16 years ago, in the wake of Blade, the first bona-fide Marvel comics based blockbuster movie hit the screens in the form of director Bryan Singer’s version of X-Men. Since then the franchise has gone on to become a long series of sequels (some good; X-Men 2, First Class, Days of Future Past, Deadpool – some less so; X3: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine – some a bit average; The Wolverine), but what was its origin like?
The film traces the story of what seems to be the X-Men’s first clash with The Brotherhood of Mutants and their leader, Magneto (Ian McKellen), through the eyes of new recruit Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and young mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin). This structure cleverly offers an audience potentially unfamiliar with the comics an easy way into this already established world on two levels, though both with the sense of the outsider.
This outsider nature is one that Singer laces heavily throughout, making it into something of a motif from the opening prologue showing us the origin of Magneto in the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, to the introductions of Wolverine and Rogue to the whole notion of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.
Echoing the comic books’ 1960s origins that, supposedly, dealt with issues surrounding the civil rights movement, Singer incorporates a broader version of this theme more suited to a millennial audience, showing the two sides of the divide on the argument of integration and isolation/hostility that is still relevant now.
At barely an hour and 40 minutes Singer doesn’t deeply explore these issues but they are evident, what he does do in that time though is create a fast paced action movie. Unfortunately the short run time (something of a blessing compared to some of the over long movies that now populate this genre) means the large number of characters are, for the most part, underdeveloped; Wolverine, Magneto and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) get a decent amount of time to become slightly more than 2D but really the rest of the pack are fairly weakly painted hero or villain types.
A highlight scene comes early on that sets the ground for Magneto and Professor X as they attend a debate on mutant rights and meet afterwards outside the meeting hall. Here the chemistry between McKellen and Stewart that has become the stuff of legend sparks and they certainly provide the most convincing aspect of the film and are amazing to watch just talking – though McKellen does go on to ham it up a bit too much later.
The action across the movie feels like a hybrid of what had come before, with a particularly physical feel often in the vein of an 80s action movie (prior to these things becoming almost entirely computer generated spectacles) and what was to come later with hints of the CG smash-fests of more recent movies. This gives it a split feel that isn’t entirely effective, but serves its purpose and we get great signature moments from all the main heroes and villains even if these do feel a little gimmicky.
The film’s climax, based around the Statue of Liberty, lacks a certain weight within the story which is something that marks the whole of this first X-Men film giving it the feeling of being at best the start of something, at worst a hyper-extended trailer for the franchise. That said, its enjoyable enough on its own merits and certainly at the time was successful enough to warrant the superior sequel that really allowed the characters and story more room to breathe than they had here.