“X-Men.” In the year 2000 (cue Conan O’Brien and flashlights) we had a major turning point in the history of the genre of superhero and comic-book based movies. Prior to this, movies based on comics had a fairly bad hit to miss ratio. Of course, Richard Donner’s Superman movies and Burton’s Batman had pleased audiences and critics alike. You also had films like “Blade” whose connection to their comic source material was tenuous and whose appeal was relatively small.
But, then you had the made-for-TV Nick Fury movie starring David Hasselhoff, the Roger Corman “Fantastic Four” movie (made only so the studio could retain the rights to the characters), and numerous Batman and Superman sequels whose very existence proved the law of diminishing returns. Oh, and someone decided to make a Spawn movie co-starring John Leguizamo and Martin Sheen with a bad dye job.
But then everything changed. Suddenly a director had captured the essence of what had made a set of comic book characters beloved by a couple of generations of fans, but also adapted them to the screen in a way that appealed to mass audiences.
And it was a big hit. And everyone else took notice and started not only making superhero movies based on the properties they owned but also buying up the rights to other comics.
Looking back on this movie, I remember when I first saw it. I went with my roommates at the time, half of whom had never heard of the X-Men and half of whom were fairly big nerds, like me. Walking out, I was completely giddy. What amazed me was how much my civilian roommates and friends liked it as well. And then, when three days later one of these said civilian roommates took his girlfriend to go see it, and she liked it? This was something magical. I’ve also previously alluded to how my wife and I bonded over the film.
But now, 14 years and 6 sequels/spinoffs later, how does the original hold up? I took in a repeat viewing of a film I have watched nearly a hundred times.
Well, the script still has some problems. Yes, there’s the clunker about “What happens to a toad that’s struck by lightning?” (Ummmm. . . “It croaks!” is the appropriate response, isn’t it?) But there’s also some gems, like Wolverine proving it’s really him by telling Cyclops he’s a dick.
Storm sticks out like a sore thumb, or should I say Halle Berry’s attempts at an accent do? It was much better when she just spoke in her normal voice like she did in later films. We love you Halle Berry! You don’t need to do an accent to play this character! We promise!
The character of Rogue is still underdeveloped, and is essentially a plot maguffin rather than a real character. Too bad, since she was always one of my favorites. Of course, that was Rogue who had previously been a bad guy who stole Carol Danvers powers and put her in a coma for years, and the essence of Ms. Marvel’s goodness turned her into a hero. Without being able to tell that backstory, Rogue is just. . . less interesting. And she can’t fly and isn’t nearly invincible. Too bad, because Anna Paquin is generally pretty great. But just like Magneto, the script only wanted her for her powers.
Which leads us to Magneto and his plot. Other than creating a cool special effects lightshow at the Statue of Liberty, Magneto’s plan was kind of. . . lame? The fact that he wouldn’t listen to our X-heroes telling him that Senator Kelly was dead seems somewhat uncharacteristic — unless he actually was like, “Nah, eff it– I’d just as soon kill all the world’s leaders as make them into mutants anyway.” Magneto was never really a straight up murderer, even though he was certainly capable of killing. But that seems a little bit of a stretch.
But, his characterization and acting by Ian McKellan is what sells this film. Ok, and his chemistry with Patrick Stewart. But that’s the core of this movie. As is the realization that Magneto is not the villain of this story. Oh no. Senator Kelly is the bad guy. Magneto is just the little kid who lost his parents to The Holocaust (an amazing opening sequence that immediately tells you this movie isn’t f@#$ing around, by the way) who vows to never let it happen again.
Kelly is the bigot. Kelly is the one who threatens them. He’s the reason Mystique was afraid to play with other kids. But when he meets his death 2/3 way through the movie, it’s kind of like. . .”Ummmm. . . ok. Now what?” Kelly was used as a plot device as much as Rogue was. Again, a wasted character.
But enough bitching about what went wrong. What was great about this? I already mentioned Stewart and McKellan, but I can’t emphasize that enough. Those two bring so much gravitas to the film that it makes it hard to take it anything other than seriously. No, this isn’t campy superheroes in yellow spandex, but we’ll make a joke about just how ridiculous that would be.
And yes, the humor in the movie! So good without being stupid (except the aforementioned toad line). And what was great was how it came from character. Wolverine was snarky. “What do they call you — Wheels?” “You’re a dick.” And because he’s the fish out of water learning about this new world, he’s our proxy as the audience. What an amazing bit of storytelling that you take the fan favorite and use him as the lens for breaking into this universe. Really, really smart choices.
And Hugh Jackman. Wow. Bryan Singer hit the jackpot with this discovery. Can you imagine the nerd rage that would happen today if they were making an X-Men movie and an Aussie soap opera actor better known for his singing and dancing got cast as Wolverine? It would break the Internet.
All the other casting was great, too. I hated James Marston, I loved Famke Jannson. Just like you were supposed to. I really liked Rebecca Romijn, Tyler Mane and Ray Park the same way you should love your bad guys. They were awesome.
So despite some of what X-Men got wrong, it got so much right. And you wanted to root for them to succeed. And while a few of the digital effects now look a little dated, most of what’s in here is great. And the film holds up fairly well, although it’s by no means as good as its sequel or any number of other excellent films that it inspired.
Thanks, X-Men. We’ll always owe you a huge debt of gratitude.