Published on April 23rd, 2012 | by PJ Montgomery13
X-Men – A Movie Flashback
Let’s start this week with a sweeping statement. X-Men is the most important film based on a Marvel comic ever, and the second most important comic book movie after Superman. Don’t believe me? Okay, I suppose I should back my statement up.
Before X-Men came out, superhero movies were something to be feared. The first two Superman and Batman films aside, all we really got was hideous dross like the early nineties Captain America film (I suppose I’ll have to cover that at some point, eh?) or *shudder* Batman and Robin. Films based on comics were not a big deal. Sure, Blade came out before X-Men, and was well received by both critics and fans, but Blade was hardly a big enough character to turn the popular opinion that modern comic based films were anything but complete toss.
X-Men was the movie which changed all that, showing us that a film based on a comic could both attract big name stars and directors, and actually be a good movie. It also helped that the X-Men were pretty well-known, thanks to their superlative nineties cartoon show. If it wasn’t for X-Men, you could easily argue we wouldn’t have had Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or any of the current Marvel Studios output.
So how does X-Men hold up, twelve years on from its initial release? There have definitely been superior films based on Marvel characters since, but thankfully, it’s still a cracking film. It’s a little on the short side, meaning some characters don’t get as much to do as you’d perhaps like, and it ends up feeling a little slight, more like the producers were testing the waters than anything else, but there’s still a hell of a lot to love here.
Wisely, director Bryan Singer, with writers Tom DeSanto and David Hayter, put the focus firmly on everyone’s favourite X-Man, Wolverine. In pre-production, Dougray Scott was cast as Logan, but clashes with his work on Mission Impossible 2 meant he had to step down. Be thankful he did, because there is no one better suited to play Wolvie than Hugh Jackman. X-Men was his breakout film, and it led to the creation of a bona fide star. X-Men is very much an ensemble film, but it’s Jackman you remember the most at the end. That’s no small thing when you factor in the casting of Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier and Ian McKellan as Magneto. These two are also wonderful in their roles, with McKellan in particular relishing his turn as Magneto, and giving us one of the most rounded portrayals of a “bad guy” ever put on screen.
And that’s one of the reasons X-Men works so well. Magneto, for all his plotting and callous disregard for flatscan (non-mutant) life, has goals you can understand, and even empathise with. You may deplore his methods, but there’s not really any arguing with his point of view. McKellan gets this, and plays Magneto as a powerful force, doing whatever he has to in order to further his cause, but who will still show regret at having to fight his former best friend in the process. Witness the scene where he tells Rogue (Anna Paquin) that, yes, he is going to kill her. There is a genuine sense of sadness that her sacrifice is necessary (though as Wolverine points out, if he were really so righteous, he’d sacrifice himself instead). Magneto is one of the best characters in the whole pantheon of Marvel heroes and villains (and he’s been both in his time), and this film absolutely gets him right.
Other cast members also acquit themselves well, such as Ray Park as Toad, Bruce Davison as Senator Kelly and Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. James Marsden is also well cast as Cyclops, though is one of the characters who feels underserved by the script. Does that mean the whole film is well cast? Sadly not. Tyler Mane may have the size and physical presence to be an effective Sabretooth, but when he’s not trying to cut Wolverine to shreds, he mostly stands around and looks confused. And then there’s Halle Berry.
Storm is one of the most powerful X-Men ever, and should have the presence to go with this. In the comics and various animated series, before she joined the X-Men, she was worshipped as a goddess in Africa, and this very much informs the person she later became. She is regal and at one with the elements. Halle Berry’s Storm just comes across as weak, and somewhat pathetic. And then there’s that line. “Do you know what happens to a Toad that gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Much has been made of this line being one of the worst in the film. People blamed the writing. The writer of this line, one Joss Whedon, blames the delivery. Thinking about it, he might be right. Imagine if Sarah Michelle Gellar had this line in Buffy. It would be tossed out there glibly, as the quip it was written to be. That would’ve worked just fine. But Berry tries to infuse the line with such gravitas that it just misfires completely. Berry ruined Whedon. That’s unforgivable. Thankfully, Whedon’s other memorable exchange from the script (the infamous “you’re a dick” conversation between Cyclops and Wolverine) is delivered so well by Marsden and Jackman that it’s not all lost. It’s just a shame that Halle Berry’s diva-like behaviour meant Storm got more and more to do in the sequels, while poor Cyclops became more and more sidelined.
X-Men is also full of small nods for the fans. Count the mutants who get cameos in Xavier’s school, and you’ll see all sorts of treats for long time X-Men fans, beyond the obvious appearances of Iceman, Pyro and Kitty Pryde. And there are more, smaller nods, too. There’s the amusing yellow spandex remark, Wolverine calling Sabretooth “bub” at the climax of their awesome fight scene, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and, in a touch that many fans will have missed, the casting of George Buza as the trucker who gives Rogue a lift at the beginning of the film. Don’t know who George Buza is? He was the voice of Beast in the nineties X-Men cartoon. It’s details like this which show you that this was a film made by people who were, themselves, fans of the X-Men comics, and it shines through in the movie.
Is Magneto’s plot to turn world leader’s into mutants a bit ridiculous? Yes. Have one or two of the effects shots dated quite badly? Of course. Does X-Men hold up today? Very much so. Better films have come since, but they couldn’t have done so without X-Men coming first. And it was only going to get better…
1. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2. Thor, 3. Iron Man, 4. X-Men, 5. The Incredible Hulk, 6. Daredevil, 7. Iron Man 2, 8. Ghost Rider, 9. Elektra
Recommended Reading – The Dark Phoenix Saga
There was no other choice for this week’s recommended reading. The Dark Phoenix Saga isn’t just the greatest X-Men story of all time, it’s the best superhero story Marvel have ever published. And there’s no argument against that which holds up. The story of what happens when the cosmic entity which has bonded with Jean Grey becomes corrupted after an encounter with the Hellfire Club, it is simply filled with classic moments. Wolverine’s solo rampage through the Hellfire Club mansion when the rest of the X-Men have been defeated, the X-Men battling the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard on the surface of the moon, the Phoenix consuming the life force of an entire planet, the first appearances of Dazzler and Kitty Pryde… The list goes on. Chris Claremont wrote the X-Men for the best part of seventeen years, and his entire run is well-regarded (though his attempts to recapture the magic since have fallen largely flat), and this is very much the high point, aided superbly by John Byrne on art chores. What really makes this story work though, is it’s ending. In Claremont’s original draft, the X-Men and the Shi’Ar found a way to separate Jean from the Phoenix, and she and Cyclops retired from the X-Men to live happily ever after. Luckily, Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, pointed out that Jean, as Phoenix, had essentially committed genocide, and needed to pay the proper price for this at the story’s climax. This lead to the truly heartbreaking ending which was eventually put in place. Various retcons since the original story may have changed certain events within the Marvel universe, but there is still no denying the greatness of the original Dark Phoenix Saga.