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The Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t just mark the beginning of the end of Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Ant-Man, due out July 17, is the phase’s official final act — it also represents the culmination of 15 years of modern Marvel movies. It’s an era that began in the summer of 2000, when 20th Century Fox released Bryan Singer’s X-Men, a movie that survived a difficult production history to become a certified box office hit for the studio and Marvel, as the company sought to turn around years of botched film adaptations like this one. Or this one.
One could argue (and indeed some have) that 1998’s Blade is the true wellspring of the Marvel renaissance, grossing $70 million and spawning a franchise. But X-Men is more central to the company’s mythology, and the movie’s success made their previously moribund characters hot properties in Hollywood. Films starring Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider quickly followed during that first wave of Marvel movies, with the publisher themselves seizing control of their own destiny with 2008’s Iron Man, the building block that led to Joss Whedon’s all-star Avengers adventures.
But as much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become its own thing —and how grand (and grandiose) Age of Ultron is compared to Singer’s stripped-down franchise launcher — you can still see the imprint of that original X-Men outing on its DNA. Here are five ways that Singer’s merry band of mutants directly influenced the Avengers.
1) It Proved the Power of Teamwork
Prior to X-Men, big-screen superhero-ing was largely a solo job, with the then-ascendant Superman and Batman franchises (and, yes, even Blade) revolving exclusively around a single hero. Perhaps the notion of multiple costumed avengers sharing the screen likely seemed too unwieldy, too expensive and too confusing for audiences. But the ensemble nature of the X-Men comics demanded that the film be about a team, and Singer and screenwriter David Hayter made space for as many X-folk as their limited budget would allow.
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is undeniably the most forceful presence in the movie — he’s the de facto main character, in the same way that Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark dominates both The Avengers and Ultron — but X-Men is actually fairly generous in parceling out its screentime amongst the ensemble (well…unless your name is Storm or Cyclops). In fact, at its heart, the movie is about the formation of a team; true, it’s implied that Cyclops, Storm and Jean Grey have had a few missions together prior to the events of the movie, but adding Wolverine — and, to a lesser extent, Rogue — into the mix changes the group’s alchemy. The climactic Statue of Liberty sequence is notable for the way it forces the X-Men to learn to work together, much like the Avengers finally figure out how to assemble during the Battle of New York.
2) It Took Place in the Real World
A direct response to the extreme stylization of the Gotham City seen in the original Batman films — both Tim Burton’s gothic noir, and Joel Schumacher’s day-glo camp — X-Men unfolds in a real location (New York, though it was largely filmed in Toronto) and emphasizes realism in the production and costume design.
“I probably did the first [superhero] movie that eliminated all aspects of camp that had always been a part of comic book movies,” Singer told Empire magazine last year, citing Richard Donner’s Superman as a key influence. “I saw the X-Men universe as a much more serious universe.” As befits Whedon’s personality, The Avengers makes room for more jokes than X-Men, but it also takes its world-building seriously, using real U.S. locations rather than invented cities. (Overseas is a different story; Ultron’s gargantuan climax trades the urban canyon of Manhattan for the fictional European nation of Sokovia.)
3) It Let the Supergirls Play with the Superboys
With the exception of 1984’s Supergirl, the best that women in the first wave of comic book movies could hope for was to be the hero’s love interest and/or secondary villain, like Valerie Perrine’s Ms. Teschmacher (the first Superman films) or Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy (Batman & Robin). 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. And while Rogue doesn’t actively participate in those set-pieces, Singer is careful to acknowledge and highlight the extent of her abilities, to the point where she’s arguably the most powerful mutant in the movie.
Similarly, since her relatively minor introduction in Iron Man 2, Black Widow has become a major presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Whedon making especially strong use of her in both Avengers films. She may not be well-represented on toy shelves, but she’s an integral part of the team onscreen, with her superior training and tactical skills making up for her lack of superpowers.
4) It Thought Globally, Not Locally
What do all three pre-Chris Nolan Batmen have in common? They all hail from the U.S. of A, as did Christopher “Superman” Reeve and Wesley “Blade” Snipes. X-Men kicked off the trend of recruiting heroes in foreign territories, with Singer initially casting Scotsman Dougray Scott as Wolverine and then handing the plum assignment to then-unknown Australian stage actor Hugh Jackman when Scott got held up on another job. The role catapulted Jackman to stardom and opened up the superhero casting process to allow for a Welshman to play Batman, a Brit to play Superman, and another Aussie to play Thor. (Ultron adds another English actor to the global mix, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson racing about the screen as the lightning-fast Quicksilver.)
5) It Gave Joss Whedon a Job
Though he was primarily known as a TV writer for much of the ’90s, Whedon also enjoyed a lucrative side career as a script doctor for feature films. One of the patients he was called in to examine was the X-Men screenplay. “[The studio] said, ‘Come in and punch up the big climax, the third act, and if you can, make it cheaper,’” Whedon told The A.V. Club in 2001. “And then, not only did they throw out my script and never tell me about it; they actually invited me to the read-through, having thrown out my entire draft without telling me.”
Actually, a few lines from Whedon’s pass do remain, most notably Storm’s infamously terrible put-down about what happens to a toad when its struck by lightning. These days, of course, Whedon is one of the major creative forces behind the MCU —though he’s stepping down post-Ultron — and was granted wide berth in making both Avengers movies. And don’t be surprised if Whedon maneuvers his way back to Marvel in the future: With the clock rumored to be ticking on the X-verse that Singer launched fifteen years ago, Fox will likely be looking for a new person to oversee the franchise, and Whedon definitely has the experience. Maybe this time, they’ll even use his draft of the script.
Watch a trailer for ‘X-Men’ below: