Sorry for the random drought there! I actually have the next review already written, so as long as I can get a reasonable chunk of the one after that done, I’ll post it tomorrow night!
#5: X-Men (2000)
For those who don’t remember the pre-2000 superhero film landscape, and how much of a seismic shift occurred after X-Men, it might actually be difficult to contextualize just how seminal this film actually was to the genre. Anyone who’s been raised on post-2000 superhero films would probably watch this film and think, “Well, yeah. It’s pretty great, but it’s what I’m used to seeing from a really good superhero film: a well-made film for any genre with a heavy emphasis on character interaction and development. It’s really good, but what’s the big deal?”
Here’s the big deal: this is the film that introduced that formula to the genre. Prior to X-Men, the only two widely successful superhero film franchises were Superman and Batman. The former had descended into silliness and showed no sign of dramatically changing the film landscape, the latter had gone from being a vehicle for Tim Burton’s sensibilities, then later a corporate marketing machine whose primary purpose was to serve as an excuse to sell action figures. What X-Men did (this is going to sound like a no-brainer, but it was really actually not) was give superhero films license not only to be good, but to be the ends unto themselves.
X-Men had all of the elements you needed for an exceptionally entertaining film even if it hadn’t been a superhero film. The script by David Hayter based on the story by Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto was a major strength. Rather than seeing being the introduction to a series as a handicap, X-Men decided to take the novel approach of making that aspect of the film genuinely interesting. The pacing was excellent, with well-spaced dramatic beats and necessary exposition weaved together seamlessly. The overall tone was fairly light-hearted and optimistic, but it definitely had its fair share of dramatic moments.
The strong script was brought to life by the exceptional director Bryan Singer, and an unbelievably strong ensemble cast headlined by the likes of Sirs Patrick Stewart (as Professor Charles Xavier) and Ian McKellen (as Eric Lensherr/Magneto), and Hugh Jackman (as Logan/Wolverine.) One of the things that would later make The Avengers so terrifically successful was its emphasis on group dynamics, and Joss Whedon’s existing expertise notwithstanding, it very well may have found its prototype in this film. The team is introduced to the audience through the eyes of newcomers Logan and Rogue (Anna Paquin.)
Unlike many later Marvel films that will make the heroes the most interesting thing about he film by simply not having an overpowering villain, X-Men uses the franchise’s most iconic villain, who could easily be the most interesting thing about his entire series in his own right. The thing is, what makes Magneto such an effective villain for this series is he doesn’t detract from the heroes’ ability to shine at all because of how intimately involved he is with the X-Men. The film depicts a sympathetic Magneto with deep, personal reasons for what he’s doing. We also see the complicated relationship between him and Charles Xavier, with strong hints at an extensive backstory between the two that really forms one of the emotional cores of this entire series. (Strikingly, this will actually later turn out to be one of the only things Brett Ratner’s monstrosity of a third film “gets” about the earlier films, though it’s more or less a throwaway token reference.)
One likely reason I–unlike many fans–actually prefer the first film to the second is that it’s actually the only film in the entire series that doesn’t badly underuse Cyclops (aka Scott Summers, played by James Marsden.) Actually, his role in the film’s final action sequence is one of the biggest “wow” moments of the series for me. Of course, the film does have to introduce the love triangle between Scott, Logan, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but since Bryan Singer isn’t a hack who doesn’t understand these characters at all (we’ll get to you in a later review, Brett Ratner), this really actually serves to give Logan another source of character conflict and added emotional depth. What little relationship drama there was served essentially the same role it did in the comics and animated series, and you never got the impression that Singer was going to take it farther than that.
One of the biggest reasons I can’t buy the argument that X-Men: First Class (2011) is actually an improvement over Singer’s first two films is the secondary villains in X-Men. Much like Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and… What’s-His-Name (yeah, it’s Riptide, played by Alex Gonzalez, but you had to look that up) from First Class, X-Men‘s villains are essentially walking plot devices. The thing is? You remember them. You remember Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), Toad (Ray Park), and especially Mystique (Rebecca Romijn.) Were there any unmemorable characters in this film? I don’t remember. (Har har.) When even a film’s plot device characters are memorable, it’s doing something very right. (Really, First Class actually had a pretty big problem with many of its heroes being unmemorable, but let’s move on.)
If this film had one weakness, it is that it felt like there was just a bit of vestigial guilt about being a superhero film. There’s even an in-joke when Cyclops asks a discontent Wolverine regarding the uniforms, “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?” Most comic book fans probably couldn’t help but roll their eyes and wonder how exactly black leather was any less impractical and silly-looking. But we’re still not talking about Chris Nolan levels of “I can’t believe I’m making a superhero film,” and remember: this was the film that hit Hollywood over the head with the fact that superhero films could be mostly faithful to their source material and well-crafted films in their own right.
To date, The Avengers may be the ultimate expression of what a superhero film can be, but X-Men was the first film to show us that such a thing was possible at all. It showed us how to make a superhero film that people will take seriously without Christopher Nolan’s aesthetic of “things are meaningful because they are dark and gritty.” Keep making them like this, Hollywood. Trust me.