The modern era of the superhero movie begins in earnest with X-Men

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Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the X-Men comics captured the collective imagination of the kids and teenagers who were willing to pay attention to comic books. The books had rich casts of characters. They had great storytelling, with long and ambitious plotlines that would stretch over months or even years. They had the evergreen theme of a society that oppresses outsiders, and that resonated even among the kids who didn’t quite understand what they were reading. And they had Wolverine, a beloved badass character with a whole deep mythology of his own. (For a while, Wolverine was so popular that he would guest in pretty much every Marvel comic, leaving 4th-grade me puzzled as to how Logan had enough time to go on all these different adventures.)

The X-Men were a phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean that anyone had any expectations that a good X-Men movie would or even could happen. To pull off something like that, you’d have to have a huge budget, and you’d have to have special effects that simply weren’t possible in the ’80s or ’90s. Casting would be a problem, too. After all, hundreds of thousands of kids had been reading those comics for years, and we all had our own ideas about how those characters would look, talk, move. It wouldn’t be easy to find actual humans to live up to expectations.

But even if you could solve the problems of effects and casting, you’d have to have a Hollywood studio that was willing to take a story like this seriously, which did not seem like something that would ever exist. The X-Men comics were, after all, a serious business, one that started out as an extended allegory about race and came to sweep up many marginalized groups in America. They couldn’t be a joke. And there was no evidence that any Hollywood studio would be willing to do those characters justice. Forget the Joel Schumacher Batman movies; even something as silly as the Tim Burton Batman movies wouldn’t work for X-Men. So: An expensive Hollywood movie, painstakingly cast and competently made, about comic-book superheroes, done with seriousness and rigor, packed with metaphors about marginalized groups. This seemed like a tall order. This did not seem like something that could happen.

It happened. Watching X-Men today, the movie can’t compete with the brilliant entertainment-machines that the people at Marvel Studios now regularly churn out. Compared to those movies, X-Men is clumsy and primitive, with an action climax that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and a few great comic-book characters that simply don’t get their due. But none of those later Marvel movies could exist without X-Men. And considering the movie landscape of 2000, it’s a bit of a miracle that X-Men came out at all, and that it was as good as it was.

X-Men took a while. The first studio to option the rights was Orion, way back in 1984, and those rights changed hands a few times over the years. Fox, surprised and intrigued by the success of its (honestly pretty great) X-Men Saturday morning cartoon, ended up being the last company to buy those rights, which is the reason we still haven’t seen Wolverine show up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow made noises about making the movie, and Joss Whedon and Michael Chabon wrote scripts. It ended up going to the young director Bryan Singer when he was still coming off of the instant-classic crime movie The Usual Suspects—a fascinating preview of an era where new indie directors are regularly absorbed into the franchise-movie system.

Maybe it was slightly ridiculous and exploitative for a superhero movie, a movie that was marketed directly to children, to open up with a scene at a concentration camp. But that’s the tone that X-Men needed to convey, right from the jump. When we see a young Magneto being dragged away from his family, it gives the movie that we’re watching a sense of real-world stakes. And for whatever cartoonish directions the movie takes, it keeps those stakes intact.

It’s remarkable, watching it today, how the central metaphor of X-Men continues to evolve, to find new relevance every few years. The X-Men of the comics started out as an oblique way for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to talk about the race in early-’60s America. By 2000, they’d become something else. Director Bryan Singer is bisexual and star Ian McKellen is gay, and the movies push that subtext hard, especially in a sequel scene where a young Iceman comes out as a mutant to his parents. (In the years since X-Men, Singer has been accused, many times, of sexual assault and rape, and it’s deeply sad to think about how easy the oppressed can become the oppressor.) Watching the movie today, I kept thinking about the immigrants currently being terrorized by those in power in this country—a parallel that probably wasn’t intended in 2000 but that sure fits now. “If it was up to me, I’d lock ’em all away,” an anti-mutant senator tells his aide. “It’s a war. It’s the reason why people like me exist.” He’s talking about mutants, but it’s easy to imagine him as any number of people in power right now.

Beyond the messaging, the movie does a remarkable job introducing all of its characters and laying out its world quickly and efficiently. This was back in the time when every summer blockbuster didn’t have to be two and a half hours long, and X-Men gets in and gets out in an hour and 45 minutes. (It’s not just shorter than today’s superhero movies. It’s shorter than Mystery Men, too.) The characters have origins, but the movie doesn’t bog itself down too much with exploring them. (The sequels would take care of that.)

Because of budget cutbacks, Fox demanded that a few characters, like Nightcrawler and Beast, be removed from the movie’s script. They had the right idea. The movie could’ve easily been too crowded, introducing all these characters without letting us know who any of them are. But the first X-Men keeps things relatively lean—a few good guys, a few bad guys, a fight. That simplicity lets us spend some time with the most compelling of those characters. We get to see how Charles Xavier and Magneto can be enemies who still like, admire, and understand each other. We get to see how Rogue’s mutant abilities isolate her from the rest of society, to the point where she can’t feel another person’s touch. We see Cyclops’ rigid, milquetoast leadership style and Jean Grey’s sly intelligence. And we see a whole lot of Wolverine.

Wolverine’s introductory scene, in a chicken-wire cage fight in the Canadian wilderness, is a perfect piece of filmmaking. We see him leaning up against the side of the cage, his face obscured, pounding a drink and ignoring the big fucker who’s gearing up to fight him. He takes a kick to the balls, and then he brutally, satisfyingly trounces the asshole. A few minutes later, when the bartender tries to use a shotgun to kick him out, he cuts the gun in half and uses his claws to pin his attacker to a wall. He barely says a word. It’s great.

Hugh Jackman, an Australian stage actor, had never even been in an American movie before X-Men. His biggest credit up until then was a London stage production of Oklahoma! The X-Men producers had to scramble to find a Wolverine, as Dougray Scott, who’d originally been cast as Wolverine, was taking too long filming his part as the villain in Mission: Impossible 2. Russell Crowe, the producers’ original choice for the part, recommended his buddy Jackman. (The producers had also invited Glenn Danzig to audition for Wolverine. Glenn Danzig as Wolverine was all a teenage me really wanted out of life, but Danzig declined to try out. And in retrospect, that would’ve probably sucked really bad.)

At 6 foot, 2 inches, Jackman was about a foot taller than the Wolverine of the comics, so, perversely enough, the filmmakers had to resort to creative camera angles and co-star shoe lifts to make him look shorter than he was. And yet he’s perfect. He’s got the weathered intensity, the wariness, the caged-animal body language, and the hidden warmth that made Wolverine such a compelling comic-book character. Jackman made the character, and the character made Jackman. He ended up becoming a bona fide movie star, and he’s played Wolverine in nine or 10 different movies, depending on how you count. In one of those movies, he gives arguably the best performance that anyone has ever given as a superhero. That casting choice, made under duress, remains the single greatest decision made in the production of X-Men. In the alternate reality where Dougray Scott plays Wolverine, do comic-book movies conquer Hollywood? I honestly don’t know.

Most of the casting decisions in X-Men were on point, though none of them ended up resonating quite like that. As Charles Xavier, Patrick Stewart was a no-brainer. He’s the person who any teenage comic-book fan in the ’90s would’ve suggested, and the warmth and wisdom he brings to the role are crucial. (He stuck around, too. It bugs me out that a 75-year-old Stewart had to use makeup to age himself in Logan, since he looked exactly as he had 17 years earlier.) As Magneto, Ian McKellen has a certain dark gravitas; you can see why other mutants would follow him. Even Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, mostly known as a model and MTV host, makes Mystique work through her lithe, predatory physicality.

Not all of the casting worked. X-Men got Halle Berry a year before she won an Oscar, but the movie doesn’t really do anything with her Storm, and her halfhearted African accent is deeply unconvincing. (Fun fact: The X-Men producers originally wanted Angela Bassett for Storm, but she was too expensive. In the comics, Storm and Black Panther eventually got married. Seventeen years after X-Men, Bassett ended up playing Black Panther’s mother instead of his wife.) Other, smaller roles, like Sabretooth and Kitty Pryde, were recast in quick order.

And the movie had issues that went beyond its casting. The final showdown, at the Statue Of Liberty, is a total mess, with diaphanous CGI energy-blobs, cheesy and radiating everywhere. Magneto’s plan, to turn world leaders into mutants, is some spectacularly dumb movie-logic bullshit, and no matter how many times I see X-Men, I can’t figure out why he needs to capture Rogue to carry it out. (I do, however, love the shot of Magneto levitating while fireworks go off behind him.) The movie’s fights, which combine ’90s-style Michael Bay noisiness with post-Matrix kung fu, haven’t aged well. Neither have some of the CGI effects, especially Toad’s cartoonish tongue. (They wouldn’t get any better. For a blockbuster movie franchise, the X-Men movies have almost always had shockingly shitty special effects.) There are too many scenes of the X-Men holed up in their mansion, fretting about what to do—and then when the fighting starts, you wish they’d get back to the mansion already.

Still, as rushed and chaotic as that finale might be, it’s not the point of the movie. The point of the movie is to set up a whole world, and it does that. X-Men ends by nakedly teasing a sequel, and maybe that seemed presumptuous at the time; late-’90s blockbusters didn’t typically tease future installments. But X-Men wouldn’t just get a sequel. It would get spin-offs, prequels, alternate-timeline reboots. It basically created a rough-draft model for the Marvel Cinematic Universe eight years before that would come into existence. And it showed that there was, in fact, room for this, for the slick and serious-minded superhero blockbuster. Maybe it didn’t quite foreshadow an era where movies like that would colonize Hollywood, but it did help that world come into being.

Other noteworthy 2000 superhero movies: In its own quiet and ponderous way, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable also helped create a world where superhero movies could be taken seriously, if only because Mr. Glass, its most vivid and memorable character, takes superheroes about as seriously as anyone could take anything. The movie is a grim and fascinating little parable about the idea of superhuman power, and about the lure that idea might have for someone who has no physical power of his own. If anything, the movie presents its premise as something too grounded; when Bruce Willis finally accepts his destiny and becomes a superhero, he wears a plain poncho instead of a cape. But the movie leaves an impression so deep that, 18 years later, it’s finally about to get a sequel.

The other superhero movies of 2000 were mostly the kinds of cheap, cynical things that would soon become endangered. The Specials, written by eventual Guardians Of The Galaxy auteur James Gunn, tried to do the lame-superhero-team comedy thing a year after Mystery Men, but with Rob Lowe and Thomas Haden Church instead of Ben Stiller and William H. Macy. The Crow: Salvation, which basically went straight-to-video after the failure of its predecessor, is mostly only memorable for featuring a pre-Spider-Man Kirsten Dunst (and, for that matter, a pre-Ant-Man And The Wasp Walton Goggins). The made-for-TV occult superhero adaptation Witchblade is mostly memorable for being the rare feature-length TV pilot that actually led to a TV series that ran for a couple of years. And Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV is mostly memorable for starring Ron Jeremy as the mayor of Tromaville and Hugh Hefner as the president of the United States. Also, Meteor Man director Robert Townsend made Up, Up, And Away!, a Disney Channel movie about a superhero family.

Next time: This is weird to say about the year after X-Men, but there were literally no superhero movies worth talking about in 2001, unless you want to really stretch things and talk about Pootie Tang or Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone as superhero movies. So instead, let’s talk about From Hell, the first of many attempts to adapt the work of wizardly comic-book genius Alan Moore.