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.
“Sorry Blade, you don’t count.”
“Not because…y’know, no, I mean some of my best friends are…I mean, no, no, no, okay let me start over.”
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.
“Some muthafuckas always trying to ice-skate uphill.”
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.
AKA one of the great underrated comedies of the nineties FIGHT ME.
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”.
“But “extra” begins with…”
“I know, but the E-Men are a techno group from Leeds and they won’t sell me the name.”
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.
As a statement of intent, that’s pretty on the nose.
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.
LOVE US DAMN YOU!!
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.
As a Catholic, I loved the story where a fringe Catholic sect tried to make Nightcrawler pope and then trick everyone into thinking the rapture had started with exploding communion wafers despite the fact that Catholics don’t actually believe in the rapture and that is literally the least stupid part of the whole thing.
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.