Published on August 9th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Summary: It started the ongoing superhero movie revelation. An outstanding ensemble cast teams up for this sometimes cheesy but mostly well done allegory about acceptance. The special effects hold up but the short run time leaves little time for real characters to develop.
PG-13 | 104 min.
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: David Hayter (based on Marvel’s comic book series)
Starring: Anna Paquin, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $75 million | U.S. Box Office: $157.3 million (#8 in 2000)
Superhero movies collect billions for studios like Disney, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox every year — but that wasn’t always a given.
In the 1990s, there was maybe one blockbuster superhero movie that hit theaters every year. At the turn of the new millennium, the last A-list comic book superhero flick produced was 1997’s Batman & Robin. The film failed to make back its $125 million budget at the U.S. box office and was one of the first big-budget movies to feel the wrath of online movie critics. Fast forward to July 2015 and six big-budget superhero flicks based on comic books have hit theaters in the past 15 months, with four of them making at least $250 million at the U.S. box office alone.
I credit Fox’s 2000 film X-Men with igniting the current superhero movie revolution, which has had audiences gripped for over 15 years.
X-Men had all the ingredients for an eye-catching superhero release — including a few that have essentially become mandatory today. A critically respected director, serious dramatic actors, cutting-edge CG effects and a tone that made the audience feel like it was watching a heavy film despite ridiculous plot elements. X-Men has a playful tone similar to 2012’s The Avengers but what separates it from many recent superhero movies is the weighty subtext that is obviously built into its script.
The film begins with Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) – a mutant with psychokinetic powers — speaking before a Senate hearing on the possible implementation of a program that would require mutants in the United States to publicly identify and register themselves as such. Grey argues that outing themselves as mutants would only set them up for marginalization and possible hate-crime attacks. A blowhard senator, played by Bruce Davison of Short Cuts, begins pounding his fist for the rolling news cameras, demanding to Grey that “the American people be able to choose if they want to have their kids go to school with mutants or be taught by mutants.”
Later in the film, that senator is forced to do the ultimate about-face when he himself is turned into a mutant by the evil Magneto (Ian McKellan).
One doesn’t have to watch X-Men with a magnifying glass to understand that it’s a story about prejudice, or more specifically, homophobia. The two central characters in the X-Men universe — and in this film — are Magneto and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Magneto, whose real name is Erik Lehnsherr, carries a harsh worldview that comes from being a Holocaust survivor and continuing to be persecuted after coming to America. In Germany, he was nearly killed for being a Jew, while in America it was his superpower that made him an outcast. Meanwhile, his constant foe Xavier is more optimistic about the idea of humans and mutants living side by side.
To make a simple cultural comparison, Magneto is Malcolm X to Xavier’s Martin Luther King. The former comparison is made more glaring by Magneto’s last line in the film: “By any means necessary.”
At first, I felt X-Men must be trying to teach me a lesson about racial segregation but the more I thought about the fact that the movie’s mutants are often able to blend in with humans – plus the fact that this film hit theaters in 2000, rather than 1970 — made me feel it was more likely about homosexual persecution. Rachel Dolezal notwithstanding, it’s a bit easier for a person to hide their sexual orientation for the sake of blending in than it is to hide their race.
Despite the weight added into the film’s script by writer David Hayter (X2, 2009’s Watchmen), X-Men’s plot is definitely its biggest weakness. Truthfully, there is no storyline to follow. We get to discover a separate world of citizens on Earth, see some cool fights and learn a lesson about tolerance but nothing really happens in terms of the plot. At barely over 1 hour and 40 minutes, there just simply isn’t enough time in X-Men to tell its entire story. Basically, there is a potential war developing between humans and mutants and the crux of this movie’s conflict is that Magneto and Xavier have two very different ideas of how to resolve that tension. One wants integration and understanding, while the other wants total domination.
X-Men’s greatest asset is its stellar ensemble cast. There are about a dozen characters with sizable roles in this picture, with almost every one being played by a recognizable actor. And further more, almost every one of them turn in engaging performances regardless of the depth of their character.
McKellan and Stewart, the storied veterans of the cast, are totally believable in the film’s two top roles, despite spitting some truly ridiculous dialogue. Stewart frankly deserved an Academy Award nomination simply for bringing legitimate weight to the line, “He became (pause) MAGNETO.” He actually makes you forget for a second how laughable that name is because he delivers the line with the same gusto as Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront when he said, “I coulda been a contender!”
While the two English screen icons bring heft to X-Men’s cast, it’s Hugh Jackman as Logan (aka Wolverine) that jumps off the screen. It’s hard to believe this movie represented Jackman’s debut in American cinema. Obviously we know him today as an Oscar-nominated actor, one of Broadway’s go-to stars and one of Hollywood’s top leading men but in 2000 he was just a roughneck with retractable claws. Jackman’s performance as Wolverine is nothing short of flawless; he nails the tough-guy look, the action scenes and every one-liner that was written for him — of which there were plenty.
The first time we see Jackman’s Wolverine it comes at a moment when the story is sagging a bit as we follow angsty teen mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin), who’s just run away from home after nearly accidentally killing her boyfriend with her superpower. Wolverine is pulverizing drunken lunkheads inside a cage in a cold barroom for drinking cash. Immediately the character is engaging and makes you sit up and take notice, especially when he sits down at the bar with a trademark stogie protruding from his mouth. It’s a no-brainer why the actor has played this character in seven films — with at least two more upcoming.
While I’m tempted to call X-Men Jackman’s film, the large cast is loaded with strong actors playing with diverse superpowers. Halle Berry — one of the finest actors of her generation — plays Storm, a dignified ass-kicker who can control the weather. The mysterious Famke Janssen (Goldeneye) is the aforementioned Dr. Jean Grey, perhaps the ultimate badass in the X-Men universe. And former Victoria’s Secret model Rebecca Romijn plays the shapeshifting Mystique, whose skintight nude blue-tinted bodysuit is equal parts sexy and utterly terrifying. For having virtually no acting skills, Romijn makes the most of her limited dialogue and keeps Mystique an intriguing character for the following two X-Men films.
While the large collection of characters is what undoubtedly makes X-Men one of the most entertaining superhero movies — and its universe more sustainable than most comic book worlds — it also proves to be a liability. X-Men is very light in terms of character development. Magneto is the only character in the movie that’s given any meaningful backstory and therefore, any weight. At best, the film’s protagonists and subvillains have a cool power and we’re given a small taste for the personal struggles their mutanthood has caused; at worst, they are paper-thin followers who have lame abilities.
For instance, Paquin’s character Rogue is revealed to be constantly at war with her own mutanthood. She wishes desperately to be able to make physical contact with someone without draining their life energy. She is a side character that we come to understand on a deeper level and therefore we care more about her struggle. On the other hand, we have Magneto’s dull henchmen: Sabretooth and Toad. One guy who looks like a prehistoric cat and the other has a frog’s tongue — I wish I were kidding. These are two of the weakest subvillains I’ve seen in a superhero movie and it’s hard to believe they were the first choices from Marvel’s wealthy X-Men universe. Most of the CGI effects in this film still look solid — especially Storm’s weather-controlling power — but Toad’s room-stretching tongue just looks cheesy today.
I found myself taken out of the film a few times by the fact that none of the mutants seem to ever get hurt. A big deal is made out of Wolverine’s power to regenerate his body, essentially making him immune to injury, but it seemed everyone in X-Men had this power. There are several moments when characters suffer crippling blows to the face or body but show no sign of damage. One guy gets struck point blank by a controlled bolt of lightning and gets right up to continue fighting. It’s a classic problem with superhero or action movies in general but it’s glaring during the fights in this one.
The sets in this movie are pretty straightforward and somewhat minimal, such as Xavier’s mutant school which looks like a boilerplate private academy and Magneto’s lair which has no awe-factor. However, elaborate set pieces aren’t always necessary, as perhaps the best action scene in X-Men takes place inside a nondescript train station, when the audience gets a real taste of the variety of powers at play. Using the metal inside Wolverine’s body, Magneto makes the hero float in midair and bends his claws. It looks like the most painful thing anyone could go through and made me wince a bit during the scene.
But X-Men is perhaps at its best during moments of levity between the protagonists. Wolverine gets a lot of laughs, especially during one scene at Ellis Island when he steps through a metal detector.
Director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy gets a lot of credit — and flack — for sucking the humor out of the superhero genre, which perhaps makes it more fun to go back and watch this movie and laugh along with its characters. X-Men’s actors and its director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) give the film enough weight to make it feel like legitimate cinema but also keep the mood light enough for endless replays.
It’s hard to imagine the billion-dollar comic-book movie business today without X-Men. It set the bar higher than anything in the genre since 1989’s Batman. In the three years after its release, four more films based on Marvel heroes would hit theaters, including X2, a sequel which proved better than the original in every way.