based on characters by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
I love bad movies. In my college’s Film Depreciation Society, my title is “Hobbit Wrangler”, which, more or less, means that my taste in bad movies runs to big budget mediocrity, which we’ve seen before in my love for Disney’s 1993 The Three Musketeers. There’s something endearing born when a production and a studio believe in a project and it doesn’t quite work; but the love (or at least a financially-motivated fondness) is still there. My laziness and my love for mad movies collided when Netflix put 2000’s X-Men up on Instant, which I immediately devoured.
X-Men takes place in an America where mutants—people with superpowers—are becoming more and more common, to the point that legislators are considering anti-mutant laws to contain the population. While both Charles Xavier, founder of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, and Erik Lehnsherr, more commonly known as Magneto, oppose this bill, they take fundamentally different approaches to the conflict between humans and mutants. But when two new mutants, Wolverine and Rogue, find their way to the Xavier School, Magneto begins a secret plan to level the playing field—one that includes these two new mutants…
X-Men boasts the very finest in late nineties special effects (the opening title sequence, in particular, gave me some wicked déjà vu back to my childhood), an all-star cast (I believe this film turned Hugh Jackman into a viable star), and a big budget. It also boasts an almost miraculously lackluster script—miraculously, because it has almost everything going for it; it’s plotted and structured well, the main conflict is a ripe and interesting metaphor for any minority, and there’s good character development for Wolverine and Rogue. It’s also a pre-9/11 film that cheerfully rips through a US landmark without making too much of a fuss, which is kind of refreshing, to be totally honest. And yet, there’s something missing. I’m hard-pressed to figure out what (I mean, besides the X-Men theme, which Kamen teases at every opportunity, God bless him). It might be that the film is incapable of making any good jokes on purpose, or that, despite an attention to detail that clad the team in black leather instead of yellow spandex, the production still seems a bit apologetic and uncomfortable about being a superhero movie.
Remember, this was 2000. The last big budget and big name superhero film was Batman and Robin. I don’t want to talk about it; it was too traumatic. The road to this particular film started in 1989, before the beloved animated series—a road that included a treatment by none other than Michael Chabon! But Bryan Singer turned down the role of director three times before accepting it; according to Wikipedia, he started off thinking that comic books are unintelligent literature. And you can still see bits of that attitude in this production. When the story deals with issues that would be interesting in any context—working with the oppressor versus overthrowing the oppressor, alienation, othering—it gets along swimmingly, although its humor gland appears to have been surgically removed. But when we get to much more comic book elements, they can feel a little awkward, like something mildly unpleasant you just have to get through to get to the other stuff. For instance, Storm, from what I hear from Marvel fans, is kind of awesome; she’s the most visible black female superheroine ever. But because her power is so, well, powerful and visually spectacular, Singer doesn’t quite know what to do with her, which leads to the hilarity of Storm being more or less useless.
So there can be some whiplash. We’ve got scenes such as the silent opening scene where Magneto is separated from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp and displays his power for the first time, which establishes Magneto as a defensive villain rather than an amoral, weak-willed, or just hateful villain. And watching Wolverine and Rogue develop a tentative connection based on their mutual alienation is remarkably sweet. But then we get the screenwriters not exactly knowing what to do with Jean Grey, besides doctoring and general love interest shenanigans—would it have killed anyone for her to have lobbed a “Oh, alcohol?” when Wolverine tells her to tell Rogue that his heart belongs to someone else? And there are no good jokes. They try, bless them, but they can’t quite make them work. Otherwise, the cast is solid, if occasionally wasted, and the story is still good—I actually want to see the rest of the franchise. But it still tends to come off like someone apologizing for being themselves; Magneto (and Sir Ian!) would disapprove.
Bottom line: While its humor gland appears to have been surgically removed and it often comes across like someone’s trying to apologize that there’s superhero elements in my oppression metaphor, X-Men is still well-plotted, well-cast (even if some cast members are wasted), and interesting. Come for the riffing, stay for the Wolverine/Rogue.
I watched this movie on Netflix Instant.