Remembering the first mutant blockbuster and the messy, transgressive saga that followed.

By Darren Franich
July 14, 2020 at 11:13 AM EDT
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Courtesy: Everett Collection

The X-Men movies were always American movies. They attacked national monuments and protested White House supremacy. The best bad guy tried to save JFK, and the best good guy got an A-Bomb dropped on him by Truman.

The first film in the X-Men franchise, released 20 years ago today, relies heavily on immigrant labor. Australian Hugh Jackman plays a Canadian. New Zealander Anna Paquin gradually sheds a Southern accent. Magneto and Professor X are both obviously British, because they are Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, even if the characters nominally hail from Europe and New York. That's how things work in the melting pot. Everyone has a codename to mark their new life: They have transformed themselves, like the huddled masses of yore, like the Dutch brunette playing an American redhead. So of course the final battlefield is the Statue of Liberty. The mutant superteam saves the world, although Wolverine (Jackman) has to carve his adamantium claws into Lady Liberty's crown. It's a defensive tactic rich with meaning: Save the statue, but leave your mark on it, too.

Magneto is never really a bad guy. He's too charismatic, his actions always sorta justified. The first time we meet him — the beginning of the whole franchise! — he's a little boy getting marched into Auschwitz. So the most loathsome character is Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), a contemporary demagogue for genetic purity. Magneto turns him into a mutant. Kelly's powers are disgusting, unusual, not really believable as a special effect but still kind of awesome. The process is unstable. He turns to goo.

Gradual glorious liquefaction: Yes, that was the X-Men franchise, which started on July 14, 2000, and will end whenever Disney dumps The New Mutants into bankrupted multiplexes or streaming oblivion. The stories never lined up, the costumes were ridiculous, the villains were awesome. The whole process was unstable. The series turned to goo, yet it stuck to you.

And the most interesting thing about the franchise is that it's over. Oh, the mutants will return in a few years, dis-amputated into limbs of the Marvel Cinematic Hydra. There will be more jokes, better continuity, less compelling camera angles. Storm will finally have something to do. Jackman will play Wolverine again, you know he will, it will happen like this: A cameo as himself in Deadpool 3, Ryan Reynolds posting an Instagram of Jackman wearing what will be described as "the iconic yellow spandex," a release date for something called Wolverine vs. Deadpool or possibly Wolverine X Deadpool, Jackman explaining at D23 how this new Wolverine is "a different character, a spoof, really."

There's always money in the banana stand. But after New Mutants, there will never really be another X-Men movie as we knew it. The 13 films (perfect number!) were products of 20th Century Fox. They were the studio's great hope for a cinematic universe in the 2010s. Now, on a related note, Fox is kindling for the Disney worldengine. And Disney could never have made a film as stylish as First Class, as vulgar as Deadpool, as stoned as Apocalypse, as serene as The Wolverine, as terrible as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as accidentally terrifying as Dark Phoenix.

That awful do-over already ended the mainline series last year. It was a financial flop, cruelly irrelevant in a big year for superhero movies. Forget Endgame and Joker and Far From Home. Dark Phoenix grossed less at the domestic box office than freaking Glass.

It's bad, no question, bland enough to make you yearn for the polychromatic mess of Apocalypse. But the final proper X-team movie picks up the saga's unique strand of underground political lore. In the original X-Men trilogy, the U.S. government opposes mutantkind. Whereas, in the first act of Dark Phoenix, the X-Men are national heroes. James McAvoy's Professor X is a magazine coverboy with a direct line to the president. He is, frankly, a sellout — and it's the '90s, so that still matters. This would be ripe material for a radical new X era, one where the old revolutionary heroes become the establishment a new wave rebels against. It's right there in the movie's uncomfortable outline: Professor X, we learn, has been dampening the powers of fellow telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). "I had to make adjustments to her mind when she was young," he explains — gross!

Any #MeToo resonance was probably unintentional (and eerily ironic, given the franchise's past employment of Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner). Yet the X-Men movies are resonant even when they don't mean to be. This comes from the comics, which built up the Civil Rights analogue into a brand identity, but I think you have to credit all the franchise's various collaborators for carrying that mood onto the massive global stage. X2 had that great coming-out sequence, quite potent in a world so primordial that Satan hadn't even invented Prop 8 yet. The First Class films embedded mutancy into pop history, bringing the fight right to Nixon's lawn. The Wolverine trilogy casually Forrest Gump'd Logan into a century of American wartime.

Worth attaching some suspicion to the saga's victim complex, considering the leads are mainly white dudes. Still, a potent metaphor is a potent metaphor. "You may start off with Professor X," Killer Mike said in his recent GQ profile, "But Magneto got a f---ing point." Here's a smart man talking about race in America today, using a comparison he knows the whole world can understand.

Leave it to Disney to figure out how to incorporate 2020 into whatever the X-Men will look like next. Appreciate, one more time, just how weird the first X-Men movie really is. A runaway teenager who sucks out life through her kisses meets a metal-skulled barfighter with memory problems and mutton chops. Meanwhile, a superpowered concentration camp survivor plans to liquefy the United Nations. The only person who can stop him is his loaded best friend, who owns a mansion school for attractive emo kids with a secret parking space for the private jet. Every superhero after Batmen Begins duded themselves up in body armor, until the MCU made the multiverse safe for fight-scene athleisure. In X-Men 1, Professor X dresses his crew up in uniform tight black leather: Club-ready, or maybe everyone is supposed to look like Catwoman.

All the movies that followed are worth watching — even The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are bad in an impressive way — but one fruitful approach would be to skip right to 2017's Logan. It's set in a now-ish future where all the famous heroes are gone, and a dark powerful cabal has prevented any new mutants from being born. Wolverine and Professor X are walking ruins, left behind by the world, like a franchise that simply wasn't powerful enough to adapt. The script by Scott Frank, director James Mangold, and writer Michael Green earned an Oscar nomination for its rueful power. The Disney buyout inadvertently excavated another layer of meta-commentary. In this dark future, the only new mutations are imitations, brought to life by residual DNA: Reboots, basically, and you wonder if that's all we have left in this genre now. In Logan, the old heroes die, and you can only grow new freaks in a laboratory. The kids are all right, but there's nothing left for them. They go to Canada.

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