Based on one of Marvel’s most popular titles, X-Men directed by Bryan Singer was one of the first highly successful comic book films of the modern era. It spawned two direct sequels and a host of spin-offs and prequels having taken nearly $300m at the box office from a budget of $75m. Loosely based on the early X-Men stories shown in the 1990s cartoon it focuses on mutation as as a parable to alienation and persecution.
X-Men opens at the tail-end of World War II in a concentration camp where a young Erik Lehnsherr develops the ability to control metal and tries to prevent his parents from being taken away until he is knocked unconscious. We then move to the modern day where runaway mutant Marie (Anna Paquin) meets a man called Logan (Hugh Jackman) in a bar in Canada. The two are attacked by a henchmen of Erik Lehnsherr who now goes by the name Magneto (Ian McKellen). The two are saved by Cyclops (James Marsden) and Storm (Halle Berry) who take them to meet Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) a powerful telepath who runs a school for gifted mutants in New York.
The school trains mutants to one day become members of a team called the X-Men whose goal is to promote human-mutant relationships through peaceful means. This however brings the X-Men directly into conflict with Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants including Toad (Ray Park) and the shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn). While the Government try and push through legislation that would force mutants to announce their identities and abilities, the X-Men and the Brotherhood fight over Magneto’s plans to use a new device that will force mutation on the entire World population.
Bryan Singer takes the key elements that drive the X-Men narrative from the comic books, namely the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and makes them the heart and soul of the film. In Stewart and McKellen he has his Malcolm X and Martin Luthor King and it is there relationship that provides the serious dramatic edge to what could have been a very silly blockbuster. The other key element to X-Men is the perennial fan boy favourite Wolverine.
Originally the role of Wolverine was given to Dougray Scott but he backed out because of potential conflict with his filming of Mission: Impossible II. Unknown actor Hugh Jackman was cast with two weeks until filming and has become one of the most recognisable actors in Hollywood because of it. His overwhelming physical charisma and downright growling grouchiness sits beautifully juxtaposed to Stewart and McKellen and prevents X-Men from becoming too over-the-top.
Running at a mere 90 minutes X-Men is one of the leanest comic book scripts going. The final resolution does feel rushed, but it did it’s job and created a successful franchise. In the sequel X-Men 2, Singer would feel far more comfortable with his characters and source material and really cut loose, but every film trilogy has to start somewhere and in X-Men he built the foundations for a future classic.