When discussing the X-Men films in any meaningful fashion, it's important to remember that when Bryan Singer's first X-Film came out in 2000, we were only three years removed from the neon-soaked waking nightmare that was Batman and Robin. Not only did X-Men have to prove that the entire genre was salvageable, but also that it still had things worth saying.
Bryan Singer's 2000 film X-Men opens with a scene set during the Holocaust, where we see a young boy reach out and smash a metal fence after being separated from his parents. The film then smash-cuts to a present day scene on Capitol Hill, where Senator Kelly is proposing a Mutant Registration Act to force newly discovered mutants to catalog their names and abilities in a national registry. In the audience is Magneto, the very same man who busted up Nazi fences in 1944. Magneto's response to the threat of a new Registry of People Who Are Different From Us is to build a machine that will turn regular people into mutants.
Balls of steel won't help you when Magneto's around.
It's not immediately apparent, what with all the character exposition and Wolverine stuff going on, but that's pretty much the plot of X-Men. Magneto wants revenge for the Holocaust, so he attempts to give the rest of the world mutant cancer. Of course, this isn't surprising. Coming right on the heels of Apt Pupil, a movie where Ian McKellan plays a Nazi war criminal, Bryan Singer clearly still had the Holocaust on the brain. What better way to flush that out of your system than by making the comic book version of the same thing.
While X-Men really isn't a great superhero film the way we know them today, it did manage to do a lot of things successfully. I mean, it blazed the trail for other big-budget superhero flicks like Ghost Rider, The Punisher and Elektra! In all seriousness, though, X-Men balanced an almost insane amount of exposition with interesting action sequences, themselves elevated by some real high-quality actors. Hugh Jackman may have been the series' breakout star, but the first couple X-Films completely live and die by the performances of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. In fact, even though Wolverine is the Once and Future Coolest X-Man Ever, Ian McKellan turned Magneto from a maniacal cartoon character into a villain of surprising depth. We love his Magneto for the same reason we love Hans Gruber or Hannibal Lecter. He's an evil bastard with some seriously disturbed ideas, but there's a sense of refinement to McKellan's portrayal of this Holocaust survivor/mutant terrorist that's wholly unique to the genre.
The first X-Men is less an action epic and more of a sci-fi parable. It boils the X-Universe down to its barest elements, almost to the point of having to spell out who or what the hell everything is, but it establishes a number of things that would go on to make the sequel great, like the fact that Cyclops, despite being the Team Leader, is a massive tool who serves no real purpose.
Crowd surfing, Wolverine style.
Three years later, X2: X-Men United was released, and it instantly became the most obnoxiously titled sequel ever made. Despite this, it also managed to be the only moment where the X-Franchise ever resembled something people could take seriously. This is mostly thanks to the scene where Iceman is forced to come out to his parents about being a mutant. Replace 'mutant' with 'gay,' and you have the movie's entire subtext in a nutshell. If Bryan Singer had stuck with the franchise instead of jumping ship to remake Superman, he probably could have turned the entire X-series into a revolving door of persecuted minorities. Simply swap 'Jews' for 'homosexuals' for 'orphans' for 'non-whites' for pretty much anything.
X2 is all about Wolverine; like, exclusively. They could have called it X2: Wolverine and a Bunch of Other People United, but I guess they wanted to save that title for the sequels. In this one, Wolverine is searching for clues about his past. Specifically, he's trying to figure out who he really is and how he came about his trademark metal claws. At the same time, a military dickhead named Stryker launches an operation on the X-Mansion and kidnaps a bunch of X-Students. Stryker's plan is to steal Cerebro, Professor X's mutant-finding machine; kidnap Professor X; and then force Professor X to use Cerebro to kill all the mutants. Incidentally, Stryker is also the man who gave Wolverine his claws. This works out, because it means all our characters can then wind up in the same place for the big finale.
Save for some nit-picky details here and there, X2 follows the exact same plot as the first film. The reason most people either didn't realize it at the time or didn't care is because, for the most part, it simply worked better this time around. Practice makes perfect, after all. With considerably more money, Bryan Singer brought back all his toys from the first film and added a fight choreographer, better set designers, and Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler. Just about everything else stayed the same, and somehow it made for an even bigger, even better, even easier to understand X-Movie. Plus, when you consider that this film was adapted from a comic about the X-Men fighting an evil televangelist, it becomes clear that this film had just as much of a reason to fail as it did to succeed. By taking what the comics had established and throwing all the stupid parts out the window, Bryan Singer and Co. proved that you don't always need to be slavishly faithful to the comics to make a good movie.
When the film history books are written decades from now and some poor schmo has to write the chapter on superhero movies, let it be said that the X-Men series' greatest lasting achievement was giving us a great action star in Huge Ackman. He really did nail the Wolverine character quite perfectly, even in X4: Wolverine Rides Again or whatever the hell that one was called. Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart anchored the first film, but Wolverine more than carried the series from there, and it's all because of Huge Ackman's screen presence.
A lot of X-Men fans like to bitch and moan that the series never delivered on the Dark Phoenix Saga as promised at the end of X2, but think about this: X2 takes place largely in an series of tunnels somewhere in Canada. Would a movie about the X-Men going to outer space to save Jean Grey from eating planets and intergalactic war really have been the best direction for a third film?
...Actually, I just remembered the shit that goes down in The Last Stand. Yeah, maybe an "X-Men in Space" movie would have been better than what Brett Ratner gave us.
Extremely proud over here! The bosses took notice and I have been promoted to 20 cages!!
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