After the success of Blade in 1998, a new era had dawned in Hollywood: the era of the superhero film. It’s hard to think that at one point superhero films were hard to come by, seeing as they are now everywhere. And one of the first films to be released during this new age was the first, and many will agree, best, X-Men movie.
The modest budgeted ($75 million, studios were not yet prepared to allow superhero films to go over $100 million) went on to gross an impressive $296 million worldwide, and not only helped the superhero genre to achieve the popularity that it has today, but also launched a successful film franchise with four more entries, and two installments still to come, this year’s The Wolverine and next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Who better to direct a film about a group of individuals shunned by society than someone who himself struggled as a minority? Bryan Singer, who has said that being Jewish and gay has influenced his films, bought his own experiences into the film. And although some of the later films were not up to the same quality as X-Men, with Superman Returns representing everything that can go wrong in a superhero film, Singer nonetheless has established himself as one of Hollywood’s top directors.
At the time, and unfortunately, this is something which still happens today, comic books were seen as being an unsophisticated form of media. X-Men helped to change that. The opening scene, set in a World War II concentration camp, would have been unimaginable in a superhero film before and remains one of the defining moments in superhero cinema.
The central plot of the film, about Magneto trying to turn the world leaders into mutants in an attempt to allow the world to finally accept mutant kind, also reflects the racism, homophobia and prejudice which unfortunately still exist in the world today. As Magneto states, “there is no land of tolerance. There is no peace. Not here, or anywhere else.” Anybody who thinks that superhero films are incapable of handling mature subject matter should be forced to watch X-Men on a continuous loop until they get the idea.
The film also explored the idea of: what if superhero’s did not want to be superheroes? What if they did not want to have such immense power and responsibility thrust upon them? Rogue unwillingly sends her boyfriend into a coma just by touching him, showing how sometimes power can be a curse rather than a gift, with Singer even saying that he decided to make Rogue such a prominent character in the film to emphasise the alienation that people shunned from society can experience.
In addition to making the film reflect the problems in society, Singer also assembled a top notch cast to drive the film. Already established actresses Anna Paquin (one of the youngest Oscar winners in history when she won Best Supporting Actress for The Piano) and Halle Berry (who would go on to win an Oscar for Monster’s Ball) were just the tip of the iceberg, as the film launched the careers of up-and-coming stars Famke Janssen, James Marsden, and Rebecca Romijin.
But the real catches came in the form of the elder members of the cast. Ian Mckellen, who Singer previously worked with on Apt Pupil, was cast as Magneto, giving one of the most memorable performance of his career as the haunted, obsessed mutant, desperate for mutantkind to become the dominant species. And with Singer being a self-proclaimed Star Trek fan, it came as no surprise when Patrick Stewart, best know as Captain Picard in In The Next Generation, was cast as Professor Charles Xavier. Amusingly, the novel Planet X, written by Michael Jan Friedman, which was a crossover between the X-Men and Star Trek franchises, descried the physical resemblance of Professor X and Captain Picard before Steward was cast. The fact that Stewart will be appearing in Days of Future Past means that Singer must have forgiven him for trash talking Superman Returns at the end of Ted.
Some of the greatest pleasures of watching X-Men come from watching Professor X and Magneto, played by two spectacular actors, debating the future of mutantkind, both offering opposing and challenging viewpoints.
After more well known actors including Russell Crowe and Jean-Claude Van Damme were considered, the role of Wolverine eventually went to Hugh Jackman, who was a relative unknown at the time. Jackman’s performance was widely praised as he was able to convey both Wolverine’s savage and vulnerable side, and he went on the achieve huge stardom and have a great career in Hollywood, as well as becoming the only actor to appear in every X-Men film to date.
X-Men is also notable for being the first Marvel film to include a cameo from Stan Lee, appearing as a man on a beach after his cameo in Blade was cut.
The film had a troubled development. Plagued with re-shoots, which may or may not have had an impact on its quality, the final film ended up being just 104 minutes long, which is short compared to other superhero films, meaning that most of the supporting characters did not get the screen time that they deserved. Two of the villains, Toad and Sabretooth, did not even have any dialogue (although the actors who portrayed them, Ray Park and Tyler Mane, are usually mute in their film appearances).
However, the relatively short run time allowed the film to move at an even pace without becoming convoluted with details, leading to a thrilling climax atop the Statue of Liberty.
For a now 13-year-old film, the special effects more than hold their own. One particular sequence, in which Magneto creates a metal bridge to form under his feet as he walks, was truly extraordinary at the time of the film’s release and remains so today.
The film also contained witty and memorable dialogue, thanks in no small part to its scriptwriter, David Hayter, better known as the voice of Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, and Joss Whedon, who wrote additional dialogue. Perhaps the most humorous moment in the film occurs when Cyclops, unsure if Wolverine is the real Wolverine or Mystique in disguise, asks him to prove that it is him, to which he replies “You’re a dick”.
X-Men helped to set the benchmark for all future superhero films to come. The future X-Men films varied in quality, with the third film being a big disappointment, although Singer promises that Days of Future Past will make up for The Last Stand. So let’s hope that both The Wolverine and Days of Future Past do justice to one of the finest superhero films of all time.