In the 1990’s, I grew up watching X-Men: The Animated Series. I ran around my parents’ living room, emulating my favorite character, Wolverine, as I immersed myself into the colorful world of these individuals and their adventures. Although I was very young, the show taught me that it was okay to be different and we should accept others, no matter the contrasts between myself and them. I never thought I’d see this team – this family – of heroes on the big screen.
In 2000, that – and the superhero genre – were changed forever.
X-Men changed how audiences looked at superhero movies. Directed by Bryan Singer, the film was approached as a piece of cinema about people first. Having them be superheroes was just extra furniture that was being added into the house being built. The cinema approach was evident in the bold move of opening the superhuman film with a sequence set in 1944 German-occupied Poland, watching young Erik Lensherr’s parents being forced into a concentration camp while he fought against the separation, exposing his powers for the first time.
Before this film, superhero films were recognized as colorful, campy, and silly. The first footage of X-Men that audiences saw was of a family being torn apart in one of the darkest moments of human history was a game-changer. Richard Donner’s Superman was a thoughtful human portrait and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was energetically unique but there was no blueprint for what a superhero film could be. “Serious” wasn’t a consideration. The notion of blending grounded, real-world drama with a costumed property like X-Men was unheard of, much less imagined. Instead of parading the characters around as silly cartoons, Singer took a realistic approach into introducing the heroes.
At the time of my life, my biggest “in” for the movie would be Wolverine. Sure, I knew Patrick Stewart from his days as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I wanted to see my favorite character in action. Played by a relatively unknown Hugh Jackman, he brought warmth to my 10-year old heart as he displayed the outsider of the team; someone who didn’t want to be a part of the team or get a codename like “Storm” or “Cyclops”. Looking back, he represented the illiterate members of the audience as their surrogate. As Logan grows to embrace the more comic-book aspects of the X-Men, so does the audience. By the time we got to the third act and final battle, fans new and old are hooked in. Despite the special effects that really caught my eye at that age, the grounded and more realistic human approach is not downplayed.
Deep dives into the thematics of the story also displayed the respect Singer had for one of Stan Lee’s most famous creations. He recognized and emphasized the parallels between Professor X/Magneto and the relationship Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X while also leaning heavily on the social importance of a group of minorities who are scorned simply for being different. This message and its organic growth in the film is the heart of the entire X-Men story.
X-Men was the first superhero blockbuster since Batman (1989). The financial success helped spawn many sequels and jump-starting a franchise, but its impact on the world of comic-book adaptations cannot be understated. The X-Men run helped Spider-Man swing in 2002. In fact, if not for the success of the X-Men, Iron-Man and the Avengers probably never would have graced the screen years later. The film gets lost in the flood of Marvel films over the past twenty years but its importance should never be forgotten. The impact reverberated into DC films, paving the way for Christopher Nolan to double down on this take with Batman Begins in 2005. The X-Men franchise is the foundation on which the current superhero genre was built.
Despite the ups (X2 and Days of Future Past) and downs (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Last Stand) of the long-standing franchise, especially the franchise closing Dark Phoenix, I’m appreciative of Marvel’s family of heroes. No longer would a comic book movie be seen as a second-tier genre — it could be a film, a work of art. And I want to thank X-Men for that.
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