Before the Apocalypse: Revisiting X-Men

With X-Men: Apocalypse on the way, Dylan takes us back to the start of Fox’s X-Men film series with Bryan Singer’s all-important first chapter. 

Maybe it’s just me, but the year 2000 doesn’t seem so far behind us. I know our world has, in the meantime, churned out smartphones, the war on terror, and massive changes to how we watch cinema, but the millennium still feels within touching distance. I say this because I cannot believe that Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film is sixteen-years-old. You have to consider it a fairly dated part of cinema history at this point, and yet, against all the odds, there is a fifth sequel to it coming out this summer. So, how does it hold up after all these follow-ups, more if you count the Wolverine films? And should newbies excited about X-Men: Apocalypse checkout this movie first, regardless of whether it is still relevant?

The plot follows two socially-dislocated “mutants” – Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) – who have arrived at Professor Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) School for the Gifted, an education facility for those born with superpowers. But this is not just a place to get your qualifications; this is where the older members train to save the world. As they get brought into the group, Wolverine and Rogue must take on Xavier’s old friend Magneto (Ian McKellen) who is determined to see mutants take over the Earth…

What I still like, and am astonished by in the lead-up to Apocalypse, is that this feels like a sequel, rather than a prequel, to 2011’s X-Men: First Class. A lot of what makes the X-Men the X-Men is already in place. The school is set-up, the baddies are established and even a fear of mutants is rampant in society. It shows that you don’t have to spend an entire film setting up a universe, especially when it is one so ingrained in the social consciousness (although, many did claim that it felt like an extended trailer for part two). That is not a criticism of Matthew Vaughn’s First Class; the reason that movie worked so well is that it focused on the characters more than anything else. But even that was coming off four others in the series. X-Men manages to keep you going with only the briefest of expository introductions, and even that could have been cut easily.

What gave this movie a lot of its gusto is the cast. Mainly, the casting of Stewart as Professfor X and McKellan as Magneto. They add an incredible amount of gravitas to the proceedings without ever going into camp. It is a stern lesson to those who just run into blockbuster movies, ham it up and collect a paycheck. And do not forget that this is one of Jackman’s first major roles. He seems extremely confident off the bat, and it really feels like this is a man who was born to be an action star. This trio is more than enough to keep the movie barreling ahead. You could have had them alone in a lift for ninety-minutes, and it still would have ended up being a good superhero flick.

However, X-Men is not perfect. The genre has moved on a great deal since this film was made, and there are some silly moments that suggest that Hollywood was not quite over the Batman & Robin phase. The Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) make-up and costume are extremely silly, and though Toad (Ray Park) may be canon, his mutations seem out-of-place when compared to the more elemental nature of the others. You also get the sense that the studio was keen to push for a teen audience by introducing a “youth element” to the mutant woes. Rogue is fair enough, and well-played by Paquin, but the ice and fire/good and bad situation looks hokey now. And though Wolverine, Professor X and Magneto are there, this means that there is not a huge amount for Storm (Halle Berry), Cylcops (James Marsden) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to do. This is not to say they are miscast (Janssen works especially well), but this is a big ensemble with lots going on already. The high school element was not needed.

And, if anything, the film spends too much time with its characters. It both draws you in and spends a lot of time explaining everything to detrimental effect. After the massive set-pieces of The Dark Knight and The Avengers, X-Men almost feels a bit television-esque at times. The many special effects are still decent, although be warned: I watched the film on DVD, whereas those on Blu-Ray have reported they are looking rather ropey in spots (that one shot of the Blackbird landing on Ellis Island always looked iffy anyway). Quite simply, they don’t make superhero movies like this anymore. The lighting, costuming and script are not to the standard we desire now in translating texts like this. One of the classic lines from this movie is, “What were you expecting, yellow spandex?” Sixteen years ago, the line was a clever one. Now, an audience’ response might be, “Well, yes actually.”

This is not to say I don’t respect Singer as a director. The performances alone are a testament to his skill. I just don’t think that this was a genre being used to its full potential back then. The fact he got such a strong film out the system at this point was more proof that studios should take a gamble on caped crusader tales. And we could easily be making similar points about Thor in twelve years’ time.

This might sound like I am damning with faint praise, but X-Men shows that not every superhero movie made pre-2005 is out-of-date. Not only does it hold up by itself, but I would regard it as important viewing to enjoy Apocalypse to its full potential. Not bad for a film made pre-HD, eh? I am delighted that we will see these characters again. Apocalypse is a brave gamble for the series to take and the initial X-Men is reason enough to assume that this bravery will pay off…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • This is the only film so far in the X-Men series to be an original story; all the other films were based on one of the stories from the comic.
  • In the comics the X-Men wore a distinctive blue-gold uniform, but the filmmakers revised the uniform to black leather suits. Co-producer Tom DeSanto explained that test designs of the team in their blue-gold outfits were unsuccessful, and Bryan Singer noted that durable black leather made more sense for the X-Men to wear as protective clothing.
  • Rebecca Romijn’s make-up as Mystique consisted of 110 custom-designed prostheses, which covered 60% of her body and took nine hours to apply. She could not drink wine, use skin creams, or fly the day before filming, because it could have caused her body chemistry to change slightly, causing the prosthetics to fall off.
  • Joss Whedon wrote a draft of the script, but it got rejected because according to Whedon it had a “quick-witted, pop-culture referencing tone” which didn’t fit the X-Men. Only two lines of dialogue from his script were used in the final film: the exchange between Cyclops and Wolverine when Cyclops suspects he is Mystique; and Storm’s statement about “what happens to a toad when it is struck by lightning.” The finished screenplay is credited to David Hayter – the original voice of Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid game.

Watch our X-Men video special.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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