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20 Years Later: X-Men

31 March 20 words: Nathan Warby

It's been 20 years since a group of mutants teamed up to save the universe in 2000's X-Men. Nathan Warby discusses how they also changed the world of comic-book movies forever... 

Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen
Running time: 
104 minutes

Not to make you feel old, but the original X-Men film is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. That means we’ve had two whole decades to see the influence that the mutants’ first live-action outing had on the comic-book movie genre. But how does it stack up now that it’s not a dumb teenager anymore? Well, we somehow found the time in our super busy quarantine schedule to go back and find out.

The first X-Men sits at an interesting point in the history of superhero films, one where the corny adaptations of years prior were on their way out and more grounded interpretations were coming into vogue. This shines through when you watch again now; it very much feels like the first modern comic-book film in how it takes characters with outlandish abilities and makes them feel relatable. In many ways, it’s here that this genre starts to take itself seriously, and it's all the better for it.

The film itself boasts an outstanding ensemble cast, including the likes of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and the fledgling Hugh Jackman, who all embody their respective roles brilliantly and embrace the material to deliver believable performances. What’s particularly impressive is that in a runtime that falls just under two hours, every single character feels as if they’re given the right amount of screen-time, with each getting their moment to shine. In an origin story packed with so many mutants this is no mean feat, and it has certainly paved the way for future films of a similar ilk. Halle Berry’s Storm does feel a tad underused, though.

In his breakthrough role Jackman was an instant hit as Wolverine, bringing both the raw, primal anger and the subtle depth needed to bring the fan favourite to life. His brash portrayal adds some much-needed swagger to the otherwise squeaky-clean X-Men team, making for a nice contrast in ideals. All the signs of the actor that Jackman would become are here in spades, birthing one of the most iconic interpretations of a Marvel character of all-time. It’s no surprise that he has gone on to superstardom; in fact, it’s since become almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.

One thing that has always set the X-Men apart from its peers is the parallels it draws with real world issues. The undertones of prejudice ring as true today as they did 20 years ago, and they still manage to rise above the dated CGI and occasionally choppy cuts. Themes of searching for belonging and purpose also appear throughout, particularly in Rogue’s (Anna Paquin) character arc. This gives these unearthly heroes a crucial facet of humanity, allowing the audience to connect with them on an emotional level and potentially see their own struggles depicted by their on-screen idols.

In a world where superhero blockbusters are a dime a dozen, it’s easy to forget where it all began

Future films thankfully took note, as it gave them the confidence to tell stories with something to say, rather than the narratively safe blockbusters we’re accustomed to. Directors wouldn’t be brave enough to create the likes of Captain America: Civil War or Joker without this watershed moment, for example.

A trope that is often associated with the superhero genre is a clear line between the good characters and the bad.  Director Bryan Singer brilliantly subverts this expectation by resisting the urge to write Magneto as a moustache-twirling villain with a hare-brained scheme. Instead, he is painted as tragic and complicated, with a philosophy that, while clearly warped, comes from an understandable place. Quite an achievement for a guy with a name like ‘Magneto’.

Such a morally grey portrayal makes for a fascinating dynamic between himself and Professor X. Their conflicting outlook on the tensions between humans and mutants is one of the most compelling back-and-forths in superhero movie history. Relationships such as this were pretty scarce in Hollywood blockbusters at the time, studios seeming apprehensive to depict heroes and villains as even remotely similar. They tended to prefer a clearer distinction between the two, think Batman and The Joker or Spider-Man and Green Goblin. X-Men is years ahead of the curve in that sense, and it still feels fresh and exciting all these years later.

Where astute social commentary and intriguing character contrasts make X-Men feel cutting edge, it’s in the action it begins to show its age. As the first in the new wave of comic-book films, set-pieces haven’t yet evolved into the grand spectacles we expect today, due to both budgetary and technological limitations. Despite being serviceable at the time, in 2020 the fight-scenes feel dull and uninspired with very little imagination when you consider the array of abilities they had to play with. Viewed next to something like 2012’s Avengers Assemble, where characters chain powers and find creative ways to use them, this pales in comparison.

In a world where superhero blockbusters are a dime a dozen, it’s easy to forget where it all began. While Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and the arguably superior X2 built on the movie's ideas, it was ultimately X-Men that kickstarted a new era. It may not get the plaudits it deserves but re-visiting the film with the context of where we ended up brings to light just how vital it was. Not only that, it highlights that it is still fantastic in its own right. X, is indeed, gon’ give it to ya.

Did you know? Hugh Jackman took ice cold showers every morning of filming to help get into character

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