Looking back at it now, the original X-Men film probably isn’t going to appear on many people’s top five superhero movie lists. However, at the time, the film was, in a way, groundbreaking.
Not only was it the start of the current superhero movie wave that Hollywood is still riding for all its worth, it was the first time that modern audiences had experienced a superhero movie that actually took the subject matter seriously. Previous to X-Men, filmmakers had traditionally viewed superheroes as cartoony. The original Batman TV show and movie is the most commonly cited evidence of this, but even Tim Burton’s Batman films, though much darker (and better) than all other pre-Nolan incarnations of the caped crusader can still be justifiably labeled as gothic cartoons.
Perhaps the difference was that Bryan Singer was actually a fan of The X-Men growing up. As a homosexual young man, the stories of these mutants that looked like other people, but who didn’t really fit in apparently struck a chord with him. Historically, political readings of The X-Men have related to the civil rights movement, but in more contemporary times they have come to stand for the social inequality and misunderstanding faced by the LGBT community.
Whatever the case, Singer was a fan long before he came onboard to direct the film which would kick start Hugh Jackman’s so-far seven (count ’em!) appearances as Wolverine. He got the premise, he understood the characters, and he knew that this was a world that deserved better than being portrayed as a mere cartoon. The film starts with a young boy being separated from his family in a Nazi prison camp for goodness sake! There are real world issues being dealt with here, and by shifting the tone of the film closer to reality than any other superhero comic book-based film had previously dared, X-Men – for better or worse – triggered the current tsunami of big screen comic book adaptations, many of which are increasingly gritty and “realistic.”
Unlike Christopher Nolan would later do with his rightly lauded Dark Knight Trilogy, or Zach Snyder would sort of do with his pseudo-relaunch of the DC Comics Movie Universe, Singer’s approach to making X-Men seem real was not to make things as grim and kitchen sink as possible, but rather to put the character’s internal struggles front and center. X-Men felt real because although the film was about mutants, it was very much focused on their humanity. Of course, the fact that the film ditched the comic books’ spandex costumes and had modern technology’s special effects to help out went a long way to ensuring a more real world canvas to play with.
Consider how different X-Men is to other superhero movies that have come out in the years since. There’s no shortage of them: Captain America, Thor, the Fantastic Four, the Green Lantern – not to mention multiple versions of Spiderman, Superman, and the Incredible Hulk.
X-Men is different from many of these because although the first movie is very much an origins movie that feels like a 100 minute trailer for the inevitable sequel, it isn’t like many other first/origin movies that we typically see in these superhero franchises. Although the movie is about a team forming and coming together, almost all the characters already have their super powers. The one character that doesn’t, and who comes to develop her powers throughout the course of the film is Anna Marie, a.k.a. Rogue. And yet Rogue’s origin story is not that she got bitten by some radioactive/genetically-modified spider. She learns that she has the power to absorb other people’s energy when she kisses a boy for the first time. That’s gotta suck.
Even before the generic origin story we’ve grown so tired of in contemporary cinema even became a thing, X-Men inverted it. Rogue’s story is not one of a girl who discovers she can steal other mutant’s powers and uses it to fight evil. Instead, she flees the comfort and safety of her own home and becomes a loner hiding on the outskirts of society, ashamed of who she is and what her “power” does to others. This internal dilemma faced by the character is repeatedly revisited as she is taken in by Xavier’s School for Gifted Children and falls in love with Bobby. For despite the fact she is a hormonal teen, she knows that she can never physically touch the boy that she loves because she might end up killing him. Despite the fact that X-Men deals with adolescent angst to a large extent, it is justifiable angst and genuine emotions that are the focus, and that helps to ground the X-Men and keep it real.
Snyder et al would do well do bare in mind X-Men‘s focus on humanity as they develop the many forthcoming superhero films that are due to hit cinemas over the next few years.