It was a very different time for superhero movies in the late 90s/early 00s. As is often the case with Hollywood, the failure of one specific movie was seen as the death knell for the entire genre – in this case, Batman & Robin was the harbinger of the apocalypse for superhero movies. Rather than concentrate on the fact that the life was squeezed out of the Batman franchise – by increasingly merchandise hungry executives, demanding a more ‘toyetic’ film – instead it was superheroes that took the bullet and disappeared off the radar for a few years.
The Matrix added pseudo-superheroics into its cyberpunk-esque premise and audiences responded very well indeed. The creators – the Wachowskis – were fans of comic books and had written for Marvel; so the parallels with comic books was no accident. The black leather chic popularised in the Keanu Reeves-led film was all the rage; the bright, colourful look of the Joel Schumacher Batman films was seen as something that audiences would no longer accept, which led us to…
Bryan Singer, then a hot young director with a serious breakout hit under his belt – The Usual Suspects – took the director’s chair for the first live action outing featuring Marvel’s Merry Mutants. X-Men movies had been in and out of production hell for years at this point; it felt like a minor miracle that this one actually went into production.
The casting seemed spot on, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as former best friends Professor Charles Xavier and Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr respectively, with their completely opposing viewpoints on how best to deal with the emerging humans vs mutants conflict. Bryan Singer, talking about how he viewed the conflict as analogous to the Civil Rights struggle in the US – with Xavier taking the Martin Luther King stance of peaceful integration and Magneto’s views much more aggressive, akin to Malcolm X – seemed to really get the material and treat it with a seriousness that was perhaps unexpected, but very welcome indeed.
Of course, the other big casting decision was for the X-Men’s most popular character, Wolverine. Dougray Scott was cast in the role, but last minute reshoots for Mission Impossible II (of all things!) meant that he was unavailable for filming. Which led to the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. History was made under the weirdest circumstances – though we’re likely to see another live action Wolverine in the next few years, it’s still difficult to imagine anyone else in the role right now, despite Jackman having hung up the claws after Logan, the brilliant final outing for the character.
The film itself begins with an intense, moving and somewhat harrowing scene, with the young Magneto being led into a Polish concentration camp with his parents and thousands of other Jews by the Nazis. Separated from his mother and father, the stress of the situation activates his power to manipulate metal, to the confusion and terror of the guards, who quickly and violently deal with him.
Fast forwarding to the ‘near future’, we see a teenage girl’s mutant ability kicking in during her first kiss. We jump to a Senate hearing on mutants; the othering of them by the Government and the attempts at reassurance by Jean Grey, secretly a mutant herself. It’s here that we first encounter Professor Xavier too; here also that we see the dichotomy between Xavier and Magneto in action, their relationship established quickly and with economy. We’re then introduced to our final pieces of the puzzle, a grizzled cage fighter/truck driver with a nifty ability to regenerate and a sharp set of claws in his knuckles, one of Magneto’s henchmen and the X-Men themselves…
So we jump around a bit here. It’s all told swiftly and with minimal fuss; the film itself is remarkably simple in terms of plot, with most of the tight running time taken up with either exposition – via our gateway character, Wolverine, being introduced to the X-Men – or Magneto’s scheming. The final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty is pretty straightforward too. It all moves at quite a pace and does act as a great introduction to the concepts and characters of the X-Men, which long ago became a confusing morass of soap opera-esque relationships and plot threads in the comics.
It’s aged badly in some ways though. The black leather outfits, for a start, reveal a lack of confidence in the source material that wouldn’t be such an issue in today’s cinematic landscape, with audiences being an awful lot more accepting of colourfully attired superheroes (and there’s even been a bit of backlash against the attempts to make characters more desaturated in their colour schemes – see Zack Snyder’s Superman for a good example of this). They don’t look bad, as such – it’s just a shame that the look is all so dark – though of course we really are talking about the first, tentative steps into comic book movies post-Batman & Robin, which went completely OTT with its colourful characters and cartoonish cinematography – though of course it wasn’t the vibrantly bold visuals of that film that was its downfall, studios were of course reluctant to be tarred with the same brush.
The fight scenes are really flat too; there’s a reliance on cheesy comic book poses and framing that just comes across as really awkward – in fairness, it was a pioneer in terms of getting huge budget, team-based superheroics on screen, so there definitely wasn’t an established expectation of how things should look and feel.
Patrick Stewart, who was born to play Professor X, is stuck with delivering little more than expository dialogue for the majority of the time he’s on screen. Talking of the dialogue, there’s a few attempts at humour and one liners here that fall as flat as a pancake – perhaps the most egregious and infamous example being Storm’s “Do you know what happens to a toad when it gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.”
Despite these issues, there’s still a great deal of excellent stuff here. The work done to establish characters such as Rogue is superb, with some absolutely wonderful little touches that really bring the characters to life. Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman have great chemistry in their scenes together, though in all honesty, Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine is a delight no matter who he’s sharing screen time with – whether butting heads with James Marsden’s boring Cyclops or flirting cheekily with Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey. An early montage of the X-Men training at the school is wonderfully shot and scored by the late, great Michael Kamen. Ian McKellen’s Magneto is brilliant too – and he, like Jackman, seems to own every scene he appears in. The opening scene featuring the young Magneto first using his abilities grounds the film in reality and sets a tone that the rest of the film can’t always maintain in terms of seriousness, but it’s a great attention grabber and one which allows us to fully understand – even empathise with – Magneto’s motivation.
The brevity of the film is a positive too; we get our mutants vs humans status quo set up and the relationships of our protagonists and antagonists clear before it’s done – and we’re left thirsting for more.
It does all feel like set up for a bigger sequel, which of course it did lead to – in the form of the wonderful X2 (still the peak of the series in my opinion).
So though it’s not without issues, I’m surprised and pleased to report that X-Men still holds up in many ways, 20 years on. Happy Anniversary, bub.
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