2000’s X-Men is an important film. While Blade creaked the comic book movie door ajar, X-Men blew it off its hinges. A great financial success at the time, it directly led to greenlights for Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil, and generally signaled a new era for the superhero film. (The next paradigm shift: Batman Begins.) Additionally, the franchise that grew out of the original film can boast incredible longevity – the multiplex-ruling Marvel Cinematic Universe has only been around half as long. From 2000 to 2016, the X-franchise is still going strong (-ish), with the same continuity (-ish). Of course, the timeline is tortured within an inch of its life to accommodate this, but that doesn’t invalidate it – no true reboot has wiped the slate clean. And with X-Men: Apocalypse currently wandering its way out of theaters, we can look back on the film that started it all. Much and more came from X-Men, but what’s the deal with it? Does it hold up? Is it special in itself, beyond its place in film history?
The X Factor: A Comic Book Film About Something
I think X-Men is special, because this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by “normal” people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. No doubt the concept spoke to director Bryan Singer, who is openly gay.
The opening fifteen minutes or so is a dizzying tour of everything that works about the film. We open on the villain’s backstory as a Jew separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp, establishing Erik Lensherr/Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) motivation. Then, straight into Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatically discovering her power – it’s hard puberty imagery, adding another layer to the film’s relatability. Next comes the Senate committee scene, giving a potted sociopolitical overview of the stigma around mutants. And as the cherry on top, we proceed to a dynamite scene between Erik and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) commenting on humanity, flaunting the incredible acting talent on hand. This is all in the opening salvo of the film! It’s a great statement of purpose.
This desire for meaningfulness is not forgotten afterward, as the finale takes place on Ellis and Liberty Islands in New York, these loaded symbols of the immigrant experience. Speaking of loaded images, a young mutant walks on water with his power. And another fun and unique thing is that the X-Men superheroes themselves are professors. There’s a great moment when their X-Jet takes off from the school and the students look up in awe. Give Ms. Grey an apple.
The People Behind the Powers
So the overall scheme of the film is unique and meaningful, but your X-Men movie also needs some X-Men, so let’s talk characters. The duo of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue provide an excellent outsider’s view of the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Logan’s more feral side is contrasted well by his tender elder-brother-like relationship with Rogue, and their relationship is central to the arc of the film. And Logan’s adamantium claws are a cool power and all, but they are brought down to earth and a human level when he says as an aside that every time they come out, they hurt.
That idea is mirrored in Erik’s eeeevil plan, as his use of the mutant-creating device hurts him terribly. The strength of his convictions outweighs his regard for personal safety. Ian McKellen’s characterization instantly makes Erik an all-timer comic book movie villain, and his antagonistic yet respectful relationship with Charles is the entire franchise’s not-so-secret weapon. Each of the three scenes the two share in this film are brilliant, leaving the audience wanting more. The first posits the two as aloof observers of humanity, Erik the cynic and Charles the optimist. (In a different Marvel universe, this exact dynamic plays out in the brief gem of an exchange between Ultron and the Vision.) Their second scene is the train station showdown, a compelling setpiece where the two generals are buffeted by a force of cops, with a complicated human argument at its core. And the third scene is iconic, two old rivals sharply musing over a game of chess.
But not everyone in the cast is given attention. The weak link is ironically the main X-Men trio of Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Scott… is a plank of wood. And he refers to himself as “a boy like me”? What? Ororo doesn’t have an accent, until she does, more than halfway through the film. Jean’s “romance” with Scott is downplayed to make room for a forced attraction with Logan. So it’s not a great showing for the flagship X-Men. A shame, because most of the characters work a charm.
Is there a Script Doctor in the House?
Most fans of Joss Whedon know that he was brought in to punch up the third act of X-Men, that he went above and beyond the call of duty with a complete pass on the screenplay, and that only a few of those beats were retained in the finished film. And let me tell you, those Whedon-y lines stick out like sore thumbs. “This certainly is a big, round room.” “You’re a dick.” But of course, the most infamous is Storm’s one-liner, “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Halle Berry spectacularly misread the line, proclaiming it grandly rather than throwing it away. This sounds silly, but if I could change one thing about the film, that might be it.
There’s a lot of silly stuff in X-Men. While some of the action has a low-budget elegance to it (especially the way the powers flow into each other in the train station fight), other elements haven’t aged well – blobby Y2K CGI, for one. But other things just need to be preserved as weird little, did-you-see-that moments: The way Toad’s super-jump just crushes a dude into a puddle of mush on the ground! The adamantium middle finger! The look on Logan’s face as he rides Scott’s motorcycle! Mystique morphing from Bobby to her natural state, lingering on a hybrid of the two! Ray Park as Toad referencing his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace! The takeaway is that while X-Men is dealing with weighty themes, it’s also a movie where Toad can spit dumb Nickelodeon green gunk at Jean Grey.
Drawing a Line to the Apocalypse
The original film’s Cerebro sequence is still a great effect, prefiguring the IMAX theaters that are showing 2016’s X-Men Apocalypse today. The latest X-offering is at once an inert and busy film, and one thing it’s juggling is putting a bow on the entire franchise. As such, the original X-Men is explicitly referenced several times (the concentration camp, the mutant cage fight, Charles’ baldness explained just like Rogue’s white streak was, a direct quotation of the “great swell of pity” exchange). And looking back on the original with the knowledge of eight subsequent movies yields enough inconsistencies to fill a whole other essay (that Mystique voice modulator!).
But most of all, reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of “the not too distant future”. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.