Friday, January 4, 2019

Year of the Month: Was The Original X-Men Really A Game-Changer For Superhero Movies?

This essay was written for The-Solute's monthly Year of the Month column, with January 2019 being dedicated to pop culture from 2000. 

At the dawn of the 21st century, movies based on Marvel Comics were not a recurring fixture of American cinema. Though now it's like saying that the sky was once colored green, it was true at the very start of 2000, with Marvel Comics having about as many box office hits based on one of their properties (the 1997 sleeper hit Blade) as Image Comics. That all changed in July 2000 when the very first live-action X-Men movie made its way to the silver screen courtesy of 20th Century Fox and director Bryan Singer. The feature managed to gross $157.2 million domestically, a sum that put it ahead of all superhero movies sans the first three post-1988 live-action Batman movies. In an era where Batman & Robin seemingly killed off the comic book movie, and the likes of Spawn and Steel weren't making the case for the subgenre's revival, X-Men proved not only did comic book movies still have life left in them but that movies based on Marvel Comics characters could make big bucks.

Considering all of its historical importance for the domain of American comic book movies, it's a little odd how nineteen years after its release, the original X-Men doesn't register all that strongly on a nostalgia level. Whereas looking back on Back To The Future, Jurassic Park or even later 21st-century blockbusters like the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie or the initial two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies usher in a wave of memories for me as well as modern-day appreciation for just how well-crafted these films are. Meanwhile, the original X-Men feature just comes off as boilerplate in too many respects. Watching it now, it feels more important in regards to the movies it opened the door for rather than as a movie in its own right. 

Back in 2015, Scott Mendelson looked back on this feature and remarked how X-Men felt more like a TV pilot than an actual movie and that feels like a fine descriptor for the project as a whole.  However, whereas most TV pilots tend to heavily emphasize establishing individual character personalities, the original X-Men doesn't really bother to make many of its supporting characters all that noteworthy in terms of personality. Cyclops, Jean Grey and, the most criminally underused character in all of the X-Men movies, Storm get nothing to do. Even Rogue, who starts out with an interesting storyline rooting her mutant powers in teenage angst, is just a damsel-in-distress once the climax rolls around. Doing a more basic storyline in favor of just introducing character dynamics would be fine if there were all that many character dynamics to speak.  

At least the film makes plenty of time for the outstanding casting of Hugh Jackman (a last-minute replacement for Dougray Scott), Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan to be put to good use, they're all exceptional in their roles as Wolverine, Xavier and Magneto, respectively. McKellen especially lends a worldly gravitas to his role that was outright revolutionary for comic book movie villains back in the day who were more apt to spout ice-based puns or remarks about skidmarks on their underwear. The sense of weariness that underlines McKellan's performance is also in fascinating abundance in Jackman's exceptional work here, which communicates clearly both how much daily hell Wolverine endures and why Jackman became such a mega-movie star after this movie's release. 

These three performances are probably the highlight of a movie that constantly feels like it struggles to fulfill its potential. The more thoughtful aspects of X-Men, like that opening scene of a young Magneto being separated from his parents at Auschwitz or the initial sequences with Rogue, keep getting undercut by a cast of characters who just aren't that interesting and a third act that eschews satisfying dramatic resolution for some lame action sequences. Perhaps those action scenes would have been aided by more creative uses of the various powers of these superheroes, even on a lower-budgeted motion picture like this there surely could have been more imaginative ways to realize the extraordinary abilities of these merry mutants? 

X-Men, as a stand-alone movie, is a so-so affair with only a few stand-out elements, which may be why many modern-day superhero movies have deviated heavily from it. In fact, the only other Marvel Comics box office hit, Blade, with its fun action sequences and obvious love for and faithfulness to the source material it was adapting it, feels more like a precursor to the modern-day comic book movie than the X-Men movie that mocks "yellow spandex". In an age where Aquaman rides sea creatures into battles adorned in a comic book accurate costume, Thor & Rocket Raccoon can teleport into Wakanda to fight Thanos and even fellow mutant Deadpool feels like he walked right out of a comic book panel, this original X-Men film that constantly evades feeling too much like its source material certainly feels like a relic but the more substantial difference between this initial X-Men feature and modern day comic book movies is simply in how the latter tend to actually lend depth to their super-powered characters.

My personal favorite scenes in the best superhero movies are the small-scale intimate moments that let you peek into the psyche's of these larger-than-life characters, the moments that allow vulnerability to be seen in mythic entities. Rocket Raccoon breaking down in that cosmic tavern. Peter Parker and Aunt May talking about how "there's a hero inside all of us" at her garage sale. Erik Kilmonger talking to his father in another realm. Those kind of scenes are so crucial to these movies, they're the fabric that bind these fantastical stories together.  X-Men has its fair share of intimate character-based pieces of dialogue and of course that opening scene is an ambitious way of showing what informs Magneto's contempt for non-mutants, but even if there were no myriad of superior modern-day comic book movies to compare it to, it would still come up far too short on characterization and the lack of memorable spectacle means there isn't anything else to serve as a substitute for the lack of depth. 

Despite the fact that I'm not too hog wild about the original X-Men movie, audiences certainly went nuts for it, which can be seen in how the series is still going on nineteen years later. Interestingly though, people nowadays seem far more interested in the X-Men spin-offs like Deadpool and Logan rather than the main X-Men films, which include the upcoming Dark Phoenix whose initial teaser trailer made it look like a grim-dark retread of X-Men: The Last Stand without much of its own individual personality.  The fact that the trailer could tease so many big "SHOCKING DEVELOPMENTS!" without getting much of an emotional reaction out of me indicates clearly how these main X-Men movies still struggle with getting viewers to care about these mutant superheroes. A lot has changed since 2000, particularly in the world of comic book movies, but these X-Men movies still seem to struggle with the same issue regarding characters that that very first X-Men film from 2000 was so heavily hamstrung by. 

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