“It is the key to our evolution” – How X-Men paved the way for modern superhero movies

It’s July 2000: Enrique Iglesias’ “Be with You” is top of the Billboard Hot 100, everybody’s wearing trucker hats and low-rise jeans, social media as we know it doesn’t exist, and nobody is interested in superhero movies…yet. But then, on 14 July 2000, X-Men arrived in theatres and changed the course of cinema – heck, all of pop culture, if we’re being honest – forever.

It’s easy to dismiss X-Men’s influence today, not least of all in response to the allegations of sexual assault against director, Bryan Singer. Yet while the accusations aimed at Singer – which have dogged the filmmaker for much of his career – are profoundly troubling and should by no means be downplayed, pretending that X-Men isn’t an incredibly influential flick seems more than a tad disingenuous.

Aside from giving superstar Hugh Jackman his big break in Hollywood, X-Men’s critical and commercial success gave the industry renewed confidence in superhero movies as a bankable proposition, paving the way for Marvel Studios decade-long run of box office dominance. Along the way, it also changed the face of mainstream comics, as well – so yeah: it was (and is) kinda a big deal.

But then, it sorta makes sense that a movie built around the idea of evolution would be the one responsible for mutating the DNA of the big screen blockbuster, doesn’t it?

A shot in the arm for a floundering genre

That’s no exaggeration, by the way: like the first animal clambering from the water to the land, X-Men really did mark the moment where superhero movies began their gradual ascent to the top of the cinematic food chain.

Before that, comic book movies were dead. The Batman franchise notoriously stalled with 1997’s Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned, neon-soaked campy romp, while the lesser known likes of The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, Spawn, The Crow, and Judge Dredd were at best cult hits, at worst, outright flops.

Then along came Blade in 1998. Loosely based on a C-list (at best!) Marvel Comics’ character, this Wesley Snipes vehicle’s tidy ticket sales and so-so reviews convinced Hollywood executives that superhero properties could work on screen – provided they weren’t too obviously based on comic books, that is.

This made Marvel Comics’ X-Men, with its science fiction-lite premise – a team of mutants protect a world that hates and fears them from their extremist counterparts – an ideal proposition. Further buoyed by the success of the hit animated series televised earlier that decade, 20th Century Fox pushed ahead with a live-action version of ­X-Men, and after 15 years stuck in development hell, the production soon gathered momentum.

Despite a few hiccups along the way – Jackman famously replaced Dougray Scott in the lead role of Wolverine three weeks into principal photography – the mid-1999 shoot went smoothly, although completing post-production in time for X-Men’s July 2000 premiere was challenging, to say the least. The stress was worth it, though: ­X-Men was both a critical and commercial success. Indeed, it had the highest-grossing opening weekend of any superhero film up till then, and it went on to rake in $296.3 million worldwide.

Now, by modern standards, this might not seem like much – especially with superhero joints crossing the billion-dollar mark seemingly every other day. However, this was enough to earn X-Men a spot on the top 10 highest grossing films of 2000, and when you compare the film’s financial performance against its modest (even for the time) $75 million dollar price tag, it’s easy to see why Fox gave the thumbs up to an X-sequel before opening weekend was even over.

And just like that, comic book movies were back.

Two years later, Spider-Man would swing into theatres, launching one of Sony’s Picture’s most lucrative series, while X2: X-Men United would drop a year later, the first of a string of follow-ups, prequels and spin-offs, as Marvel-inspired movies become increasingly commonplace.

As Marvel continued to gather steam with a string of other adaptations including Daredevil, Hulk, and Fantastic Four, (and Warner Bros. subsidiary) an envious DC Comics would also get back in the motion picture game. Marvel’s long-time rival would start by reviving the Bat-franchise with Batman Begins in 2005, and then resuscitate their long-dormant Superman franchise, with Superman Returns in 2006 – at which point, it becomes impossible to list every comic book property that made the transition to the silver screen.

The success of X-Men meant more than just a bigger slate of yearly superhero films, though: it also gave Marvel Comics enough faith to try their hand at producing their own films. Thus was born Marvel Studios, whose first feature was Iron Man in 2008, and this is the moment where comic book movies really started to take off…

Catering to fans and general audiences alike

The idea that superhero franchises would conquer the pop culture world was unthinkable back in 2000, however – just getting the wider public to embrace one movie was more than enough to be getting on with!

See, in many ways, the biggest hurdle that Singer and his cast and crew had to contend with on X-Men was bridging the gap between what comic book fans would expect and what the average moviegoer would accept. If Singer and producers Lauren Schuler Donner and Ralph Winter weren’t quite ashamed of their source material, it’s clear that they weren’t 100% confident in its mass appeal, either – at least, not in its rawest form.

This explains many of their then-controversial creative decisions, which perfectly balanced fidelity to the X-Men comics with an acute awareness of what would (and wouldn’t work) for everybody else in the audience, unlocking the “secret formula” for superhero movies still at large today.

Take X-Men’s approach to costume design. Reasoning that contemporary audiences wouldn’t be able to take the outlandish spandex costumes sported by the comic book X-Men and their villainous counterparts, the Brotherhood of Mutants, seriously, costume designer Louise Mingenbach opted to dress our heroes in leather jumpsuits.

While hardcore comics geeks were initially outraged over this sartorial switch-up, in hindsight, it was the right call in a post-Matrix era, and this more grounded, functional spin on superhero couture continues to influence comic book adaptations today – even those that more fully embrace the colourful clobber seen in the source material.

The screenplay by David Hayter (working from a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto) likewise eschews the more fantastical facets of X-Men lore, instead building a hyper-reality that – but for the presence of mutants – is recognisably our own world. Again, this was a smart move that allowed newcomers to ease into the ­X-Men mythos, which is probably why it’s also a commonplace storytelling practice in the current crop of superhero features.

Most importantly of all, though, Singer and Hayter captured the spirit of the comics.

For all the superficial tweaks and full-blown alterations to X-canon on display here, all the characters – apart from Anna Paquin’s Rogue, whose personality is essentially an amalgam of Kitty Pryde and Jubilee – are recognisably themselves.

Even more crucially, the themes of prejudice, bigotry, and xenophobia X-Men creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first introduced way back in 1963’s X-Men #1 are communicated in a way that connects with both fan and non-fan alike.

This last point is easily X-Men’s greatest achievement: it proved to a whole generation of filmmakers and studio bigwigs that a superhero movie could remain (broadly) faithful to its funnybook roots and still reach a wide audience.

Thanks to X-Men, Hollywood began treating comic books with a level of respect rarely seen before.

Art imitates art

But X-Men didn’t just change how Hollywood approached superheroes – it changed the comic book industry itself, too.

The most obvious example of this is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel imprint, which drew heavily from X-Men in terms of its more restrained tone, muted aesthetic, and streamlined narratives. Even a quick skim through the Mark Millar and Adam Kubert’s first issue of Ultimate X-Men – with its leather clad protagonists and gritty sensibility – makes it abundantly clear just how much they were following the lead of Singer and co.

The impact of X-Men on comic books extended far beyond snug black outfits and newbie-friendly yarns, though.

For starters, Millar’s Ultimate X-Men – alongside The Ultimates, his polarising (yet hugely successful) reimaging of the Avengers – would see Millar continue to experiment with the so-called “widescreen” storytelling that defined his run on DC’s The Authority with artist Frank Quitely. A divisive approach that plays up the cinematic aspects of the medium, the widescreen style can till be seen in comics on the shelves today, and you can at least partially thank (or blame) Millar’s work on the imprint for that.

It’s also worth noting that the strong sales of the Ultimate Marvel line catapulted Millar and fellow imprint architect Brian Michael Bendis (who, along with artist Mark Bagley, handled launch title Ultimate Spider-Man) into the top-tier of mainstream comic book creators.

The upshot of this is that the pair would go on to be major players within the wider comics industry for the next 19 years. Bendis was the key creative force at Marvel until he jumped ship for DC in 2017, while Millar scripted hit crossover Civil War – the basis for the Captain America sequel of the same name – before going on to build a creator-owned multimedia mini-empire Millarworld, the basis for popcorn fare such as Wanted, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kick-Ass.

However, the true irony here is that while Ultimate Marvel took at least some of its cues from X-Men, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was modelled in part on the imprint’s updated spin on Marvel Comics’ canon. So, funnily enough, X-Men’s effect on comicsindirectly led to the MCU; its influence on Marvel Studio’s uber-franchise runs much deeper than that, however…

Providing a template for other superhero movies to follow (and outgrow)

Avengers Endgame poster

Seriously: the entire MCU – like almost every other superhero movie from the last 20 years – has essentially followed the same basic template established in X-Men.

Like most entries in the MCU (and its Warner/DC counterpart, the DCEU), X-Men tells a self-contained story that nevertheless includes enough unresolved plot points to fuel future instalments. If anything, it does this better than most modern superhero films, which border on being incomprehensible for casual viewers not fully versed in continuity of these on-screen shared universes.

It also manages to effortlessly blend timeless and timely themes with escapist fantasy action. Long before Captain America: Civil War saw its hero battle with unchecked government oversight or Avengers: Infinity War pitted Earth’s Mightiest Heroes against sustainability obsessed despot Thanos, X-Men was using mutants as a metaphor for those persecuted for their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

This depth extends to its script’s emotional range – like the cream of the MCU canon, X-Men is at turns disarmingly affecting or slyly funny – and its main villain, Magneto, portrayed by Oscar-nominated thespian Sir Ian McKellen.

Through a combination of Hayter’s thoughtful characterisation and McKellen’s consummate skill, Magneto is a compelling villain with a clear (if vaguely bonkers) plan and understandable (even sympathetic) motivations.

In fact, as with X-Men’s controlled approach to seeding sequels, this is another area where more modern superhero movies would benefit from hewing closer to the X-template, with only a handful of villains in the intervening decades matching (much less exceeding) the standard set by the X-Men’s archfoe.

Which isn’t to say that the X-Men template is perfect – or that superhero movies released now haven’t improved on it in many ways.

For one thing, X-Men’s action set pieces are a bit underwhelming, especially the climax on Ellis Island. This is probably due at least in part to the film’s mid-range budget – but it’s tempting to draw a line between the lacklustre third act here and the disappointing finales that mar otherwise terrific MCU efforts like Iron Man.

Singer, Hayter and DeSanto also clearly struggled with the ensemble nature of the property, which – unlike Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, which fleshed out its core protagonists in solo films first– had to set-up all of its heroes and villains at once.

This means that the first X-Men instalment (and all those that followed) focuses almost exclusively on Wolverine, Rogue, Jean Grey, Professor X and Cyclops, with fan favourites like Cyclops and Storm essentially warming the bench, something that seems quaint by modern standards.

And speaking of quaint, that’s also the perfect word to describe how the film’s subdued approach to the source material feels in 2020. Sure, leather costumes and pared back comic book concepts were the right way to go in 2000, but in a world where superheroes are now part of the mainstream, this more apologetic approach seems downright dated in contrast to the unabashedly OTT antics of the MCU.

In this regard, X-Men – both the original film and the franchise it spawned – has well and truly been left behind by its successors.

Yes, more recent X-flicks have evolved beyond the DNA of the 2000 original – embracing more colourful costumes and outlandish plot mechanics like time travel – in an attempt to reflect the growing acceptance of comic book tropes among the wider moviegoing public.

However, it ultimately feels a bit forced; the more po-faced, less flamboyant methodology first laid out in X-Men proving incongruous with the light-hearted, fantastical take on superheroes currently in vogue.

This doesn’t detract from X-Men’s legacy, though; if, anything it only serves to enhance it. After all, without Bryan Singer’s film, there wouldn’t even be an MCU to compare it with in the first place.

The X-Men in the MCU – the final stage of their evolution?

Of course, now that Marvel Studios’ parent company Disney has acquired 20th Century Fox, such comparisons are set to be a thing of the past, since it’s only a matter of time before the X-Men are integrated into the MCU.

Instead, the debate is already shifting away from which of these superhero series is better, and towards which elements of the existing X-Men movies (if any) Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige and his team will emulate when it comes time to reboot the supergroup.

And while revamping the X-Men franchise certainly presents several hurdles – a lot of the big stories have already been adapted, and after 10 appearances as Wolverine, Jackman will be tough to recast – it seems inevitable that the property will benefit from a creative overhaul that reflects the greater freedom modern superhero movies enjoy.

However, while Marvel’s Merry Mutants undergoing the next phase of their cinematic evolution is undeniably exciting, that doesn’t mean we should ever forget the original X-Men – or the debt owed to it by every other superhero film that followed.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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