As an introduction to a film series that’s still going fourteen years later, X-Men did everything it needed to. Specifically: be an adequate film with an amazing cast. There’s not much to X-Men. It’s more like a feature length television pilot than a complete movie, spicing up its introduction to this world of superpowered mutants with a largely nonsensical evil plot concluding with a silly confrontation in the Statue of Liberty. Director Bryan Singer keeps the pace tight and the action engaging, but the best thing about the film is the actors – specifically, the trio of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Ian McKellen as Magneto and Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier – who keep the film watchable even in its weakest moments (Anna Paquin is a talented actress, but Rogue remains an underwritten character throughout the series).
The sequel that preceded it three years later is a lot better than adequate; X-Men 2 remains one of the best superhero films ever made. Where X-Men seemed to be made with the hope that audiences would embrace a big budget superhero movie, its predecessor hums with the confidence born of box office success. It’s pure popcorn entertainment, with an exciting kineticism that zips through innovative action sequences, crisp dialogue (Alan Cumming!) and important subtext alike.
Where the first film broadly touches upon the notion of mutation as a metaphor for difference and discrimination, X-Men 2 finds strength in specificity, linking society’s reaction to mutants explicitly to queerness. When Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) comes out (as a mutant) to his parents, it’s the film’s best scene, an affective island of quietude amidst the spectacular special effects setpieces.
I’d argue that both of these X-Men films fail in one aspect, however. Despite hiring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (the most adorable platonic couple in existence), the two are only allowed to share the barest minimum of screen time. It’s a decision born of narrative necessity – each are in possession of such incredible superpowers that they demand to be shunted to the sidelines in order to maintain any sense of tension – but I wish we could have sacrificed one Wolverine action scene to bring these two together. Speaking of Wolverine, it’s interesting how violent his fights are compared to the modern superhero landscape. It’s hard to imagine the typically bloodless Marvel Studios including a scene where an unnamed soldier is impaled by foot-long blades by our putative hero.