Rating: *** out of 4
Rating: *** out of 4
“Are you a God-fearing man, senator? That is such a strange phrase. I’ve always thought of God as a teacher; a bringer of light, wisdom and understanding. You see, I think what you really fear is me. Me and my kind…. Oh, it’s not surprising really. Mankind has always feared what it doesn’t understand.” - Magneto
"You know, people like you are the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child.” - Mystique
Rogue: “When they come out…does it hurt?”
Wolverine: “Every time.”
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, and Famke Janssen.
Writers: David Hayter, Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer (and Joss Whedon uncredited)
Director: Bryan Singer
The early 2000’s saw rise to a multitude of budding franchises, many of which are still holding strong almost 20 years later. When 20th Century Fox and the Donner’s (Richard and Linda of Superman fame) first took on Stan Lee’s wonderful and inspiring comic, little did they realize just how much they would go towards ushering in a new kind of summer blockbuster. X-Men, along with 2002’s Spider-Man (and to a lesser extent, 1998’s Blade) brought rise to the modern comicbook movie; a movement that is responsible for the majority of Hollywood’s yearly revenue.
It is strange to turn back the clock and think of a time when comicbook adaptations were not really a thing. Who would have guessed that this little, relatively low budget movie would kick start a phenomenon? Looking at this singular film, it seems odd that so much sprang from it and yet the set premise of the source material speaks so true to audiences. It captures the voice of those who relate themselves as different; people who view themselves as outsiders or are in some way ostracized. While the film is by no means a great movie, it does manage to capture the essence of the comic and what it was trying to say.
Set in a near future where beings of extraordinary powers exist, who call themselves mutants. The film centers on a school for the gifted, led by Professor Charles Xavier who has grand dreams of mutant harmony. When his rival (and one-time friend) Erik Lehnsherr targets the populace of New York in a dramatic strike against mutant oppressors, Prof. X unites his team of superheroes to protect those who fear and hate them. All this is presented through the eyes of two newcomers to the fold; a young girl who is unable to touch for fear of causing people great harm, and a prize fighting booze hound who knows not his past. And, herein lies the film’s strengths.
Unusual for an introductory film to not be an origin story, but rather establish an already fully flourished environment that has existed for ages. You get the sense in the picture that Xavier and Lehnsherr have been doing this for ages, and the film hangs its framework on the shoulders of a character who is viewing everything as we would; from the perspective of an outsider. Further, choosing the character of Wolverine to usher audiences into this universe work dramatically as he has no bias for choosing sides, having no memory of who he is. He is a blank slate of a character, and that really helps to guide the film.
This concept of choosing alliances stems from Martin Luthor King, Jr. and Malcolm X during the race movements of the 60’s. Stan Lee is said to have modeled the characters of Xavier and Lehnsherr directly after these two historic icons and the way they influenced others during this turbulent part of history. The film manages to capture their idealistic crusades nicely, but vilifies Lehnsherr a little too strongly. It would have been nice if he was given a chance in this film to really argue his side, but alas, it is what it is.
How this film speaks to those who are different is where it finds its strongest success. The X-Men have always played the allegory for race and sexual orientation to moderate perfection. This film executes it nicely with some touching subtlety. My favorite scene has young Rogue staring at Logan’s knuckles and asking, “When they come out…does it hurt?” to which he replies after a poignant beat, “Every time.” The film was directed by Bryan Singer who is openly gay, and this scene always struck me in its sincerity. Moments like this are peppered throughout this film in particular (as well as other installments in the franchise) and genuinely have impact while not being overly pandering or preachy. They feel earned.
Couple all of this with some truly excellent casting choices and you have Box Office gold. Patrick Stewart shines as Xavier. It was as if he was born for the role. Ian McKellan would not have been my first choice as Magneto. He is far frailer than his comic counterpart, yet he elevates every scene he is in. Similarly, Hugh Jackman is way too tall, charismatic and nowhere near gruff enough to resemble the Wolverine from the comics, but the man steals the show. Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore and Famke Janssen all also bring fine quality to the picture, as does the shamefully under used James Marsden. More on him later.
So, with all this quality fluttering about, why is the movie just passable? Part of the problem with the film is that it is overly simplistic. The script rarely takes any chances. The film also doesn’t offer much in the way of screen presence. What draws your attention is the placement of fine actors in scenes, but the world has no real established look and the one we are given feels stark and kind of cheap (which it was as Fox feared the film’s failure and made it with a shockingly low budget). The unfortunate part about this is that each of the following films had to sort of adhere to the visual style of this film and it wasn’t until the series hit a soft reboot that the visuals became grander in scope.
It is a case of one of those films where the concept is far more intriguing than the ultimate plot and a lot of characters get sidelined to move the bland plot forward. *Cough* Cyclops *Cough* Having said that, this film does better than any of the other films in having the X-Men come together and unite as a cohesive unit even though the final battle is a bit lackluster.
Another big problem with the film is that the first 30 minutes are so good that it becomes incredibly obvious that the rest of the movie cannot really live up. The final two thirds of the movie have this indescribable blandness. Nothing is bad or poorly done, it just lacks the strength that those opening scenes had. Even weirder is that the moment that the film becomes less interesting is the moment that the X-Men show up. It just becomes a film going through the motions and it is very disappointing.
That being said, it still offers quite a lot to admire. The cast is great. There are some neat little effects shots and some fun moments of humor. The film serves as a good introduction to the X-Men universe and the characters that inhabit it. It is just a shame that with so much going for it, it isn’t a better film. Those would come later in the series. Bryan Singer even addressed this critique by saying that he personally views this film as a mere prologue to a truly great movie. That movie would be X2 which would hit screens three years later.