I remember what a big deal it was when X-Men premiered in the summer of 2000. There had been superhero films before but X-Men was the first major Marvel property (Blade starring Wesley Snipes came out in 1998 but he was a lower tier character in comparison) to get the proper Hollywood treatment. This was before superhero films were the big thing in Hollywood. There was still a sense of wonder in seeing superheroes brought to the big screen fully realized. And being an eleven year old at the time there was something almost overwhelming about this kind of film.
What’s most striking about X-Men, particularly now, is how aesthetically dark and stripped down it is. It’s only a little over a 90 minutes long and the climax only features four X-Men walking through a museum. I believe this sparse aesthetic is partly due to director Bryan Singer not being interested in fashioning a straight up comic-book movie with bright colours and sprawling action. I feel he was more fascinated with the social commentary that’s always been a part of the X-Men mythology. Being a gay man, Singer no doubt identified with the themes of prejudice, fear, as well as acceptance, which inform the comics.
I think the other major reason for why X-Men feels so small scale has to do with budget restrictions. Moreover, this was Singer’s biggest film to date. This film, in several ways, feels like Singer is feeling his way around how to do this kind of film- as well as finding what tone and style he wants for the series going forward. This results in X-Men being a solid and enjoyable film- but one that’s not a fully realized vision.
Singer sets the tone for the film from the first scene, which takes place in 1944 Poland. We see a young boy named Erik Lehnsherr separated from his parents by the Nazis. It’s at this time that Erik’s mutant powers first reveal themselves. Erik can control metal and he bends a gate just before being knocked out by a guard. This opening scene establishes that the film won’t be a romp. Rather it tells us this is going to be a more serious character drama that tackles dark themes. And by opening the film during the Holocaust years, Singer provides a relatable entry point for the audience. The Holocaust reminds us of the evil mankind can inflict on itself and the basic idea of X-Men concerns humanity being afraid of and violent others just because they are different- Many people are unable to realize mutants are still people despite their extraordinary abilities.
After this prologue we flash forward to the “not too distant future” where teenager Marie (Anna Paquin) nearly kills her boyfriend by kissing him. When she touches people Marie absorbs their life force. This causes her to run away and on the road she meets another mutant named Logan, who goes by the name “Wolverine” (Hugh Jackman). Logan has metal claws and super-human healing abilities. They’re attacked by a mutant named Sabretooth (Tyler Mane). Logan and Rogue are saved by two mutants, Cyclops/Scott Summers and Storm/Ororo Munroe (James Marsden and Halle Berry), who take them to Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school for gifted youngsters, where mutants learn to control their abilities and are able to live among their own kind.
Xavier informs Logan that Sabretooth was working for Erik (Ian McKellen), now calling himself Magneto. Xavier and Magneto worked together for years before going their separate ways. We learn that Magneto plans to turn the world leaders in to mutants, which I think is one of the best super villain plans we’ve seen in one of these films. Xavier and Magneto represent the two separate ideologies at the core of the X-Men mythos. Xavier is more hopeful about human and mutant kind living together in peace; Magneto is more cynical and believes the world is on the verge of war between humans and mutants. The fact Xavier and Magneto are friends makes this dynamic all the more complex. They’re not merely enemies. Their history together will always affect the way they view another. The film already takes these characters seriously but Stewart and McKellen add a lot of weight to their scenes together. They make us believe that these two men have been friends forever, how committed they are to their ideologies, and that they have a mutual respect for one another.
While this relationship provides the backbone for the film and the entire franchise the most prominent character arc belongs to Logan. One of the main criticisms fans have about the X-Men film franchise is how Wolverine centric the films are, with other characters getting sidelined. It’s an understandable criticism and it’s true that X-Men feels like a Wolverine film with the X-Men as supporting characters. However, the film does make its Wolverine focus work. He’s provides the outsider perspective for the audience. Despite being a mutant the world of the X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants is as alien to him as it would be to those not versed in X-Men lore. When we first meet Logan he has no personal attachments and fights for no one but himself. He also has no memory of his past or why he has adamantium (a fictional metal in the Marvel universe) over his skeleton. Logan’s arc throughout the film shows him finding a purpose in the present, despite no memory of his past. He forms a surrogate family with the X-Men and becomes part of bigger cause then himself. I love how he starts out mocking the characters’ nicknames but by the end uses the name “Cyclops” with complete earnestness.
This was a star making performance for Jackman. While he would age in to the role even more over time, right from the start he’s an ideal Wolverine. Jackman is able to portray the violent animal, the wise-ass and the humane soul underneath all very well. His relationship with Rogue is also quite touching. Regarding the other X-Men, I do wish Cyclops had more time to shine, since he’s the leader of the team. Marsden is pretty well cast in the role, playing Cyclops as the boy scout who can be just as much a wise-ass as Logan.
I know many don’t like Singer’s aesthetic choices, particularly the X-Men wearing black leather instead of their more colorful comic book costumes. I would argue that due to the tone of the film and what Singer was shooting for, the costumes needed to be toned down. I do like that Singer had a particular vision for what he wanted to do with this universe. It’s not what everyone wanted but I think his “real world but with fantastical elements” works very well and allows its serious themes to take center stage. But despite dealing with heavy issues, the film is not humourless. It’s actually quite funny. The only bits of humour that I don’t think work deal with Toad (Ray Park) near the end. We’re supposed to find his physical humour funny but these moments don’t click with me. And then there’s the infamous “What happens when a toad is struck by lightning?” joke.
Some other things I enjoy:
- Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson), an anti-mutant politician who gets turned in to a mutant by Magneto to test his machine. Except that the mutation kills Kelly. This has always been the most unsettling parts of the film for me. There’s also a cruel irony to it as Kelly becomes what he hates. And the odd thing is we can actually sympathize with him despite his bigotry.
- Rebecca Romijn as Mystique- a very spooky presence.
- “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”
X-Men was more of a testing ground for X2: X-Men United then a fully realized vision but it still works a compact interpretation of a dense and complex mythology. The performances are mostly strong and the film deals with its heavy themes earnestly. Also, along with Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film two years later, this help kick-start the modern age of superhero films. Nothing would be the same again.