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A New Hope: How 'X-Men' Sparked The Superhero Genre
Frederick O'Brien , June 5th, 2020 09:11

Twenty years on from the release of X-Men, it’s hard to imagine a time when comic book films weren’t box office gold. When the genre was on life support, Wolverine and co. showed how to bridge the gap between hardcore fans and casual viewers, finds Frederick O'Brien

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, comprising 23 films and eight TV series and counting, has raked in $22 billion at the box office, drawing the formidable dual ire of Martin Scorsese and The Quietus in the process. The superhero movie genre is so firmly entrenched in mainstream culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t.

For decades, films based on comic books were treated as simple and – worst of all in the risk-averse world of Hollywood – unreliable box office draws. The flagship efforts of the ’70s and ‘80s, Superman: The Movie and Tim Burton’s Batman, were promising first installments, but their follow-ups dwindled both in box office return and quality.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, released in 1987, put the franchise on ice for almost 20 years. It has a Rotten Tomatoes critics average of 11%. The Batman series followed a similar trajectory. Burton returned for a serviceable sequel, Batman Returns, but recasting and sloppy scripts saw the next two films drop steeply in quality. The fourth installment, Batman & Robin, was so bad (also 11% on Rotten Tomatoes) that George Clooney still apologises to fans for his involvement.

Efforts elsewhere didn’t go much better. A 1994 Fantastic Four film was canned before release. There are conflicting reasons, some saying the studio was worried the film would ruin the franchise, while others suspected it was only made in the first place to retain the franchise rights. In any case, it was dead on arrival.

A 1995 adaptation of Judge Dredd – a British comic character who polices Earth’s dystopian future with deadpan brutality – starring Sylvester Stallone flopped at the box office, and managed to disappoint both hardcore fans and casual viewers. The character’s co-creator John Wagner hated the film, calling it “Dredd pressed through the Hollywood cliché mill.”

By 2000, superhero films weren’t in great shape. The genre had devolved to cosplay with a camera pointed at it. The success of Wesley Snipes’ vampire-hunting exploits in Blade (1998) showed signs of life, grossing more than $130 million worldwide, but the reality was clear: Hollywood didn’t know how to do superhero films. They were treated as spectacles, their heroes little more than cardboard cutouts. Bizarre as it may seem today, there was a time when Disney was embarrassed to market M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable as the comic book film it was.

This was the world to which X-Men arrived 20 years ago, and superhero films have danced to its tune ever since. There are better films than X-Men — there are even better X-Men films — but more than any other it set the stage for superhero films to become the long-form genre they are today.

For those unfamiliar, the X-Men are a team of mutant superheroes – humans born with extraordinary abilities, from telepathy to teleportation. Their arch enemies are… other mutants, belonging to a rival group called the Brotherhood of Mutants. The X-Men, led by Professor Xavier, believe in coexistence with humans. The Brotherhood, led by Magneto, believe in mutant superiority.

The 2000 film focuses on two mutants, Wolverine and Rogue, who get caught between the X-Men and the Brotherhood on the eve of Magneto’s most audacious plan yet – turning the world’s leaders into mutants. Professor X and his proteges, Dr. Jean Gray, Cyclops, and Storm, lead the resistance, with Wolverine and Rogue in tow. Battles are fought, nefarious schemes are foiled, and all major characters live to fight another day.

With dozens of spectacular superpowers to choose from, you might expect the film to enter guns blazing, all spectacle and wisecracks. It doesn't. In fact, X-Men opens with a child separated from his parents in Auschwitz, before being clubbed unconscious by Nazi guards. This is followed by US Senate hearings about segregating schools, then a young girl (Rogue) running away from home after her first kiss has near fatal consequences.

The opening is not conventional superhero fare, like Clark Kent emerging from a phone box to save the world, for example, or the Batmobile careering through the streets of Gotham. From the start, X-Men shuns spectacle, focusing instead on characters. If anything, director Bryan Singer gave viewers more reason to sympathise with the ‘villain’ than with any other character. The boy in Auschwitz, we learn, is Magneto. This reflects the themes of prejudice and trauma that pervade the comics. Even X-Men co-creator Stan Lee said he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist.” The film quickly establishes it isn’t going to be about the masks, it’s going to be about the people behind them.

Addressing real-world issues was nothing new to comic books. The X-Men series was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963 in the midst of the civil rights movement, and its characters’ fight for mutant rights quickly became analogous to it. Misunderstood, feared, and often hated, mutants seek recognition and understanding. Although fandom claims that Professor X and Magneto were based on Martin Luther King Jr’s peaceful protest and Malcolm X’s more abrasive sermonising respectively seem to be a reach too far – as covered in-depth by Paco Taylor last year – the overlaps are hard to deny. Faced with widespread prejudice against mutants, Professor X believes in equality, Magneto in supremacy. They’re not perfectly analogous, but then that’s always been a charm of the X-Men – they are ready-made allegories for the struggles of marginalised people.

As the X-Men evolved and matured through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, they were adopted as a LGBT symbol for similar reasons. Chris Claremont, who wrote for the franchise from 1975 to 1991, always understood its core symbolism. "Blacks, Mormons, Jews, Hispanics, Arabs... [The X-Men] was, as pretentious as it sounds, non-denominational and inclusive.”

In a 1969 edition of his ‘Soapbox’ column, Lee wrote, “It’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race, to despise an entire nation, to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits.” He echoes Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The problem before X-Men wasn’t that superhero films were incompatible with serious themes; it was that they rarely treated the source material seriously. For the most part, 20th century superhero movies were heavily weighted towards spectacle. It would be negligent not to have Superman saving the world in spectacular ways, but there was a tendency to reduce characters to their costumes, which made it harder for their stories to be told with depth.

X-Men didn’t just acknowledge the complex inner lives of its lead characters, it focused on them. As Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman puts it, “The idea that you could really dive into the emotional life, to the vulnerability of these characters [...] is what’s going to hook people and make them care.” Director Christopher Nolan, who would go on to direct the Dark Knight Batman trilogy, was impressed to find X-Men had the same tone he wanted to hit with Batman.

Comic book films didn’t suddenly become masterpieces in the bracket of Schindler’s List or Grave of the Fireflies, but such a jump felt more possible after X-Men. Before X-Men, superhero films were about superheroes. After, they were about people.

As opposed to the highly individualistic comic book adaptations of the 20th century, X-Men also showed that ensemble casts could work in a superhero context, and may even be preferable. Rather than hanging the film on any one A-list star, X-Men embraces the eclectic group dynamic that has become the lynchpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the Avengers, and the goal of the DC equivalent with the Justice League.

Like the Avengers, the X-Men have always been worth more than any one character. There are breakout stars and fan favourites, but even Wolverine and Iron Man can’t do it on their own. X-Men introduces almost a dozen lead characters in its 1h44m runtime, and that’s to say nothing of the students at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the X-Men base of operations and a safe environment for young mutants to explore and develop their powers.

Having so many personalities to juggle hurts the film as a standalone story, but it was also a sizable deviation from the comic book film norm, where events usually revolved around the exploits of one hero. In X-Men, establishing the world was more important than thundering towards the final set piece.

Most of the story takes place at Xavier's school, with Professor X, Dr Jean Gray, and Cyclops introducing Wolverine to the premises of the franchise. Wolverine sympathises with Rogue’s feelings of isolation; the clean-cut Cyclops is irked by Wolverine’s more abrasive behaviour; Professor X and Dr Jean Gray showcase themselves as teachers first, superheroes second through their lessons with gifted youngsters; and so on. It’s comfortable rather than captivating, creating a familiarity with the characters that has become a hallmark of the franchise – and others like it. The snappy back and forth between Wolverine and Cyclops would fit right in with the quick-witted group dynamic of the Avengers.

In X-Men the relationships between the lead characters are just as entertaining as the action, often more so. The inevitable set piece at the end – in which the X-Men prevent Magneto from killing the world’s leaders via a mutation beam fired from the Statue of Liberty – feels like a distraction.

Stan Lee said as much in a 2000 interview in the wake of the film’s success. “No series like the X-Men can survive unless people care about the characters,” he said. “They've all got their own personalities and foibles. It's like a big soap opera. And the fact that it also has that underlying theme of man's inhumanity to man doesn't hurt.”

According to Encyclopædia Britannica, soap operas are “characterized by a permanent cast of actors, a continuing story, emphasis on dialogue instead of action, a slower-than-life pace, and a consistently sentimental or melodramatic treatment.” That just about sums up X-Men, and those qualities have become ingrained in the superhero genre since. Peter Parker’s relationships with aunt May and Mary Jane are just as important as his exploits as Spiderman, for example.

This sober, even solemn tonal shift is balanced by a healthy dose of irreverence. Although themes of alienation, prejudice, and civil rights are treated seriously, the franchise’s more outlandish qualities are still met with a knowing smile. More often than not, these qualities are pointed out by Wolverine.

Most mutants have very literal hero names. Rather than gloss over this, X-Men plays around with it. When Wolverine is warned of the grave dangers posed by Magneto, he asks what any normal person would ask: “What’s a magneto?” When told a Magneto is a mutant who can move metal, that Cyclops can emit an energy beam from his eyes, and Storm can control the weather, Wolverine asks the wheelchair-bound Professor X, “What do they call you? Wheels?” As Wolverine and Rogue are introduced to the rules of the X-Men world, so is the audience. When events take a strange turn, the film says, “We know. Go with it.”

Subsequent superhero films started in similarly familiar, un-super settings and eased their way towards the extraordinary, giving audiences time to buy into the worlds and care about the characters. Spider-Man (2002), The Hulk (2003), and Batman Begins (2005) all trace their heroes’ transitions from real world to comic book world, making them more accessible. Even the events of Iron Man, which made the formal first step in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saga, are grounded. Most of the first act sees Tony Stark tinkering in a cave, showing the audience exactly how he transitions from person to superhero.

There was no magic switch that turned superhero films on, but X-Men was a kind of pivot. It showed what a genre could look like, as opposed to standalone spectacles. With the sequel X2, Bryan Singer improved on just about every aspect, and by the time the ball was dropped with the third installment, The Last Stand, the wheels of various other cinematic universes were already in motion.

In the years that followed X-Men there was a sustained run of critical and commercial acclaim for superhero films. X2 built on the foundations, earning widespread acclaim. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy grossed more than $2 billion worldwide, with the first two films scoring 90% or higher on Rotten Tomatoes. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films peaked with The Dark Knight in 2008, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two. And of course, there is Iron Man, the first step in what is now the highest-grossing film series of all time.

X-Men is far from a perfect movie, but its soap-opera-with-capes approach to superheroes laid the foundation for the genre as we know it today. It emboldened filmmakers and studio executives alike to embrace the deeper, human lives of comic book characters and plan for long-term storytelling. If you ever get the feeling modern superhero films are one big soap opera, it’s because they are. And X-Men was the pilot.