This Friday brings a project to the big screen few thought would ever truly exist…a live-action Deadpool movie. The eighth feature film in the live-action X-Men feature film series in 16 years, it’s one of a number of project Fox has in the pipeline for this universe of mutants, most of which are movies (X-Men: Apocalypse of course arrives in May, and next year will bring the final solo Hugh Jackman as Wolverine movie and will likely unleash a solo Gambit film unto the Earth) and a few of which are TV shows (such as the Dan Stevens FX program Legion). With all of these mutant projects on the horizon, it’s easy to forget this whole shindig started with one little 2000 feature film called (what else?) X-Men.
Putting X-Men into a historical context in terms of comic book movies is fascinating for me, because today, yeah, this thing is out of date for a number of blatant reason.s Perhaps most egregious of those shortcomings is the lack of character development in the supporting cast. Unless you’re Wolverine, Xavier or Magneto, no one else in her gets much in the way of character development (Rogue starts out the movie as an audience POV, and watching her adjust to her deadly powers is interesting, but she just becomes a damsel-in-distress by the time we get to the climax). Characters with such interesting personalities like Storm, Jean Grey and Cyclops are just there to deliver expository dialogue to Wolverine.
What a pity such fictional figures failed to get much depth, especially since, in the 16 years since, ensemble superhero films like the two Avengers films and Guardians Of The Galaxy have demonstrated that it is indeed possible to make a superhero team movie with each member of the group getting a distinct personalities. It’s also worth noting that much of the action looks tepid compared to the X-Men films yet to come, much less the likes of superhero feature films with inventive action like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Ant-Man.
That all being said, X-Men was basically like a gauntlet being tossed onto the ground when it came to superhero movies, and for one crucial reason; it managed to combine the serious and fun in a pleasing manner. Just as the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and the best endeavors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe would do years later, X-Men managed to give the few complex characters actually interesting moral quandaries to navigate. Xavier has a complex relationship with Magneto, one full of disappointment with an ounce of hope his former friend can one day redeem himself.
Speaking of Magneto, his character may be where the more nuance driven character arcs of X-Men really excel. Lemme real quickly put things into perspective in terms of comic book movies; in the years since the 1992 feature Batman Returns had sparked massive amounts of controversy, superhero films were under immense pressure to be more kid-friendly. What few movies with spandex wearing leads emerged in the 90’s were typically far more light-hearted affairs. This didn’t apply to all of them, but the likes of Steel and Batman & Robin sent a clear message that superhero were for kids, an interesting contrast to the comic books of this era that went darker and more “kewl” than ever before in an attempt to pander to more adult readers.
After a decade of ice puns and the like, here comes X-Men, swaggering into building with an opening sequence depicting Magneto as a child being taken away from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp. He screams for his elders, even using his mutant powers to attempt to stop them from going…but it’s no use. He would never see his parents again, and the anti-human mindset that consumed Magento in his life was cemented. This was a shocking break from the then tonal norm for superhero movies, serving as a call to arms to all future superhero features that declared “We can do better than Batman & Robin, we can do interesting things with these legendary characters.”
Thanks to X-Men, Sam Raimi was able to deftly weave in more heft thematic context into his Spider-Man films (even that heavily flawed third feature) and why The Dark Knight tackled the atmosphere of America post-9/11. There are many elements of X-Men (namely in how much of its cast gets nothing to do) that would be improved on in future superhero movies. But it’s commitment to integrating heavier dramatic context into its plot paved the road for greatness to come in future superhero films (one of which was the best X-Men film, X-Men: First Class, which utilized the vengeful spirit of Magneto for some of its best scenes). The fact that, 16 years later, we’re still seeing new entries in the X-Men franchise is a testament to (in addition to the relentless desire of 20th Century Fox to not have Disney/Marvel get ahold of the film rights to these characters) how much of an impact this original X-Men movie had on the pop culture zeitgeist.