he obviously has the hots for Cyclops’ wife, Jean Grey (Janssen). And did you know that Halle Berry is in this film? She plays Ororo Munroe/Storm, a Mutant who can control the weather and whose main purpose is to guilt-trip Logan into picking a side, providing fog cover to mask the approach of the X-Jet (which doesn’t even work as Magneto knows it’s them…), and deliver one of the worst lines in movie history.
Truthfully, the main X-Men team gets quite shafted by the film’s bloated cast but the Brotherhood suffer even more. Sabretooth is little more than a growling bruiser; nothing is made of his connection to Wolverine, reducing him to Magneto’s muscle rather than the sadistic and murderous character he is in the comics. Toad (Park) is generally a silent character with little going for him other than his little character/body quirks and impressive martial arts abilities. And then there’s Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), Mangeto’s chief blue-tinted, shape-changing, super sexy henchman who would also go on to be a breakout character of the films. Sadly, however, we learn almost nothing about these characters, their motivations, or their origins and they’re all largely silent. They work as parallels to the X-Men and allow for some tame, but pretty engaging fight scenes but who are they? What drove them to join Magneto? We’re not told as there’s just so many characters and the script and runtime cannot accommodate them all.
I think one of the issues with X-Men is the presence of two audience surrogates; the dynamic between Logan and Rogue is interesting, though, and it almost feels as though the film would have worked better if it was them on the run from the Brotherhood and being assisted by, like, two of the X-Men and only being brought to the school at the end of the film. At the time, though, this narrative choice worked really well for introducing audiences to the world of the X-Men and setting the blueprint for the sequels and spin-offs that were to follow.
Unfortunately, X-Men came out at a time when Hollywood was still cashing in on, and aping the success of, the action and stylistic aesthetic of The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999). As a result, rather than the colourful costumes of the comics, the X-Men are decked out in impractical (but cool-looking) leather suits. I actually didn’t mind this at the time and still don’t now; the uniformity of the X-costumes actually works to show their unity and ties into Logan’s narrative arc: he starts off as a dissociated loner but, by the end, suits up and fights alongside the X-Men as one of the team. I’d still like to see more comic accurate costumes in the eventual X-Men reboot but I grew up with Michael Keaton’s Batman and an abundance of black, cool-but-impractical leather costumes so I’m largely okay with that choice.
Some of the effects, however, haven’t aged too well; the weird shimmering field Magneto uses to create Mutants looks quite janky, as does Mystique’s shape-shifting effects but they held up quite well when the film was first released and other effects, like Wolverine’s claws and Cyclops’ optic blast, still hold up really well thanks to an abundance of wire work and practical, on-set effects.
The film’s themes still resonate, as well. As I said, Magneto’s motivations are very real and relatable and the disturbingly fitting end of Senator Kelly is surprisingly affecting. Altered by Magneto’s machine, Kelly mutates into a fish-like quasi-Mutant but, as his cells begin to deteriorate, he horrifically half-drowns before degenerating into liquid right before Storm’s eyes. It’s a terrifying visual, one that seems far too harsh a punishment even considering Kelly’s prejudices but there is some solace to be gained from seeing Kelly humbled at his end and turning to a Mutant for comfort.
X-Men works really well as an introduction to the world of Mutants; it grounds its narrative and action in a world not too far removed from our own, which allows it to be grounded and based in some kind of reality so that its more flamboyant, “comic book” elements can be introduced in a way that makes sense.
Yet, it’s not a perfect film; there’s a lot of characters here, many of which are left completely one dimensional or underdeveloped. Further sequels would fail to address this for many of these characters, retroactively casting a shadow on X-Men for not doing a better job of dividing its time amongst its large cast a little better. Yet, Stewart, McKellen, and Jackman shine all the brighter as a result of this; the other characters are almost inconsequential compared to their charisma, screen presence, and individual and connected stories. X-Men establishes the rules of its world quite well and definitely laid the foundation for expansion but I can’t help but think that, with the benefit of hindsight and taking into account the lessons of the many X-Men sequels and spin-offs that we’ve had since, that we could the same concept done better in the near future.
What are your thoughts on the first X-Men movie? Were you excited for it when it first released? Do you feel it still holds up or do you agree that it’s seen better days? Which X-character was your favourite? How would you like to see a reboot of the franchise go down? How are you celebrating X-Men Day this month? Whatever you think, feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions on X-Men below and check out my other X-Men articles on the site.
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