*Disclaimer: Due to the serious allegations brought against Bryan Singer, he will not be discussed, nor mentioned in this editorial.*
Today is X-Men Day. Everywhere online, you’ll see people commemorating the last 19 years of X-Men films. While superhero films happened sporadically over the course of the 80s and 90s, mostly from DC Comics, the 21st Century saw the debut of the film that would kick off the golden age of comic book movies: 2000’s X-Men. Known for its sharp narrative focus, thematic depth, and well-written characters (especially a certain clawed mutant), X-Men started a re-emergence of the comic book and superhero film genre, and eventually, led to a storied series of films that will see its end this summer.
While there have been some serious bumps in the road, the franchise has showcased some truly brilliant features. This piece will be a celebration of the franchise, looking at its long-lasting impact on the industry, and with Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants officially closing the book on this chapter of the famous Marvel heroes, it seemed like a good time to look back and reminisce.
Before I get into the films themselves, a quick side story. Growing up, my Dad was the one who introduced me to film. He showed me three franchises growing up: the original Star Wars trilogy, the Jurassic Park trilogy (the first film remains my favourite movie ever), and the X-Men films. Marvel’s team of mutants was my first foray into the realm of superheroes and I immediately gravitated to them. People that were born with these scary but extraordinary gifts, who are willing to risk their lives to save humanity. While the outline itself sounds pretty standard, what makes these characters and stories so enticing is the fact that, above all else, these people were outsiders first, and heroes second.
When I was a kid, let’s just say it was a little tougher being a nerd then than it is now. Seeing people with these gifts being treated as outsiders, it brought some comfort. It was me seeing myself in these characters, especially Wolverine, which I’ll touch on later. On a greater scale, social awareness has been embedded in the franchise since its beginning. With each X-Men property comes the concepts of social relevance, woven into its characters and overarching narrative. The two films that demonstrate these themes the best are the original X-Men, X2, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
The X-Men have always been an allegory for racism in the United States, and X-Men puts that theme at its forefront. The film presents mutants as if they are refugees. Politicians in the United States constantly ask if “the mutant problem” should be feared and if these people are a danger to humans. These men amplify the wrongdoings of a few mutants to further amplify their toxic stance on the matter, despite others like Jean Grey and Charles Xavier arguing against it. The film expertly portrays Xavier’s longing to have humans and mutants coexist, but also ensures that Magneto’s POV is clearly outlined and developed. Of course we, as the audience, understand why Magneto’s way of living is not possible. But, for someone who has seen the worst of humanity, who has witnessed the constant persecution of his people, it is not hard to see why he takes on such an extremist mindset. Both Xavier and Magneto are two sides of the same coin: fighting against the xenophobic nature of the country they live in. In our world, people are hurt for being different, and what X-Men encapsulates is a simple message: one cannot exclude someone from society just because they are different.
Days of Future Past takes the franchise theme of xenophobia, exclusion, and discrimination to an entirely different level. While X-Men was trying to exclude mutants, DOFP has xenophobic humans developing weapons to control them. Magneto asks “you built these weapons to destroy us. Why? Because, we are different…” This film has our characters at their lowest; lost and trying to find themselves in a broken world. As the world mounts an all-out assault on their kind, Xavier’s and Magneto’s opposing mindsets are presented once more. You empathize with both, as neither wants to see the extinction of their race, as it happens in the future. We have now seen what happens when the fears humans have overtake them, and the band of heroes are merely trying to keep it together. At its core, DOFP presents the message that even in times of desperate hardship, never forget who you are, since it was always intended for you from the moment you opened your eyes.
While the two films listed above showcase their themes on a grander scale, X-Men: First Class is able to ground the tension. First Class’ driving theme is about identity and our acceptance of it. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast are portrayed as intriguing and vulnerable characters who will never be able to live up to society’s (beauty) standards. Both consistently face the inner turmoil of not being able to ‘fit in’, a reflection of what many people, especially those who live with a disabilities face on a regular basis. It is hard to accept who you are in an unforgiving environment, but the mentality of “mutant and proud,” rings true for both, as they slowly but surely come into their own.
X2: X-Men United takes on another approach, a more personal one if you will, in its social commentary. A major subplot of this film is the between Bobby Drake (Iceman) and Rogue. During the film’s second act, the two children, along with Wolverine and Pyro, make their way to Boston to regroup at Bobby’s house. Bobby’s parents and brother arrive soon after, and, at the behest of Rogue, Bobby finally tells his parents the truth about who he is. The terrific but melancholy scene has Bobby “coming out” to his parents, something people of the LGBTQ community know all to well. His mother says “We still love you Bobby… but have you tried… not being a mutant.” It is a direct correlation to how hard it can be for some people to come out to those who have trouble understanding what their children are experiencing. In telling his parents the truth, Bobby received a very expected reaction of “well can’t you just turn it off?” Those who are different attempt to assimilate themselves out of fear for how people will perceive them. On a more personal level, X2 explores a different form of discrimination, but allows Bobby to find solace with his new family at the X-Mansion.
Moving forward however, the franchise decided to turn its focus away from the social commentary with its development of several spinoffs in the form of Wolverine and Deadpool. The films featuring these two mutants are what makes this franchise so great. You can have team-up event films that focus on hot-button issues plaguing the world today, but also have smaller films that allow filmmakers to exercise their creativity. Say what you will about the X-Men franchise, but you can’t argue that it has never been creative. This has been expertly demonstrated in the Deadpool series and Logan.
The Deadpool series is a slap-in-the-face to the entire superhero film genre, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. It manages to subvert clichés, tropes, and narrative functions alike. With Ryan Reynolds leading the charge, both Deadpool and Deadpool 2 have minimal ties to the bigger franchise, allowing the filmmakers to better flesh out its little corner of the universe without being forced to connect to some-greater plan. Both films have a very personal feel to them, with first focusing on Wade Wilson becoming Deadpool, and the second having him learn what it means to have a family. Neither take themselves too seriously, and always understand the insanity that comes with including a character like Deadpool, who consistently breaks the fourth wall, and cracks jokes about everything in sight. For every superhero landing, big CGI battle, or inspirational speech, Deadpool made sure to parody it in some fashion. It kickstarted the current craze of r-rated superhero films, and initiated a new age for more daring content in an oversaturated market.
Logan is a film that holds a special place in my heart. You see, Wolverine has always been my favourite comic book character. Ever since I first saw him in X-Men, I became entranced with the Canadian mutant. So, when I discovered that Logan would be Hugh Jackman’s final outing as the character, I felt mixed emotions; elation for seeing my favourite superhero go out in a blaze of glory, but sadness that this was the end of an era. Logan exceeded every single one of my expectations and then some. It is almost like an anti-comic book film, in the sense that it is a character-driven, western/road film with comic book characters in it. What James Mangold has done with this film (which he probably would have done had the third act of The Wolverine not been a cheesy-CGI fight) is unlike anything ever seen before. Drawing inspiration from films such as Unforgiven, Paper Moon, Mad Max, and The Cowboys, Mangold delivers a visceral, tear-jerking story about a man who has lost everything, and the child he must protect. It is able to transcend the comic book movie realm, but still manages to provide every comic fan with the Wolverine they have always dreamed about. Mangold and his colleagues were given complete control over how to close the book on the legendary character and they left everything on the field. Much like The Dark Knight, Logan defies genre conventions, while also demonstrating how diverse the X-Men franchise is in a creative sense.
Of course, along the way, there were missteps. X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse are all viewed as the franchise’s low points. The first two in particular led Fox to re-evaluate how it handles the series, leading to Matthew Vaughn’s terrifically crafted X-Men: First Class, and Apocalypse is viewed as an uninspired end to the new trilogy. But, with all the negativity that comes with these films, each has their fair share of positives. The Last Stand features tense action and solid performances, Origins – through all its faults – presents a fairly emotional bond between brothers, and Apocalypse is yet another showcase of how good James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are as Erik and Charles.
This franchise will always mean so much to me. It was my ticket to the world of comics and superheroes. Mishaps and bad decisions aside, Fox crafted something truly special with this franchise. The X-Men don’t just face common superhero problems; they’re outsiders who are constantly looked at as ‘different’ despite the good work they do. Their greatest triumph however is that none of the discrimination stopped them from doing what is right. In light of not adhering to continuity, the films were all able to achieve a level of creative freedom, some more than others. Deadpool and Logan are legendary in their own rights, subverting expectations and conventions at every turn. The main series brought several real issues to light, always ending with a positive message about acceptance. I’m excited to see what Disney and Marvel do with these characters when the time comes. But for now, on this X-Men Day, I wanted to celebrate all that has come so far. Thank you Fox, for doing my favourite superhero team justice, and (hot take) thank you to Hugh Jackman, for delivering the greatest, and most layered performance of a comic book character ever.