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Why X-MEN Is the Most Important Superhero Movie Ever Made

Twenty years ago today, the most important comic book superhero movie ever made was released, when X-Men first hit theaters on July 14, 2000. Now, before you all blow your tops and start reminding me about epics like The Dark Knight or Avengers: Endgame, I said “most important,” and not “best.” X-Men earns this label because it was certainly the comic book movie that changed how the genre was perceived from that point on, and helped launch the current superhero movie Golden Age we live in.

The funny thing is, X-Men was a movie that almost nobody at the studio which released it believed in, and it barely made it into theaters in the summer of 2000 in the first place. Since then, it has accrued a complicated legacy due in part to multiple accusations of sexual abuse by director Bryan Singer, the man who was then championed for his unique ability to legitimize the superhero genre, but whose involvement now scars its legacy. But a lot of people contributed to the first X-Men becoming a success, and they will get their due just as much, or more, than Singer.

The Long Road to Xavier’s School
Wolverine wields his claws against enemies.

20th Century Fox

X-Men certainly wasn’t the first superhero movie blockbuster, as that’s an honor that goes to 1978’s Superman: The Movie. A decade later came another massive hit in the form of Tim Burton’s Batman. But both of those movies had the advantage of central characters that almost everyone on the planet had heard of. By the year 2000, X-Men had been the comic book industry’s biggest seller for over 20 years, with a hugely successful Saturday morning cartoon show to boot. But to most studio executives disconnected from nerd culture, X-Men was simply an unknown property.

20th Century Fox gained the film rights during the 1990s. But because of the fact that the property was something that most higher-ups at the studio had never heard of, they simply never paid it the attention that most comic book fans believed it deserved. The very first X-Men script was actually written in 1984, but it would be 17 years before the students of Charles Xavier’s School for the Gifted would get out of development hell and become movie stars. And when it finally happened, it was all mainly due to the tenacity of one woman.

Lauren Shuler Donner: Mutant Messiah
Magneto wears his metal helmet.

20th Century Fox

The true force of nature responsible for bringing the X-Men to the big screen with integrity was producer Lauren Shuler Donner. She came on board as a producer in 1994, right around the time Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy. Knowing the comic book sales and the extreme popularity of the animated show, she spent the rest of the decade trying to get X-Men off the ground. She approached some of the biggest names in Hollywood to develop a film, among them James Cameron, Michael Chabon, and Joss Whedon. A lot of elements from all of their various drafts and outlines made into the final shooting script, which was ultimately credited to screenwriter David Hayter.

Fox and Donner ultimately went with director Bryan Singer, fresh off of the critically acclaimed The Usual Suspects. The production distinguished from other superhero ventures by approaching classically trained actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen to playing significant parts, namely Charles Xavier and Magneto. Up until this point, the film genre that had only brought in esteemed actors to ham it up in supporting roles. Think Jack Nicholson as the Joker, or  Marlon Brando reading cue cards for his Superman role of Jor-El.

The Mutant Revolution Begins
Prof. X strapped into Cerebro.

20th Century Fox

X-Men finally went into production in the fall of 1999, with a Christmas 2000 release date. But the studio heads at Fox were nervous about the film finding an audience and opted to shave the budget down to $75 million—even 20 years ago, that was a very low investment for a summer special effects blockbuster. To accomplish this, they removed several expensive effects-heavy characters, most notably Beast.

Meanwhile, the original Wolverine actor, Dougray Scott, was replaced at the last minute with film novice Hugh Jackman. On top of all that, Fox moved the release date up to summer, leaving everyone scrambling to finish the film in time for its release. In other words, everything about the production was setting it up for disaster. One can imagine the studio probably thought the movie would just wind up as a tax write-off.

But then, X-Men opened to decent reviews, positive audience scores, and went on to make $157 million domestic (about $266 million in today’s dollars). Hugh Jackman’s turn as Wolverine made him an instant movie star, and the movie proved that Marvel Comics-based movies could bring in serious box office. New Line Cinema’s Blade was a solid hit two years prior, and based on a Marvel comic too. And it took an unknown comics character and gave him big screen success. But Blade didn’t wear its comic book roots on its sleeve, and wasn’t quite the 4 quadrant PG-13 blockbuster that X-Men would become. If Blade could be considered the warning shot across the bow, then X-Men was the ballistic missile.

“We’re not what you think. Not all of us.”
Wolverine, Prof. X, Storm, Cyclops, Mystique, and Magneto.

20th Century Fox

So what exactly made X-Men click? Unlike Superman and Batman, there was almost zero camp or tongue-in-cheek humor to the film. The opening scenes take place in Auschwitz in 1944, the furthest audiences could imagine from Batman Forever’s neon Gotham City. It treated its world with complete seriousness, and hammered home the sociopolitical underpinnings of the original comic without pulling any punches.

But this was still a superhero movie. And thus, it needed to be fun to watch. A lot of the humor and warmth comes from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, who plays the part as sort of the eyes and ears of the audience. To him, names like “Cyclops” and “Magneto” are silly too. So when he rolls his eyes at the code names and the costumes, but ultimately embraces them anyway, it allows the audience to do the same.

Storm's eyes glow and her hair catches lightning.

20th Century Fox

Despite the team’s black leather costumes (a sore point with fans to this day), the characters and their interpersonal dynamics were largely lifted straight from the pages of writer Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men comics. The cast of Anna Paquin, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn, Halle Berry, and the other actors mostly inhabited their characters well. Sure, heroes like Cyclops and Storm were sidelined in favor of Wolverine, but what we did see of them wasn’t off the mark from what fans knew. The overall concoction of the film worked, and left audiences hungry for more. And there came a lot more, as the series lasted for 19 years and 10 installments to date. (Twelve, if one counts Deadpool.)

The Legacy of X-Men
Snippets of all the X-Men character's faces, lined up.

20th Century Fox

These days, X-Men reads more like a somewhat expensive pilot to a TV series, rather than the epic comic book movies we are used to today. The big climactic battle takes place in a gift shop, a far cry from an alien invasion of New York. But the characters of the film are so well defined and likable that we care what happens to them, even if the big finale fight is weak sauce. Once X-Men was a success at the box office, it was truly “game on” for the comic book/superhero genre outside of the big two of Superman and Batman.

There is one more key player in X-Men’s success who must get his proper credit. A first-time Associate Producer and lifelong comics fan named Kevin Feige was on the set of the original film, making sure that details from the original comics made it to the screen. It was he who, as legend has it, made sure Jackman’s hair matched the Wolverine of the comics, among other nods to the source material. He was able to parlay his success with the X-Men franchise, and carry the lessons he learned thereon, to ultimately lead Marvel Studios and give birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the most successful franchise in Hollywood history.

Magneto stands in a cave.

20th Century Fox

The influence of X-Men is enormous to this day. Because of its success, characters that were not household names to the average moviegoer were newly seen as viable properties; thus, we have the Iron Man and Ant-Man movies.

X-Men also was the first superhero movie since Donner’s Superman to inhabit a recognizably real world, in contrast to the heightened realities we saw in the Batman films or Dick Tracy. That is certainly something that influenced Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman and, again, the entire MCU going forward. When Ian McKellen managed to play a deadly serious adversary like Magneto while wearing a cape and a goofy helmet, it allowed for future “serious” actors like Alfred Molina and Josh Brolin to bring serious gravitas to, respectively, Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 and Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. A generation earlier, villainous parts like these would have been played entirely for laughs.

X-Men may not be the best comic book film. (Heck, in my opinion, it’s not even close to being the best X-Men film.) But it’s remains an enjoyable 90-minute sci-fi blockbuster, and one that has more going on in its narrative than not only most comic book movies, but most big budget tentpoles, period. Soon, the X-Men franchise will be rebooted in the MCU. But with the original movie soon to be on Disney+, it’s as good a time as ever to revisit the movie that changed it all.

Featured Image: 20th Century Fox