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In the Beginning, There Was ‘X-Men’: Revisiting the Superhero Movie That Started It All

20th Century Fox

Once upon a time, we lived in a world where superhero movies were scarce.

In the late ’90s, the Superman and Batman franchises were dead. The Marvel heroes were non-existent on the big screen. Various attempts at creating franchises out of pulp heroes like the Shadow, the Phantom and the Rocketeer had led to disappointing results at the box office. Spandex and capes and superheroics weren’t just out of fashion — they were seemingly box office poison.

That was a completely different world, a time when Hollywood’s big budget output looked completely and totally different than it does now. For better or worse, the current status of the superhero movie can be tracked back to one film. One modestly budgeted production designed the template and set the tone for a film movement that still hasn’t peaked. Some remember it fondly. Some think it got more wrong than it did right. But there’s no denying it: Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential films of the past two decades.

Okay. That’s a given. Even the most ardent non-fans of comic books movies cannot deny its impact. So let’s ask a few more pressing questions: in the year 2014, which sees the sixth sequel to the original film hitting theaters, is the first film any good? Does it hold up at all? Does it still feel like the dozens of superhero movies it inspired in the years to follow?

That’s a question easier pondered than answered. To watch ‘X-Men’ today is to see a movie that still works, but the seams of its construction now show in a way they didn’t back in 2000. It’s small, scruffy and strangely embarrassed of its own source material.

Every moviegoer with a pulse knows the basic set-up: Hugh Jackman plays the adamantium-clawed Mutant superhero known as Wolverine, who is recruited by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) to join his team of X-Men to battle Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his forces, who believe that Mutant-kind needs to fight back agains the humans who hate and fear them. The plots of the films would eventually grow more complicated and contradictory (requiring the semi-reboot that is ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past‘), but it’s a conflict that will carry on throughout the series. And why not? It’s the conflict that’s driven the comics for half a century, too.

"Cyclops deadpans “Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?” That got a big laugh in theater 14 years ago, but now, it’s hard not to think “Well, yeah, we would.”"

Before you even hit play, the first thing you may notice about ‘X-Men’ is its running time. At only 104 minutes, it’s a shockingly brisk movie. David Hayter’s tight and economic screenplay moves at a faster pace than most modern blockbusters, moving everyone and everything into place by the twenty-minute mark. In an age where it takes the Avengers an hour to assemble on the Helicarrier, this is a pleasant surprise. There’s no reason for most superhero movies to be over two hours (let alone the 150 minute-plus running times they tend toward these days), so ‘X-Men’s “get in and get out as fast as possible” attitude is refreshing. It’s lean, bloat-free entertainment and while some characters get short shrift, most of the ensemble feels well served.

However, that brisk pace is in service of a movie that doesn’t really feel like the comics it’s based on. These days, filmmakers earn serious internet brownie points by sticking close to specific comic book storylines and bending over backwards to stay true to a character’s on-the-page personality and origin. Singer doesn’t seem to care about any of that. Gone are the colorful costumes of the comics and in are generic black leather get-ups that still haunt the franchise to this day. Major characters are reduced to one-note caricatures, with their better qualities distributed to Jackman’s Wolverine. When Jackman complains about his new uniform, Cyclops deadpans “Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?” That got a big laugh in theater 14 years ago, but now, it’s hard not to think “Well, yeah, we would.”

They may be based on characters who originated in the same comic book universe, but it’s tough to imagine ‘X-Men’ and something like ‘The Avengers‘ belonging to the same genre. While the latter is unashamed of its origins and fills every frame with wild costumes and carefully modulated silliness, ‘X-Men’ is generally po-faced and serious, grounding everything in quasi-realistic science fiction and stripping the characters and their world of anything that doesn’t fit those qualifications. Other than few one-liners, it’s a very serious affair and the lack of humor means that that film’s dumber moments (most of which involve Magneto’s cheesy master plan) come across as rampant stupidity rather than self-aware pulpiness.

In the year 2000, Singer and his team gambled that audiences weren’t ready for a full-on comic book movie … and they were probably right. The film made $157 million on its $75 million budget, certainly more than enough to warrant a sequel. When the wilder, more colorful and altogether better ‘X2′ arrived in 2003, audiences had already embraced Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ and were prepared for a stranger, riskier movie. If ‘X-Men’ had looked like that when it arrived in 2000, would audiences have embraced it or was this the necessary first step, the cinematic equivalent of a salesman getting his foot in the door?

Despite its disappointing moments, ‘X-Men’ has otherwise aged shockingly well. The lack of excessive CGI and the small-scale set pieces are still effective today. It’s especially refreshing that the climax involves a handful of people battling at the Statue of Liberty. If this movie was made today, everything would end with half of Manhattan in rubble. As superhero movies race to get bigger and out-do each other with massive set-pieces and earth-shattering stakes, it may be better to take a page from Singer’s work here. The more intimate feeling of the film is undoubtedly due to its smaller budget, but that $75 million forced Singer and his crew to devise clever work-arounds to their story problems. When ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘ can’t create a single interesting character or action beat with triple that budget, you know certain lessons are still being ignored completely.

Honestly, more modern superhero movies should use ‘X-Men’ as a template. It creates dramatic situations, gets us invested in its large cast and delivers thrilling (if small) action in under two hours and — get this — it does it without being an origin story. The X-Men already exist when the movie begins and the screenplay doesn’t feel the need to explain their existence because everything else in the story has made it perfectly clear why they need to exist. Sure, ‘X-Men’ totally fails at being a modern comic movie, but it comes from a time when that wasn’t a thing. It’s not concerned with hitting those geeky beats because it’s too busy being an actual movie first.

The failures of ‘X-Men’ are many and it’s often hard to deal with its irritating demand for realism and distrust of the comics. But, it’s also a standalone movie that functions without sequels or post-credit scenes. It’s accessible for dyed-in-the-wool geeks and normal people alike. Superhero movies have effectively rendered most the moviegoing populace into geeks, but they needed ‘X-Men’ as a first step. The denser, bigger and sillier movies of today wouldn’t exist without Singer’s seeming disdain for comic books.

‘X-Men’ remains a solid movie, but it’s more fascinating as an artifact. It comes from a radically different time, an age where CG was still a luxury and Hugh Jackman still had some body fat. It comes from a time when everyone agreed that there was no way Wolverine’s classic yellow costume would look cool on the big screen. Watching it now, in a year when something like ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘ is hitting theaters, you know that’s wrong, but you appreciate the window into a different age.

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