#ThrowbackThursday – X-Men

Original US release date: July 14, 2000
Production budget: $75,000,000
Worldwide gross: $296,339,527

Ahh, the good old days.  Don’t get me wrong.  I thoroughly enjoy the landscape of comic book movies, these days.  But when Bryan Singer’s original X-Men was released in 2000, the film was the realization of a lifelong dream for comic book fans of all ages all over the world.  Despite the fact that this was actually the third theatrical film to come along that was based on a Marvel Comic (after 1986’s Howard the Duck and 1998’s Blade.  There were also failed attempts at theatrical films based on The Punisher, The Fantastic Four, and Captain America.), it was the first based on one of their better-known properties.  The much-revered 1992 X-Men animated series made the team a household name and introduced them to a new generation of fans.  In addition, they had existed in comic book form since 1963 (as a brand, at least.  Wolverine, for instance, wasn’t created until Incredible Hulk #181 in 1974.  Storm came along the next year in Giant-Size X-Men #1.) and, after a rough start, had amassed a loyal fanbase thanks to the Claremont/Byrne era of the ’70s and ’80s.  So, while most expected a Spider-Man or maybe a Hulk movie to introduce the general moviegoing public to the Marvel brand at large, the X-Men were more than worthy of being the pioneering property to bring that long-held fantasy to fruition.

And what fun it was!  In those days, every casting announcement was huge, exciting news!  Every image from set was salivated over!  There was no viral marketing or online reveals so we had to buy tickets to other movies just to see the trailer(s) for movies like X-Men . . . and we did!  Nothing was taken for granted.  Today, everybody thinks they know better than the people making these movies and nobody seems happy about anything.  But back then?  Back then, it was wonderful and we were all so elated just to finally be getting a major Marvel Comic in (relatively) big-budget live-action (though a few armchair filmmakers whined about Hugh Jackman’s height or the lack of the comic book costumes)!  I personally saw this movie seven times in the theater (I have since broken that record with a handful of other films) including three times over opening weekend.  It was a true event.

It still holds up, for the most part.  Sure, visual and special effects have come a long way in the last sixteen years.  The wire work is dated.  But that was never what made this movie click and, outside of that, it never shows its age.  Regardless, it was the characters and the story that resonated with audiences and allowed this movie to click.  And, oh, the characters!  This is classic X-Men!  Cyclops, Jean Grey, Professor X, Storm, Rogue, and Wolverine vs. Magneto, Sabretooth, Mystique, and Toad?  This is what I wish we were getting in the comics, these days!  While there are other characters that could have also been expected while maintaining that classic X-Men feel, director Bryan Singer and the crew from Marvel and Fox chose the ones they could afford (so, no Colossus, Nightcrawler, Beast, Juggernaut, etc., and only cameos from Kitty, Jubilee, and Iceman) until the property proved that it could justify a higher budget by delivering at the box office.  And we even got Senator Kelly and Henry Peter Gyrich (kind of)!  We fans felt truly respected by the filmmakers so, yeah, no complaints about the choice of characters.

If you read my thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse, you’ll remember that I wasn’t a fan.  That was largely due to Singer’s insistence on remaining “grounded” in a world that has since passed that notion by.  But in 2000, a more grounded take was necessary to ease the general audiences into this mythology.  That was another advantage in choosing the less visually-dynamic characters; the film could present as being less fantastical while staying true to the characters and not feeling as though the film was only going halfway with them.

There were some things I’m still not crazy about.  I maintain that Cyclops deserved to lead the team, rather than putting Wolverine front and center.  In fact, Cyclops really got the shaft in this entire film series, and as a Cyclops fan, it always bothered me that he never got his due.  But that’s a personal preference and has no legitimate bearing on the actual quality of the film.

I wanted a more bombastic Rogue, as well.  But, again, both the budget and audiences probably wouldn’t have allowed the classic, post-Ms. Marvel Rogue that comic and cartoon fans always loved.  So, compromises have to be made, and I understand that.

Singer and Fox have always been hit-and-miss with their X-Men casting.  In the original installment, it was significantly more hit than miss.  I don’t think I need to go into Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.  But I will, anyway.  Jackman and Wolverine have a symbiotic relationship, with each feeding off of the other and becoming stronger for it.  As I mentioned, some fans were concerned that Jackman was too tall to play the traditionally-diminutive Canuck but Jackman showed them all that size doesn’t matter.  He’s synonymous with the role and it’s hard to believe that he was the backup after Dougray Scott was cast but then dropped out to co-star in Mission: Impossible II with Tom Cruise.  (I never cared much for Scott so I was relieved when he dropped out, even if I didn’t know what to expect from Jackman at the time.)

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan had a similar hold over audiences as Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto, respectively.  McKellan was significantly older than comic book Magneto but he needed to be a Holocaust survivor in order to create a storyline parallel between his childhood and his adult experiences.  Ultimately, his performance made his age just a number.  And Stewart as Xavier had long been a fan fantasy casting, so he had extraordinarily lofty expectations to live up to and he easily cleared the bar.

The rest of the cast ranges from very good (Famke Janssen as Jean Grey) to shaky-at-best (Halle Berry as Storm) with Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique probably being the coolest of the entire bunch.  But, all-in-all, it’s a strong cast that found themselves permanently enshrined in geek history thanks to their contributions to this historic film.

 The narrative remains true to the classic X-Men themes of prejudice and discrimination that made it so easy for comic book audiences to relate to them.  As I re-watched the movie, I found it to be even more relevant today than it was sixteen years ago.  It feels very much rooted in day-to-day America and there is a poetry to the climax playing out at the Statue of Liberty.  (I remember reading a long time ago that the filmmakers originally wanted the final battle to occur at Walmart, of all places!  That would have been unique and more grounded than anyone could have ever expected.  I could have gotten into it but a lot of people would have inevitably mocked that decision.  I think I remember where I read that over a decade ago, but I don’t want to say without evidence in case I’m misremembering it.  I wish I could find a link to someone – anyone – who reported that, back in the day, but if it was who I think it was, it was a popular, reputable outlet.)  The dialogue is generally witty and natural (though, I have to ask: Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?  If not, re-watch the film to find out!) and the film is just well-paced and -written in all ways, beginning to end.

Bryan Singer’s X-Men isn’t the over-the-top, large-scale spectacle that we’re used to from comic book/superhero films, these days.  Since then, we’ve had bigger films.  We’ve had better films.  But it paved the way for everything to come.  There’s a heart to the movie that can’t be denied and often can’t be (and hasn’t been) replicated in other attempts at this and other franchises.  The endearing nature of the cast and their characters combined with the socially relevant themes provide the film with a sincerity that belies its science-fiction origins.  A lot of care went into getting this film right for all audiences and I enjoy watching it now as much as I did during my seven voyages to the movie theater in the summer of 2000.

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