In this time of MCU’s and Nolanverse’s, where costumes, characters and plots can to some extent be ripped clean out of a comic book, it’s often easy to forget how hard it must have been for the filmmakers to transfer the ubiquitous X-Men to the silver screen. After all this was 2000 and the last superhero CBM to get any traction without reaping hordes of scorn was Blade which, let’s be honest, played fast and loose with the mutant characters established history.
No, this was the X-Men, complete with it’s sprawling cast, near impenetrable continuity and that cartoon with the REALLY cool intro music! Making shit up was not really an option.
So it was somewhat of a relief that Director Bryan Singer (he of The Usual Suspects fame) managed to retain any of the essence of the comic book at all, let alone one that tries to cram all the important points into a mere hour and forty running time.
The key to unlocking the movie that had a major hand spawning the flourishing sub-genre we enjoy today was this: keep the plot simple and the characters complicated. The plot is generic evil mastermind stuff, some twaddle about turning world leaders into mutants or something, but it’s the intelligent (if slightly different than the source material) depictions of the main cast that help the movie stand on it’s own two feet.
Putting the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King style disagreements between polar opposites Magneto and Professor X at the forefront and using career outsider Wolverine to be the audience’s window into this new world, X-Men is hugely bolstered by it’s incredibly savvy casting. Old acting luvvies Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are cast for roles they were obviously born to play and their overarching chess games (both figurative and literal) form the backbone to whole venture, yet it’s the casting of an Australian unknown only known for a stint in a stage production of Oklahoma! who makes the most waves.
Despite being way too tall and emphatically NOT Canadian, Hugh Jackman comes out of nowhere and somehow nails a role deemed by many to be impossible to be cast satisfactorily. Giving the ol’ cankucklehead Wolverine the kind of grumpy gravitas that benefits Harrison Ford so much, Jackman struts around the whole film, sneering at everything and pops egos almost as much as he pops his adamantium claws, frankly; he’s a revelation and it’s no surprise he stuck around in the role for a further 17 years.
The rest of the cast’s fortunes vary, Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique scores big just on bright blue nude shock value alone and Ray Park’s nimbly upgraded Toad gives good physicality as a henchman but Sabretooth is a little underserved as a hulking furry mountain man. On the side of the angels Famke Janssen is a good Jean Grey but Halle Berry struggles with her accent as Storm and both her and a woefully underused James Marsden as the laser eyeballed Cyclops both are very vanilla heroes, but Anna Paquin cuts a nice line in quiet teenage tragedy as Rogue. The action flows nicely, mixing and matching power sets to create visually interesting match ups (slashing brawler Wolverine vs. elegant athlete Mystique, weather witch Storm vs greasy martial artist Toad and so on) to conclude with a tense face off in, on and around the Statue Of Liberty.
X-Men was never going to please EVERYone (no Beast, no Gambit) but that was never the brief, the goal was to introduce the general audience of non-comic book readers the bare basics of a universe over 40 years and hundreds of characters in the making and in this, it completely succeeds. Plus in this day and age it plays as a fascinating prototype to a kind of movie that now regularly dominates cinemas despite being reviled back in the grand old days of 2000.
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