In this, the second installment of X-Men X-Amined (hooray for X-puns!), I’m taking a look at the film that started it all – Bryan Singer’s X-Men.
In many ways, X-Men was the start of our current age of comic book movies. Sure, prior to this we’d gotten the earlier Superman and Batman films, not to mention a slew of bad films that are better off forgotten, but they hadn’t taken off in quite the same way. Those Superman and Batman films were popular, to be sure, but they were anomalies. X-Men started a trend. We started getting these films on a yearly basis. X-Men was released and within a five-year span Blade II, Spider-Man, Daredevil, X2: X-Men United, Hulk, The Punisher, Spider-Man 2, and Blade: Trinity were all released. Those were obviously not all good films, but it was the overall success of the comic book movie that lead to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. X-Men got the ball rolling, and it did so by showing the world that it was possible to make a good comic book movie. That’s not to take anything away from the Donner Superman films or the Burton Batman films, but look at the trajectory each of those series’ took in their third and fourth films – the Superman quadrilogy scored a 93%, an 89%, a 26% and an 8% while the Batman films received a 71%, an 81%, a 41%, and a 12%. By the late 90’s, Warner Bros. had effectively killed the superhero genre. X-Men resuscitated it. A big part of the reason why is due to casting.
Can you even imagine the X-Men on screen without Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart? Obviously you can, because X-Men: First Class came out and it was awesome, but casting is an absolutely crucial aspect of filmmaking and the wrong actor can easily sink a good film. Luckily, Singer and company nailed it. As we’ve already discussed, Jackman has become the quintessential Wolverine, and McKellen and Stewart have embodied their roles in much the same way. I’d argue that regardless of who goes on to play the roles of Wolverine, Professor Xavier and Magneto in the future, they’ll always be in the shadow of these three. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, but it honestly doesn’t matter because of how spot-on these three main characters are. I don’t mind James Marsden and Famke Janssen as Scott Summers and Jean Grey, but neither the characters nor the actors were ever fully utilized. Anne Paquin as Rogue always bothered me, but that’s because I’m not a huge Paquin fan and Rogue has never been my favorite character. Halle Berry is serviceable as Storm, but once again, I’ve never been a huge fan of either. Despite the fact that I’m less than enchanted with a few of the decisions, on the whole, I think the film was well cast. It’s hard to nail down an ensemble that works well together, but Singer did just that. He also took an interesting approach when adapting this film’s plot.
The most logical thing to do when starting a new superhero franchise is to tell an origin story. The X-Men in the film, however, are a far cry from how the X-Men began in the comics – for starters, of the film’s cast, only Cyclops, Jean, and Iceman (who played a minor role) were original members of the X-Men (Beast and Angel, the other two, would show up in Brett Ratner’s bastardized X-Men threequel). Characters like Storm, Wolverine, and Rogue didn’t show up for quite a while. Likewise, when the X-Men started, Professor Xavier’s school wasn’t a full blown educational institution; that came much, much later. The film definitely took a lot of liberty’s in this regard, changing the back stories of numerous characters, but it ultimately didn’t matter. The school setting worked well on film and gave the X-Men universe a more “lived in” feel. Singer picked Rogue as a focus because her power set accentuated her alienation, which was the theme from the comics that most hit home for him. By introducing Wolverine and Rogue as “outsiders”, the audience was treated to an origin story without having to give the X-Men themselves one. Magneto’s plan to turn the human race into mutants is a little over-the-top, but it is a very “comic booky” storyline in a comic book movie and it’s one that not only jives with Magneto’s character but also complements the theme’s of the movie. I can see how it might be too silly for some, but it’s true to the source material, and that’s what’s important.
I could go on, talking about the film’s excellent comedic tone, the goofy one-liners (“Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?”), and the various continuity issues that now plague this movie, but I think I’ll leave you with this: X-Men is not a perfect film. It’s not the best comic book film. It’s not even the best X-Men film. But it legitimized the comic book movie in a way nothing ever had before, and for that alone, it deserves our respect. The fact that it’s a good movie is just adamantium icing on the bone cake.