On July 14, 2000, the first-ever mutant movie hit theaters. On the 20th anniversary of X-Men let’s look back with fondness at the movie that helped kickstart our modern golden age of superhero movies*. Of course, at the time, the surefire hit wasn’t so, uh, “surefire.” Fans and critics were wary of how well the studio could pull off the special effects. Some critics dismissed the film as being just for teenage boys. Even Joss Whedon, still some 12 years away from pulling off the Avengers team-up for Marvel Studios, panned the film for having a weak script. (He was hired to do rewrites they chose not to include in the film.) Also, at this point, Marvel Comics was (mostly) a flop at the movies.
Yet, Marvel and 20th Century Fox ended up with the last laugh. The film grossed nearly $300 million worldwide on a $75 million budget, at the time an exorbitant amount to spend on a niche genre flick. More importantly than the profits, however, was the reception to the film. Critics mostly gave it good reviews, with about a fifth of them falling back on the “comics are absurd and silly” trope. Yet, this was the X-Men movie adult fans waited their whole lives for, and one that also spoke to kids looking for this kind of modern mythology.
20th Century Fox sold to Disney, effectively ending the X-Men standalone universe ignominiously with X-Men: Dark Phoenix. However, this first film showed nothing but potential. Despite it’s stunning (again, at the time) visuals and serious take on the absurdity of the comics world, X-Men is a film that focuses squarely on its characters. That choice is why this film endures even today.
X-Men and Its Characters Still Stand Out on the 20th Anniversary of Its Release
Image via 20th Century Fox
The film starts with a title sequences and some Patrick Stewart narration about mutation. Yet, the first two scenes of the film focus on two awakenings, the villainous Magneto’s and Anna Paquin’s Rogue. We see a young Eric Lensherr (played by Brett Morris, now a director and producer) separated from his mother at the gates of a concentration camp. Screaming in agony, he rips the metal gates to shreds. We then skip to the “not too distant future” where Rogue gets her first kiss and almost kills her beau.
By the time the first 20 minutes is up, we’ve met Stewart’s Professor X and caught a glimpse of Ian McKellan’s Magneto. We meet Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (a character almost played by Batwoman star Dougray Scott) as he forms a reluctant bond with young Rogue. The X-Men show up and we’re off to the races. Fans may be accustomed to city-destroying final battles with super-gods, but that’s not happening in this movie. The threat of mass casualties is real, but skyscrapers don’t topple. The X-Men do their best to save one of their own while also saving everyone else. It’s almost the perfect X-Men story.
While every performance is important, Ian McKellan’s is the crucial one. He is not a hateful villain, and it was the first time a comic book film gave the bad guy a position with which people could agree. Having survived the Holocaust, Magneto believed that humans would never accept mutants. (And, given our current sociopolitical realities, defeating bigotry, hate, and institutional prejudice is still an ongoing struggle.) McKellan does a fantastic job bringing to life a complex villain who we don’t hate. Stewart does an equally great job at showing why Professor X will never give up on redeeming his friend.
What X-Men Did for Superhero Movies
Image via 20th Century Fox
The back-to-back successes of X-Men and Spider-Man proved that Marvel’s time in the spotlight was finally here. It took some time for them to truly figure out the formula for success, but it started here. (Also, the 20th Anniversary of X-Men is also the anniversary of the Stan Lee cameo, which we almost didn’t have.)
While they don’t have the track record of success as Marvel Studios, the X-Men franchise is the foundation from which the Marvel Cinematic Universe sprang. They were the first to do a shared universe, even connecting the first films and the rebooted films via X-Men: Days of Future Past. Also, before Avengers: Endgame, they used time travel to fix their world-shattering failure. Logan, the final film in the franchise for both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, showed that comic book movies for adults could also work.
In a larger sense, X-Men showed the world that comic book films weren’t inherently lost causes. They could be big action spectacles, while also being emotional, character-driven stories that aren’t just “theme park rides.” It was a movie safe for kids, but one adults could enjoy without them. For an entire generation of kids, X-Men normalized comic book superheroes as a mainstream part of pop culture and not something just for outsiders and nerds. If you like any of the superhero movies that have followed it, even those based on DC characters, some of those thanks are owed to X-men.
Are you surprised it is the 20th anniversary of X-Men? What’s your relationship with this movie? Tell us your thoughts about it and its place in the legacy of great comic book films in the comments below.
*Author’s Note: There is actually an argument that Blade did that, but it’s a conversation for another time.
Featured image via 20th Century Fox
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.