Retro Movie Reviews: X-Men

Jason O’Toole

Images & Trailer Credit: 20th Century Fox

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From the start of the marketing campaign for Bryan Singer’s X-Men film, it was clear the source material was going to be taken seriously. We saw images of the team and the villains looking very close to their comic book counterparts. The only thing missing was the colorful costumes, which admittedly would have looked quite silly on screen. As we got a look at the first trailer for the film, we got to see our favorite mutants, good and evil, using their powers. This also showed us a very grounded reality where humans reacted to mutants with fear and hatred, evoking a very real world reaction to mutation. The X-Men in comic form have always been an allegory for racism and segregation. It was clear in the months leading up to the film that we were in for a fun and serious film about the beloved comic property.

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From the opening of the film, which flashed back to a World War II concentration camp to introduce us to a young Magneto, we understood that  the director was not going shy away from the darker aspects of the story. The adolescent Magneto watches as his parents are lead to their deaths by Nazi soldiers. In this moment the latent mutant powers within him are born and he rips apart a metal gate, ultimately having to be knocked out by a soldier. We then flash forward to see a teenage girl (Rogue) about to make out with her boyfriend. In this moment her power also bursts forth and nearly kills her boyfriend. It is clear from these opening scenes that mutation manifests during periods of heightened emotional stress. Jean states as much while addressing a senate sub-committee in the following scene. This scene serves as the introduction to the human antagonist as well, Senator Robert Kelly, whose fear of mutants drives his desire to see them segregated or even imprisoned for their differences. We immediately see the line between Xavier and Magneto drawn as Charles believes humans can be better and Magneto sees only hatred and fear, something he witnessed firsthand as a child. This shows us a conflict that we as fans can understand. It is unclear if Magneto is actually a villain given the tragedy that he has been through. This is exactly what has made him such an amazing and complex antagonist to read about in the comics.

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With the conflict made clear, we now get to meet the teams. Logan is introduced first in what many fans, me included, consider to be one of the finest movie introductions for a comic character. Enter the Wolverine, a cage fighter who smokes a cigar and kicks the crap out of any and all challengers stupid enough to enter the ring. One such challenger feels he has been cheated, as Logan has no bruising and is clearly one of those mutants he has heard about. Confronting Logan proves to be a bad idea as the animal within is unleashed and we get our first look at the claws, a special effect that holds up very well, even by today's standards. While Logan and Marie (Rogue) bond over their shared genetics, they are confronted by Sabretooth, a villain whose ferocity matches that of the Wolverine. Their rescue introduces us to the X-Men, in the form of Cyclops and Storm, who quickly take them back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, an academy where mutants can learn about their powers in a safe environment. Sabretooth is then shown returning to Magneto’s lair, where we are introduced to another classic villain in Toad, whose power literally mimics toads. Magneto is disappointed as his henchman has failed to return with the mutant they need, presumably Wolverine. The introduction of both the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants sets the stage for a conflict of epic proportions.

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Senator Kelly is kidnapped by Mystique, another of Magneto’s acolytes, and Toad and whisked away as part of the master plan. This ultimately leads to the first conflict between the two teams at a train station where Magneto’s real target is revealed, Rogue. Humans get involved as the police surround the station as Magneto makes his exit. We get our first glimpse of the terrifying power of the master of magnetism as he takes control of every gun and turns them on the officers. This scene also serves as an explanation of Magneto’s helmet, which can block Xavier’s telepathy. This standoff ends with the villains escaping with their captive in a helicopter flown by Mystique. Xavier and his team still know nothing of what Magneto plans for either of his captives. That plan starts to unfold as we see Magneto use a massive machine that saps him of his energy to turn Kelly into a mutant. Kelly dies after escaping Magneto’s clutches and seeking out the X-Men. The machine has destroyed Kelly at the genetic level, which is what it will do to any human exposed to it. The X-Men put the pieces together, Magneto plans to transfer his power to Rogue and use her to turn all the worlds leaders into mutants, not knowing it will kill them. The stage is set for an epic showdown at the Statue of Liberty.

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Even though this film had a relatively small budget, Singer still manages to bring us an epic third act that perfectly recreates key parts of Lady Liberty, inside and out. All the players are here for a battle ripped right from the pages of the comics. The dreams of the fanboys are made real as we see Wolverine take on Sabretooth atop the head of Lady Liberty. The heroes must unite all of their powers to defeat Magneto and save the world leaders. While some of the subsequent films struggled, this one perfectly encapsulates the concepts that have made the comic so endearing to so many fans for years. It changed how studios and directors brought these stories to life for years to come. The effect this had on super heroes in cinema is still being felt today. The sequel is foreshadowed in a great scene between Xavier and Magneto in a plastic prison cell. The exchange between them spells out how they each feel about the conflict they now find themselves engaged in.

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Magneto: Doesn’t it wake you in the middle of the night, the feeling that someday they’ll pass that foolish law, or one just like it, and come for you, and your children?

Xavier: It does indeed.

Magneto: What do you do when you wake up to that?

Xavier: I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school, looking for trouble.

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