Re-watching X-Men over a decade after its release is a bittersweet experience. As a stand-alone film, X-Men manages to entertain and incorporate some worthwhile elements into the comic book genre which has since exploded to unimaginable heights. But the film media has not been kind to the X-Men. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe showing us what comic movies can achieve, fanboys pull their hair out watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the other awful adaptations of their comic heroes. What may be worse than the lackluster individual movies is the garbled timeline shared among the films and the unfaithful depictions of the comics’ central characters.
But again, X-Men on its own is a capable film and a worthy start to a franchise, no matter what unfortunate turns the franchise may take in the future. Director Bryan Singer develops an appropriately dark tone for the film without overdoing the gloom like some superhero flicks in the future. Now, while I say that, I must point out that the opening scene of this movie (and thus the opening scene for the entire series) takes place in a Holocaust concentration camp. Not necessarily the lightest beginning but it highlights the underlying themes of discrimination and alienation underlying the X-Men world. Still, the choice feels opportunististic, especially since the rest of the film does not explore Magneto’s past enough to justify the opening. X-Men: First Class earned the visit to the concentration camp by exploring Magneto’s past more fully. The penalty for that is having to listen to Kevin Bacon’s German accent.
Part of what makes X-Men work so well as the first film in a franchise is its restraint, a rare trait among comic flicks. The restraint comes in the introduction of the mutants and their mutations. After watching Magneto bend the gates of the concentration camp, we see Rogue nearly kill a boy during a kiss. No explanation is given and the uninitiated are left guessing what happened. Next we watch Wolverine dominate a cage wrestling match with what may just be a great left hook, not advanced healing abilities. Soon after he unsheathes his claws and juliennes a shotgun (technically he slices it horizontally and doesn’t go as far as julienning but still). In the next scene an old, liberated Magneto sits in a dungeon office suite creating a stringless pendulum with steel balls, then allows the balls to carelessly drop to the floor as he leaves the room. Examples abound and the subtlety is effective. By avoiding the instant payoff of a great “wow” moment when a power is cheaply revealed, Singer uses the reveals to more calculated effect. One of the best examples comes when Rogue startles Wolverine from a nightmare, causing the ever-jumpy, PTSD-suffering, human knife stand to accidentally stab her. Despite having spent several scenes with Rogue we do not yet know her power. In that moment we believe that the young crowd favorite just died in front of us. Instead, her power is revealed and allows her to live. Had her power absorbing ability been revealed in that earlier make-out session, the tension of this moment would be lessened.
If X-Men were based on totally original characters devised by Singer and Co., it would have proved a far more enjoyable film. Actually, in many ways the film does create new characters. Many of the changes made to beloved comic characters prove unsettling for fanboys. Cyclops is played down considerably and turned into a jealous, incompetent leader. Late in the film Magneto chastises Cyclops for instructing Storm to attack Magneto with lightning; “Oh yes! A bolt of lightning into a huge copper conductor. I thought you lived at a school?” The line is meant to draw laughs, and succeeds in doing so, but irked fanboys for dumbing down the X-Men’s field leader and the team in general. Rogue’s character and origins are simplified from that of the comics and her accent and mannerisms have disappeared. In the X-Men TV show from 1990’s Toad is a peculiar pet and lackey for Magneto, but in the film his character is unrecognizable.
All the fanboys left pounding their fists after watching Fox and Singer’s bastardization of the characters they love would break their hands after watching the later editions of the X-Men franchise. Juggernaut, Gambit, and Deadpool (my god, what did they do to Deadpool) would all get the same treatment. But for those unititiated to X-Men lore, this film and some (not all) of the later films in the franchise are capable action/superhero/comic films. The worse thing new fans suffer is missing out on far better storylines and characters.
Bottomline: A dated but entertaining start to a franchise filled with ups and downs.
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Flashback/Backslide’s Marvel Blogathon continues Monday, January 12th with a review of Blade II (2002). Check out the most recent entry into the Blogathon; a review of 1998’s Blade.
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