The X-Men hit the big screen in the summer of 2000. And while their arrival wasn’t a colossal hit like Batman or Superman, it was a critical and commercial success for Marvel and 20th Century Fox and served as the successful first entry for a whole new movie franchise. Fans seemed genuinely satisfied with the big screen adaptation of their favorite mutant heroes, even though the picture contained some obvious flaws.
Casting is always a big deal for a well-established franchise making the leap from one medium to the motion picture one. X-Men was no exception and while the casting of Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier was a fanboy’s wet dream, an aussie for Wolverine and a natural brunette for Jean Grey left many unsatisfied. That was before the movie’s release and the general perception after the dust had settled seemed like most of the fears going in about the casting were alleviated. Hindsight is 20:20 though, and hindsight tells us that the casting was far from perfect.
Wolverine was going to be the focal point during casting and the character who would be the most challenging to find an actor for. This is not due to the character’s many emotional complexities. While the Wolverine character has evolved from a trash-talking tough guy to a character with legitimate depth, he still isn’t an overly difficult person to portray from an acting standpoint. When a director chooses an actor for a role, looks should be secondary to general ability. Especially when looking for a lead actor as any shortcomings with his ability will be hard to hide. The Wolverine character is a short, stocky, hairy Canadian with an aggressive disposition. The hairy aspect and accent can be accounted for easily, but the stature and build is something an actor can’t accommodate if he’s 6’2″ and long-limbed. Director Bryan Singer clearly felt that the character’s height and build were not essential, so Hugh Jackman received the part. Jackman was able to bulk up, especially for the later films, and at least look the part of a tough guy, but his height and smooth talking delivery made him less than ideal. Following the film’s release it seemed that most fans were happy with this Wolverine but I personally have never been among them. Wolverine to me has always been a character with a tremendous chip on his shoulder and his short stature is a big part of that. It’s always been an easy target for his foes to go after with arch-enemy Sabretooth often referring to him as “runt.” A rough and more gravelly voice would also suited the character better than Jackman’s delivery, though I’m willing to concede that part of my opinion is heavily influenced by voice actor Cal Dodd who portrayed him in the 90’s animated series.
Beyond the appearance of the character, I’ve never been all together satisfied with Wolverine’s personality on screen. Part of this is due to the director being unfamiliar with the source material. In the comics, Wolverine is a loner who is difficult to work with. His teammates tolerate him because, as he is often willing to point out, he is the best at what he does. The movie franchise asks Wolverine to be more noble and a leader for the X-Men, which just doesn’t suit the character. The downside to this is the affect it has on the Cyclops character, who is reduced to a childish brat insecure over the inclusion of Wolverine in the X-Men. Cyclops merely serves as Wolverine’s foil in the first film, and then hardly even appears in the sequel and is hastily killed off in the third film.
A large part of the film’s plot focuses on the pairing of outsiders Wolverine and Rogue. In this film Rogue is portrayed by Anna Paquin, who at the time was a teenager and portrayed a girl on the run trying to find a way to cope with being a mutant. Rogue is used in the same manner as Kitty Pryde and Jubilee from the comics. The relationship Wolverine and her develop is close to the one he has with Jubilee in the 90’s comics and cartoon. They both feel like outcasts who only have each other once they end up at the intimidating X-Men facilities. Rogue is an excellent character for the franchise because her powers clearly make her an outcast and are as much a curse as they are a blessing. She is incapable of skin to skin contact with other humans and mutants. When touching a human, she drains their energy and can leave them comatose. With mutants the same occurs but she also absorbs their special powers for a short time. She also can gain access to the memories of those she touches, though the film doesn’t really make good use of this.
The decision by the film makers to reduce Rogue to a teenager did not initially sit well with movie goers. If the purpose of the character was just to have a young person trying to cope with their identity, why not use Kitty Pryde? The answer of course lies in the fact that Rogue’s abilities make her a more sympathetic character and her abilities end up being a focal point of the film’s conflict. While the decision to force this role on Rogue didn’t initially sit well with me, I do think it works out well though the execution could have used some work.
Famke Janssen and Halle Berry were the other leading female roles. For Janssen this meant a dye job for her hair to play the redheaded Jean Grey. Her hair naturally does not look right but it is nit-picking. She’s a capable actress and the casting is suitable. Berry required a wig to play the snow-haired Storm. Berry would see her star become much brighter following roles she took after X-Men so she wasn’t cast as a big name at the time. Her part is largely ignored by the film and a general weakness throughout the franchise as it was never able to adequately deal with a large cast. The size of the X-Men in this first film seems like a good choice, but Singer proved incapable of even managing a meager squad of five which made the decision to include more mutants in the sequel all the more puzzling.
The villain chosen to oppose the X-Men was, naturally, Magneto. Ian McKellen was chosen to portray the X-Men’s most dangerous foe and he was given a band of mutants to lead as his Brotherhood (the film wisely dropped the tag line of “evil mutants” from the name). Assisting Magneto was the shape-shifting Mystique, feral Sabretooth, and the…sticky?… Toad. Wolverine may have been the focus for fans when it came to casting, but easily the most difficult role to cast falls on Magneto.
Magneto is nearly impossible to cast given his age and appearance in the comics. He was a young boy during World War 2 who found himself imprisoned by the Nazis for being Jewish. As a result of this early form of prejudice on his life, Magneto has hatred for humanity who further hates him for being a mutant. He feels humans cannot create peace among themselves, so why assume they could ever co-exist with mutants, whom he views as homo-superior. This viewpoint on life makes Magneto comic’s greatest, and most engaging villain. Unfortunately, comic artists do not feel an old man is a suitable villain for the X-Men. In the 60’s Magneto could be portrayed as a middle-aged man and still look fearsome, but a holocaust survivor in the year 2000 is not a formidable looking man. McKellen is suitably aged to portray such a character, but he is not very threatening. The comics in the 90’s chose to portray Magneto as a man in his physical prime. The only aspect of his appearance that makes him appear old is his silver hair. The film makers, probably rightly, felt they could not cast a young man in this role and simply give him white hair. The comic book audience would have been satisfied by the casual movie goers would have probably felt insulted. The film could have tried to go with one of the gimmicks proposed by the comics to explain Magneto’s appearance, but probably felt that would be too confusing or too silly. And while I do feel that Ian McKellen is an excellent actor, he does come up short as Magneto, through no fault of his own.
Magneto’s henchmen are mostly undeveloped and serve merely as goons. Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique gets the most face time and is incorporated well into the plot. Toad is best left as a simple henchman and his updated appearance works for the film, as the comic’s version of Toad was always subpar. Sabretooth is the biggest casualty on the villain side. Tyler Mane was chosen on looks alone, and the character is given minimal lines, just one silly threat. His talons are cheap looking, and his character has no history with the Wolverine character, a huge swing and a miss by the film makers. Perhaps they felt the movie had too much going on to make Wolverine and Sabretooth arch enemies, but if that’s the case then why go with Sabretooth? They could have easily replaced him with another brute from the X-Men’s long line of villains and made everyone happy. The fight sequence between Wolverine and Sabretooth should have been a highlight point for the film, instead it’s severely lacking and results in a quick “death” (with comics, one can never be sure) for Sabretooth.
Beyond casting, the other major bane of contention for any comic book film is the look. While characters like Superman and Spider-Man were able to mostly keep their comic book, others were not. Batman is notable in this regard as his costume went from blue and gray to all black. Since he was able to keep his defining “horns” and cape, it seemed to work just fine. The X-Men mostly favored bright colors in the comics and Singer felt that would not translate well to the big screen, and probably rightly so. Instead the costume designers went with all black. Storm was able to keep her cape, and Cyclops his visor, but everything else was mostly dropped. And while yellow and blue spandex would have looked silly, these black costumes aren’t exactly fashionable either. It would have been nice to see more of an attempt to re-create the comic look. Cyclops and Jean could have been given cowls and the costumes could have contained at least some color. Wolverine’s costume has a hint of the stripes from his comic counterpart but dropped the mask. I don’t know if the film could have pulled off a mask on Wolverine, but I would have liked to have seen some test shots to confirm that. These outfits come across as mostly pointless. The costumes should give the team an identity but they kind of do the opposite. Wolverine, for example, comes across better in his street clothes than he does in costume.
The plot for the movie focuses on mutant oppression and one senator’s attempt at creating mutant control. The Mutant Registration Act would force all mutants to register as mutants with the federal government and would force them to identify themselves and face public persecution. The merits of the act, presented by Senator Robert Kelly (played by Bruce Davision) are easy to understand; some mutants possess enormously destructive abilities and the government feels it needs to know who these people are in order to safeguard the general public. The argument against this is that most mutants have committed no crime, but are being treated as if they are criminals. It also calls into question the right to privacy and ends up being very un-American. This is a plot lifted directly from the comics and one that was also the focal point for the animated series’ first season. It’s an excellent choice for the film, but like most of the aspects of the film, it is not exploited as well as it should be.
Kelly’s backing of the bill makes him an easy target for mutant terrorist Magneto and he quickly sets out to abduct the senator. Magneto has created a machine that draws on his own powers of magnetism and, somehow, can turn normal humans into mutants. He tests it out on the senator and the end result is that Kelly becomes some sort of amorphous creature that can’t even hold itself together. The machine is physically taxing on Magneto and if he plans to use it on all of New York it will likely result in his death. Learning that the X-Men possess a mutant capable of mimicking his abilities, he and his followers set-out to abduct Rogue. The X-Men need to work together as a team to save her and all of New York.
The part of the plot that does not work is Magneto’s plan. It’s campy and poorly executed. The Mutant Registration Act is kind of forgotten until the film’s conclusion and could have been a much bigger part of the plot. In the animated series, a young Jubilee is registered by her well-meaning foster parents which makes her a target of the Act’s secret backers, the Sentinels. The Sentinels are mutant hunting robots created by Bolivar Trask and are sent out to abduct dangerous mutants for imprisonment. The X-Men learn of this and set out to destroy the files held by the organization behind mutant registration which lead to them being branded as mutant terrorists as well. This film’s plot never puts the X-Men at odds with humanity. In the comics the general public often views Magneto and the X-Men in the same manner, but here the X-Men aren’t really given a public identity. What could have been a movie about social injustice with no clearly defined path of right or wrong turns into a summer popcorn flick with little depth. There’s no one on the X-Men who questions why they should risk their lives to protect people who hate and fear them. Critics new to the X-Men ended up being somewhat impressed by the depth here, but veterans of the franchise felt it to be shallow and in no way represents the complexities inherent in not only the comics, but also a cartoon crafted for children.
I’ll likely save my further suggestions for how the X-Men could have been better treated by the film industry for another post, but here it is obvious things could have been handled much better all the way around. My review here is of a negative tone, but despite that I can acknowledge that the movie can be an enjoyable experience. If one goes into it with no expectations and takes it on face value alone, it’s pretty good. It doesn’t rival previous comic book adaptations like Superman and Batman, but it doesn’t come close to matching the futility of The Punisher or Judge Dredd. For me, the film feels like a wasted opportunity and really setback the X-Men film franchise. Because any sequel had to remain consistent with this one, they’ve never been able to realize their full potential. A lot of people were happy when it was announced that Bryan Singer would oversee the upcoming X-Men First Class and blame the poor quality of the third film on his departure. I personally have never felt that Bryan Singer was the right choice to helm the X-Men. The X-Men, more than most comic to film franchises, needed someone who was very familiar with the source material to do it justice. Singer merely scratches the surface of what makes the X-Men so unique, but ends up leaving most fans wondering “what could have been?”