On July 14th, 2000, superhero cinema entered the new millennium with the release of 20th Century Fox's X-Men. Not only did this mark the beginning of the X-Men film franchise, which is still going strong today, but it began the superhero movie boom that is still dominating the box office.
X-Men was hardly the first superhero movie, but it was the first of its kind. Warner Bros. had success with movies based on DC Comics' Superman and Batman, but there was something that set X-Men apart.
To co-opt a phrase that was tossed around in political discussions last year, where previous superhero movies took their subject matter literally but not seriously, X-Men took Marvel's mutants seriously if not literally.
The "literally but not seriously" approach worked just fine for Superman and Batman. It has often been said the DC Comics' characters are somewhat more iconic than those of Marvel Comics, and for that reason, it is important that they carry their iconic look onto the big screen. Superman isn't Superman with his red cape and "S" emblem, and Batman isn't Batman without batsuit, no matter how ridiculous they may look to the average, uninitiated viewer if they stop to think about it for even a moment, and so it made a lot of sense for Warner Bros. to get Christopher Reeve's hair curl perfect and to pour resources into perfecting Batman's costume.
But while the X-Men have had plenty of stunning character designs over their history, their look is less important than what they represent beneath the surface. As such, the first X-Men movie (and its sequels) was less concerned with getting the right shade of yellow spandex and more intent on carrying the "mutant metaphor," by which the X-Men become a standing for any and every marginalized community, into the film.
Much of the movie's success in what was trying to do can be credited to director Bryan Singer. It is important to note that nothing said here about Singer is meant to minimize the allegations of sexual misconduct that have been levied against him or absolve him of any guilt, but there's no denying the mark he left on the X-Men movies and how seminal the first film became. Singer jettisoned the brightly-colored superhero aesthetic altogether and went for a sleek sci-fi look that would make it easier for the audience to take the film seriously. Singer himself identifies as bisexual and that made him more qualified than most directors to help adapt the "mutant metaphor" that is most often associated with race relations to apply to sexual identity as well.
And the film goes for the throat on matters of prejudice and discrimination immediately, opening with a scene in a World War II Nazi concentration camp with young Magneto, who is played in adult form by Sir Ian McKellen, himself a gay man. The film throws its second punch in the Senate hearing scene, with Senator Robert Kelly seeking to force mutants to register and Jean Grey, played by Famke Janssen, noting that people shouldn't need a license just to live.
It is also the movie that gave us Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, a defining performance for the genre. X-Men turned Jackman into a star by having him play the most popular mutant in the Marvel Universe, a role he'd continue to play through eight films in total (nine if you count his brief cameo in X-Men: First Class) up until 2017's Logan brought the character's story to its conclusion. What we get in the first X-Men movie is Logan's earliest arc from the comics adapted to screen, with him beginning as a standoffish loner fighting because he doesn't know what else to do. By joining the X-Men and with the guidance of Professor X, played perfectly and with an abundance of paternal warmth by Sir Patrick Stewart, Wolverine learns to allow himself to become part of a family and that he himself is someone worth saving.
The end result of all of this was a film that doesn't look much like the X-Men comics on the surface, but that contains the spirit of the series, the found family dynamic that is the essence of the characters and what sets the Marvelous mutant team apart from the Avengers, the Justice League, and practically any other of their superhero contemporaries.
A lot of fans look down on X-Men and insist that it doesn't hold up compared to what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done since. The MCU has, admittedly, come closer than anyone to taking superheroes both literally and seriously in film, but with the possible exception of Thor: Ragnarok - a movie about nationalism and refugees in crisis - no Marvel Studios film has been as cultural relevant or taken as firm a stance as X-Men did right out of the gate.
X-Men is the first time that superheroes entered theaters and most moviegoers were able to enjoy the experience without at least some hint of irony in their smile. It changed the game and, despite what some may think and the way some are eager to dance on the franchise's ashes as the Disney-Fox deal looms, the film still holds up pretty well. It's not the best superhero movie ever - it's not even the best X-Men movie ever - but it might be the most important.
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