“What do they call you? Wheels?”
It’s hard to believe-fourteen years gone-that X-Men was the comic book property used to usher in our current “golden age” of superhero movies. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering it’s probably the most relatable due to its being devoid of flying aliens, radioactive spiders, and Gods. No, short of Batman transforming the memory his parents’ murder into the life of a vigilante, mutants are the most “human” creation Marvel or DC has created (at least to someone with barely a cursory knowledge of the biggies let alone bargain bin cult obsessions). Why else did it attract writers like Walker, Logan, Whedon, Chabon, and McQuarrie before settling on David Hayter? It even got directors James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez interested prior to Bryan Singer‘s attachment. Hollywood’s newest cash cow of a genre was born.
One of the best stories of its genesis, however, is that Fox bought got rights at all. Two decades before Marvel fathomed a multi-franchise universe for their properties, mutant owners Carolco Pictures’ demise had the studio wondering their next buyer was. Columbia Pictures (home of the other two non-Disney controlled comics from Stan Lee) were initially approached before declining and so Fox’s Lauren Shuler Donner could break out the checkbook thanks to the “X-Men” cartoon’s success. Could anyone have believed in 1994 the box office appeal superheroes would wield today? It’s highly doubtful. Besides Blade what was out except a washed up Batman and aging Superman? The time came to introduce a public quick to dismiss comic culture as juvenile low art to the political intricacies and prescient themes of a world where mutants lived freely among us.
How do you do that? With a sweet, scared teenage girl who sucks the life force of anyone she touches (Anna Paquin‘s Rogue) and a wisecracking, ageless brute wandering the US without purpose (Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine) of course. These two become our entry points into a tale a half century in the making when a young boy in a Nazi Concentration Camp first controlled metal with magnetic fields. We don’t get the origins of this future Brotherhood of Mutants leader named Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his old friend/present adversary Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart)-yet-but that’s okay because we understand the writing on the wall ominously pointing towards war. We glean what we need for this story and the next as Wolverine learns them from Professor X. The myriad characters otherwise fill in blanks and expand the world’s infinite potential.
I recall there being more story and less action, but it’s a testament to the writing that I can’t think of anything missing. Plot points are uncovered through fight scenes, relationships built naturally through chemistry rather than cheesy lines, and the choosing of sides performed thanks to philosophical ideals rather than monetary gain. Do you believe the goodness of man will wake up and stop persecuting those who are different or that the evil perpetually marring humanity’s existence is destined to prevail? A struggle for survival takes shape as X-Men strive to educate the ignorant and the Brotherhood to eradicate them. And who is our stand-in? A US Senator (Bruce Davison) we’re all familiar with, one who uses fear mongering to form a lynch mob rather than lend a sympathetic ear to an enemy powerful enough to destroy if provoked.
This was the only way to begin the saga since a majority of America probably had no clue what an X-Man was. First Class can be more sprawling because awareness in the mythology is greater; we know these characters as adults so there’s leeway in excising explanations of ubiquitous facts. X-Men establishes the dynamic between Professor X and Magneto, giving a glimpse of the mutant race’s fracturing before showing the two people they covet. The delineation isn’t black and white either-both sides are virtually identical besides their means of execution. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. against Malcolm X; peace versus action. Every soldier is a weapon so it’s imperative which finds each first. Both leaders are brilliant orators (what a casting coup getting McKellen and Stewart), so it becomes a matter of how jaded or hardened your heart’s become from years of prejudice.
The front lines wage combat in the form of brutal fisticuffs between creatures that barely know how to control the gifts genetic mutation has afforded them. Stoic humanitarians like Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) hide unparalleled telekinetic powers while a fierce Boy Scout like Cyclops (James Marsden) is rendered docile when compassion makes it impossible to open his eyes and risk innocent lives. The rest are still learning (even Halle Berry‘s Storm) about their full capabilities-everyone but the Professor, Magneto, and Wolverine who each know their strengths quite well. The only reason the latter proves so dangerous is because he’s yet to decide which if either side he’s ready to serve. The result is a steady stream of spins, throws, doppelgängers, and supernatural abilities thrust against each other as the mortality of mankind creeps into the crosshairs.
Humanity does a bang up job walking into the line of fire itself, though, through political bills and government-sanctioned bigotry making it hard to sympathize with its plight. This allows us to fully back the X-Men and work towards understanding their morality and empathy as well as the Brotherhood’s lack of patience. Singer et al manufacture a story with an economy of exposition to set up the conflict at hand. Magneto must be stopped and Wolverine must learn teamwork-two ends that help cement the armies engaged in a climactic fight and also those advancing farther into World War III. Effectively quick, concise, and informative with solid acting (save Berry’s robotic delivery), X-Men is the mold subsequent superhero films looked to follow. It’s three-quarters standalone, a quarter set-up, and all social commentary on what it means to be human.