How the X-Men changed cinema forever
PUBLISHED: 18:00 17 July 2020
20th Century Fox/IMDB
The X-Men movies are 20 years old. But, before Halle Berry conjured up her first storm or Hugh Jackman’s blades sliced through his knuckles, cinema had fallen out of love with costumed comic book characters. But, once the X-Men arrived, blockbusters changed forever.
In a world where superheroes are now ten-a-penny – they populate the cinema screens all year round, fill the shelves of comic book stores and newsagents, and even have sections devoted to graphic novels in bookshops – it’s easy to forget that just 20 years ago, the world was very different.
In the summer of 2000, the X-Men crashed into existence in a cinematic world devoid of all superhero life. Superhero movies were not surefire box office – in fact no-one knew if there was still a demand for people who looked a little weird, had bizarre super-powers and had a strange dress sense.
Spider-Man had yet to swing his way across the rooftops, Superman and Batman had yet to be reinvented, this was the era of Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. Tom Cruise was launching the Mission Impossible franchise, George Clooney was weathering the Perfect Storm, Harrison Ford was terrorizing Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath, Russell Crowe was proving himself as a star Gladiator, and Tom Hanks was Castaway on a desert island.
There was a distinct absence of superheroes at the cinema. Christopher Reeve’s Superman seemed a lifetime ago and the Batman franchise, successfully reimagined by Tim Burton in 1989 as a contemporary Gothic parable now lay dead in a back alley in Gotham City killed off by a corporate desire to get rid of the darkness and make the series more family friendly in order to, not only get a lower rating, but to also get those all-important toy and merchandise tie-ins.
Audiences didn’t like what they saw, further superhero movies were forgotten and Hollywood went in search of the next big thing which for a while was teen-comedies and date movies. In the year 2000 if you wanted to catch-up with masked vigilantes or misplaced mutants then you had to go to your friendly neighbourhood comic book store.
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Here, the world of the superhero was in rude health. Long-lived franchises were expanding their storylines into multiple comics: Batman, Superman and Spider-Man popped up in three or four titles every month, while other well-loved characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America were teaming up together in The Avengers as well as in each other’s titles.
Cross-over stories became the latest trend – characters no longer lived in splendid isolation, they were part of a superhero universe. It was against this background that 20th Century Fox approached Marvel to licence one of their biggest selling titles X-Men. They wanted to make a movie about racism, bigotry and homophobia and contrasting these issues against prejudice against mutants seemed like the perfect vehicle.
The X-Men came into being in May 1963 when Marvel editor and publisher Stan Lee wanted to create a new team to rival The Avengers which were selling strongly. Unwilling to spend time telling a dozen origin stories, he struck upon the idea that these new characters wouldn’t be aliens or transformed humans, they would be mutants, humans displaying traits of humanities next stage of evolution.
However, these extraordinary individuals would be shunned and feared by society, forcing them to run and hide. Lee invented a telepathic character called Professor Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X, who would be their figurehead, a reasonable character who could control his community of traumatised young people at his School for Gifted Youngsters. He was contrasted by Magneto, a holocaust survivor, who wishes to punish society for its fear and intolerance.
Themes of prejudice, political corruption, homophobia, religion, diversity and cultural identity have been reoccurring issues over the decades as characters have evolved and changed. In the 1970s there was a concentrated effort to make the mutant characters far more international with the team being made up of a half-Irish/half-Jewish Iceman, a Russian, a German Catholic, a Kenyan woman, a Japanese male, an Apache Native American, a Canadian soldier (Wolverine) and a blue shape-shifter (Mystique).
As with other superheroes, during the late 1980s and 1990s the X-Men expanded to fill a half dozen monthly titles, graphic novels and special publications, setting the scene for them to become the first franchise to inflame cinema’s passionate romance with the superhero genre.
The X-Men films, with their tales of fighting back against prejudice and misunderstanding, were incredibly popular helped by first-rate scripts and A-list casting including Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm, James Marsden as Cyclops, the then unknown Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (who subsequently has his own spin-off movies) and guest stars like Alan Cuming as Nightcrawler before the series was rebooted with younger actors like James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as a younger Magneto.
It was on the back of the X-Men that Hollywood then started commissioning Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron-Man, Thor and Avengers movies and the world of the cinema blockbuster would never be the same again.