Man, I am old.
Wanna know how old I am?
I’m so old that when I order a three minute egg, they ask for the money up front.
I’m so old that my Facebook memories come in black and white and with piano accompaniment.
I am so old that I can remember a time when the conventional wisdom was that only DC heroes could be made into good superhero movies. Oh yes children, gather round and I shall tell you of the before times.
In the two thousandth year of Our Lord, X-Men was due for release and, like many Marvel fans, I was nervous as balls. I’d say “we’d been burned before” but honesty, it was more like we’d been roasted repeatedly over an open fire. What Marvel movies had come before this? Well, not counting the old Captain America serials from the forties we’d had The Punisher (direct to video), Captain America (direct to video), The Fantastic Four (direct to the secret vault under Roger Corman’s floorboards) and Howard the Duck, one of the most legendary box office stinkers of all time that nonetheless got a full theatrical release and so was the most successful of the bunch purely by default. So the idea that people would actually show up to a movie starring Marvel Comics characters was (in those days) a big gamble.
Blade didn’t really buck the trend of Marvel movies being box-office poison because almost nobody knew that Blade was a Marvel hero. He was a minor supporting character in a pretty damn obscure comic and only headlined his own book for ten issues prior to the movie coming out. And when the movie did come out and was a big hit, the comic version was pretty much rebuilt entirely from the ground up to look more the movie version. Saying that Blade the character from Tomb of Dracula was what made Blade the movie a success is like saying that everyone came to see Road to Perdition because they were huge fans of the original comic (didn’t know Road to Perdition was a comic? My point, it is made). Besides, Blade is really more of an action/horror flick than a superhero movie. That’s all I mean when I say Blade doesn’t count.
Yup. They…they sure are. Anyway. X-Men was seen as a real gamble given the track record of previous Marvel movies. But if ever there was a time to try and steal DC’s thunder at the box-office, it was now. After the initial stunning success of the early Batman and Superman movies, Warner Bros’ DC money train had skidded off the tracks in 1997 with the twin box-office disasters of Steel and Batman and Robin.
So Marvel decided to put their best foot forward with their most popular non-Spider-man franchise, the X-Men. Oh yes, back in the nineties/early 2000s X-Men were one of the biggest things in comics, although it took a long while for them to get there.
The first version of the X-Men appeared in 1963, created by the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. And with such a stellar creative team the original X-Men was…kinda awful, actually. Seriously. Really below par. Even Kirby looks like he’s phoning the art in and Jack Kirby was bitten by a radioactive work ethic as a teenager. That said, Kirby and Lee did come up with two novel ideas:
1) Instead of being a family like the Fantastic Four, or a group of buddies like the Avengers, the X-Men is a school for young superheroes.
2) The X-Men and their enemies are mutants who are born with a special gene that gives them superpowers. This allowed Stan Lee to introduce new villains every week without having to explain that Hotdog Man got his powers from radioactive mustard or whatever.
In the first issue Professor Xavier, their mentor, explains that their name comes from their “eX-tra power”.
So yeah, some novel ideas, and one or two characters (like Cyclops and Magneto) with striking designs and interesting powers. But on the whole, the early X-Men stories are considered the worst thing to come out of the Lee/Kirby partnership. Roy Thomas and Neal Adams took over in 1969 and produced what is generally considered an excellent run, but it wasn’t enough to save the comic from cancellation. Fast forward to 1975 and everything changed.
The relaunched X-Men series written by Len Wein and later Chris Claremont was a very different Beast (sorry) from the original, featuring a multinational cast of men and women from all around the world, including perennial fan favourites like Wolverine and Storm, to this day still the most iconic black female superhero. Claremont used the X-men’s status as mutants to make them an allegory for various oppressed peoples and the comic became one of the most popular in Marvel’s stable. (Yeah, I know Stan Lee says he always intended for Xavier to be Martin Luther King and Magneto to be Malcolm X but I call BS. If the early X-men really was a civil rights allegory then it went “All black people are evil except like six who live in a mansion and protect us from the evil ones”.)
Actually, if anything, it became too popular. By the nineties the X-Men franchise had grown so massive that Marvel could have cancelled every title that didn’t have an “X” in the title and still been one of the two biggest comic book publishers in America. And if there was one single franchise to blame for all the ills that befell the comic industry in the nineties it was the X-Men.
The speculator bubble? Check.
All the claws, cigars, chrome guns and armour? Check.
Unleashing Rob Liefeld on an innocent and unsuspecting world? Check.
Too. Much. Damn. Wolverine? Check. Check. Check and Check.
Seriously, the X-Men were Marvel in the nineties, not like today where they have been sent to live in the little room under the stairs while Marvel tries to sell you on the fucking Inhumans for the bajillionth time.
So, my feelings on the X-Men are a little mixed. I adored the Fox cartoon growing up, and there have been plenty of stories I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. And yeah, as a concept, the X-Men are important. Really important. That there is this huge multi-media franchise about minorities fighting prejudice and oppression, that is a big frickin’ deal.
That said though, man, when the X-Men suck they really suck.
In its way, the X-Men movie series is one of the most faithful in the history of the superhero genre. Because, like the comic it’s based on; when it’s good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’ll make you want to claw your eyes out. Which category does X-Men fall into? Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins in Poland in the forties where a young boy named Erik and his parents are being marched through the gates of a concentration camp.
Actually, I have to give credit here, it’s a very effectively shot scene. The period detail is spot on, the performances are wrenching and it’s all shot and presented with such fidelity and craft that you could easily slot this scene into any prestige World War 2 drama and no one notice…right up until the point that Erik is separated from his parents and starts using magnet powers.
Fast forward to “the not so distant future” (so, probably 2005 or so) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) is showing her boyfriend a map of her planned road-trip through Canada before starting college. They start making out and suddenly he starts going all grey and drained of energy (aw, buddy, it happens to us all) and collapses on the bed. Rogue’s parents run in and see the kid in a coma and are all “Oh God, were you doing the marijuana?” and a panicked Rogue runs away from home. Two points:
1) I blame the parents. They call their kid “Rogue”, of course she’s going to get superpowers.
2) Anna Paquin is seriously fantastic in this role and I’d actually forgotten that.
We cut to Capitol Hill where Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen) is giving a presentation on mutants and is interrupted by Senator Kelly who starts in about how the government needs to start registering mutants and Jean says that you can’t licence people to live and…I’m sorry, is this a presentation or a debate or what? Is this supposed to be the US Senate? Because it looks like a convention centre. Who are all these people and what is going on here? Second, oy vey, again with the mutant registration?
Here’s the thing, I hate the whole mutant registration debate in the comics because it’s completely unrealistic. Let’s be clear, registering all mutants is a very good, very practical, very sensible idea.
Buddy, I DO have to register. It’s called completing the census. If the government can ask me about my religion or how much melanin I have in my skin, why can’t they ask me whether I fart heat rays that can destroy a city which I actually think is far more relevant?
It’s like a problem that could be solved in five minutes if people just thought rationally for a few seconds.
Like, your kid hits puberty and develops powers. You take them to a doctor who gives them a free physical to make sure the mutation is stable and gives them a referral to the Xavier institute if they need help controlling their powers. If their powers are really a danger to everyone around them, they get moved to quarantine until they can get them under control with medical supervision. And then the doctor submits their name to a secure government database that the public has no access to, listing their power, just like a federal gun registry. And your kid goes home and lives their life just as before. What’s the issue?
But in the comics, its like the debate is between “The second you pass mutant registrations they’ll start building concentration camps!” and “Pass mutant registration so we can build concentration camps! And giant robots! MORE GIANT ROBOTS!”
It’s like the debate is completely held hostage by the most extreme elements of both sides with no moderate, sensible, middle ground even poss…okay, you know what I take it back that is absolutely realistic.
Watching the debate are two men, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellan) and I cannot tell you how much of a relief news of that casting was to comic fans. We were all, “You better not fuck this up, Hollywood!” and Hollywood was all “We’ve cast Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellan as Magneto, so shut your filthy pie-holes!” and we were all “Okay, good talk.”
And damn, what a casting coup, right? I mean, fans had been talking about Stewart as Professor X pretty much since he first came to prominence with The Next Generation but it’s so much more than fan-pleasing stunt casting. Honestly, Stewart’s contribution is underrated here. Actually pay attention to how much of his dialogue is just, dull, sledgehammer X-position. The fact that Xavier registers as a character at all is due to absolutely trojan work from the Captain. Xavier follows Magneto and pleads with him not to give up on humanity but Erik says that he’s heard this kind of rhetoric before.
Magneto stalks off saying “We are the future Charles, not them! They no longer matter!”
Meanwhile, in Canada, Rogue arrives in a bar where beer-drinking, cigar-smoking red-necks holler at each other while watching two hobos in a cage pound the tar out of each other and that really doesn’t sound very Canadian to me…
One of those hobos is an little apple-cheeked little cherub named Logan (Hugh Jackman), who looks like he’s just started shaving that morning.
Okay, I’m not going to get into the history and background of Wolverine because he’s got a whole movie series of insanely disparate quality where I’ll be getting into all that so let’s just talk about Hugh Jackman. Now, for the longest time I’ve been a sworn enemy of the very concept of “pretty Wolverine”. To sum up:
Wolverine is supposed to be short, hairy and ugly as the devil’s butt. He’s the guy who, when you walk into a bar and see him in the corner you go “yikes, stayin’ clear of him”. Plenty of artists try to make him look like a tall, statuesque Adonis which completely misses the point that the reason he’s so popular is exactly because he’s close to the only superhero who isn’t a tall, statuesque Adonis. And Hugh Jackman, much as I hate to say it, is Pretty Wolverine. Not a diss on the guy. He’s a great actor and genuine star. And he is giving a fantastic performance in this movie. The trouble is the body that he’s giving that performance in. He’s just too conventionally handsome, so despite the fantastic work that he does, it’ll take me a long, long time to really buy him as Wolverine (you can probably guess which movie that happens in).
Anyway, after the fight, Rogue watches Wolverine at the bar get hassled by the guy he beat, who claims that the only way Logan could have beaten him is if he was a mutant. Which, okay, turns out to be right, but still, what a douche. Logan then pops his claws and the barkeep points a gun at him, because this is a respectable red-neck deathmatch bar and Logan slices his shot gun and leaves. Driving away in his mobile hovel, Logan stops the van when he realises he’s taken on extra weight and finds that Rogue’s stowed away in his trailer. He reluctantly agrees to give her a lift and, seeing as he’s a jaded badass loner and she’s a precocious young girl in need of protecting they pretty much bond there and then for the rest of their lives. It’s like when ducklings imprint on the first moving thing they see.
Suddenly a tree collapses in front of the van and Logan has to brake and goes flying through the window because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt because he’s a badass. Wolverine gets attacked by Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who knocks him unconscious, but the cavalry arrives when Cyclops (James Marsden) and Storm (Halle Berry) show up and rescue them both.
Sabretooth then returns to Magneto’s headquarters and tells Erik how it all went down. So one thing that really struck me about this movie after 16 MCU movies is how small it is. It just feels really underpopulated. Like, Magneto has this massive villain lair but his Brotherhood of Mutants consists of literally four people. They could run this thing out of a small office. I kind of love the idea of Magneto pottering around this vast mausoleum of a lair like Miss Haversham.
Wolverine wakes up in the Xavier institute being examined by Jean Grey, which presumably means he was unconscious the entire time for the flight from Canada to New York state.
Because Logan can’t wake up without almost stabbing someone he almost stabs Jean and then runs through the facility. He keeps hearing a strange voice that leads him to Xavier’s office. Xavier tells him to sit down and gives him the skinny. The Xavier Institute is a school where the pupils are mutants and the teachers are an elite paramilitary unit and damn but this movie was prescient. Xavier introduces Storm and Cyclops and Logan quips, “What do they call you, Wheels?”
Professor Death Rims gives Logan a tour of the school while trying to break the world record for most exposition in a single scene. Stewart’s trying his best, but Jesus it’s a slog.
Meanwhile, Senator Kelly’s been kidnapped by Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a shapeshifter who’s a master of infiltration despite the fact that she goes about bright blue and stark naked. She takes him to Magneto’s massive, empty island lair (my God, Erik, the heating bill alone) and Magneto unveils a machine that runs on his own magnetic power. He uses the machine to bathe Kelly in a white light that transforms him into the shittiest mutant since Cypher.
Kelly now has the power to…seep, so he squeezes through the bars of his cage and plummets to the ocean below. He washes up on a beach and emerges from the water just in time to catch a news broadcast talking about a big UN shindig on Ellis Island where every world leader on the planet will be attending.
Meanwhile, in Westchester, Wolverine wants to get the hell outta dodge but Xavier says that if he stays he’ll help him find out who he is since he knows that he lost his memory fifteen years ago. Logan’s all “How do you know that?” and Xavier’s all “‘Cos I read your mind without your knowledge and consent” and Logan’s all “I’m not sure how I feel about that” and Xavier’s all “Welp, it’s done.”
Jean shows Logan to his room and he hits on her in that nineties movies way that has you goin’ “Jesus how did anyone thinks this was okay?” He sees Cyclops watching him from the doorway and asks him if he’s going to tell him to stay away from his girl and Cyclops replies “Well, if I had to do that, she wouldn’t be my girl. Oh, and Logan? Stay away from my girl.”
Later that night, Rogue hears Wolverine whimpering and kicking in his sleep like he’s dreaming about chasing cars. She tries to wake him up and…
Seconds from death, Rogue touches Wolverine and takes his power, which allows her to heal up but sends him into a coma (Wolverine spends more time hibernating than an actual goddamn wolverine).
One of the kids at the school, Bobby, tells Rogue that she’s in deep shit for almost killing Wolverine and she runs away from the school. But then Bobby’s eyes go yellow, which means he’s either Mystique or possibly a Sith.
As soon as Logan hears that Rogue’s gone missing, he wants to go looking for her so Xavier takes him to Cerebro, a big round room where he can read the thoughts of every living human being and mutant on the planet.
They Rogue to a train station and Logan finds her already on board a train. He talks her into staying with Xavier and she’s about to go when Magneto shows up and makes Logan re-enact the puppet show scene from Pinocchio.
Logan demands to know what Magneto wants with him and Magneto replies “Dear boy, what made you think I wanted you?”
Sabretooth and Toad (Ray Park) defeat Cyclops and Storm and Magneto and his lackey’s stride out the front entrance with an unconscious Rogue but are surrounded by cops. Magneto then disarms them and points their guns back at them. Xavier takes control of Sabretooth and Toad and tries to force Magneto to surrender but Magneto knows that Xavier won’t kill him because he’s his dear boy so Xavier is forced to let him go.
Back at the mansion, Mystique sneaks into Cerebro and messes with its operating goop while the X-Men try to figure out what Magneto wants with Rogue. Suddenly, Senator Kelly turns up at their door asking to speak with Jean Grey. Xavier reads his thoughts and learns what happened to him, and realises that Magneto wants to turn all of the world’s leaders into really, really shitty mutants so that they won’t be able to enact anti-mutant legislation. I gotta admit, it’s a more interesting super villain plot than the standard “take over the world” chestnut. The problem is, Magneto’s mutantifier is obviously still in beta because Kelly dissolves into a pool of water. Xavier figures out that Mangeto can’t use the device on the whole UN assembly without dying so he’s transferring his powers to Rogue so she can have the honour of dying for all mutantkind instead because he is a gentleman.
Xavier tries to use Cerebro to find Rogue but because Mystique messed with the factory presets he ends up in a coma (another one? Jesus.) Jean steps up the plate and, even though it almost kills her, she finds Rogue on a ship heading towards Ellis Island. The X-Men suit up and fly there for the final battle.
Watching X-Men eighteen years later, it’s this final act that really brought home to me how much of a transition piece this is. Because it’s a world away from the stagey, artificial fight scenes of the Batman or Superman series. They very clearly want this to be taken seriously. Hence the black leather uniforms and the lines about “yellow spandex”. But at the same time, it’s just too cheap looking to work as ultra serious superhero action like Dark Knight or Winter Soldier. The movie was made for $75 million, which isn’t huge but certainly wasn’t cheap either. But now, it looks about as polished as an episode of Agents of SHIELD. Hollywood has just gotten a lot better at staging superhero action.
Anyway, in the Ellis Island tourist office the X-Men get ambushed by Toad and Mystique. Wolverine defeats Mystique with his claws and Storm defeats Toad with lightning and one of the worst lines of dialogue in the history of film. Joss Whedon actually penned the offended line “Do you know what happens to a Toad that gets hit by lightening? The same thing that happens to everything else.” If his defense he said that Halle Berry gave a bad line reading and that the original line “It croaks.” was even worse. There are three problems with this defence.
- While Halle Berry may well be the worst actor to ever win an Oscar, blaming the talent is just classless.
- The line only makes sense if we, the audience, know that the original line was “It croaks”.
- “It croaks” is still a better line because puns are a present from English.
Regardless, I think we can all agree that this line needed to be re-written from scratch. Oh fine, fine.
Gotta do everything around here my damn self.
Anyway, the X-Men manage to stop Magneto from shitty-mutantifying the world’s leaders. Rogue, however, has almost been killed by the machine and Logan has to give her his healing powers to save her which of course means he has to go for another nap.
When he wakes up, Xavier is back on his feet and gives him directions to a secret military base in Canada where he can start looking for the answers to his Origin (Logan, nothing good can come of that).
The movie ends with Xavier visiting Magneto in a plastic prison. Magneto asks Xavier if he ever worries that he’s wrong, and that one day the human beings will come for him and his children. Xavier replies that his children have heat vision and weather powers, so they’re good, kaythankbye.
As the movie that arguably kicked off the modern era of superhero film dominance, X-Men has a massive legacy that far overshadows what is, upon rewatching, a smallish, fairly solid three star movie. there’s definitely a lot of potential here, particularly in its damn fine cast. the screenplay is pretty rote but perfectly serviceable and, to be honest, given the narrative knots the later films will tie themselves into, there is something to be said for a nice, simple X-Men story.
Hey, wanna see the new scoring system for the X-Men movies? Sure ya do.
Hey was that Stan Lee?!: Not only was that Stan Lee as a hot dog vendor on the beach where Senator Kelly emerges from the ocean, this is his first movie cameo as a young lad of 78.
Department of Duplication Department: This is where we talk about characters who were introduced in the movie despite already being introduced in a previous movie played by a different actor and with a wildly different personality. Nothing so far, but then we’re only at the first movie.
How worried is Guinan right now?: The X-Men movie’s timeline gets seriously screwy so we will be checking in with Guinan to see how worried she is. How’s the timeline Guinan?
We’ll see how long that lasts.
Wait, Magneto is how old?: Related to the above, Magneto’s age will make less and less sense as time goes on. Right now, Erik is 12 at the start of the movie. The German occupation of Poland lasted from 1939 to 1945 so the oldest he can be in 2000 is 73 and the youngest is 67. Complicating matters though, the movie is supposedly not set in 2000 but in the “not too distant future” so let’s just say he’s 70.
Today, Mutants are: Jewish. Magneto is haunted by his holocaust experience and the fear that it might happen again.
FINAL SCORE: This movie is…
NEXT UPDATE: 15 March 2018
NEXT TIME: Well pluck my tail, we’re already in March and I haven’t reviewed a single cartoon all year, and that just ain’t right. So I’ll be devoting all of March to…