"I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school... looking for trouble."
It was dark times for the superhero movie around the turn of the century. There hadn't been a good one since Batman Returns, though some might add Blade into the mix, but overall people didn't really look forward to superhero movies being released. That began its ascent in 2002 when Spider-Man broke records—and even the X-Men benefitted from the Spidey bump with 2003's X2: X-Men United—but if you ask any old sea salt that was around and maturing in his tastes around that era, that only really happened because two years earlier, Bryan Singer's X-Men movie didn't suck.
In fact, it more than didn't suck, it was new and fresh and interesting and about big ideas and more than just dudes dressed up like drag queens slinging one-liners—which is what comic book movies had become thanks to dreck like Stallone's Judge Dredd and whatever the fuck anyone in Batman & Robin was doing. X-Men was a huge breath of fresh air in an objectively shitty summer that had seen Russell Crowe deliver his soon-to-be Oscar winning performance in Gladiator and had also witnessed Tom Cruise flying through the air like a superhero in Mission: Impossible 2 (put a pin in our discussion of that film for a moment).
X-Men had more going on than just posturing and fighting and bloviating. In just over ninety minutes, Singer and screenwriter David Hayter establish an entire world, dig deep into the backstory of several main characters, and get sixteen years ahead of the hot new trend of politics in superhero movies. That's a hell of a feat, and when you consider that the action sequences, while uninspired even by origin movie standards, don't suck, that's a bonus. Plus it manages to work in brilliant little bits of fan service like keeping Magneto's Holocaust-survivor origin intact and even a dig at the internet nerds at the time who decried the Matrix-inspired leather uniforms. And yeah, there's a lot of Matrix shit going on in this movie, but it came out in the immediate wake of that movie, and manages to deftly balance action and big ideas in the way that film did, though it's clearly a lesser film.
While there are only hints of the conflicts to come in this film, it does a solid job of keeping the audience engaged by gently massaging their intellect and treating them like more than overgrown children, a problem that plagued most comic book movies in the 80s and 90s. Much like Batman Begins and that first Iron Man movie, it doesn't feel beholden to setting up sequels and prequels and spin-offs and team-ups to come. In fact, this has kind of always been the X-Men's strength on film, the notion that they're mostly all alone over at Fox and don't have to concern themselves with useless world building for other films. There's plenty of fan service here without making it in service of other films and other properties.
The cast does a lot of the heavy lifting here, with Patrick Stewart's Professor X and Ian McKellen's Magneto becoming instant icons. Hugh Jackman does a good job in his first American production, all things considered. In case you weren't familiar with this story, Jackman was a last minute replacement for Dougray Scott, the man originally cast to play Wolverine. However, his work as the villain in Mission: Impossible 2 made it, well, impossible for him to get to the X-Men set, so he was replaced with Jackman and the rest is history. Considering he hadn't starred in a movie before and was cast midway through the production, Jackman does a damn good job. The villains in the film, however, save McKellen's Magneto and Bruce Davison's Senator Kelly, are mostly a nightmare. Rebecca Romijn is a perfectly serviceable Mystique, but doesn't do much to make the role her own in this film. As far as Ray Park's Toad and Tyler Mane's Sabretooth, neither makes any impression and they both look like relics of a goofier film Singer decided not to make. I'm glad neither of them made it to the credits.
The film also feels noticeably small, all things considered. Very few scenes have more than a half dozen characters in them and the world in general just feels very small and insular. Singer would do a good job of expanding the world in X2, but it's surprising how relatively quiet this film is compared with just about every comic book film that came after. It's not a perfect film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's far above average and is likely a large part of the reason people take comic book movies as seriously as they do in this day and age. This seemed like the first comic book movie with something to say, using allegory and social commentary in a way the best comic writers and artists have from the beginning of time. This showed the world that superhero movies were more than just hunks and babes quipping in spandex, and that makes it a pretty invaluable contribution to pop culture as a whole.
—Hey Fight Club opening title sequence, hadn't seen you in nine months.
—I admire Singer's restraint in not putting swastikas in his Holocaust segment. Considering this film followed Apt Pupil, someone must have had to sit him down before shooting that scene, and I tip my hat to that person.
—It's eerie how much Senator Kelly's tirade during Jean Grey's speech sounds like Donald Drumpf's various anti-white people statements.
—Do you think Dougray Scott ever saw this movie?
—Wolverine had more hair than muscles back then. This balance has since become way out of whack.
—I find the lack of comical Sarah Palin-esque accents in this small Alaskan town disturbing.
—Did he get custom Wolverine dog tags? Because they wouldn't put Wolverine on your dog tags. The army's not cool like that.
—Wait, is Wolverine in the back doing up his hair before coming out to enjoy a Molson? Because it's perfectly coiffed, so unless you're selling me on his hair being a part of his mutation, you've got to imagine that Wolverine takes three to four minutes rubbing pomade in his hands, dabbing it into his hair, washing it off of his hands, and then combing it into that gorgeously comic book accurate shape.
—Watching Ian McKellen do a dialogue scene with professional wrestler Tyler Mane is like having to see Daniel Day Lewis in a Larry the Cable Guy movie.
—Remember this AWESOME action figure from this movie for Jean Grey that included the jelly blob Senator Kelly figure packed in as a bonus? I still have this one in the package...
—That was an awesome line of action figures and playsets too, I might add. ToyBiz really hit their stride a year later with The Lord of the Rings license—which is among the single best toy lines ever produced—but this was a nice warmup for their classic Marvel Legends line. They killed it themselves, however, with the disappointing offerings for X2 in 2003, which seemed to buy into the hype that female action figures don't sell, because we went from 8 unique female action figures for this film to zero for X2. Shame on you ToyBiz, you dead company, you.
—Hugh Jackman really can't hide that Aussie accent, though, can he?
—Speaking of accents, is Halle Berry doing one? It sometimes sounds like she is and mostly sounds like she isn't.