The True Origin of the Superhero Film Craze? ‘X-Men’ Comics

Blade may have been the first, but X-Men may have a stronger claim as the film that truly began the explosion of comic book films we see today.

Nearly two full years passed between the release of Blade (1998) and the release of X-Men (2000). In that time, attitudes towards comic book films had not outwardly changed, and only one comic book film, the underseen, underappreciated Mystery Men (1999), had been released. Behind the scenes, however, the production of Fox’s X-Men, Sony’s Spider-Man and even New Line’s sequel to Blade indicated that studios were ready to make a real effort with major comic book properties.

Film versions of X-Men and Spider-Man had been in the works since the ‘80s, both involving James Cameron at various points in their development, but they had never fully materialized. Arguably, the technology did not exist to bring these properties to life in a satisfying way until the CGI revolution took hold of Hollywood. Nine years after Terminator 2: Judgement Day and seven years after Jurassic Park, audiences were finally treated to a live-action version of Marvel’s uncanny band of mutants. Blade may have been the first, but X-Men may have a stronger claim as the film that truly began the explosion of comic book films we see today.

For one, X-Men was one of the flagship properties at Marvel Comics. Its success and importance to the Marvel brand, particularly in the ‘90s, was rivalled only by Spider-Man, but that was not always the case. They were created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1963 during the astoundingly creative period that introduced nearly every character and concept of note at Marvel. The conceit of the book was that human evolution had suddenly sprung forward, and certain people had developed superhuman abilities. These mutants were often met with fear, derision, hostility, and intolerance.

In response, some mutants hid, some mutants fought for superiority, and some, like Professor Charles Xavier’s X-Men, sought to promote human-mutant relations and stop anyone who would threaten either group. Was it a powerful metaphor for intolerance that spoke to everyone who has ever felt different or like an outsider (namely, everyone), or was it a gimmick that allowed Lee, Kirby and their collaborators to introduce new superpowered characters without convoluted explanations of their origins? Either way, it was a killer concept. Nevertheless, X-Men struggled to match the popularity of leading titles like the Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and the Avengers (which launched the same month as X-Men). The series was effectively canceled in 1970, after issue #66, with Marvel opting to reprint old stories rather than generate new ones.

Things changed in 1975. With Giant-Size X-Men #1, by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, the book was rebooted with a more diverse and international team and was immediately a sensation. The ongoing X-Men series discontinued reprints and immediately started telling new, original stories penned by Chris Claremont, who would be the primary writer and creative force behind almost all X-Men titles over the next 16 years. During that time, the X-Men became the most consistently popular property in all of comics, spawning countless spin-off series featuring single characters or whole new teams. At times, the X-Men Universe seemed sprawling and complex enough that it hardly seemed connected to the larger Marvel Universe. This would prove to be a good precedent for the cinematic universes to come.

X-Men comics led the charge into the early-‘90s comics boom, with X-Force #1 selling a record five million copies in 1991, only to be surpassed by X-Men #1 selling eight million copies two months later. For context, a very successful comic these days might sell one- or 200 thousand copies. Fox launched a popular Saturday morning cartoon in 1992 and began seriously developing a live-action film. Even after the comics boom crashed, Marvel filed for bankruptcy, and X-Men comics became the quintessential example of everything that was wrong with ‘90s comics (style over substance, too many interconnected book, overly convoluted plots), the X-Men remained popular. After all this, was there a better property to usher comic book films into a new era, when they would become the dominant form of blockbuster entertainment?

That’s a lot of pressure to put on the modestly-budgeted (for a major studio blockbuster) overseen by Bryan Singer, a director who had never made a science-fiction action film before. That it worked so well was a miracle. How it worked so well can be understood by exploring the absolutely perfect first first few sequences.


“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward…” -Professor Charles Xavier

With this short, pre-credits narration, X-Men begins the arduous task of introducing audiences to the dense, complex world of mutants. In the DVD commentary, Singer admits that he added the narration late in the filmmaking process, after realizing that he needed to better explain the world. A few paragraphs back I tried to succinctly summarize the premise of the X-Men Universe. This film had to establish the concept of mutants, the various ways in which they are viewed, the major sides of the conflict, as well as introduce no less than 12 significant characters. Oh, and it should probably also have a plot, a villainous plan and, ideally, develop the characters and relationships enough for the audience to be invested. Over its svelte 104-minute running time, the film accomplishes nearly all of these goals with remarkable efficiency. The plot, Magneto’s grand plan, certainly falls victim to the overcrowded nature of the film. It is not surprising that the next X-Men film was much more successful at telling a rollicking, fun adventure because this film did all the heavy-lifting of setting things up. What is surprising is how satisfying the film remains despite being bogged down by reams of exposition.

Poland – 1944

After the credits, we come to the Auschwitz scene which is, simply put, one of the most remarkable and important scenes in any comic book film. In this short scene, screenwriter David Hayter and director Bryan Singer set a tone for the film that takes the material very seriously and grounds it in reality and history. It would be very difficult for critics or audiences to dismiss X-Men as a silly little comic book film when the opening scene depicts a young boy being torn from his parents as they are sent to their deaths during the Holocaust. The trauma of the event causes the boy to reach out and manifest his mutant powers of magnetism for the very first time. The scene feels realistic and serious, and it introduces the theme of intolerance that will underlay the rest of the film. It calls to mind Schindler’s List, which was released just seven years before X-Men, as well as highly-publicized genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-‘90s. Extreme intolerance and genocide wasn’t far from people’s minds in 2000.

The grounding in reality extended to all aspects of the film. Magneto is not an over-the-top, cartoon villain. He is a man driven by the scars of his youth, terrified by the thought of a potential Holocaust for mutants, and taking misguided, extreme steps to avoid that. Realism is a clear goal of the film and even extends to names. Magneto is rarely referred to as such. He is Erik. Wolverine is Logan, Cyclops is Scott, Iceman is Bobby. It also extends to the wardrobe, and the controversial decision to eschew the colorful spandex of the comics for street clothes or black leather X-Men costumes. It extends to the manifestation of powers. Magneto’s use of his powers for the first time is not a flashy display of energy, as it is often depicted in the comics, but as invisible as real magnetic fields. Rogue’s power-draining, Jean’s telekinesis and Xavier’s telepathy are similarly subtle. Many of the film’s mutants struggle with their powers. They are painful (“Every time.”), uncontrollable, and they make the characters into outcasts. Singer intentionally limited the powers, not having Storm, Jean or Rogue fly, for example, because he felt they needed limitations.

All of this may make the film sound dour and maudlin, but it’s not. It just takes its subject matter seriously, the light and the dark, the fun and the sad. The more serious comic book films of the next decade, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Logan (2017), owe an enormous debt to the trail blazed by this scene.

Mississippi – The Not Too Distant Future

The next scene moves to the present day of the movie and depicts a more typical manifestation of mutants’ powers. The everyday calm of a typical suburban house in Mississippi is shattered when Rogue (née Marie) gives her boyfriend a seizure after kissing him for the first time. In its own way, it is just as terrifying as Magneto’s emergence as a mutant. In that moment, the shock, the fear, the confusion, the chaos felt by Rogue and her parents, we understand how complex this issue must be to the world at large.

The Senate

This brings us to the floor of the United States Senate, where Jean Grey makes a presentation on mutants before being grilled by Senator Robert Kelly, who is leading the charge for mutant registration. The two preceding scenes have prepared the audience to, on the one hand, be apprehensive about the slippery slope this legislation represents, on the other hand, be understanding of the fear and confusion the general public must be feeling. Kelly is a villain, like Magneto, with valid concerns about the situation, but a misguided and flawed solution.

The Senate scene ends with the first interaction between Charles Xavier and Magneto, two characters with a clear history and affection, and a shared goal of ending mutant persecution, but who are irrevocably opposed when it comes to solutions. Much has been written on the similarities of these characters to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, two charismatic, eloquent, intelligent leaders during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Both wanted equality for African Americans, but King’s peaceful approach was contrasted by Malcolm X’s militant rhetoric. It is an interesting comparison, especially since the X-Men comic debuted right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. And since then, the X-Men has appealed to so many marginalized groups as they strive for acceptance.

More relevant to the film, however, is the casting of two respected, classically-trained actors in the roles. Patrick Stewart was fairly well-known to general audiences for his work in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) on television. Starring in a popular science-fiction property as an intelligent, stern and yes, the bald leader made him the dream casting for Xavier for over a decade. Sir Ian McKellan was not as familiar to moviegoers, but would soon be a household name from his work as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). Like the casting of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in Superman: The Movie (1978), the presence of these two pros legitimized and elevated the whole film. Working on a genre film was still considered slumming it for serious actors at this point, rather than the next logical step after an Oscar nomination or win. Stewart and McKellan were two elder statesmen of the acting profession, and their dignified presence hangs over the film even when they are not on screen. Xavier’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood are, in a way, pawns in the grand chess match between their leaders ideologies. Fittingly, the final scene of the film finds those leaders playing chess, and trading barbs, in Magneto’s plastic prison cell, both fully aware that their destinies remain forever intertwined.

Alberta, Canada – Dive Bar

The final vital piece of the film, however, is introduced in the next scene, and the final one I will deeply explore. Hugh Jackman’s casting as Logan/Wolverine is one of the most well-known recasting stories in Hollywood history. To recount it for the umpteenth time: Dougray Scott was cast in the role but had to drop out due to production delays on Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), in which he played the villain. In a scramble, Singer replaced him with Jackman three weeks into production and the rest, as they say, is history. Who could have known how this would turn out? At the time, there was an outcry from fans that this 6’2” Australian, who had only appeared in two Australian films and various television series, was all wrong for the 5’3” Canadian mutant. Even after these concerns were effectively silenced in his first minute of screentime, as he fully embodied the essence of the character, no one could have predicted the lifespan and impact of Jackman’s Wolverine. He would dominate the X-Men franchise, appearing in some capacity in nine films (ten if you count Deadpool’s love of the Jack-man) over seventeen years. This film launched a perfect melding of actor and character that has rarely been seen before or since.

Wolverine is introduced to Rogue, and audiences, when she takes shelter in an isolated Canadian bar, having apparently run away from home after manifesting her powers. Wolverine is the reigning cage fight champion, seemingly impervious to pain or injury. When one of his defeated opponents confronts him later in the night, feeling he was unjustly beaten by a mutant, Wolverine has to pop his signature metal claws (three in each hand) to warn him off.

X-Men makes the smart move of having two audience surrogates, Rogue and Wolverine, lead us through the rest of the film. Rogue is young, frightened, and new to her powers. Wolverine is a grizzled, world-weary wanderer. Both are unfamiliar with Xavier’s X-Men, Magneto’s Brotherhood, or their ongoing conflict. As they learn, we learn. Over the film, Rogue finds her strength and confidence, while Wolverine learns to get involved in the mutant fight and connect with other mutants. With these two characters joining together, the textbook perfection of X-Men’s opening scenes comes to a close. There were still many characters to introduce, and the plot to kick into gear, but the brilliance of X-Men lies in these scenes. The start of the film, and the start of a new era of Hollywood blockbusters.

The Rest of the Film

X-Men is not a perfect film by any means, and it’s worth noting some of its shortcomings. It’s rightly criticized for being too heavily focused on Wolverine. In this film, it’s more forgivable given that he is the primary audience surrogate, but it set the trend for the remaining films to relegate the ensemble to Wolverine’s supporting characters. That is not the spirit of the X-Men. Also, as I stated earlier, Magneto’s plan feels underdeveloped and, frankly, pretty hokey. He plans to artificially mutate all the world’s leaders at a peace summit in New York City using a device that he has successfully tested once and, unbeknownst to him, killed its subject. This plot actually diminishes Magneto as a character and, if not for McKellan’s conviction, could have seriously harmed the film.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the $70 million budget was relatively modest for a film of this kind, but Singer manages to make it work. Like Blade, CGI was used quite seldom and, when it is, it is not overly impressive. The modest budget works in the film’s favour at times, however, with Singer often shooting it as a tight, intimate film as opposed to a wide-angle epic. X-Men was also shot on a very tight schedule, as its release was suddenly moved up from December to July. Singer claims this rushed production caused some problems. In particular, it meant that frequent Singer collaborator, John Ottman, was unable to work on the film as editor or composer. What results is disjointed editing, by three different editors, that is particularly off-putting during action scenes. They are full of strange cuts, out-of-place reaction shots, and surprisingly low-energy. Michael Kamen’s work as the composer is also fairly unremarkable and unmemorable. John Ottman would be a welcome addition to the crew on future Singer X-Men films.

Finally, a shout-out to the lingering ‘x’ in the opening Fox logo. I like any film that alters the studio logo for its own purposes, and this one is subtly great.

I recognize that I failed to discuss Halle Berry’s Storm, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ Mystique, Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey or James Marsden’s Cyclops at any length. They were not my focus but, luckily, superhero franchises always seem to offer another chance. Look for more on them in future X-Men installments.

None of the achievements of X-Men as a film would carry much weight if it was not a success. Fortunately, it became the eighth highest-grossing film in North America and the ninth highest-grossing film worldwide in the year 2000. It earned four times its production budget. Critics and fans alike were impressed with its maturity, action, and faithfulness to the comics. Fans had been hurt before, and the film’s production was put under intense scrutiny at a time when widespread internet usage was still new. But fans were rewarded with a film closer to their hopes than they could have expected, and they rejoiced. Sony was already into pre-production on Spider-Man, but the success must have given them confidence. Meanwhile, besides beginning work on a sequel to X-Men, Fox began planning an adaptation of Daredevil. Over at Universal, a Hulk film entered the pipeline. Word was spreading in Hollywood that comic book films were a good bet, and the comic book film boom was about to gear up.

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: In his first cameo, Stan the Man appears as a hot dog vendor on the beach, shocked by the emergence of Senator Kelly’s mutated from the water. Not much to add, but good seeing you Stan!

First Appearances:

Lauren Shuler Donner became the super producer of the X-Men franchise, starting here. She is also notable for hiring Kevin Feige, future visionary of the MCU, as her assistant in the late ‘90s.

It is also worth noting that Richard Donner, Lauren Shuler Donner’s husband, is an executive producer on the film. Richard Donner, of course, directed Superman: The Movie (1978), the first true comic book superhero film and a template for many to follow.

Joss Whedon did an uncredited pass on the script that was largely rejected. His only contributions to the film are the delightful Wolverine/Cyclops exchange (“You’re a dick.”) and yes, that’s right, some nonsense about toads being struck by lightning. Whedon would get another crack at the whole Marvel superteam thing 12 years later when comic book films achieved perfection in The Avengers (2012).

So many actors in this film would become series mainstays, returning even for brief appearances to maintain continuity. But Jackman is the series MVP, for now.

Next Time: We look at the first Marvel sequel, as Guillermo Del Toro brings his sensibilities to the rapidly outdated Daywalker.