X-Men Debuted 20 Years Ago Today, Establishing the Modern Superhero Movie Era

On July 14, 2000, superhero movies entered the new millennium with the release of 20th Century [...]

On July 14, 2000, superhero movies entered the new millennium with the release of 20th Century Fox's X-Men. This film marked the beginning of the X-Men film franchise and set the box office on the path to superhero dominance. X-Men was hardly the first superhero movie, but it was the first of its kind. Warner Bros. had success with films based on DC Comics' Superman and Batman, but there was something that set X-Men apart. Its focus wasn't on faithfully recreating superhero comics' appearance, but on taking the core themes of the X-Men and building an enjoyable movie experience around them.

Focusing on visual iconography worked fine for Superman and Batman. Some have said that DC Comics' characters are more iconic than those of Marvel Comics, which was especially true before Iron Man hit theaters in 2008. Thus, those heroes needed to bring their visual iconography with them onto the big screen. Superman isn't Superman with his red cape and "S" emblem, nor is Batman himself without his cowl, no matter how ridiculous or impractical they may look to the uninitiated moviegoer. It made sense for Warner Bros. to make sure that Christopher Reeve's hair curled perfectly. It made sense to invest in perfecting Batman's costume.

The X-Men have had plenty of stunning character designs over their history, and they're notorious for switching up their costumes every couple of years. Their visual iconography does resonate like Superman and Batman's. What X-Men is best known for is the mutant metaphor, as imperfect as it may be. The first X-Men movie focused on getting that right, spotlighting how mutants stand-in for marginalized communities, rather than finding the perfect shade of yellow spandex to put on Hugh Jackman.

Much of the X-Men's success there can be credited to director Bryan Singer. He has since been the subject of multiple sexual misconduct allegations, and nothing said here meant to minimize that or absolve him of any guilt. Still, 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 movie seriously. Singer identifies as bisexual, and he angled the mutant metaphor as an allegory about sexual identity as much as race.

The allegory is asserted immediately with the opening scene flashing back to a World War II Nazi concentration camp with young Magneto, played as an adult by 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, emphasizing that individuals shouldn't need a license to live.

It is also the movie that gave us Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, a defining performance for the genre. Jackman became a star by playing the most popular mutant in the Marvel Universe. He continued in that role 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. Jackman laid the blueprint for the superhero as an action film franchise star with a longterm character arc starting eight years ahead of Robert Downey Jr.'s arrival as Tony Stark.

The first X-Men movie recreates Logan's earliest arc from the comics. He begins as a standoffish loner fighting because he doesn't know what else to do. In joining the X-Men and gaining the mentorship of Professor X, played with paternal warmth by Patrick Stewart, Wolverine learns to allow himself to become part of a found family, and that helps convince him that he's worth saving. In the end, X-Men doesn't look much like the comics that inspired it, but it does capture its source material's core themes.

X-Men is the first time that superheroes entered theaters and didn't try to leverage a sense of nostalgia. X-Men took itself seriously and expected its audience to do the same. It changed how everyone involved in making movies and watching them thought of the superhero genre and still holds up 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.