For over a decade now, comic book movies have been some of the highest grossing films to come out from Hollywood. What started out as a fad has become it’s own genre. Over the next few months, I’m going to be delving into each movie individually to try and find out what it is that’s made them a mainstay in modern Hollywood.
Release Year: 2000
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: David Hayter
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry and Anna Paquin.
Two years after Blade had been a hit for New Line Cinema, X-men was released by 20th Century Fox. Unlike Blade, X-men were a pretty well known brand before they took off as a movie franchise. Marvel had had a lot of success with the X-men comics in the 90s thanks to a new number 1 issue by star creators Chris Clearmont and Jim Lee (the first issue sold millions of copies because it was part of a boom comics were going through in the 90s. This would later lead to the medium struggling and eventually lead Marvel to bankruptcy and selling off their properties to movie studios, which is why fans today constantly complain about Marvel studios not having the movie rights to Spider-man and the X-men), there was also the animated cartoon show, which, like a lot of Marvel stuff, is where I first remember discovering them. So the film itself wasn’t as much a risk for the studio like Blade was, but comic book movies could still go either way at the box office.
The X-men comic itself struggled to find an audience when it was first published in 1963. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the original lineup consisted of Cyclops, Beast, Ice-Man, Angel, Jean Grey (who was then known as Marvel Girl) and lead by Professor Xavier. Sales weren’t as high as Marvel would have liked, this could have been down to Lee and Kirby working on other Marvel titles at the time and not giving the X-men their all, since their run on the book isn’t as long as, say, their run on the Fantastic Four. In 1969, Roy Thomas and Neal Adams took over as creators on the book and introduced some new characters, but the book was cancelled around issue 66. So Marvel decided to relaunch the title, with a new line up and new creators, which helped give the title the boost it needed to make it one of Marvel Comics most successful franchises.
What also makes X-men brand as successful and good as it is, is that Mutants themselves are a metaphor for people who don’t feel like they belong in society. In both the comics and the films, mutants represent those people who are on the outside, and it’s a metaphor and theme that’s pretty much timeless. And it works across the board, from racism to bullying to sexual preference. Over the past 50 years, at one point or another, these have been addressed in the comics, and if there’s one thing that Hollywood loves – it’s a good metaphor that audiences can latch onto.
The theme of oppression is very apparent in X-men, as the main plot of the movie involves a plan by Magneto to turn the leaders of the world into Mutants. Magneto is the first character in the movie we’re introduced to, as the film opens in Poland 1944 – a Nazi Concentration Camp. We see a young Erik Lehnsherr be separated from his parents, but what we’re actually witnessing is his super villain origin. It’s what starts his hatred against human kind, made all the worse as he gets older by the way humans treat mutants. I think we start with Magneto so we can sympathise with him, and believe in his cause more. He’s not wrong in what he wants, which is equality for mutants, it’s his methods in gaining what he wants that makes him the villain. He’s willing to use a machine, which he knows will have bad effects and will lead to death, on humankind to turn them into mutants. I’m not sure I’d go as far to say he’s a political activist in the sense of someone like Martin Luther King, but there are certainly parallels there.
(Side note: we’ll see more of his backstory much later in X-men: First Class)
Going against the original lineup in the comics, the core team in the movie consists of Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Jean Grey and Rogue. Lead, of course, by Professor Xavier. There are also other well known mutants in smaller roles, most notably Ice-Man, who will have more to do in future movies. There’s also cameos of Kitty Pryde and Pyro.
The main focus of the movie, and nearly every X-men movie to come after it, is on Wolverine. This is for the simple fact that he’s the most popular character in the X-men franchise. Even though he wasn’t in the original lineup, since his debut in the mid-70s, he’s had several of his own on-going series, been in a multitude of different X-men titles, and more recently, he’s been a main character in The Avengers. We’re introduced to him at first as a cage fighter. He’s making use of his mutant ability to heal (and also his adamantium laced skeleton) to make a living, and because he’s a bit of a lost cause when we first meet him. It’s here he meets Rogue, who ran away from home after discovering her mutant power from her first kiss (she sent the guy into a coma for 3 weeks because her mutant ability is to drain a persons energy, or if they’re a mutant – their ability). When the pair are out on the road, they’re attacked by Sabertooth, who we later find out is part of Magnetos Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. They’re saved by Cyclops and Storm, which sends Wolverine and Rogue to Xaviers School for Gifted Youngsters, which brings all of our characters together.
What I like most about this film, and what I think helped it become as big and successful as it is, is it’s cast. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are perfectly casted in the roles of Professor Xavier and Magneto respectively. Two classically trained Shakespearian actors in two of the most iconic roles from comics. What’s also great about these two actors in these roles is that they’re actually best friends in real life. The relationship between Xavier and Magneto has been an important part of X-men since it first launched, and the fact that these guys are friends off the screen as well adds a whole extra layer of subtext to every scene they’re in. You can feel the history between them whenever they have scenes together. From the first time we see them together at the UN meeting, to the final scene of the film when they’re playing chess.
There’s also Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He was originally the second choice for the role behind Dougary Scott, who passed on the role of Wolverine to star in Mission: Impossible II. It needs to be said: Hugh Jackman is great. He’s doesn’t always choose the best roles, but he always gives a performance his all. He’s also one of the few modern Hollywood actors who can sing and dance and be an action hero (and he manages to pull off the questionable hairstyle of Wolverine. See, this guy has talent!) I’ve always liked him as Wolverine. He gets both the toughness and soft side of the character right. And for all you ladies out there who like your eye candy – he spends a lot of time in this film without his shirt on.
This film doesn’t waste any time in establishing the love triangle between Wolverine, Cyclops and Jean Grey, a love triangle that’s been an important part of X-men history. Cyclops is the clean cut, handsome frat boy, while Wolverine is rough, rugged hairy new guy. The banter between Wolverine and Cyclops (James Marsden) makes for some good comic relief in the film and helps add that extra tension to the team. They try not to make Jean Greys singular job being the object that these two guys have to fight over. She is given other stuff to do (like x-raying Wolverine in all the scenes that he’s shirtless in). She’s played pretty well by Famke Janssen, who plays her more like her early comic book character, were she’s still discovering some of her powers. She’s better than the other female member of the group, Storm, who literally has very little to do. This was before Halle Berry won her Oscar, so she wasn’t that big of a deal yet, but the character she’s playing is one of the first black female superheroes in comics. It was probably hard to give her anymore screen time, but she needs more to do. Her best scene is in the train station, when’s she’s being threatened by Sabertooth, and she straight up gives him a giant lightening bolt.
Several characters, most of which have good performances behind them, but what I noticed this time around watching is that we don’t get too into the origins. It’s probably because mutation is something you’re born with and develop around puberty, but the film doesn’t spend much time on how the characters got to this point. Wolverines is glimpsed briefly in flashbacks. Cyclops, Jean and Storm are introduced as the teachers of the school. It’s only in Rogue that we see an actual origin. But they’ll attempt origins later, and you’ll probably be wishing they’d never bothered in some cases.
What stopped X-men from having too overly campy a look was the costumes. Gone are the colourful outfits comic book readers are used too. Instead, the film uses matching black lather jump suit costumes. They’re not that exciting as far as costumes go. The look of the film would later be replicated in the comics by artist Frank Quietly in New X-men. This is an early example of the movies having a knock on effect on the comics, something that would become more and more of a trend once Marvel began making their own movies.
The movie has aged pretty well. Their are effects there that look pretty dated, but they’re not overly done due to the modest budget the film had. They spent $70 million on making the movie. It would end up taking over $200 million at the box office, making it a smash hit. This is why X-men is often thought as as the beginning of the current trend in superhero movies. It had that appeal to both adults and younger audiences members which allowed it to take in a lot of money. It would also make Bryan Singer one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, and was the beginning of Hugh Jackman becoming a star (I wonder if Dougray Scott ever regrets not taking the role?).
Next time: I’ll be looking at Spider-man, which would end up being even bigger than X-men.