Now here’s a case study in adaption, a simultaneous example of how to successfully make a comic book movie and how to cock it up even as you’re supposedly doing “right” by both your fans and your studio backers. An unqualified box office success, X-Men ignited what I’ve come to call the Silver Age of Comic Book Movies, inaugurating trends and best practices that hamstring the genre to this day, despite elevating superhero flicks up to a level of respectability they’d never previously enjoyed…save, perhaps, for about a minute and a half there, after Tim Burton’s Batman.
Batman was a filmmaker’s film by a man who’s gone on to admit he’s never read a comic book in his life. (“Which,” as Kevin Smith put it, “explains Batman.”) At least X-Men‘s Bryan Singer had the good since to claim making his “comic book” movie helped him see the light. Before this, Singer was known for one decent thriller (Unusual Suspects) and one half-decent Stephen King adaption (Apt Pupil). Seeking to do a sci-fi picture, he nonetheless turned X-Men down three times…until producer Avi Arad convinced him to actually read the damn books…and watch some of the wonderful animated series Arad brought to Fox Kids for five season’s in the 90s.
Finding resonance in the themes that make X-Men what it is (themes of prejudice, integration, the prevailing tensions between humanity and superhumanity…which can stand for any minority you want) Singer broke down and filmed a film no one really believed in. Just look at its budget. Seventy-five million dollars is chickenfeed for a major studio summer blockbuster. You don’t even need to squint: you can see it in action sequences. X-Men was someone’s (or a whole lot of someones) gigantic hedged bet. I’m glad it paid off, but I’m not about to do what I did when the film premiered and let it off easy out of desperation. Most of us made that mistake. We hedged our bets, hoping that the success of this film would give us other superhero summer blockbusters. And we were right.
X-Men beings exactly how it should: with a brief prologue set in Poland, 1944. We watch a young boy cry as Nazis shunt his parents off and I’m glad. Yes, I thought in the theater in 2000, that’ll make the normals sit up and take all this shit seriously. That’s right, motherfuckers! ‘Round here we open with the Holocaust. And if you don’t like it, call the ADL.
Unfortunately, the question becomes “Where do you go after the Holocaust?” One of my personal guiding lights, Theodore Adorno, once famously said, “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” He lived to take that back once actual poets proved him wrong but Bryan Singer is no poet. And his X-Men is more of a collage than a coherent piece of art. 20th Century Fox commissioned over twenty-eight scripts in the ten years it took this movie to get made. From the shifty, stuttering way things unfold, attempting to give equal weight to a tri-focal narrative, the pick-and-mix nature becomes obvious.
The prologue in Poland establishes Story A. We then flash-forward to any given night on what was then called The WB (now known as the CW). It’s “the not too distant future” and, somewhere in time and space, we meet a young girl named Marie (Anna Paquin, then-known from her Oscar-winning role in The Piano) who’s mere touch gives people seizures. So much, then, for Story B.
Next, we quantum leap to Washington D.C., where Dr. Jean Gray (Famke Janssen, then known as “that girl who kills people with her thighs in GoldenEye“) is setting up Story C, testifying before Congress about America’s burgeoning “mutant problem.”
From this we learn X-Men takes place in an alternate universe where genetic mutation is the next In thing and politics isn’t boring. Where politicians like Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) put the stand back in grandstanding, badgering expert witnesses (like Jean) when they refuse to support his drive for the Mutant Registration Act. . I know, I know. “Senators? Standing up for something? Yeah, fucking right.” But since Kelly’s taking a principled stand in favor of bigotry and fear-mongering, I can actually buy into it. He’s exactly the kind of politician Rupert Murdoch likes, so I can easily see him becoming the Senate’s point-man on burning numbers into people’s arms. Thus our main plot…Story C. You see the problem there? No? Let’s keep on then.
Back in Story B, we find Anna Paquin’s made it all the way to a Canadian dive bar where she meets (and sorta-kinda saves the life of) a cage-fighting drifter who calls himself Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Wolverine keeps foot-long, metal claws concealed in his knuckles and eventually warms up to Paquin enough to reveal his real name is Logan…kinda, sorta. Long story. She lets him in on her nom de guerre, Rogue. “What kind of a name is ‘Rogue’?” he asks, prompting her to fire back, “What kind of a name is ‘Wolverine?”
And here’s the Big Problem: by having these characters each dismiss the other’s pseudonyms with a flippant remark the film wastes a golden opportunity to bring up essential questions about the segmentation of identity and the dichotomy between our public and private selves in a world that continues to insist we keep our unique gifts under cover. Like this film. That’s why the X-Men’s “costumes” are black leather biker suits with all the personality of mass-produced fetish gear. With this little exchange, X-Men purposefully distances itself from “conventional” superhero narratives. This film, its one direct prequel, and it’s two direct sequels, are not even trying to be about heroics. No, these are films about powerful, underground organizations and their Earth-shaking ideological disputes.
They are also all about Wolverine. Eying Logan’s knuckles, Rogue asks, “When they come out…does it hurt?” There’s a grim, fatalistic honesty in Logan’s response: “Every time.” Here we see the new way forward, and way to inject maturity and meaning into material people like the young Bryan Singer dismissed as kiddie bullshit…before someone showed him that, if you ask the right questions, even the most witless piece of fiction can surprise you with an unexpectedly quiet, poignant, and interesting answer. Sad to say but, in all my years as a comic book reader, I never considered how Adamantium claws punching their way through your flesh might feel…until that moment in at the [Name Redacted] Theater in the summer of 2000. This film gave me that gift, and I thank everyone involved for that.
Unfortunately, that’s just about the last surprise X-Men has in store for us. Logan and Rogue are set upon by a wild-haired mutant named Sabertooth (Tyler “Big Sky” Mane, who’d go onto play Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes – more fool him) only to be rescued by two figures in the aforementioned fetish chic. These, as we and Logan learn soon enough, are “Ororo Munroe, also called Storm (Halle Berry),” and “Scott Summers, also called Cyclops (James Marsden).”
Wolverine wakes from a tree-branch-to-the-head-induced coma to find himself rescued by Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Westchester, New York. As Professor Xavier (Patrick “Make it so” Stewart) patently explains (via montage), the School is part runaway shelter, part private academy, and part front for the vigilante activities Professor X arbitrarily decides are necessary in these troubled times.
“When I was a boy,” Xavier tells us, “I discovered I had the power to control people’s minds…When I was seventeen I met a young man name Eric Lensherr. He too had an usual power. He could create magnetic fields and control metal. Believing that humanity would never accept us he grew angry and vengeful. He became Magneto…There are mutants out there with incredible powers, Logan. And many who do not share my respect for mankind. If no one is equipped to oppose them humanity’s days could be over.”
All of which is just dandy, if annoyingly miss-handled. I always heard you were suppose to weave exposition into your narrative, not stop the plot twenty minutes in so Patrick Stewart can monologue. Still, if someone must dole out expository chunks it might as well be Captain Picard. At least this gives him more to do than the rest of the cast.
Plot-convenient amnesia allows Wolverine to stand in for the audience (while eliminating any need to muddy the waters with his convoluted, Highlander-ish backstory) because someone has to be. Too bad this robs Wolverine of what little dramatic potential he has, given he’s the kind of one-note, bullshit badass antihero you’d expect to come out of comic books from the 1970s. You need to keep that kind of character at an emotional arm’s-length. He should be leaning against a back wall, making snarking comments about how everyone else in the room is a wuss. That we should all quit this chin-flapping and start dismembering people with our claws, something Wolverine’s not allowed to do here, since this absolutely had to be a PG-13. You make more money that way.
Logan’s fraternal relationship with Rogue, while welcome, softens and warms him to a surprising degree. Gone is the monster his more rabid and sycophantic fans insist is the “real” Wolverine: a sociopathic, mass-murderer who’s done more dirty deeds dirt cheap than Olie North and AC/DC combined. We’re suppose to be happy with Hugh Jackman’s cigar-chomping, “Bub” saying ways, but even the film seems to recognize Logan’s too boring to carry a hundred minutes all by his lonesome.
That’s why the film tries (and fails) to foreshadow a love triangle with Logan, Cyclops and Jean as its non-collinear points. That’s also why Rogue goes from Audience Identification Girl in the first act to Living MacGuffin in the third. Just goes to show what you have to do to make a superhero movie the witless cretins will actually watch: turn it into a melodrama starring unbelievably hot people who wear fashionable clothes and occasionally display superpowers.
Then, if you’re Bryan Singer, you shoot most of the movie over your character’s shoulders. Or you squeeze them as far to the edge of the frame as you can. It’s not like they’re important to the plot or anything. And remember: X-Men‘s plot is the C Story.
Said plot is really Magneto’s plot to teach the leaders of the Free World (who are gathering for a summit on Ellis Island) a thing or three about empathy and not-so-peaceful co-existence. But 60% of this film is The Wolverine and Rogue Show. Everyone else in the cast (whether hero or villain; fine English actor or future Ally McBeal veteran) has to fight over their table scraps.
Things become especially stupid and shamelessly manipulative about a two-thirds of the way in, when Professor X is knocked into a convenient coma due to the sabotage of his private psychic amplification device, Cerebro. This eats up ten minutes of movie, meaning to showcase the fact Cyclops and Jean are actually field leaders of this so-called “team.” But since the pair of them are about as a developed as an Ichthyostega this whole sequence (they find the Professor, cart him off to medlab, Scott says some very Serious and Heartwarming things by his bedside) feels like the massive sidetrack it actually is. It feels like a piece of the film this would’ve been in a universe where Bryan Singer actually cared about the X-Men before he took this job.
I respect films that plop me right down into their universe because those film’s don’t patronize me. X-Men avoided that…for about twenty minutes. Then it forced Patrick Stewart to squeeze out a steaming load of exposition into my lap before remembered it did bring up that plot a few action sequences ago. Like a questing hound, it started following the plot again…only to conclude with a series of cheap wire-fu action scenes that try their damnedest to show off everyone’s powers…but only succeed in showing how lame these X-Men are in a fight, a running theme that evolved into a running gag by 2006.
There’s too many of them. Always have been. Too many of them and not enough for them to do. Magneto’s plot just doesn’t justify this massive collection of superpowers. Hell, I remember a time when Magneto built entire space stations and threatening to bomb capitol cities with asteroids. That’s the kind of thing that requires the motherfucking X-Men, a team famous for its overwhelming displays of force.
Still, the decision to hire two Shakespearean vets to man the major roles saves this film. It’s the same logic that led someone to cast Wesley Snipes as Blade, by which I mean it’s just plain logic. The quality of your film improves in proportion to the quality of your cast. I know I shouldn’t have to explain this, but after re-watching a whole shelf of late twentieth century superhero flicks, believe me, I do.
I also have to chide another movie for criminally misuse of its talent. Ian McKellen is the perfect Magneto. Stewart is a great Charles Xavier. Too bad neither of them gets as much screen time as Hugh Jackman’s chest. I guess Fox was aiming for my mother’s demographic with that one. It worked, too. So…go Logan’s nipples, I guess.
Personally, I like to think this just proves that the X-Men are the least-interesting mutants in their universe. Of all mutantkind, they’re just too damn privileged to really win me over with anything less than a world-ending catastrophe. How many satellite schools could Charles Xavier open up for what it takes to maintenance Cerebro, the medlab, the underground headquarters and that jet they’ve parked in the basement?
In any case, we all know this isn’t the “real” X-Men; this is X-Men Condensed. The sweat rising off a franchise that chugged along for forty years before anyone even thought about making a film. Three hundred million dollars worth of people eagerly lapped it up, and I’m not sorry to say I was one of them. I am sorry for this film’s missed opportunities and aesthetic missteps…but I’m prepared to call it “good but flawed.” It’s miles away from anything Warner Brothers released after 1994. That means nothing if you haven’t seen Spawn, Steel, or Mystery Men…but even if you’ve only seen Batman Forever you know exactly what I’m talking about.
X-Men inaugurated the Silver Age of Superhero movies because it treated the genre with at least as much respect as Hollywood previously reserved for gunfight orgies, Slasher films, and Kung-fu flicks. At the time, it appeared to be a sparkling diamond of quality in a churning sea of campy shit. So we all dutifully said, “Go Team Hollywood!” while secretly hoping the sequel would be better. Stick that on your box art, Fox.