X-Men (2000) – Directed by Bryan Singer – Starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park, Shawn Ashmore, and Stan Lee.
If you stick around the Anxiety long enough, you’ll hear me say that I don’t care so much about how a movie relates to its source material. I’ve got the source material and what I want in a movie is a good movie. If that means they have to change something, so be it.
As long as it works.
If it doesn’t work, then filmmakers open themselves up to the fair questions from fans about why they made changes that did not work, when you’ve got all that evidence from the source about what does.
All of which brings me to Bryan Singer’s X-MEN, a good film that tells a decent X-Men story, but one that leaves me with conflicted feelings. I like X-MEN but it’s just not what I personally would have wanted out of the X-Men. There’s a purposeful reshuffling of the X-Men deck by Singer and the whole film is coated with a sense of Hollywood Knows Best. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but the forcefulness of Singer’s vision results in a consistent world that succeeds thanks to his three leads: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman.
I want to start with Jackman because nothing about X-MEN better displays my conflict. Jackman is very good as a mutant both caught between Xavier and Magneto’s competing MLK/Malcolm X worldviews, and he’s very good as the loner who takes Rogue under his wing so she doesn’t end up like him. Jackman is good. Jackman is very good. It’s just not the Wolverine I would have preferred to see.
For starters, Jackman’s Wolverine looks and acts about as tough as a bar of ivory soap. This is a Wolverine that’s been scrubbed clean and it looks like they spent more time getting his haircut right than his personality. When he fights, it’s like he’s never fought before. When he smokes, it’s like he’s never had a cigar before. And when he swings his claws around, he’s like an awkward kid on Halloween in a too-tight costume.
But it’s a pretty darn great performance. It’s not the performance I want but it’s a darn good performance nonetheless. By the time he starts laying into the X-Men for their code names, I’m fully invested in this character. Jackman is an incredibly likable actor and he makes Wolverine likable. Instead of Logan being the best there is at what he does, Jackman’s Wolverine is just kind of dogged. Instead of being the ultimate loner, Jackman’s Wolverine gets awfully comfortable awfully fast in Xavier’s big, fancy mansion. And it works for this film.
X-MEN is an odd film, though. I’m not really sure what was going on with the casting, which seems like it was assembled haphazardly. The one casting that simply does not work for me is Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. Now, this is not wholly Janssen’s fault. I completely disagree with the older Jean, younger Scott (James Marsden) pairing and that’s on the producers, but Janssen’s personality is so flat here that I can’t imagine anyone wants to be with her, let alone have Scott and Logan fight over her.
There’s also a weird of mix of pure acting talent mixed with some lesser lights mixed with some stars and it just never really comes together for me. There’s no chemistry between Jean and anyone or Storm (Halle Berry) and anyone. As good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are, Professor X and Magneto seem to do little more than deliver a never-ending string of speeches. I feel like most of the characters in the film – whether they work or not – have been conceived in a vacuum and in order to forward a political position and have a philosophical debate rather than to push this story forward.
Part of the problem with X-MEN for me is that there’s also a huge unease at the idea of superheroes. In part, it’s an historical issue – X-MEN (along with Blade, though that was not a traditional superhero story) served as the bridge between Batman and Robin and Spider-Man. With the final Schumacher Batman film, there was a real sense that the movie had gone too far and that superheroes were something to be exploited for their eccentricities. Raimi’s Spider-Man also turned up the heat on a specific trait for each character, but there was a real love for superheroes.
With Singer’s X-MEN, there’s no love for superheroes, at all. When Logan first meets Rogue (Anna Paquin), and they exchange names, he chides her for being called Rogue and she chides him for being called Wolverine, so they exchange their actual names: Marie and Logan. Later, despite the fact that he goes by Wolverine, Logan chides the rest of the team for having names like Storm and Cyclops. We do get a good line out of it, when he turns to Chuck and asks, “What do they call you, Wheels?,” but it just seems like an odd thing to point out. There’s also a shot at the costumes. When Logan complains about the black leather team outfits the X-Men wear, Cyclops asks, “What would you prefer? Yellow spandex?”
All of this sounds more negative than it actually plays, because X-MEN, as I said, has a consistent vision. As much as Singer has no use for most of these characters as superheroes or personalities, he is very interested in his core idea of a persecuted groups of humans and how they react to it. Professor X runs a school for the “gifted” and preaches good relations with humans. Hope is his core belief, contrasting with the cynical Magneto who welcomes a war with humans. The film does a really nice job complicating their positions; Xavier has higher hopes for humanity, but he hides the mutants away in his school, which he uses as a cover for the X-Men. He’s not much different than Mystique, in this manner, though his intent is better. Magneto welcomes conflict, but his actions are fueled by both his personal history as a survivor of the Holocaust, and by pride. It’s often misguided pride, but it is pride, nonetheless. Caught between them stands Wolverine, symbolically standing in for every mutant on the planet who’s not already aligned with Xavier’s school or Magneto’s Brotherhood.
Stewart and McKellan deliver powerful performances that rescue the film from their often silly monologues. For as much as X-MEN isn’t what I would have preferred to see, I never get tired of watching Stewart and McKellan’s respective performances. And it’s to the credit of two other actors that as good as these two experienced vets are, they’re not the best relationship in the film.
As useless as Jean Grey is in this film, her position as Scott’s girlfriend and Logan’s object of lust creates a wonderfully childish and antagonistic relationship between Logan and Scott. I feel like the film totally stacks the deck against Scott, but Marsden’s performance is my favorite in the film. He gives Cyclops this incredible sense of belonging; no other character in the film feels like he or she belongs more where they are than Scott Summers, and Marsden wonderfully adds some spice to Scott’s stoic nature by his childish barbs with Logan. When Scott thinks Wolverine might be actually be Mystique in disguise, he asks Logan to prove he is who he says he is.
“You’re a dick,” Logan deadpans.
“Okay,” Scott answers.
It’s a great moment, but there’s a whole lot of stupid dialogue in this film. When Logan confronts Storm’s allegiance to Xavier by telling her there’s a war coming and wondering if she’s on the right side, Storm’s comeback is to say, “At least I’ve chosen a side.” Huh? Would it be better if he chose Magneto’s side?
The best line of the film belongs to Magneto, though. When he’s got the X-Men trapped in the Statue of Liberty, Scott orders Storm to “fry him!”
“Oh, yes! A bolt of lightning into a huge copper conductor,” Magneto mocks. “I thought you lived at a school.”
Unfortunately, for as much as the film is invested in the Xavier/Magneto political relationship, the movie undercuts the politician at the heart of the conflict. There’s a ridiculous subplot involving Magneto turning Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) into a mutated human. I’d rather have seen Kelly stay active at the center of the conflict.
After all that, I do need to reiterate that I like X-MEN more than I dislike it, but the films suffers a bit from a death by a thousand small cuts. I like the movie but I can’t fully embrace it. Jackman, Marsden, Stewart, and McKellan make it a film worth watching, but no one else adds anything memorable.