When Bryan Singer’s X-Men was released on July 14, 2000, it was the first big superhero movie of that summer. It was also the first big superhero movie of the year. It was also the first big superhero movie since Mystery Men, a superhero spoof based on a comic book hardly anyone had heard of, flopped a year earlier. The last superhero/comics movie to hit before X-Men was the first Blade movie in 1998. The summer before that, the major superhero movies were Batman & Robin, Spawn, and Steel, starring Shaquille O’Neal.
X-Men‘s unexpected status as the most financially successful superhero movie that did not feature Batman or Superman emboldened movie studios to produce additional superhero movies, no longer mortally afraid that they were making the next Steel. Likewise, the fact that X-Men took the X-Men seriously encouraged audiences to attend superhero movies, no longer mortally afraid that they would wind up seeing a movie starring Shaquille O’Neal or Spawn. Spider-Man followed in 2002, hitting even bigger; Daredevil, Hulk, Fantastic Four, a new Batman series, some more Superman, and two even bigger X-Men movies followed — all before Iron Man re-kickstarted the genre by establishing Marvel Studios in 2008.
I begin by establishing the lineage of Singer’s X-Men because given the deluge that followed, for a lot of people, that’s what it represents: the laying of respectable groundwork for what followed. To be sure, the series as a whole has its fans, and probably some of those fans think back fondly on the first movie. But with its middling special effects, abbreviated running time, lack of massive spectacle, and reputation as a movie exceeded both by its immediate sequel and many superhero adventures that followed, I think it’s safe to say that most fans of comic book movies would place that first movie (and likely most if not all of its sequels) somewhere below The Avengers, the Captain Americas, at least two of the Iron Mans, and one or two Thors, and maybe somewhere above Spider-Man 3, Elektra, or the various attempts to start a Hulk franchise on the Marvel Movie Continuum.
I think it’s also safe to say most fans of comic book movies are incorrect.
The subject of the most ardent fan and even critical approval these days — among movies based on Marvel Comics — are the ones that come directly from Marvel Studios. Here I should note that I like all of those movies, with the possible exception of The Incredible Hulk, which I would have a stronger opinion about if I could remember at all. I would even venture to say that I like Iron Man 2 far more than anyone you know, and that I was on board with Captain America even before Winter Soldier. But when The Avengers, a movie that very nearly made my Ten Best list for 2012, came out, one of my main thoughts about it was: Finally! A Marvel Studios movie that I like nearly as much as the best X-Men and Spider-Man movies!
Let me explain.
Part of the reason I think the first X-Men movie gets dismissed or at least diminished is the degree to which backstage information about the film’s troubled production has become, if not common knowledge, certainly disseminated among fans of this sort of thing. In a nutshell: Fox ultra-higher-up Tom Rothman didn’t really get the X-Men. For the first movie, he cut the budget, accelerated the schedule, moved up the release date, and may have personally insisted that the mutants wear Matrix-y black leather instead of their traditional bright blue and yellow. He in no way understood the potential for huge comic book movies, and many compromises were made behind the scenes of the first movie that remained elements of the series even as it became successful and popular.
But here’s the thing: compromises behind the scenes do not always result in compromised movies; sometimes they just function as limitations, and limitations are not always so bad. This may seem counter-intuitive given that we’re well into the period of Comic Book Universe Synergy, where even the formerly penny-pinching Marvel Studios will say, OK, fine, spend $175 million on your movie. But as much as I enjoyed The Winter Soldier (and oh, I did! It ruled!), sometimes telling a talented filmmaking team that they only have $75 million and have to fill large chunks of their movie with things that do not cost a lot of money (such as dialogue and acting) is actually a good thing, even if it comes from a badhearted place.
Part of what I love about Singer’s X-Men is the way it rescales the comics into something a little simpler and more elemental. The X-Men comics are arguably both the wildest and most human in the Marvel stable, because there a fuckload of mutants in the Marvel Universe and many of them have deeply idiosyncratic powers, origins, and personalities. Sometimes (often) this mixture of the wild and the humane translates into crazy sci-fi soap opera. X-Men is not crazy sci-fi soap opera. It’s a movie about outcasts who help each other, and also try to do their heroic best for mankind. Whether they can or should reveal themselves as mutants is an ongoing concern, so the lack of bright costumes and superhero pyrotechnics makes more than enough sense (except maybe to comic-book literalists). Fourteen years of distance from the movie makes clear how Matrix-derived those black costumes are — but also allows for plenty of other movies to fill the brightly-colored-costumes niche.
But I don’t want to only define the X-movies by what they aren’t and say that no, it’s fine that they aren’t those things (although: it is). There are plenty of smart decisions within the movie itself, workarounds that turned out to be more interesting paths. Chief among these is the movie’s introduction to this superhero team set in a “not too distant future.” Because of their team-based nature, X-Men stories are potentially littered with origin stories. But the first movie handles any possible mutant traffic jams beautifully, revealing character through moments of discovery rather than full explanations.
It opens, somewhat famously, on a WWII concentration camp, where a young Erik Lehnsherr is separated from his family, and manifests, from his anger and distress, the power to bend metal. After a brief introduction to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and a grown Lehnsherr, now known as Magneto (Ian McKellen) at a hearing about a Mutant Registration Act, the movie cuts to a small town in Mississippi, where Marie (Anna Paquin) experiences her first kiss, which leaves the object of her affection twitching near-lifelessly. We next see her arriving, via bummed ride, in a small Canadian town, where she meets an amateur cage-fighter called Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). She bums a ride with him; they get attacked in the road; they’re saved by a pair of superpowered mutants, Cyclops (James Marsden) and Storm (Halle Berry), and taken to Professor X’s school for gifted mutants.
That sounds like a lot of plot summary. But the thing is, this describes maybe the first forty minutes of the movie. It moves through several origins and at least three related plotlines quickly and efficiently. This strategy is not always a sound one; for multiple examples of this, see the third entry in the series, X-Men: The Last Stand, which I will attempt to discuss later without spitting on my computer screen. But X-Men, while economical, doesn’t rush; in fact, it flows through a variety of points of view with great fluidity, so that Rogue and Wolverine become dual entry points into the story without limiting this team-based movie to what they see and do.
And even in its swiftness, it nonetheless contains a number of wonderful grace notes (Rogue to Wolverine, about the metal claws that pop out from his knuckles: “When they come out, does it hurt?” Wolverine: “Every time.”) and moments of empathy even from the purported bad guys (the villainous Mystique, while holding the prejudiced Senator Kelly in a foot-lock: “You know, people like you are the reason I was afraid to go to school as a child”). Despite the compromises and what I assume must have been about twenty drafts of the script, the storytelling is confident. Also, despite widespread reports that only one or two lines from Joss Whedon’s draft made the final product, I’m pretty sure I can hear his voice in bits and pieces of the dialogue throughout — so either more Whedon lines made it in that anyone admits, or someone else approximated a Whedon like snappiness to the dialogue. Regardless the first X-Men movie might actually have the best dialogue in the series; it’s not ostentatiously witty, but it has wit without going full-on quippy.
The result is a movie that feels focused on characters, even if Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Storm don’t get as much to do as Wolverine, Rogue, Magneto, and Professor X. The movie’s Statue of Liberty-and-surrounding-environs climax feels small (the climaxes of both of Singer’s X-movies thus far take place in kind of nondescript grayish-greenish corridors); it also feels manageable and very human — though the X-Men are stopping Magneto from probably killing most of New York, his evil plan also has to do with the dueling philosophies of mutant life espoused by the more peaceful Charles and the more militant Erik. I especially love that one of the movie’s main points of identification, Rogue, doesn’t matriculate at Xavier’s School for the Gifted for the chance to join the X-Men in a sweet world-saving battle; she’s there to go to school.
(This is one thing that X-Men: The Last Stand does right, even if treating it with the same slapdash technique as every single goddamn thing in that movie: Rogue doesn’t enter the climactic mutant battle royale, because she’s a lot more interested in the practical, personal aspects of the mutant cure than getting into a superpowered dust-up.)
Much of what I appreciate about the movie has to do with writing and editing, and I think it’s pretty clear from Bryan Singer’s filmography that he doesn’t really traffic in distinctive visuals in the manner of Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, or even Zach Snyder (though Singer’s Superman Returns has some beautiful moments and is a much better film than Snyder’s half-excellent, half-dispiriting version). But if he eschews the big and iconic splash-page Hero Shots that even the similarly personal (and much more established stylist) Raimi kept in his Spider-Man series, X-Men is, at worst, no less visually accomplished than the Iron Man series-within-a-series. If it’s comics-worthy pulp you’re looking for, there are those shots of Mystique transforming back into her blue skin in mid-air, or Wolverine swinging around the Statue of Liberty on his claws. X-Men has a lot of fun without jumping into theme park territory.
The merits of X2 are better-documented. The action sequences improve immensely from minute one, with Nightcrawler’s brainwashed assault on the White House, continuing on with Wolverine’s beserker rage unleashed on soldiers attacking the school, Magneto’s prison break, and a killer fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike. Storywise, X2 has some nice Empire Strikes Back mojo and momentum, introducing new characters like Nightcrawler (whose bond with Storm gives Halle Berry her best moments in the series) and upping the ante as Jean grows more powerful, the anti-mutant forces mobilize, and Wolverine struggles with his past. Again, plenty of subplots, but assembled in a clean, confident way; these movies don’t indulge in much comics-cribbed jargon (Xavier’s machine Cerebro may be nonsense, but it’s nonsense that’s easy to articulate than any number of other comics doodads — again, maybe a sticking point for the comics literalists who love to see movies try to explain this stuff, but actually advantage if you’re talking about a movie, not a comics accessory).
Still, I might slightly prefer the first movie because while X2 has great momentum, it moves so non-stop that it only has time for a few of the quieter scenes that defined the earlier film for me. There’s a clever “coming out” scene with Iceman’s parents, and the aforementioned moments between Nightcrawler and Storm, but for the most part the movie hurtles forward, ably setting up a third chapter that did not pan out for anyone. As a one-two punch, though, X-Men and X2 are two of the better movies of their kind ever made.
The prequel X-Men: First Class, made in the aftermath of the botched third movie and a botched Wolverine solo movie, is arguably just as good, maybe even better. Like many X-Men movies before it, it’s pretty clear that First Class was made without a clear idea of how it would fit in the series (sort of how X-Men: The Last Stand endeavors to both hastily wrap up the franchise and make sure it can be perpetuated indefinitely, all at once). It’s a prequel that, with hardly any tweaks, could easily be sold as a franchise restart, but holds on to just enough continuity (Jackman’s delightful Wolverine cameo; echoed dialogue from the first movie) to count as part of the series. But again, divorced from nerdy issues like continuity, as its own film, Matthew Vaughn made another X-Men movie that’s markedly more interesting than its blockbusting Marvel Studios counterparts.
X-Men: First Class is set in the early sixties and doesn’t really nail its period authenticity (the dialogue is littered with modern phrasings, plus some lines that would be cringeworthy in any decade, which is to say they wouldn’t be one of the top ten most cringeworthy lines in X-Men: The Last Stand, but still, that ballpark is not a good place to hang out). But the movie’s period-ish appropriation of costumes, art direction, and split-screen — Vaughn and company manage to find new life in the hoary old stand-by, the training montage, in a sequence where the young mutants’ trials are broken up and overlapped with a terrific sense of rhythm — make it more stylish and eye-pleasing than most superhero movies, not just its X-brethren.
Once again, the storytelling is economical, managing a crazy number of characters and giving most of them key moments to make great impressions (a few, like Rose Byrne’s lovely Moira McTaggart, would have benefited from a longer running time or a slower pace, but that’s also true of certain characters from The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and plenty of other strong comics movies). The cast feels a little more A-list this time out, with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence in key roles. I would gladly watch a movie about any of the movie’s subplots: Magneto the vengeful Nazi-hunter, a young Charles Xavier on the make and flirting with the CIA, a Mystique-and-Beast-lead team of X-teens, and X-Men riffs on recent history — yet none of these bits feel like missed opportunities in the movie. It just feels like a movie where a ton of awesome stuff happens. It’s also the rare prequel that enhances the movies that came before them, rather than creating redundancy: the characters from Vaughn’s movie who have older counterparts in Singer’s films get additional depth those movies didn’t have room for. Imagine that: a prequel with an actual reason to exist.
The series confirmed its righted ship with an unnecessary but thoroughly entertaining Wolverine solo movie called The Wolverine that came out to relatively little fanfare last summer. Once again, the movie feels like both an attempt to stand apart from the X-series while maintaining connections to it (most clearly in the form of Jean Grey’s ghostly cameos), but The Wolverine does more or less accomplish the task of sending Wolverine on his own smaller-scale adventure which is related to mutants but not really the other X-Men. It’s also got several kickass action sequences with a harder edge than the rest of the series, and its dipping into history is more on the neat First Class side of things than the pointless X-Men Origins side of things.
Speaking of which: seems possible that one reason the X-Men movies are no longer as well-regarded as some of their Marvel cousins is the existence of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Not only do these movies pretty much suck, they came at a time when Marvel was ramping up their in-house productions. The Wolverine origin movie came out almost exactly a year after Iron Man, so you can imagine how it looked even stupider there than it might on a lazy FX-watching afternoon (though the nerd reaction to The Last Stand, if I recall correctly, wasn’t as angry as the reaction to Spider-Man 3 a year later, a disparity I’ll never understand; lord, how I wish The Last Stand was as good as Spider-Man 3). The two worst X-Men movies are indeed crummier than anything Marvel Studios has yet to put out; X-Men: The Last Stand is the more visually polished of the two, trying as it does to imitate the basic look and feel of the Singer films, but it can’t hide an overall coarsening of those movies’ soul. The dialogue is dumber (almost insultingly perfunctory at times), the plot moves at a nonsensical speed in often-circular directions (characters traverse the country back and forth repeatedly in a matter of days), and in a misguided attempt at boldness, characters get killed off, de-powered, introduced, shuffled away, and re-introduced with stupid abandon. A character also punctuates a scene by saying: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” But even given the existence of The Last Stand, which is probably one of the ten worst movies I’ve ever watched at least three times and probably one of the five worst movies I own on DVD: four out of six X-Men movies are pretty damn good.
Another reason for the perceived inferiority of the X-movies, of course, is the sheer popularity of the Marvel Studios line of filmed motion picture products. I understand the fan loyalty to these films: even when they alter the comics, they feel reverent to their sources and work to build the on-screen equivalent of the Marvel Universe of many nerds’ dreams. As mentioned, I like almost all of the Marvel Studios movies. But there’s something a little hermetic about the series as a whole, even when factoring in the neat alternate-history-of-America stuff that turns out to be the Captain America series stock in trade. Even the most engaged of the Marvel Studios movies don’t say a hell of a lot about the world we live in; mostly, they’re about the world Marvel Comics lives in, forever teasing out the further expansion of that universe and its interconnections.
The X-Men movies aren’t much like our world, either, but there’s an undercurrent of humanity to their mutant dilemmas that I find far more engaging than Tony Stark’s soul-searching or the royal family politics of Asgard — maybe because of the movies (even, in its clumsy way, The Last Stand) show a world of mutants that stretches beyond how they fit into a superhero team, facing prejudice and fear and ethical dilemmas about how to use their powers. In its misshapen and inconsistent way, the movie world of the X-Men feels more expansive than the quality-controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fact that some of the entries feel like a filmmaker’s taken on the material and others feel like damaged goods that have been further tampered with on their way out the factory door only emphasizes how much this series needs actual filmmakers to tinker with it, soup it up, keep it from running into X-Men Origins: A Ditch at the Side of the Road. Comics fans doubtless grumble over the carelessness of the X-Men universe on film (because, you know, the original X-Men comics draw up a clear and easy-to-follow blueprint), but a more rigorous approach to continuity would not have resulted in X-Men: First Class. The series has even pressed on further, insisting on merging the two casts, at least for the time being, for this week’s Singer-directed X-Men: Days of Future Past. I haven’t seen this movie yet, but it’s one of this summer’s movies I’m truly excited for, in part because of the series’ checkered history and semi-underdog status and in part because I will see any movie involving time travel, even Free Birds. Days of Future Past apparently goes bigger and flashier than many of its predecessors, and while I do worry about losing those human moments in the clamor, it’s a thrill see a comic book movie series that actually modulates its scale (by choice or by requirement). The way filmmakers must wrestle the X-Men material into the semi-real world gives the series some of its strongest, strangest tension.