X-MEN: a pioneering example for modern superhero cinema (2000 in Film #27)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of July 14th, Bryan Singer’s X-Men

NOTE: this piece is a re-post from a previous film by film breakdown of the X-Men series.

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

Now just to preface this before I continue, I want to make two points.

Firstly, that I am in no way conversant in the comic-book history of the X-Men on the page, bar details I have picked up piecemeal over the years. My analysis will focus on the films and their presentation therein, with any deeper context the result of research; if this results in aspects I miss or seem to have avoided, I would be delighted if you could point me to whatever I may not have seen, if you are conversant in the material yourself. Furthermore, as regards Bryan Singer himself, I am going to attempt to remove the current context of his character, as of writing, and focus on what he put on screen. It is the judgement of people better qualified than me to weigh whether revelations about his character complicate the perception of his X-Men films, and I will not attempt to try.

X-Men was released in the height of the summer ‘tentpole’ blockbuster season in the year 2000, at the turn of the millennium. The highest grossing movie of the year was Mission Impossible 2, a slick, star-led action vehicle (the villain of which was played by Dougray Scott, who Singer originally cast as Wolverine before Hugh Jackman made the role, iconically, his own). A major success financially and critically was Gladiator, which single handedly relaunched the long-deceased historical epic (and made a household name of another Antipodean offered Wolverine, Russell Crowe, who recommended Jackman for it). Beyond that, Disney animation Dinosaur (long since forgotten) and post-modern spoof comedy Scary Movie were big hitters. If you discount M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, which deconstructed the comic-book trope, X-Men was the *only* comic-book film released that entire year.

From our modern vantage point, that is quite staggering. That shows how influential X-Men was on the emerging form. The first Spider-Man film would arrive in 2002, Ang Lee’s Hulk a year later, and from then on the floodgates opened to the tidal wave that would arrive at the end of the decade with the nascent beginnings of the all-dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe. That project has changed Hollywood and blockbuster cinema forever and its mastermind, Marvel producer Kevin Feige, worked on Singer’s original X-Men. You can see an enormous amount of DNA which carried over and bled in from X-Men into the MCU, from tone through to theme and the careful balance of humour and emotional dramatic stakes here in David Hayter’s screenplay. X-Men understood, perhaps unintentionally, that an alchemy exists to make a truly successful and accessible superhero movie, and it became one of the first to tap into it.

Singer’s film does two key things right. It never expects you to have an in-depth knowledge of Marvel lore and right from Patrick Stewart’s opening monologue, explaining the very idea of the mutant gene which the X-Men all have, the script gives you all the detail you need (sometimes admittedly through some laboured and clumsy exposition) to understand what you are watching and who everyone is. It then ensures, despite the ensemble nature of the comic-book, that we have a recognisable protagonist in Jackman’s Wolverine, who fulfils a tried and tested narrative function – the outsider drawn into the functioning, established world of the X-Men, serving as our window to understand who they are. Anna Paquin’s Rogue, who is brought in with Wolverine as their paths intertwine, serves a similar function from a youthful perspective before becoming the ‘McGuffin’ for the final half of the film.

Wolverine works as an entry point for the audience because he is a recognisable character. The world-weary, sarcastic everyman who just wants to be left alone, who reluctantly enters the shiny, upbeat X-Men world and by the conclusion has been accepted into the fold, as part of the family, even though he to a degree rejects it and heads away on his own quest. He could be any number of lone rangers on horseback from American Westerns; to me he recalls Kurt Russell’s truck driver Jack Burton in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, if less quippy, womanising and ultimately hapless. Wolverine, and Jackman’s tough yet sensitive portrayal, could have walked in from a more recognisable style of blockbuster action movie at this point and as a result audiences could relate and tether to him.

It’s easy to forget how alien the X-Men were in cinematic terms to audiences almost twenty years ago, when reflecting today. We exist in a world where the geek has inherited the Earth, and the 10-year culmination of a superhero franchise festooned with humans, aliens and beyond in all manner of costumes is on track to almost a 3 *billion* dollar box office. Our kids dress up as Iron Man. Our husbands or wives cosplay as Captain America or Captain Marvel. The superhero film has transformed our cultural landscape to the point we can accept a film partially starring a talking raccoon without a second thought, but in 2000 characters like Cyclops (James Marsden) with his laser-visor or Storm (Halle Berry) commanding lightning from above were still outlandish in mainstream cinema. Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier would have seemed appropriate casting for many, as the X-Men might just as well have been Star Trek characters from outer space to unassuming audiences than real flesh and blood people.

Characters like Wolverine and to an extent Rogue work to foster a level of trust (less so the latter given her power of death to whoever touches her is quite terrifying). They are the unconscious guide into Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where mutant genes allowing people like Bobby ‘Iceman’ Drake (Shawn Ashmore) to exist are commonplace and accepted. The X-Men school, much like Singer’s film, is free of anything approaching cynicism; no matter who you are or where you are from, if you are a mutant you are welcome within, to help foster and encourage your abilities. Because Singer eschews an origin story for anyone but Rogue (Wolverine’s is a mystery which will serve as the backbone to 2003’s sequel X2), and for a fleeting moment the villain Magneto (Ian McKellen), as an audience we are expected to roll with these mutant heroes saving the world in their dark leather costumes, flying around on their secret jets hidden under the X-mansion, like Thunderbirds rising out of the Tracy Island swimming pool. “You actually go out in these things?” Wolverine dryly quips, as Cyclops responds: “Well, what would you prefer, yellow spandex?”

This is primarily an in-joke referring to the original X-Men yellow costumes from the 1960’s comic (which we would eventually see in the 2011 prequel film, First Class), but it also speaks to the deeper reservoir of X-Men having a post-modern understanding of its place within broader cinematic superhero culture.

Before X-Men, comic-book characters often looked more ridiculous than heroic, and it took the audience accepting these films or TV series were silly, disposable nonsense in order to accept that. Adam West and Burt Ward in the classic 1960’s Batman series, and movie version, wore spandex as tight-fitting as the X-Men of the comics; Christopher Reeve’s Superman from 1978 onwards had to convince the world he and Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent were two different people beyond, literally, a ripped shirt and a pair of glasses separating the two; and in the late 90’s, Joel Schumacher fetishised his versions of Batman, Robin and Batgirl by giving them rubber costumes and perky Bat-nipples. Apparel may not seem important to a comic-book narrative but they subconsciously help the viewer understand whether or not to take these characters, and these worlds, seriously. For all that X-Men may still cleve to some of the narrative and character tropes of previous superhero films (Sabretooth and Toad could have rocked up in Batman Forever or Batman & Robin), it wants you simultaneously take these characters and their world seriously.

Mainly because X-Men dabbles in serious subject matter through a comic-book lens, as Lee & Kirby’s original series—and many subsequent runs under writers such as Chris Claremont—did. The aforementioned Batman and Superman films often pitched those heroes against dark reflections of themselves (be it the Joker or Catwoman or Bizarro) that would angle the core drama on their own internal psychology, and often the same would be the case for avenging angels such as The Crow or Blade in more of a grungy, stripped back manner. X-Men is perhaps the first comic-book movie to look outward, with Xavier and Magneto’s antipathy part of an ideological and social conflict rooted in themes and ideas which resonated across the 20th century and still resonate today: marginalisation, oppression, repression, persecution and xenophobic fear. X-Men is not a film about psychoanalysing its heroes in the context of the enemies they face but rather commenting on our own divided, problematic society.

In 2000, the comic-book movie was as much an existential ‘Other’ as the mutants in X-Men, a gamble Hollywood only took if they had a sure bet on their hands. It’s what makes the very fact X-Men was made, and *when* it was made, even more remarkable.

There is a distinct millennial sense of anxiety coursing through the entirety of X-Men. It is a film acutely aware of the continued advancements in Western society about gender and gay rights and civil rights, and is intensely worried that such existential changes could come tumbling down. Back in the 1960’s, Xavier and Magneto were likened to the civil rights campaigners Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, both of whom approached similar hopes and dreams for African-Americans from different ideological vantage points. King valued peaceful action, Malcolm embraced violence. The same is true of X and Magneto. Xavier wants to create a world where mutants are integrated with the humans who right now shun them and fear what they don’t understand, whereas Magneto believes humans will destroy them if they are left unchecked, and considers war the only remedy. “We are the future, Charles, not them! They no longer matter!” he declares toward the beginning of the picture.

This makes sense in the context of Magneto, who Singer chooses to open the entire saga with as a child in a Polish concentration camp during World War 2 where, as a young Jewish boy named Erik Lensherr, he witnesses his parents dragged away by the Nazis to the gas chambers, which appears to latently trigger his magnetic powers. Though X-Men doesn’t heavily delve into Magneto’s psychology, it doesn’t need to – by including such a prologue, we know everything we need to about how Magneto’s actions are driven by anger and vengeance toward the persecution of his family, and how he equates human kind with the worst he saw in fascism and Nazism. Particularly thanks to McKellen’s operatic performance, which reigns the character in from becoming too overtly simplistic, Magneto serves as an example of a villain who believes he is the hero of his own story. “The war is still coming, Charles. And I intend to fight it, by any means necessary” he promises even while locked away by the end of the film.

This ideological fear, of two sides pulling against each other, reflects the middle ground the West inhabited in the year 2000. X-Men was released just over one year before the epoch-shattering September 11th, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, which changed geopolitics forever. The climactic act of X-Men takes place in New York with Magneto threatening a conference of world leaders meeting under the Statue of Liberty, intending to channel Rogue’s power as a means of transforming the assembled heads of state into mutants, thereby forcing them to accept the reality of his kind. The place is intentionally symbolic, to Magneto in particular. “I first saw her in 1949. America was going to be the land of tolerance. Peace.” He tells the captured Rogue before proclaiming “There is no land of tolerance. There is no peace. Not here, or anywhere else.”

X-Men is worried that America and the West are fooling themselves, that they exist in a state of denial that we have conquered our existential fear of the Other, so prevalent in modern 20th century history. Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), a hawkish Congressman, is pushing to enact the Mutant Registration Act, which would force all mutants to reveal their identities and abilities. He could well be a modern Senator Joseph McCarthy, exchanging the post-war fear of Communist insurgency on American soil with the growing profligacy of mutant abilities (as exemplified by Rogue’s transformation). “I think the American people deserve the right to decide if they want their children to be in school with mutants. To be taught by mutants! Ladies and gentlemen, the truth is that mutants are very real, and that they are among us. We must know who they are, and above all, what they can do!”. It ends up being a delicious irony that Kelly is transformed into a mutant by Magneto and replaced by Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a literal shapeshifter who can take any form.

Post-9/11, the Other is encapsulated by the extremist Muslim fundamentalist following the New York attack and seems to confirm X-Men’s anxietal thesis that America is changing but cannot truly accept such change, something which has been proven fundamentally by the country’s regressive reversion on all social and political levels since the Trump Administration came to power. Singer’s film is not necessarily prophetic as such but it has a finger on the pulse of concerns about civil rights and liberties which, while they do go back to the 1960’s source material, absolutely had relevance in 2000 and have perhaps even deeper relevance and resonance today. The first X-Men film, despite where the series subsequently goes, frames this ideological dissonance as clearly as any X-Men film will, and gives what could otherwise have been throwaway comic-book silliness added weight.

X-Men is really the point where comic-book cinema begins to undergo a true Renaissance, indeed quite possibly a rebirth. Though there will remain superhero movies of questionable quality which fail to match X-Men’s balance of colour and substance (Fantastic Four and its sequel, the MCU’s The Incredible Hulk, even one or two X-Men sequels and spin-offs), the 2000’s will bring to bear comic-book movies which transcend the form. Two of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man pictures, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, even Zack Snyder’s surprisingly proficient adaptation of the seminal 80’s comic Watchmen. None of these films, even while some are radically different from X-Men, would have been possible without the critical respect or financial success of Singer’s movie.

This is not to say X-Men is perfect, or even the zenith of the form. There is a consistent sense of prologue about X-Men, especially when lined up with X2; this lacks the depth or character work of that sequel, with certain major stars such as Berry or Famke Janssen (in the key role of Dr. Jean Grey), left with slim pickings as the focus is squared on Wolverine, Rogue, X and Magneto. There are points when overblown theatrics do threaten to swamp the narrative, with only the Shakespearian tenor of great actors such as Stewart & McKellen preventing it tipping into ridiculousness. Anna Paquin is lost among the need later in the script to simply become a foil for Magneto’s plan and arguably, Singer very much had one eye on the chunkier story he wanted to tell in X2, leaving this too open ended to function as a told story.

The latter should be no real negative in our modern age and speaks to how X-Men prefigures our modern era of comic-book cinema dominance, the age of the cinematic universe. Bryan Singer here creates the first true superhero franchise, one which remarkably still exists within (sort of) the same continuity almost 20 years on. When Magneto earlier talked about mutants being the future, he could have been talking about the superhero movie, and its place in the post-millennial landscape filling a role science-fiction often did in years past: holding up a mirror to society and reflecting back not just ourselves, but where we are as human beings.

We have come a long way since X-Men, while at the same time much of what this film did still resonates, and is contained within, the comic-book lexicon dominating our entertainment today.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

19 – Battlefield: Earth

20 – Dinosaur

21 – Mission Impossible lI

22 – Big Momma’s House

23 – Gone in Sixty Seconds

24 – Chicken Run

25 – Shaft

26 – The Perfect Storm

27 – Scary Movie

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