It's arguably the first modern superhero movie and maybe the most influential movie of the decade as far as Hollywood was concerned. To quote Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back... "After X-Men hit at the box office, the movie companies started buying out every comic property they could get their dirty little hands on." Obviously there had been superhero flicks before X-Men, but in 2000 the best-known examples were Batman (camped to death by Joel Schumacher) and Superman (last seen in the eighties). Apart from them, we're talking about fringe stuff like Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Spawn, The Shadow and so on. The most successful of those were perhaps properties that aren't widely recognised as being based on comic books in the first place, such as Blade, The Mask and The Crow.
Bryan Singer turned all that on its head. In 2000, superheroes became frontline. These days, the question isn't whether we'll see a long-underwear summer blockbuster, but instead how many we'll get and who'll be in them. Singer did that.
Rewatched today, what's interesting about this first X-Men film is how fresh it seems. These days, there's a formula to these things. Iron Man's a good example. You've got the girl, the villain and so on. However the first half of this first X-Men film remains startling. We start with a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two, then jump to Anna Paquin draining her boyfriend's life force like a vampire and as a result freaking out. A politician is advocating the persecution of minorities. Hugh Jackman is having cage fights. There's nothing comfortable or reassuring about any of this. Instead it's confrontational and more realistic than most movies of any genre, whether or not they've got superheroes in them. Anna Paquin is doing impressive work, for instance. She's making her domestic-level scenes feel as important to the film as all those big, splashy things I was talking about, simply by playing them properly and honestly.
Singer hadn't wanted to make a superhero movie. At first he turned the job down, only accepting after discovering themes of prejudice in the source material. Thematically, Singer's X-Men are homosexuals. Or black. Or whatever minority resonates best with you. Singer himself will talk about "the allegory of the mutants as outsiders, disenfranchised and alone and coming to all of that at puberty when their difference manifests."
Look at how far these X-Men are from being wish-fulfilment. Rogue of all people was chosen as a viewpoint character because her power means she can't touch other people and makes her the most symbolic of alienation. Wolverine is a snarling killer who once had his mind erased and his bones turned to metal. Magneto was in a concentration camp. Xavier is a cripple. Cyclops can kill his loved ones if he looks at them. Furthermore our main protagonist eventually becomes Wolverine, who's an outsider even among Xavier's community of outsiders. He's hostile, obnoxious and dangerous to be near. This is fascinating. It gives the first half of the film a spiky dynamic that makes it compelling.
The second half is less special, although it's still very watchable superhero fare with some laughs to be had in the Cyclops-Wolverine bickering. It's good. It deserved its massive success. However I don't think anyone would claim that it would be impossible to improve on that second half, if only because Singer himself would do so in X-Men 2.
Time to geek out. Obviously it's cool to see the X-Men on screen, even when it's just a cameo like Kitty Pryde. Wolverine's obviously the breakout star here and it's weird to think now that Hugh Jackman was then an unknown, only cast three weeks into filming. Of course today he's one of the world's most famous actors. James Marsden I like, but he's too young. Famke Janssen... rrrrr. Halle Berry's bad, not just in her "toad struck by lightning" line, and I don't think it helps that she's trying to play Storm as African in a way she stopped bothering with in the later films. Ray Park's not really a dialogue guy, but unsurprisingly he's a good physical actor. Rebecca Romijn is less sexy than you'd expect, given that she's basically naked throughout. Too blue, perhaps?
The big boys though are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who are both playing above and beyond even our heightened expectations of a modern superhero movie. That's another way in which Singer showed how seriously he was taking this film. It's just unfortunate that their voices sound almost indistinguishable. Oh, and check out some of the actors who nearly got cast. Lucy Lawless was considered for Jean Grey, Jeri Ryan for Mystique, Christopher Lee for Magneto and Jean-Claude Van Damme for Wolverine. Worse than any of them though as far as I'm concerned would have been Natalie Portman as Rogue. She was offered it, but turned it down.
I love this film. I've always agreed with the general consensus that the second film is the best, as often seems to be the case with these franchises, but this rewatch convinced me that this film's first half has captured something special that could only have been done once. After this, we'd know them. They've met each other and become a team. You couldn't spend half of any sequel following a scattered, desperate cast who haven't even met each other and wouldn't like or trust each other if they did. That's what they do here though. It's great. I'm not normally a fan of origin stories in comic book movies, but here my rule has been (partially) proved wrong.
Apart from Halle Berry, my only criticisms are quibbles like the wire work sometimes being a bit obvious or Wolverine not doing enough slicing. It's special, both as a movie and as a superhero movie, given the thematic depth and the way having mutant powers isn't a fantasy power trip but instead something that's likely to ruin your life. When the world went apeshit for X-Men in 2000, that was the correct response.