Hugh Jackman is the face that launched a thousand superhero flicks. Yes, it was viable to make a comicbook movie in the 1900’s but major success stories rode the tails of straightforward and familiar icons Batman and Superman. It was pro-grade textbook crime fighting. Roll out the origin story, terrorize their weaknesses, knock out some pyrotechnics and chalk it all up to the broody, moody duality of man.
Nothing wrong with that. Both franchises soared to greater heights of popcorn quality than anything produced after, but …the harder they fall. Audiences wanted to connect with crusaders on a more personal level and for that you need DC Comics to take the backseat to Marvel, just as they did in the 1960’s.
After the Dark Knight added nipples to his body armor and the Man of Steel fought infection from radioactive fingernails, X-Men stepped in to test the waters while Spider-Man and The Avengers looked on with hope. Yes, there was Blade but that was just another Wesley Snipes actionfest (if a surprisingly good one), not a property reflecting the larger universe. It was Bryan Singer that turned the superhero into a Hollywood sub-genre.
X-Men begins with a Nazi death camp. The scene is shot as well as anything we’ve come to expect from a serious drama and that same level of professionalism is maintained through most of the blockbuster. It succeeds because it’s perfectly subtle about our human hang-ups on display.
Adults fearing the natural changes that occur within their children find their short-sell savior in politics. The enemy here is the self love of a senator, but before we can approach that problem there’s the instinct for self preservation that threatens our neo-humanity. The victimized boy from that opening sequence has become the scariest sort of terrorist, the one that makes a fairly decent argument. This is the sort of cerebral monster that elevated Kevin Spacey’s characters above Hannibal Lecter in two previous Bryan Singer films.
Here it’s Ian McKellan as Magneto (Mag-NEET-Oh), as pale and creepified as he was in Apt. Pupil (another by Singer). His plans are reliably kept in check by Professor Xavier. A lot of you may have cast Patrick Stewart in your mind at the age of six and you were right to do so. Whenever these two actors meet on screen it’s high class mental chess, often occurring over literal game pieces.
Separately there’s a bit of an imbalance. Magneto’s personal second Mystique is a benefit to the franchise for as long as it exists, wearing only body paint with legs more dangerous than those of Mrs. Robinson. She snarls of a tortured childhood and pseudo-sexually caresses the less-feminine McKellan, but other members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (the film doesn’t actually use that name) are a mixed bag. Toad and Sabretooth are fine so far as combat is concerned but their comic relief moments don’t lighten the load of morality metaphor so much as throw it way off course.
Back at the School for Gifted Youngsters, Patrick Stewart further cements himself as surrogate father to the science fiction fanboy. Here, rather than guiding with the awkward reluctance of naval officer-esque Picard, the character applies a sensitive ear and a reassuring smile to the endangered outcasts that make up his roster, consisting of a few big brothers and sisters among the many unique looking schoolchildren. This is where X-Men takes the pressure off and it works far better than slapstick.
It’s also a source of a major weak link in Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. When she isn’t the center of attention she merely dozes within the shot waiting for someone to yell cut. When she is, there’s the nervousness of somebody with disdain for comic book lingo. Her eyes wander off to the side when speaking and it betrays her belief that she is in an awful movie, even while everyone around her is proving that wrong.
By the time X-Men reaches the final confrontation, where the world’s leaders are stupidly assembled on an island ripe for attack, the movie has strayed from the special in favor of playing it safe. Black leather uniforms carry none of the popular character designs and special effects overshadow the potential for no-holds-barred combat. How are so many bodies stuck with six inch knuckle-blades without spilling any blood on them?
Thankfully many of those fireworks and martial arts were great for the budget. Singer worked with what he had, 75 million dollars, and turned four times the profit because of his competent treatment of the property. Throughout, he makes wonderful choices on what to leave out and what consolidate.
Rogue here is really an amalgamation of Kitty Pride, Jubilee, and Rogue to be brought up through hard knocks by the sharp edged Wolverine. The latter is a man of mystery and properly kept that way. Near-subliminal flashbacks tease the backstory intangibly, think Keyser Soze with claws. Combined with a then-unknown actor, you have Wolverine the character, not someone doing their damnedest to fill impossible expectations while shedding their recognizable persona.
Yes, there are moments when X-Men is clearly finding it’s legs, but what it accomplished with that property was unseen at the time it was made. Adding more to an already important time in cinema, the DVD X-Men 1.5 features hours of insight as to how this all came together. Most people cite the second film as the finest of the franchise, but it’s the original X-Men that holds a place in my heart almost as large as the cartoons and comicbooks.