3 out of 5
Directed by: Bryan Singer
I walked out of the theater after viewing X-Men, an avid comic fan but not a follower of that particular title (or many of its offshoots), and I was satisfied: my parents enjoyed the movie; my non-comicy friends enjoyed the movie. It’s a solid bit of entertainment, and seemed to prove to my kid self – and obviously to Hollywood – the viability of these properties as legitimate films. That is a legacy X-Men can stand by, as it’s not a relic: it’s still a movie that holds up, due to a well-managed sprinkling of spectacle, key core casting, and maturely – or at least not campily – handled dialogue. However, there was definitely a side of my young, film-going self that felt like the movie was missing something, as though in its attempts to reach farther and wider with its “fringe” focus, it played things pretty safe: it’s desaturated in color and tone, sticking with that initial trend of “dark” heroes, and it oddly felt lacking in scope, just sort of casually drifting from a slew of character introductions into its bad guy plot and then its inevitable save-the-day conclusion. This also persists in modern watching: X-Men is a good movie, and was definitely an excellent first step into broadcasting wacky super powers on big screens, but it’s also just a movie. This was not an MCU – a new universe; it’s wholly recognizable as a “traditional” flick with some sci-fi trappings, and was thankfully helmed by a generally competent director.
As such, the best and most memorable bits are those that offer the flavor of the books, letting character interactions and those character’s quirks drive things: our introductions to Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are fantastic; Charles Xavier’s square-offs with Magneto (Ian McKellen) are tense. Even some of the side characters – Cyclops (James Marsden), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) – have the sense of existing beyond the screen, as credit to Singer, the actors, and script writer David Hayter for providing the room and material to express and support that.
But when we’d have to get more in to sticky wicket of story – trying to find an “in” to a universe that’d been trucking along for decades – the movie sort of simmers down to a template: in a world in which mutants – “evolved” humans with various powers – are becoming more common, there are those fostering ill will toward said mutants, including Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), and those promoting conversation and peace – Xavier, leader of a school for such mutants, as well as of a clandestine group of protectors known as the X-Men. Amongst the mutants we also get a militant faction, led by Magneto, and his evil plottings to force humanity’s hand to accept the mutants or, like, die. The outcast metaphor that X-Men has always explored is a great one, ripe for translation to the screen, and using Wolverine’s introduction to the X-Men as an avenue for that – while the Senator flames discontent amongst the masses – could have made for an interesting film on its own, but this is a popcorn flick – we need a villain. So the focus is, instead, shifted to Magneto and his machinations, meaning that we shift from those character moments to a lot of “and here’s this mutant” style introductions; well-conceived but also rather short-sighted action; and a story that never quite feels like it kicks in to high gear.
It works, for sure. There are some good one liners, and CGI wasn’t yet the mainstay, so Singer was appreciably balanced in his approach between practical and computer effects, even if large scale action has never quite seemed like his forte. Up close, you can see the push and pull between something more expressive, and the leather-suited, relatively muted tone we got, but from afar: it’s an X-Men movie. It moves quickly during its 104 minutes, and it absolutely entertains. It got us to where we needed to be with comic book movies, and did so by remaining mainstream enough to still be a good view, many years after the fact.