Summer 2000 saw the arrival of Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ on the big screen, leading to an explosion of superhero blockbusters at the cinema…
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn (as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Bruce Davison
Directed by: Bryan Singer / written by: David Hayter (Story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer. X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
What’s it about?
The not-too distant future: as the U.S. Government contemplates the introduction of a registration act for mutants – evolved humans with paranormal abilities – the benevolent ‘X-Men’, led by Professor Charles Xavier must stop Xavier’s old friend, Erik Lensherr and his Brotherhood of Mutants from igniting a conflict with the rest of humanity…
Although it could be argued that the contemporary explosion of comic book superhero films was initiated by the success of Blade in 1999, it was actually X-Men that brought the genre to the masses – leading to an (at least presently) endless crop of big screen comic book adaptations. Helmed by The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, X-Men would become a smash hit for film studio 20th Century Fox in the summer of 2000 and although it may now seem a little tame when placed alongside Marvel Studios releases such as the colossal Avengers Endgame, it remains an enjoyable superhero action adventure that has an important place in the history of superhero cinema. It would also spawn a lucrative film franchise spanning almost two decades, concluding with last year’s unfairly maligned (albeit flawed) X-Men: Dark Phoenix…or technically, will conclude with the still as-yet unreleased New Mutants spin-off.
By enlisting a director of proven calibre and having its cast include two of the world’s most talented and experienced actors, Star Trek legend Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier – leader of the ‘X-Men’ and a mutant with incredible mental powers – and Ian McKellan as Xavier’s old friend turned enemy, fellow mutant Erik Lensherr – aka ‘Magneto’, with the ability to control magnetism – X-Men would take a serious and somewhat believable approach to the source material without betraying the core fantasy and socially aware elements Stan Lee and Jack Kirby infused into the original Marvel comics (and which was so well portrayed in the classic 1990s Fox X-Men animated series). Some may have been upset by the lack of more colourful costumes, but the cool black leather X-uniforms are indicative of the style and creative intentions favoured in Singer’s film.
In X-Men, as U.S. senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) debates the perceived danger of those with mutant abilities and presses for the Mutant Registration Act, Erik Lensherr, with his ‘Brotherhood’, believing that a war between mutants and the rest of humanity is all but inevitable, plots a pre-emptive first strike which Charles Xavier and his benevolent mutant X-Men must prevent. In order to uncover Magneto’s plans, Xavier must investigate the link with two stray mutants – the young and afraid adolescent girl going by the name ‘Rogue’ (Anna Paquin, future star of TV hit True Blood), with the ability to absorb the powers of other mutants and the mysterious Logan, otherwise known as the cage fighter called ‘the Wolverine’, who is unable to recall his past or how his skeleton was grafted with the indestructible metal adamantium – a process he only survived thanks to his mutant-healing factor.
Although he may be taller than his comic book counterpart, Hugh Jackman – receiving top-billing – is instantly and effortlessly Logan/Wolverine, perfect casting in a role that would quickly become popular with audiences and fans alike. Jackman simply is Wolverine, aside from matching the obvious physicality of the character (minus the height difference, which really isn’t an issue given the strength of Jackman’s performance) he embodies the spirit of Logan, from the raging temperament to the emotional depth arising from his nightmare flashes of lost memory and his befriending of Anna Paquin’s Rogue. It’s a sublime portrayal right from the outset in X-Men and one that would only become more refined and assured in later instalments.
The cast of X-Men is filled out commendably with a generally strong group of actors who are a good fit for their characters. James Marsden, Famke Janssen (previously a femme fatale in the James bond film Goldeneye) and Halle Berry make for pleasing live action versions of fan-favourite X-Men, respectively: the optic-blasting team leader Scott Summers/aka Cyclops (the conflict between Cyclops and Logan intact from the comics), the telekinetic Jean Grey (with no X-alias) and Ororo Munroe/aka Storm, with the ability to control weather effects. Magneto’s Brotherhood boasts Rebecca Romijn as the shape-shifting Mystique, Tyler Mane as the feral Sabretooth and Ray Park (Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) as the agile, whip-tongued and slime-spitting Toad. They may not be afforded anything in the way of character development, but non-the-less help facilitate the threat to the central heroes.
From a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto, the script is provided by David Hayter (best known for voicing iconic video game character Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid) which captures the essence of the X-Men comics, it’s characters and the themes of prejudice and persecution which sadly remained as prescient in 2000 as they were in the 1960s, transposing it all into a more grounded reality. Despite the more serious elements of the story (immediately evident from the bleak flashback opening at a World War II concentration camp, where the young Erik Lensherr is separated from his parents and his mutant abilities are first demonstrated) there’s still some fun to be had with a smattering of black humour and entertaining action sequences which complement the human and emotional aspects of the film. The narrative wisely focuses on Logan and Rogue as the lone outsiders who cross paths with the X-Men, acting as a mirror for those in the audience unfamiliar with the world and characters of Marvel’s X-Men. Bryan Singer’s direction is tightly and expertly executed, with a clear sense of visuals, tone and character deftly balanced with the action set-pieces which meld seamlessly with the special/visual effects which make full use of the $75 million budget (a princely sum back in 2000 but small change compared to today’s cinematic superhero offerings). The Liberty Island finale is suitably tense and exciting bringing X-Men to an action-packed crescendo which may pale in comparison to the more epic and effects saturated climaxes of subsequent entries but is a satisfying close for Singer’s first effort.
Whilst the overall quality of Fox’s X-Men franchise may be inconsistent, the films are generally entertaining and sometimes excellent (see: X2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men is certainly one of the better early Marvel Comics big screen adaptations, the success of which (along with Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man) would allow more comic book blockbusters to hit the big screen and inevitably become the dominant genre in film and television.
Amongst the serving producers of X-Men was later Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, mastermind and guardian of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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