Superhero movies are all the rage right now, and they have been for almost a decade. With major critical and box office successes such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Aquaman,” it’s clear this blossoming genre of comic book characters coming to the big screen has managed to foster a love from both die-hard moviegoers and general audiences alike.
However, this intense love for big-budget superhero flicks is a relatively recent development. The genre used to be rampant with films such as 1997's “Batman and Robin” that took a more cartoon-like, juvenile approach to superheroes.
However, things started to change 20 years ago today when 20th Century Fox released the first film of what would become one of the most successful and popular franchises in the studio’s history. “X-Men,” directed by Bryan Singer, would change the landscape of superhero movies forever and pave the way for the incredible successes we see in the genre today.
With July 14 being the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, I decided to revisit “X-Men” to see if it still holds up when compared to the slew of films it set the stage for.
There are moments in “X-Men” that have certainly not aged very well, but as a whole, the film still holds up remarkably well.
“X-Men” is set in a world where the existence of mutants — individuals with genetic mutations that give them extraordinary abilities — has become a political issue. Some believe that all mutants need to register with the government in order to be monitored, while others believe that mutants should have the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.
At the center of the film is the relationship between Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen), better known as Magneto. Both are mutants, and they were close friends once. Now they find themselves on opposing sides of the issue.
Lensherr believes mutants to be superior to the rest of humanity and that they should be proud and open about their mutations. Xavier, however, believes it’s important to strike a balance between mutants and humanity in order to avoid potential conflict.
Since the comic’s inception, the “X-Men” property has explored the complexities and injustices of minority suppression, and the film does an excellent job of continuing this theme. Though Magneto may be the film’s villain and Xavier, as well as the titular X-Men, are the protagonists, the conflict between Magneto and Xavier is never as simple as good versus evil. The film isn’t afraid to show that both sides only want what’s best for their people, and the conversations and debates that occur between Xavier and Magneto on the issue make for some of the film’s best sequences.
In addition to this central dynamic, what makes “X-Men” work so well is undoubtedly the stellar cast. Beyond Stewart and McKellen, the film also stars Hugh Jackman as Wolverine — the role that ultimately made him the huge name he is today — as well as James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin and Famke Janssen.
Each of these performers are given their moments to shine, and they all do fantastic jobs at bringing their characters to life. Stewart, McKellen and Jackman do most of the heavy lifting for the film, though this is to be expected since they play the most popular characters who get the most screen time.
Looking beyond the plot, however, “X-Men” still stands tall as a solid, yet certainly flawed, superhero movie in today’s terms.
If you watch this movie with the same mindset that you would any Marvel movie of the modern era, you're bound to be disappointed. Many aspects of the film, such as the fight sequences, a few bits of dialogue and its general exposition, haven't necessarily aged the best.
Many of the fight sequences in the movie are pretty unbelievable, and I mean that quite literally. It’s hard to watch and be completely immersed in what is happening because it’s apparent that the action is really just a bunch of actors jumping around on wires, as many of the shots are just quick cuts of characters flying through the air.
While it was fun to see all of the different X-Men’s abilities, such as Wolverine’s claws or Storm’s control of the weather, I did find myself being taken out of the movie a bit because the technology just wasn’t developed enough to make these powers believable. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the movie — it is 20 years old, after all, and they didn’t have the same impressive technology that’s utilized today. Still, it is important to point out that this lack of technology is pretty apparent during a rewatch.
The film also has a bit of a storytelling issue when it comes to its exposition. Admittedly, there is a lot of worldbuilding and explanation needed for audiences to really grasp how this universe works. However, I can’t help but wish that the film had been a little more subtle in providing this information. Usually, it just resorts to verbally spewing details and facts at the audience and hoping that they can take it all in, as opposed to showing the audience the world and letting them soak it in.
Though the visual effects and overuse of spoken exposition in “X-Men” aren’t quite up to par, the film as a whole proved that superhero movies that take their subject seriously can grip audiences and be financially successful. On a budget of $75 million, the film managed to pull in roughly $300 million worldwide. That may not sound like much when compared to the likes of today's superhero flicks, which routinely make over $1 billion at the box office, but it was pretty impressive for the time.
The film traded in colorful spandex and cheesy one-liners for genuinely interesting characters and a premise that asks audiences to think a little. It laid the groundwork for many truly great films in the genre later to come. If it weren’t for “X-Men,” I would wager that films like “The Dark Knight” and those found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe might not even exist.
Looking back on it after 20 years, it’s apparent that “X-Men” is far from the greatest superhero movie ever made, but the role it played in establishing and legitimizing the superhero genre cannot be understated. It was a game changer for the genre, and that alone makes it a film deserving of celebration.