X-Men is a film I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I’ve been exposed to the X-Men series in film before, and some were good (like X-Men: First Class) and some were terrible (like X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but the original X-Men is the heart of the series, because that’s where it lays out everything it wants to be. I’ve heard it described as seeming more like a television pilot, and that’s not an inaccurate point to make – it is, however, the reason I find myself on the whole enjoying X-Men: it’s a very character-driven piece, that gives itself time to build a world and tell a story. The story itself is mind-numbingly simplistic, and could be condensed to forty-five minutes if need be.
But the extra hour exists as an opportunity to explore the various X-Men and their relationships. It’s like Watchmen, except it doesn’t assume the audience have read the comic books. After a success of failures in the comic book adaptation pseudo-genre, it took an independent director like Bryan Singer to approach it with the mentality of essentially making it a primer for the inexperienced audience. X-Men doesn’t so much tell a story about the X-Men as it does introduce them, their world and what the concept of X-Men is about.
And yet, in spite of all of those things, there’s more happening in X-Men than a lot of people are giving credit for. We begin with Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr, an antagonist I’d argue isn’t really an antagonist at all. Lehnsherr’s story begins in a Nazi concentration camp, where he first unleashes the ability to manipulate magnetic fields (“magnetokenisis”) out of fear and anger. In a situation of hopelessness, all Lehnsherr could do was react violently.
And after that opening scene, an entire character’s been established perfectly. Looking at more modern Marvel films, and the antagonists are easily the weakest element. But the whole point of X-Men relies on Lehnsherr being a complex character, because that’s where the ideological discussions of Human nature take place. This is shown in the character development offered by Hayter’s screenplay, which takes Lehnsherr on a journey of becoming a militant social leader, encouraging destruction where necessary in order to lead to an eventual state of piece.
But rather than offering the audience the opportunity to consider Lehnsherr’s actions justified, the character’s presented to us in such a way that means, in their own head, they are justified, without debate. Could you really expect a Holocaust survivor to trust Human nature that easily? Lehnsherr gets such complexity with such ease that it sets a standard of how deep comic book characters can be in a way that puts the overrated Loki Laufeyson to shame. And Lehnsherr’s success as a character helps establish his opponent, Charles Xavier.
Apart from Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart being amongst the top actors in the world (Stewart is the greatest of the bald ones by far), their characters share only two scenes together, at the beginning and the end, but their history works so well. X-Men: First Class explained how they came together and then went apart, but a well-written scene and some good acting does all of that. The fact that X-Men: First Class shows Xavier understanding what Lehnsherr’s helmet does when here that’s not the case is totally irrelevant, because this came first. So from the beginning its obvious what’s going on in terms of what mutants are, how they’re received by the public and how two powerful mutants are responding to it.
It’s an ingeniously constructed scene that works because of who’s involved: McKellan often speaks of how difficult it was for to be open with his sexuality within the acting industry, and Singer himself wasn’t familiar with the X-Men but found a similar truth within it. They can relate to it without having grown up with it, and that leads to the audience understanding as well, so that they can relate to in their own way. Initially, X-Men was about the civil right movement, inspired by Martin King versus Malcolm X, and peaceful protest versus violent uprising. It’s the same with Millicent Fawcett and Emeline Pankhurst.
That this has happened so commonly throughout history is not just a real truth, but something used in the telling of the story – we’re told that X-Men takes place in the near future, though sixteen years later, I don’t know if that still applies. Apparently the specific year is 2005, although whether this is stated in a future film or just something deducted by committed fans is something I don’t care to think about. Regardless, it was the future of X-Men‘s time, and that made its point all the more believable: that this keeps happening to some group in some form. First it was an issue of race/ethnicity, then of gender/sex, then sexuality/sexual orientation.
And here, it’s Humans versus mutants, although I’m pretty sure mutants are Humans by definition anyway. Regardless, it remains relevant, even today. I look at a film like Ant-Man or Avengers: Age of Ultron, and they’re not really about anything other than connecting together in a cycle that seems to be powered by its own existence. X-Men is about something, and it’s still about that thing.
And I just wish more comic book films had the balls to reflect reality in such a meaningful way.