Although they have been superseded in recent years by the ubiquity of Marvel Studios’ homegrown product, the X-Men remain Marvel’s first and in some ways most important film franchise. Although the filmic destiny of the X-Men is notoriously still controlled by Fox, it is inarguable that the success of every subsequent Marvel film—and most every other comic book movie for the last 15 years—stems from the positive response that met the first X-Men film when it was released in July of 2000.
Although Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films were incredibly influential, their legacy has proven to be something of a mixed bag. The first film’s success served as a kind of “proof of concept” for how superhero movies could work in the 21st century, but they did so partially by eliding certain elements of the source material that were deemed unpalatable for contemporary audiences. The X-Men to whom movie audiences were introduced in 2000 were still recognizably the same characters who had already thrilled readers (and television viewers) for 37 years, but they were also different in ways that went deeper than Hugh Jackman’s height. (At 6 feet, 2 inches, Jackman looms a full foot over the famously short Canadian brawler.)
The X-Men rose to popularity on a potent hybrid of multiple genres: They’re superheroes, sure, but their premise is straight out of the “Golden Age” of science fiction. Most contemporary superhero comics have some soap opera elements, but—second only to Spider-Man—Marvel’s mutants have always depended on superheated romance to provide fuel for decades of stories. The X-Men are also a civil rights allegory, with various versions of the property addressing the plights of not just African-Americans, but LGBTQ, immigrant, disabled, and mentally ill persons. It’s an elastic metaphor, as long as creators don’t put more weight on it than it can reasonably be expected to hold.
There are many reasons why the X-Men have remained so enduringly popular for four decades. They appeal to a wide variety of readers and viewers for a wide variety of reasons. X-Men: Apocalypse, rather than merely serving as a direct sequel to the well-received Days Of Future Past, represents a further turn for the venerable franchise—in a direction away from the relatively subdued tone of earlier installments—in favor of something more kinetic and neon. Spurred by the success of Marvel Studios, Fox is attempting to bring Marvel’s mutants closer to their comic book roots than ever before.
X-Men wasn’t the first Marvel movie, and it wasn’t even the first good Marvel movie. Although it is sometimes overlooked, the first true superhero movie in the modern sense was 1998’s Blade.
Before Blade, superhero films were largely defined by the Batman and Superman franchises. The Superman films had started strong in 1978 before petering out over the mid-’80s, while the Batman movies—beginning in 1989 with Tim Burton’s first flawed but indelible entry—remained popular through the release of the strange third entry, Joel Schumacher’s surprisingly romantic Batman Forever. Schumacher had wanted to follow up Burton’s slightly disappointing Batman Returns with a far less flamboyant and more grounded version of the character based more on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Year One. Warner Brothers wanted something that could sell more toys, however, so they hired Jim Carrey to ham it up as the Riddler. Although it met with a mixed response, Forever surprised many by performing well at the box office, well enough to prove that there was still an appetite for Batman outside of Burton’s idiosyncratic interpretation.
Schumacher is an underrated director who became unfairly tarred by the negative reaction to Forever’s follow-up. It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where the talented guy who directed The Lost Boys, Falling Down, and Tigerland delivered something very much like Christopher Nolan’s later straight-faced interpretation of the character. But Warner Brothers insisted Schumacher double-down on the toyetic tone of Forever, and the result was the divisive Batman & Robin. For those who accept the 1960s Adam West Batman as a legitimate interpretation of the character, Batman & Robin is an underrated gem, an endlessly inventive candy-coated cartoon that fully embraces the spirit of camp that lies near the beating heart of every superhero story. But it was too cultish and too odd for general audiences. The film wasn’t a complete flop, but it was still generally considered a disaster, one that fully torpedoed the careers of Alicia Silverstone and Chris O’Donnell while delivering a serious setback to George Clooney (who only recovered by going small-scale with the one-two punch of critical darlings Out Of Sight and Three Kings). It also seemed for a moment like the death-knell of comic book movies as a genre, done in by the Bat-nipples on our heroes’ latex rubber costumes.
Blade came out in August of 1998. Up until then Marvel had only one theatrical release to its name, the infamous 1986 flop Howard The Duck. Besides that, there were a number of TV movies over the years, as well as a generally reviled anime adaptation of Tomb Of Dracula. Because of the character’s obscurity, Blade wasn’t marketed as a comic book film, and its success came from the fact that it was a perfect vehicle for Wesley Snipes at the height of his powers as a quip-happy action star. There was no costume, just an uniform of light battle armor. It was another universe entirely from Batman & Robin.
Even if the general public had little awareness of Blade’s history as a comic book superhero, Hollywood took note of the fact that after decades of trying and failing to launch movie projects, Marvel Comics finally had a hit. Studios came knocking, and because Marvel was still suffering from the circumstances of its 1996 bankruptcy, the movie rights to some of its most lucrative properties were available for fire-sale prices. (Although the company surely regrets selling those rights now, there’s no doubt that the sales helped keep the company afloat in a period where its continued existence was far from a sure thing.) The X-Men, having been Marvel’s most popular franchise for the preceding 15 years, was first in the hopper after Blade. Fox tapped up-and-coming director Bryan Singer to direct the film, a move which also unwittingly pioneered the trend of promising indie directors having their careers hijacked by close association with big-budget superhero series. Of course, no one at the time could have predicted just how far the first X-Men movie would take Fox and Singer.
From the perspective of 2016 the first X-Men film is an oddly sedate affair. Although moviegoers now are used to seeing multiple super characters dancing around onscreen, back at the turn of the century cinematic superpowers were still considered a novelty. Batman has no powers, of course. Most of the superheroes who had appeared onscreen over the preceding few decades had, with the notable exception of Superman, been similarly non-powered or—in the case of Blade—mostly underpowered, with maybe a few special tricks. The challenge in 2000 was to show a team full of superheroes without having it look silly, which is where most attempts at filming powered heroes had floundered in the years since Christopher Reeve hung up his onesie. Thankfully, a new generation of special effects had popped up by the turn of the century, a digital revelation that helped encourage viewers’ suspension of disbelief when it came to portraying men who can shoot red beams of pure concussive force from their eyes.
Since Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios succeeded in making the Avengers work onscreen, the idea that a team of significantly underpowered X-Men might have represented a substantial risk to the audience’s goodwill may seem quaint. But the superpowers, when they arrive in the film, come slowly and almost tentatively. More importantly than seeing Magneto toss around automobiles was seeing Magneto and Professor X face off over their ideals. Even more important than Jackman as Wolverine, the casting of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen gave the film a dramatic gravity that enabled it to resist any suggestions of camp or kitsch, intentional or otherwise.
When the time came for the team to suit up, the movie fought hard to maintain the serious tone it had already established with its heavy themes—in case you’ve forgotten, the first scene of the film is set in a concentration camp in occupied Poland in 1944. Compromises had to be made. Instead of dressing in bright primary colors, the costumes were changed to sleek black jumpsuits, more or less functional as light armor. There were still intimations of the same kind of exaggerated sexual vigor that had made the X-Men so popular among preteens and adolescents for decades, but these X-Men were far more muted by any measure. These heroes were grown adults with adult feelings that were channeled in vigorously heteronormative directions—both Wolverine and Cyclops wanted to sleep with Jean Grey, for instance. Any hint of the perversity and queerness that had flourished in Burton or Schumacher’s Batman films had been erased from the genre.
The problem was that in order to make the genre and these characters more palatable to a general audience, the filmmakers sacrificed a great deal of what had made the X-Men so popular in the first place. Certainly, the civil rights metaphors had been near the heart of the franchise since the very beginning, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first invented the concept of mutants. Some mutants (who conveniently self-identify as “evil mutants”) want to live apart from and even rule humanity, while others (the X-Men and their friends and allies) accept that mutants are still a part of humanity and dedicate themselves to living among and protecting “a world that hates and fears them,” as the saying goes.
Singer’s films—2000’s X-Men and 2003’s X-Men 2 (or X2: X-Men United) both stuck closely to this core metaphor. Although at the time they seemed like state of the art—and they were—in hindsight they seem almost drab, and restricted by their slavish obedience to the more solemn elements of the X-Men mythos. The X-Men in their natural habitat were occasionally solemn, yes, but also just as frequently silly, dense, melodramatic, and campy. Something was missing.
The decision to finally introduce Apocalypse represents a significant shift for the film franchise. It would be difficult to frame the X-Men as ever being a “grounded” series, but up to now the films and their spin-offs have portrayed the X-Men’s cinematic universe as being one generally bound by the same kinds of limitations as our own. Days of Future Past represented a significant departure in this respect, presenting longtime X-Men staples such as the giant robot Sentinels and time travel with a matter-of-factness that underscored the degree to which audiences have come to accept the inherent silliness at the heart of the superhero genre in the 14 years separating Singer’s first X-Men film and his return to the franchise.
Apocalypse has been among the X-Men’s most popular villains since the late ’80s. The character first appeared in the pages of X-Factor, only the second ongoing X-Men spin-off title, devoted to the adventures of the original five X-Men, recently reunited following the resurrection of Jean Grey. The team needed a villain, however. The series’ first writer (Bob Layton) introduced a shadowy criminal mastermind operating behind the scenes and working against our heroes. The character was initially intended by Layton to be Daredevil’s old foe The Owl. Editor Bob Harras stepped in and decreed that the character should be a new villain, and one who could give the new team of established heroes a run for their money. Layton left the book after five issues, replaced by the team of Louise Simonson and Jackson Guice. The character originally intended to be The Owl was revealed to be Apocalypse.
Apocalypse believes himself to be the first mutant. Abandoned at birth because of his freakish appearance, the man known as En Sabah Nur rose to power in ancient Egypt (then under the rule of the Fantastic Four foe Pharaoh Rama-Tut), and used his powers to assume the mantle of a god. Essentially immune to all physical harm (including age), Apocalypse possesses incredible personal power. He also possesses a cache of fantastic technology and weaponry left on Earth eons ago by the all-powerful race of Celestials (one of whom had a brief cameo in Marvel Studio’s Guardians Of The Galaxy film, so don’t expect to see them in Fox’s X-Men universe). Later writers elaborated on his origins, weaving connections between Apocalypse and the character Cable, introduced in 1990 by Simonson and Rob Liefeld.
Although he was created in the 1980s, Apocalypse later became the defining X-Men villain of the 1990s. A frequent presence in the books throughout his first decade, he would not truly come into his own until 1995, and the debut of the “Age Of Apocalypse.” The Age Of Apocalypse was an alternate universe storyline that came about as a result of Charles Xavier’s son Legion traveling back in time to kill Magneto. Unfortunately, Legion accidentally kills his father instead. Without Xavier to form the X-Men, Apocalypse attacks the United States 10 years earlier. He soon conquers the world and brings it to the brink of Armageddon. Eventually the Age Of Apocalypse timeline was erased and the “real” universe restored, but not before the X-Men books spent four months exploring the premise.
The story came along at a time when sales were falling across the comic industry. Retailers across the country were closing their doors and readers left in droves. It can’t be overstated just how much the X-Men and Marvel both needed a big hit in 1995, and the “Age Of Apocalypse” delivered. Overnight, Apocalypse became not just one of the X-Men’s top foes, but one of the top villains in all of comics. Problems arose, however, as creators came to grips with the fact that Apocalypse’s greatest story was set in an alternate universe, the consequences of which were mostly undone by the end of the event. Back in the “normal” Marvel Universe, Apocalypse has suffered under these tremendous expectations, lurching from subpar story to ill-advised new direction, until finally being killed (sort of) in 2006. In the years since then Apocalypse himself has appeared rarely, with his presence in the X-Men universe mostly filled by various followers, assistants, and clones.
A villain like Apocalypse would fit right in to Marvel’s own Cinematic Universe—in fact, he’d probably be quite welcome, given Marvel’s lack of memorable villain roles. But a character as fantastic and flamboyant sits at odds with the relatively staid X-Men franchise, in which the greatest “supervillains” are always bigotry and prejudice, against which even morally gray characters such as Magneto and Mystique cannot prevail. The threat of Apocalypse is a considerable step removed from the franchise’s basic thematic underpinnings: Apocalypse desires not to rule humanity for the sake of mutantkind but to destroy much of the planet in the name of his commitment to the rule of “survival of the fittest.” Only the strong survive in the wake of Apocalypse.
Along with Apocalypse comes a host of other developments. The internal continuity of the X-Men films, already stretched to the breaking point by the time travel in Days Of Future Past, stands to be further complicated. Character backstories stretching back to 2000 have become hopelessly convoluted. In place of the ubiquitous black jumpsuits of the early films, the X-Men appear throughout in colorful leotards and outlandish costumes, some of which appear slightly more sexy than necessary. The original themes have become muddied by stock sci-fi tropes such as time travel, ancient aliens, and mind control.
While all of this accretion of disparate elements may seem like a recipe for disaster, the results may bring the movie closer to the original comics than ever before. The X-Men at their best are hopelessly convoluted, doggedly adolescent in their mass appeal, and dedicated to fan service in every way, shape, and form. The X-Men franchise, the same film series that initially served as an exorcism for all the weird and campy elements of superhero stories that had lingered into the late 1990s with Batman & Robin, has finally come full circle by embracing precisely the kind of relentlessly ornamental aesthetic once deemed fatal to the success of comic book movies.
Maybe not quite Bat-nipples, but close.