How Bryan Singer's Original 'X-Men' Helped Define Superhero Movies
by Dan Marcus
May 27, 2016
I'll never forget seeing movies the summer of 2000. I was 11 years old and I was impatiently awaiting this one summer blockbuster that honestly looked unlike anything I had seen before. I remember seeing adverts for the movie in Circuit City. Does anyone remember the original teaser trailer for the film? The tagline teased "Change is coming". I don't think anyone had any idea what that could possibly mean sixteen years later. While Blade and the success of that film made a huge impact just two years earlier, Bryan Singer's X-Men and its sequel X2: X-Men United arguably jump-started and helped define the entire superhero genre as we know it. Let's take a look at how the genre has changed and evolved nearly two decades later.
Before getting into this, check out the teaser trailer for Bryan Singer's original X-Men movie from 2000:
When Bryan Singer's X-Men was unleashed on cinema-goers on July 14th, 2000, it came at a unique time for internet culture – which, to be fair, was still just in the infant stages. In the late 90's and early 00's, internet journalism hadn't quite taken off yet. If you wanted movie news, you had to read Wizard Magazine or one of the movie trades. I remember reading my copy of Wizard in the summer of 1999 where they speculated on the upcoming adaptation of X-Men, talking about who might get cast. As every new issue came out every month, getting updates on the film was sparse. Nowadays, you can follow a film from its announcement all the way to its premiere online without taking a trip to your local Barnes & Noble or comic book store. It's available right at your fingertips. Gone are the days of waiting anxiously for a new piece of information related to any movie. If you want to know something, it's there if you know where to look.
What's more is that studios are making it far easier these days to figure out where you should look for news. In a weird turn of events, 20th Century Fox recently let journalists and bloggers see the newest installment in the franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse, a full two weeks before the film is slated to open. As a fanbase, that's two weeks of speculating, discussing and analyzing if the film will be any good. In the summer of 2000, I just remember seeing a couple of trailers, some previews and pictures before going into the original X-Men. I honestly had no idea what the film was even going to be about. Interesting how times change…
With the times changing, the "superhero movie" has changed, too. I recently re-watched the early X-Men movies in anticipation for Apocalypse – and if you read some of the reviews, one could argue that could be a literal meaning for the franchise itself. What I gleamed from taking a dip into the past is how Singer's first X-Men movie is decidedly spartan in comparison to some of the more recent offerings in the genre. Singer's methodology was somewhat criticized at the time for taking a low-key approach to the world of superheroes but perhaps not surprisingly it worked and has laid the groundwork for every superhero movie to follow. Actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen provided much needed gravitas to their characters and surroundings. If you look at Marvel and all superhero movies today, it's an approach that has been utilized time and time again in order to give said film a certain dramatic gravity among all the superheroics.
And if we're talking about dramatic gravity, then there's nothing more dramatic and profound than the opening introduction to X-Men – which, in my mind, is one of the best introductions to any superhero movie ever. In that moment, you completely understand Erik Lehnsherr's point-of-view. By giving Erik a sense of human vulnerability, Singer humanized superheroes & super-villains and their actions for anyone that thought they were too out of this world to understand. In Captain America: Civil War, you understand Cap's perspective and you understand Tony's – you even understand where Zemo is coming from – but remember where that started: with a little boy watching his parents being ripped from him in Auschwitz. Erik was not this over-the-top villain who craved world domination - he was just someone who saw the worst of humanity and has never looked back.
Much like the rest of the superhero genre, which has also never looked back, embracing superheroes in such wholehearted ways today makes Singer's movies look almost embarrassingly shy by comparison. Yes, the costumes were black leather in the original X-Men, but they still had a dash of color to lend the characters some individuality. It's an interesting contrast that look to today, where superhero costumes are full of bright, unabashed color. Those choices didn't call attention to themselves – unlike superhero movies of today, which in many ways do. And in sometimes big, bold ways.
If superhero movies today are bold, then Singer's laid back, minimalist approach is unique comparably speaking. Singer might be criticized by fans today – where everything is unquestionably bigger, grander and more epic in scale – but it was an approach that was desperately needed at the time. And it's an approach that might be needed in years to come. You could argue superhero movies are becoming like the X-Men themselves: the more diverse the mutants become, the more grandiose and stranger the movies tend to be. If that is the case, then it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that one of Marvel's strangest characters yet, the aptly titled Doctor Strange, is coming to theaters this November. Without the groundwork that was laid before it, we wouldn't have movies like Doctor Strange or Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy.
However, will we see an inverse reaction to the genre in the years to come? With comic book and superhero movies continue getting bigger and weirder, will they eventually have to revert back to the modest origins found in Singer's X-Men or will things just continue to get a tad stranger? Only time will tell.
It's difficult to predict what the future might hold for the superhero genre, but I certainly miss the old days of X-Men and X2 which arrived somewhat before our expectations predisposed what we've come to demand in our cinematic superhero tales. There's an impressive simplicity with X2: X-Men United, for example, despite the huge cast of heroes and villains battling each other. Even juggling multiple characters, Singer and his writers orchestrate everything with a certain ease, conducting the chaos in a masterstroke of deft subtlety and nuance. Wolverine's journey might be a tad predictable, but it is unassuming yet masterfully executed. You don't need to have seen his solo efforts to understand what he's after.
In addition, Brian Cox as William Stryker is also arguably one of the best villains in any superhero movie, with motivations clearly defined and a personal vendetta that's easily relatable, sympathetic yet chilling in its own right. Compare Stryker to some of the villains you might find in a modern Marvel movie and he stands considerably taller than the likes of Whiplash or Malekith. I still have no clue what the hell Malekith was after or why Thor was supposed to be intimidated by a Santa's Workshop reject.
The irony is also not lost on me while discussing Singer's austere approach, as the franchise's newest installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, opens nationwide today. The film promises to be the X-Men franchise's biggest and grandest film yet. The film is getting ravaged by some critics online, claiming Singer has "stopped being relevant in a genre he helped create". I'm not here to discuss reviews, as I never let a review sway my anticipation or enjoyment of a film, but it poses an interesting question: In the wake of Apocalypse – a film that ups the ante in almost every way – is Singer's grounded, minimalist approach needed again? There are rumors the next X-Men film will tackle the Dark Phoenix Saga (and hopefully tackle it well this time), a story that is perhaps the most epic and grand X-Men story you might find – a truly out of this world tale. Will Singer continue the series' trajectory of getting bigger & grander (much like Apocalypse himself)?
If that is indeed what the next X-Men movie will be about, will Bryan Singer (or perhaps even someone else) find new ways to interpret the X-Men that helps bring the series back down to Earth?
Time will certainly tell, but I think at some point we are going to look back at what the X-Men series has done time and time again to re-shape the future. In an age of solo movies and crossovers building giant interconnected universes, I believe at some point the superhero genre will implode as any universe does, reverting back to its more unworldly, minimalistic stages that we found in some of Singer's earlier X-outings. It might not reboot itself – as comics tend to do every time they become too convoluted – but I believe at a certain point soon we will be looking at a new age for the superhero genre, that will look back on what great filmmakers like Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan achieved and use those influences as inspirations for reshaping the landscape of superhero movies as we know it.
After all, Singer's X-Men did help define the superhero genre that is flourishing today and something tells me it will continue to help define many other superhero / comic book movies for years to come. What are your thoughts on Singer's original X-Men movies? Did Singer's original creations help define the superhero movie and will they continue to influence the superhero genre? Sound Off!