In the context of the booming comic book movie genre, returning to watch X-Men is akin to looking through old photos of yourself as a teenager. Sure, you looked goofy trying to be a goth or regret that one time you climbed up a flag pole to impress a crush, but you nevertheless understand the choices you made at that age. The same applies to X-Men, a flawed pilot that’s more interesting as a road map for the genre than a fulfilling singular experience.
The 2000 superhero film is about a bitter struggle between two mutants. Mutants are human beings who are born with powers that first manifest under highly emotional situations or in early adolescence. Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart) advocates peaceful co-existence with the human race through education and understanding. Whereas Eric Lensharr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen) believes that mutants are the next stage in human evolution, who should take their place as the dominant species on the planet.
Caught in the middle are two lone mutants- Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). They attempt to find their place in Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters amongst the backdrop of the US Senate’s continual pressure for mutant registration.
Bryan Singer’s choice of a stripped down, colourless and plausible reality (with allusions to real world history) in which mutants can exist feels like a foreshadowing of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. But on this viewing, Singer’s film has the closest relationship with Nolan’s Batman Begins. Just like that film posited fear as a weapon of its protagonist and antagonist, Singer’s uses fear as the main driving force of his movie.
This comes into play with the presentation of the powers. There are many sequences that illustrate the revealing of the character’s abilities as a horrific moment of self discovery, whether it’s a young Eric Lensharr’s magnetic powers being revealed as a response to being separated from his mother or the first time Wolverine unleashes his claws on a man in a bar. Singer even extends this aspect to some of the X-Men with Storm’s (Halle Berry) and Cyclops’s (James Marsden) first appearance having an ominous quality.
In fact, fear is a major factor of the plot. To end many people’s fear and uncertainty of mutants, Magneto creates a machine that will induce mutation in all the world leaders of of an international summit. The first time Magneto tests the machine results in some of the film’s most striking imagery, with Senator Kelly’s (Bruce Davison) new form being a cross between Cronenberg body horror and comic book imagery.
Ian McKellen steals the show as a central antagonist. Despite the character’s horrific backstory, McKellen plays the part with a deep seated sense of superiority and condescension, manifesting in biting asides (delivered with great comic timing) and quite pointed observations. Hugh Jackman’s performance proves to do a lot of heavy lifting. Not only does Jackman deftly play the character’s animalistic aggression and tendencies with ease, but he also plays a reluctant mentor, romantic lead and the film’s sole postmodern voice (via calling out the absurdities of the source material) remarkably well.
X-Men’s problems come from integrating aspects from the source material within the established plausible aesthetic. Some of the elements such as Magneto’s sidekicks (Toad and Sabretooth) come across as too campy to exist within the world established in the film. And the love triangle between Jean Grey, Logan and Scott Summers comes across as forced. There’s a sense that the screenwriters and Singer added these aspects as an afterthought as opposed organically integrating them. In their current form, they seem quite shallow and underdeveloped (particularly Sabretooth and Wolverine’s relationship or lack thereof).
For Singer, it would be a slow climb to embracing the colourful and melodramatic flair of the source material. But as it stands, X-Men feels like a small scale television pilot that’s laying out the table for its conflict. However, aside from Rogue and Wolverine, there’s little consideration for the other characters and their place in the larger conflict. One gets the sense that the screenwriters don’t know what to do with some of the more ancillary pieces in Magneto’s and Professor X’s seemingly eternal game of Chess.