'X-Men' at 20: Here's how Marvel's first big hit shaped the future of comic book movies

‘X-Men’ at 20: Here’s how Marvel’s first big hit shaped the future of comic book movies

Hugh Jackman unleashes Wolverine’s claws for the first time in 2000′s X-Men (Photo:  20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Hugh Jackman unleashes Wolverine's claws for the first time in 2000's X-Men. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Earlier versions of this article were published on May 13, 2019, May 26, 2016 and April 30, 2015. It has been updated to reflect the 20th anniversary of X-Men.

Tim Burton’s Batman may have defined the 1990s comic book movie boom, but in the words of Professor Charles Xavier, at the turn of the 21st century, the genre’s evolution leaped forward. On July 14, 2000, Bryan Singer’s inaugural X-Men adventure arrived in theaters following a lengthy production process that included numerous development delays, major casting changes and last-minute budget cuts. Considering all the behind-the-scenes drama, the movie seemed doomed to the same Marvel curse that had previously doomed attempts to bring characters like The Punisher, the Fantastic Four and Captain America to the big screen. Instead, X-Men shocked everyone — particularly executives at 20th Century Fox — with a $54 million opening weekend on its way to a worldwide gross of nearly $300 million. In the process, the film laid the cornerstone for what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the golden goose… uh, gauntlet of contemporary franchise filmmaking.

It needs to be said that Blade walked so that X-Men could run. Powered by the Superman and Batman franchises, DC Comics flew rings around Marvel during the 1980s and 1990s when it came to cinematic translations of comic books. Before Stephen Norrington’s 1998 action/horror hybrid, Marvel’s output was limited to barely-released theatrical flops or cheesy TV movies that entertain precisely because of their unrepentant goofiness. But Blade — which starred Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire-turned-vampire hunter — was a genuinely great movie, one that earned $70 million domestically and spawned two sequels. “It was the perfect storm for me,” Snipes told Yahoo Entertainment in 2018 when Blade celebrated its 20th anniversary. “It was a great opportunity to do something that was rare, and that was a lot of fun and loved by the cats in my neighborhood.”

At the same time, Blade was one of Marvel’s more obscure creations, and the film's early trailers didn't emphasize a comic book connection. In contrast, the X-Men had been a marquee Marvel comic for decades, which only increased expectations for a film adaptation that had been teased since the 1980s. After flirting with such directors as Robert Rodriguez and Paul W.S. Anderson, Fox officially handed the project to Singer in 1996 in the wake of his Oscar-winning hit, The Usual Suspects. A fan of the comic since childhood, the director wanted to retain the central metaphors of prejudice and civil rights that were baked into the larger story of mutants struggling for a place in a world that hates and fears them. That theme is exemplified in the central conflict between friends-turned-foes Charles “Professor X” Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), who stand in for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X respectively. Singer had to tell that larger story, and pack in plenty of action, on a serious budget: compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars Warner Bros. spent on its Batman movies, Fox kept X-Men to a strict $75 million tab.

Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) experiences the pain of a Wolverine gut punch in 'X-Men" (Photo: Everett)
Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) experiences the pain of a Wolverine gut punch in X-Men. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Seen today, X-Men’s spectacle looks puny when placed alongside the cosmic action that defines Marvel Studios blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. (It doesn’t help that Singer’s reputation is in tatters following disturbing reports about his personal and professional behavior.) But the small-scale approach also benefits the film, putting the characters front and center along with the deeper themes that the comic wrestled with. X-Men’s instant popularity made previously moribund Marvel characters hot properties in Hollywood; films starring Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, and Ghost Rider quickly followed X-Men during those heady early days of Marvel’s revival, and the company eventually seized control of its own destiny with 2008’s Iron Man, which launched the MCU as we know it today. Fox’s own X-Verse, meanwhile, continued on for 19 years and 12 movies, wrapping up last summer with the underwhelming franchise-capper, Dark Phoenix. On its 20th anniversary, here are five ways that X-Men shaped two decades of Marvel movies.

It illustrated how to make a successful team-based movie

The cast of 'X-Men' prepares to enter Cerebro (Photo:  20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection)
The cast of X-Men prepares to enter Cerebro. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Prior to X-Men, big-screen superhero-ing was largely a solitary job left to Superman, Batman and, of course, Blade. (In fact, when Batman acquired not just one, but two sidekicks in Batman & Robin, it killed the franchise.) But the ensemble nature of the X-Men comics demanded that the film be about a team, and Singer made space for as many X-folk as their relatively limited budget would allow. There’s no question that the star of the movie is Wolverine, due to the way David Hayter — the last in a long line of screenwriters to take a crack at the script — structured the story, and Hugh Jackman’s commanding performance. The Australian actor was famously a last-minute replacement for Dougray Scott, whose commitment to the second Mission: Impossible movie prevented him from making it to the X-Men set in time. Earlier this year, Scott laid the blame on Tom Cruise for missing out on the role: “We were doing Mission: Impossible and [Tom] was like, ‘You’ve got to stay and finish the film’ and I said 'I will, but I’ll go and do that as well'. For whatever reason he said I couldn’t. He was a very powerful guy. Other people were doing everything to make it work.”

Even though Jackman owns the movie from the first moment he pops Wolverine’s famous claws during a bar fight, X-Men is fairly generous in parceling out screentime among the larger ensemble. In fact, the movie is specifically about the formation of the core team we’ll come to know over the course of the franchise; while it’s implied that the existing X-Men — Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) — have had a few missions together prior to the events of the movie, adding Wolverine and Rogue (Anna Paquin) into the mix changes the group’s alchemy. The climactic Statue of Liberty sequence, which pits Xavier’s pupils against Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants, is designed to make the X-Men learn how to function together instead of as solo superheroes.

Going forward, Wolverine continued to be a central character in the X-Verse, to the point where his 2017 farewell, Logan, is essentially a series finale for the entire franchise. But even Wolverine-lite entries like First Class and Apocalypse continued the formula of having one character — Jennifer Lawerence’s Mystique in the case of First Class and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey in Dark Phoenix — serve as the dramatic spoke that the larger team revolves around. You can see that approach reflected in Marvel’s all-star Avengers films as well, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark functioning as the pivotal presence connecting the first team-up to Endgame, even as all of his fellow heroes get plenty to do. And just like Jackman, when Downey dies, it provides an emotional end to the series as we’ve known it.

It took place in the real world, and established a larger superhero universe

Rather than embrace the extreme stylization seen in the original Batman films — both Burton’s gothic noir, and Joel Schumacher’s day-glo camp — Singer opted to ground X-Men in the ordinary world. Set largely in and around New York City (although the film was shot in Toronto), the movie’s approach is best summarized by Cyclops’s oft-quoted rejoinder to Wolverine explaining the team’s black leather suits: “You would prefer yellow spandex?”

In a 2015 interview with Empire Magazine, Singer talked about wanting to prove that realism and superheroes could go hand-in-hand on the big screen. “I consider myself a kickstarter. I probably did the first movie that eliminated all aspects of camp that had always been a part of comic book movies. I saw the X-Men universe as a much more serious universe. There was no room for camp. Early on, I made a couple of tongue in cheek comments about their costumes and character’s names which I thought was necessary to ease the audience into it… I always took the universe very seriously and was probably the first person to do that.” Eight years after X-Men, Jon Favreau similarly eliminated camp (though not comedy) from Iron Man’s corner of the nascent MCU, resulting in a world that’s a recognizable version of our own, just with cooler technology… and lots more alien visitors.

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2017, Jackman revealed that Fox was so doubtful of there ever being a second X-Men movie that the studio sold Professor X’s chair at a charity auction. (They wound up having to rent it back when X2: X-Men United went before cameras two years later.) But Singer clearly had more confidence in the material, seeding the inaugural installment with more mutants and several big hints about Wolverine’s long, mysterious history that would feed into future (past) stories. Favreau must have taken note, as he also teased a wide world of superheroing outside of stately Stark Manor in the now-legendary Iron Man post-credits scene that name-dropped the “Avenger Initiative” the entire Infinity Saga was built on.

It made room for female heroes

Halle Berry lights up the screen as Storm in 'X-Men' (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Halle Berry lights up the screen as Storm in X-Men. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection)

With rare exceptions like 1984’s Supergirl, the first wave of comic book movies in the '80s and '90s relegated women to roles as the hero’s love interest — think Margot Kidder's Lois Lane or Kim Basinger's Vicky Vale — or a secondary villain like Valerie Perrine’s Miss Teschmacher and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. Gender-specific title aside, X-Men makes a point of putting its heroines in the field, with Storm and Jean taking part in most of the battles rather than watching from the sidelines. In fact, Storm’s face-off with Toad (Ray Park) is probably the high point of the climactic fight, terrible dialogue aside. And while Rogue doesn’t actively participate in the early set-pieces, Singer highlights the full extent of her abilities in the final scene, where she emerges as the most powerful mutant in the movie after healing Wolverine of otherwise fatal injuries.

The MCU took longer to welcome female heroes into the fold, introducing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Iron Man 2, but not really showcasing her skills until The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The eventual arrivals of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) further helped break up the Marvel boys’ club and allowed for that applause-worthy moment in Endgame. But it’s still not a great look that neither the MCU nor the X-Verse released their first female-fronted movie until 2019. That’s when Captain Marvel and Dark Phoenix opened within months of each other — and a full two years after DC’s glass ceiling-shattering hit, Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for our Storm solo movie: Dominique Jackson is ready to suit up.

It recruited Stan Lee for a cameo

Marvel legend Stan Lee made his first appearance in a major Marvel movie in 'X-Men' (Photo: 20th Century Fox/YouTube)
Marvel legend Stan Lee made his first appearance in a major Marvel movie in X-Men. (Photo: 20th Century Fox/YouTube)

Marvel's legendary creator wisely avoided associating himself with many of the early attempts to transform his comic creations into flesh-and-blood heroes, limiting his involvement to an uncredited cameo in the 1989 TV movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. But X-Men producer Tom DeSanto persuaded Lee to put his seal of approval on Singer’s film by putting his face onscreen as a beachside hot dog vendor. “We were shooting up in Toronto and there was always an excuse,” DeSanto told The Wrap last year. “So, Stan finally agreed and he said on the phone call he’s like, “Tom, you don’t understand I’m in a lawsuit with Marvel right now.” (Lee had signed a new contract with Marvel in 1998, but felt the company wasn’t honoring the terms; he filed his lawsuit in 2002.)

DeSanto eventually convinced Lee to visit the set during a one-day shoot at a Los Angeles-area beach. “We created this hotdog vendor for Stan to do. So Stan comes out and literally everybody is super excited, everybody wants a photo, and Stan realizes the impact he has had on all these creatives in the movie world,” DeSanto remembered. From that point until his death in 2018, a Stan Lee cameo became an essential ingredient in almost every Marvel movie, including four additional X-Verse features: X-Men: The Last Stand, Deadpool, X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool 2.

It gave Kevin Feige his first Marvel job

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 03: Kevin Feige attends the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on November 03, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/FilmMagic)
Kevin Feige attends the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards in November 2019. (Photo: Amy Sussman/FilmMagic)

The X-Men set proved to be the origin story for the most important Marvel superhero of the 21st century: MCU architect, Kevin Feige. While attending U.S.C in the mid-’90s, the aspiring movie mogul landed a steady gig as an assistant to super-producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, whose company had been developing an X-Men feature since 1994. Based on his familiarity with the material from comic books and the popular animated series, Donner gave Feige an associate producer credit on the movie. He also came within a claw’s length of a cameo as a technician at the Weapon X project that transformed Logan into Wolverine, but that never came to be. Instead, something better happened: during the shoot, Feige befriended then-Marvel Studios head, Avi Arad, and joined the company, working on a variety of Marvel movies for other studios until shepherding Iron Man to the big screen. The rest is comic book movie history.

In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, Feige described how his time in the X-trenches influenced how he approached creating the MCU: “Watching that process on X-Men and X2, in particular, where the budgets were relatively limited and therefore you couldn’t do everything we do nowadays in the films — you had to drill down on the characters,” he said. “With Marvel Comics, there’s a great luxury to be able to do that because the depth of character is amazing… We keep that lesson nowadays, even when we do have resources to do whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be big. Do it from the character’s point of view instead of as a removed way.”

In a neat case of the past serving as prologue, Feige will have a second chance to witness the birth of the X-Men. After Disney purchased Fox in 2019, Marvel’s mutants are now under his domain once again and will find their way into the MCU… eventually. Speaking with io9 last year, Feige suggested that the X-Men aren’t part of the MCU’s immediate future. “It’s all just beginning and the five-year plan that we’ve been working on, we were working on before any of that was set. So really it’s much more, for us, less about specifics of when and where [the X-Men will appear] right now and more just the comfort factor and how nice it is that they’re home.”

X-Men is currently streaming on HBO Max.

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