Comic books are science fiction’s bastard child. Pulp comics grew alongside golden age pulp science fiction, and it’s clear that both genres have influenced each other from the ‘40s on. And yet, a graphic fiction category wasn’t created for the Hugos until 2009, and Watchmen was the only sequential work to get recognition before then.
Most sf fans in their thirties and forties, from Joss Whedon to yours truly, would tell you that writer Chris Claremont’s X-Men was one of their formative sf experiences. If you’d asked twelve-year-old me if I wanted to see a live-action X-Men film, I probably would have said “YES!” followed shortly thereafter by “oh no, I’m sure it will be terrible.” There are a lot conceits of superhero comics that just don’t translate to the big screen: the brightly colored costumes, the soap operatic deaths and resurrections, the wanton genre-mashing, and the larger-than-life supervillains. As a result, most superhero movies before this one are awful. Even the good ones, Donner’s Superman and Burton’s Batman and…that’s about it, have their embarrassing moments. And, well, so does this film. But, director Bryan Singer does manager to take one of the most over-the-top superhero properties and translate it to a mostly successful film.
One of the keys to his success is that Singer approaches this as a science fiction movie rather than a comic book movie. The point of the X-Men is that they are mutants, people with genetic differences that give them superhuman abilities. All you naysayers are probably complaining right now that a genetic mutation is unlikely to allow someone to manipulate magnetic fields, read minds, or shoot lasers out of their eyes, but there’s a perfectly good psuedo-sciencey explanation in the comics involving space gods called Celestials. Obviously, the movie isn’t going to go there, so let’s move on.
One mutant, a Holocaust survivor named Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), fears that humans will destroy the mutants and takes a more militant line. Another, Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart), has created a school for the “Gifted” to teach mutants to use their powers safely. He takes a more assimilationist line, and he’s trained a group of mutants to fight Magneto that he calls the X-Men. A Canadian with a healing factor and claws named Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) picks up a young woman who can absorb people’s lifeforce named Rogue (Anna Paquin), and they end up with Xavier, but Magento tries to kidnap her as part of a sinister plot. Also, Halle Berry, Famke Jansen, and Rebbeca Romjin are around.
The cast is very strong (Picard versus Gandalf!), and says a lot about how seriously the filmmakers took the subject matter. Along with the sleek metal sets and not-as-corny-as-they-could-be leather uniforms, this keeps the film out of embarrassment territory for most of its run time. In fact, the first act is quite strong, as it efficiently raises the key issues, introduces the characters, and all around looks good. The film goes a bit downhill from there though. Magneto’s sinister plot is far too elaborate, the dialogue takes a turn for the cheesy, and the ending feels rushed and decidedly un-epic. However, the film does deserve a lot of credit for making the franchise, and really the whole genre, credible.
This film kicked off a trend, still ongoing, of blockbuster superhero movies. From here, they come to dominate the Saturn Fantasy category (it does make sense to me that Singer’s X-Men are “sf” to Saturn while Spider-man, Superman and Batman are “fantasy,” though I’m not sure I could justify it all that well). I can’t say that I’ll cover many of these Saturn fantasy winners (anything not to have to watch Superman Returns again), but Raimi’s first two Spider-man movies and Nolan’s Batman movies are quite good.