erik lundegaard

X-Men
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X-Men (2000)

WARNING: XAVIER’S SCHOOL FOR GIFTED SPOILERS

Just as “Fantastic Four #1” ushered in the Marvel Age of comics in November 1961, “X-Men,” the movie, released in July 2000, ushered in the blockbuster age of cinematic superheroes. Indeed, it’s fascinating how much movie musclemen followed the path of their comic book predecessors. The whole crazy superhero parade began with Superman in 1938, picked up with Batman a year later, then became bigger than ever under Marvel in the early 1960s. That’s Hollywood’s pattern, too. Superhero blockbusters began with “Superman: The Movie” in 1978, picked up with Tim Burton’s “Batman” a decade later, then became bigger than ever under Marvel in the 2000s.

So why was “X-Men” essentially the “FF #1” of cinema? Why does the movie work so well?

It’s partly the director. Just as Marvel superheroes were reluctant superheroes, Bryan Singer was a reluctant director. He didn’t know from mutants and didn’t want this thing on his plate. But Fox Studios wanted him, the wunderkind who had directed “The Usual Suspects,” and Singer handled the assignment smartly. As he explored structural ideas for the movie, he realized there was something serious in the material. “It's actually about prejudice,” he told The New York Times in 2000.

Let’s hear it for casting director Roger Mussenden, too. Patrick Stewart was an obvious fanboy choice for Professor X, while Sir Ian McKellen, who had starred in Singer’s “Apt Pupil,” was an inspired choice for Magneto, who had always been drawn taller, darker, younger and stronger. Famke Janssen, literally perfect in a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, was, again, hubba-hubba perfect for Jean Grey. Anna Paquin, best known for “The Piano,” made a vulnerable Rogue, Rebecca Romijn made a sexy Mystique, James Marsden a straight-arrow Cyclops. Hugh Jackman, the back-up choice for Wolverine, became a star. Really, the only miscast was the best-known cast member. Storm is African, tall and powerful, and Halle Berry, unlike McKellen, can’t make up the deficit. Her Storm always feels like a drizzle.

Does it help that the X-Men aren’t traditional superheroes? They don’t wear masks, don’t “fight crime,” don’t acquire superpowers through some absurd Atomic-age means: cosmic rays or gamma rays or radioactive whatchacalms. They’re mutants, freaks, outcasts. In this way they better represent the latter part of the 20th century. If the metaphor for Superman, the first superhero, is one of melting-pot assimilation, of hiding among the masses in plain sight, the metaphor for the X-Men is one of segregation, of removal from society, of identifying yourself with the maligned subgroup (mutants) over the group (humans). It’s a post-Civil Rights metaphor, and the leaders of the two mutant groups, Professor X and Magneto, can be seen as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X figures, counseling either non-violence and integration or violence and segregation. Magneto’s last line is even one of Malcolm’s more famous lines: He plans to fight the enemy “by any means necessary.”

The first conversation between Prof. X and Magneto, outside U.S. Senate hearings on “the mutant phenomenon,” contains echoes of this philosophical difference:

Professor X: Don’t give up on them, Eric.
Magneto (weary): I’ve heard these arguments before.
Professor X: It was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.
Magneto: Yes. Into us. .. We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter.

One of the strengths of the film is that Magneto actually makes sense. Sure, Professor X is nicer, but is Magneto more practical? Does he see the world more clearly? Wolverine echoes this thought halfway through the film. “There’s a war coming,” he tells Storm. “Are you sure you’re on the right side?”

Singer and screenwriter David Hayter even take the unprecedented step of beginning the film with its ostensible villain, Magneto, in a sympathetic role. It’s 1944, Poland, and Eric Lensherr, a mere kid, is being herded with his parents and hundreds of others into concentration camps (for the strong) or extermination camps (for the weak). Eric’s parents are separated from him, to be executed, and he tries to save them. (See: Jason White, piano, Lois Lane, in Singer’s “Superman Returns.”) It takes six Nazi guards to hold him back and even then he is able to completely warp the large metal gate to the camp. You could say the experience warps him, too. It makes his later hatred of mankind understandable. Hell, you know who he’s like here? Bruce Wayne. Batman. The two have the same story. After their parents are killed, right in front of them, they spend the rest of their lives going after the killers. They just define “killers” differently.

In this manner, in modern-day North America, we’re introduced to the various mutants: Rogue, who can’t touch anyone without killing them; Wolverine, an amnesiac, cage fighting in a dead-end Alberta bar, and whom Rogue serendipitously (a bit too serendipitously) runs into; Cyclops and Storm, who aid Wolverine and Rogue, in battling Sabretooth, Magneto’s envoy.

By this point mutants are known, they’ve been outed in some fashion, so Dr. Jean Gray addresses the U.S. Congress to quiet people’s fears. She doesn’t. The movie lets us believe she’s upstaged by a grandstanding, reactionary politician, Sen. Kelly (Bruce Davison), the Joe McCarthy or Jim Inhofe of this world, but she’s actually just a lousy debater. She even begins wrong:

Ladies and gentleman, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of human evolution. These mutations manifest at puberty, and are often triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.

Advice: If you’re attempting to win people over, it may not be a good idea to suggest that they are at an earlier stage of evolution: homo erectus to your homo sapiens.

Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) loses the debate in 'X-Men' (2000)
Losing argument: “Don’t fear us: we are simply more evolved than you.”

It’s actually Sen. Kelly who gets to the point: “You’ve failed to address the issue that is the focus of this hearing: Are. Mutants. Dangerous?”

Gray, despite the glasses, flubs it. She says the question is unfair, that cars in the wrong hands are dangerous, but Kelly reminds her that we license people to drive. Then, though she’s at the podium, he continues framing the debate as he wants it framed. A shame. They could’ve wound up at the same point in a smarter fashion. Something like:

Kelly: Are mutants dangerous?
Gray: Are human beings dangerous? I think it depends upon the human being.
Kelly: But individual human beings can only be so dangerous.
Gray: Unless they have a weapon: a gun, a plane, an atom bomb.
Kelly: Are you saying there are mutants who are as powerful as atom bombs? [Glances around the chambers.] How does that make you feel? Safe? Would you like to be living next to someone who has the power of an atom bomb? Who could blow up your neighborhood, your city, your country, like that? [Snaps fingers.] Ladies and gentleman, this is a matter of public safety...

It’s a shame “X-Men” came out when it did, in the summer of 2000, a year before 9/11, when we hadn’t been debating civil liberties/civil rights much, when we’d forgotten how reactionary we could be. The movie gives us one loud-mouth senator and a few people with placards (“Human Rights,” etc.), when, let’s face it, if there were mutants among us, with such powers, the legislation to combat them, the time and energy spent in searching for them and incarcerating them in Gitmo-like facilities, would be overwhelming. Look what we did after a few Muslim fanatics hijacked a few planes.

That’s the set-up. Mutants have been outed, Prof. X counsels caution, Magneto prepares for war. He and his crew are plotting, and Prof. X and his crew try to figure out the plot, and Wolverine, our eyes and ears in this world, tries to figure out which side he’s on. There are subplots, of course, notably the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Gray and Cyclops, but this is basically the movie: What’s Magneto doing?

The answer to that question, unfortunately, is the lamest part of “X-Men.” Magneto is waging war on humans ... by turning them into mutants.

On one level this makes sense: He’s neutralizing the enemy. He’s turning them into what they fear.

On a deeper, more personal level, it makes no sense at all. If Magneto truly believes that human beings no longer matter, that mutants are the next step in the evolutionary process, then he’s basically giving the enemy a gift beyond compare. “You are a god among insects,” he tells Pyro in “X-2.” So why give insects the power of gods? It doesn’t fit with his personality, it doesn’t fit with his philosophy. It makes no sense.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) in 'X-Men' (2000)
Losing strategy: “Humans are less evolved than mutants; so to punish them I will turn humans ... into mutants.”

Worse, the movie stacks the deck against him. First, he’s willing to kill Rogue, a fellow mutant, to make his enemies powerful. Then his device doesn’t actually work. It transforms humans, yes, but in an unstable fashion, and they wind up dying a painful death. So the X-Men have to stop him for this reason.

“X-Men” is a good movie, eminently watchable, always entertaining. There are several great scenes: the intro of Wolverine, the train station battle, the climax atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a star turn by Hugh Jackman. He’s a bad ass, but with a sense of solicitude for Rogue that’s charming, and a sense of heat for Jean Gray that’s palpable. He gets all the good lines.

But imagine a good revisionist take of the movie, in which human beings are as paranoid as we know human beings to be, governments are as cowardly as we know governments to be, and with a FOX-News-type organization spreading fear and propaganda, governments all over the world, and certainly in the U.S., crack down on the moderate, mollifying forces, Professor X and his students, who are captured, incarcerated, tortured and experimented upon. And in the wings, Magneto, our Batman figure, wearing a cruel smile, waits to save the day.

—May 22, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard