X-Men at 20: revisiting the themes and impact of the franchise

X Men 20th anniversary influential impact

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first X-Men movie, and thus the birth of the modern superhero movie with it. As such, we at No Majesty wanted to take you on a little journey into the history and themes of the franchise and what it means to the modern world of blockbusters.

Before 2000, superhero films were either the cheesy family fair like Richard Donner’s Superman and it’s four sequels, or ultra dark / campy Batman films. Though Marvel had dabbled in films – mainly straight-to-VHS fair, one terrible The Punisher film and Howard the Duck, it had had a minor success with Blade. Stephen Norrington’s 1998 action horror film had brought comics to the slick modern era.

Marvel in the 90s faced bankruptcy so to offset any potential losses they sold off their IPs to various film companies. Spider-Man bounced around from Coralco, where James Cameron planned his adult-orientated version before finding it’s way to Columbia Pictures, itself a division of the Sony company.

Along the way, Sony also managed to gain the rights to Black Panther, which Wesley Snipes (the once and future Blade) originally intended to produce and star in. It had also gained the rights to produce a Doctor Strange film before allowing Dimsension to gain the rights. Artisan Entertainment gained Ant-Man, as well as The Punisher until it was sold to Lionsgate, and Thor, which was then sold to New Line Cinema (having made three Blade films), then to Sony, before Universal gained control, they also got control of The Incredible Hulk.

20th Century Fox bought rights to the entire catalogue of X-Men films and characters, including Fantastic Four and Daredevil. Under the leadership of Lauren Shuler Donner, Superman director- Richard Donner’s wife, put a film into production thanks in part to the growing success of X-Men: The Animated Series. Donner took a leaf from her husband’s book and hired top-level talent for the film, starting with the director. Bryan Singer, then off the back of The Usual Suspects and Stephen King thriller Apt Pupil, signed on to take charge.

Wolverine X Men

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Prior to filming, Singer was unfamiliar with the history of the comics, and used his assistant David Hayter for the information — Hayter would eventually re-write the entire script and receive sole-writing credit along with a foot in the industry, leading to him getting jobs on X2, a proposed Black Widow film, and an aborted Watchmen adaptation. Singer, however, found the themes of alienation interesting given his own sexuality — Singer was an out-and-proud bisexual man, currently enjoying a slew of illicit affairs with young men, some of whom were granted access to the set and to roles in exchange for sex.

One of Singer’s primary influences was the original Superman film; the directory filled his cast with an ensemble nature, and several allusions to the film. Hugh Jackman, who was shipped in to replace original Wolverine actor Dougray Scott when Mission: Impossible II filming overlapped with the start of production, stated that in an opening sequence where Wolverine carries Anna Paquin’s Rogue to safety it was to look like a similar scene from the original Superman. Jackman stated he had never seen the film and so Singer pulled him into his trailer and made him watch the “You’ve got me, who’s got you?” sequence to perfect it. Donner’s expansive cast of character actors, newcomers and icons alike was also replicated. Jackman, then an unknown, anchored the film as an audience surrogate

Patrick Stewart had become famous for his role as Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was a dead ringer for his comic book counterpart, who was a fan favourite for many years. Ian McKellen, by then a respected thespian and Academy Award-nominated actor for his turn as gay director James Whale, was cast as extremist mutant Magneto. The two were both respected Shakespearean performers and added class to the picture, while also playing up the allusions to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that Singer and Donner both wanted to be present.

Anna Paquin, who plays teen mutant Rogue, was also by then an Academy Award winner for The Piano, while Famke Janssen had played a Bond girl, and Bruce Davison, an Oscar nominee, had played Senator Robert Kelly, and collaborated with Singer on Apt Pupil.

The film’s opening sequence helps to hammer home the themes of the film: the Nazi concentration camp cold open, showing the persecution of the Jews that would shape Magneto’s hatred for normal humans, as well as informing the audience this was not going to be a jolly neon-drenched roller coaster, but a thoughtful science fiction thriller.

Senator Kelly’s motivation to form a register of mutants so that everyone knows ‘who they are and what they can do’ is an easy stand-in for McCarthyism, the fear of communism that still had reverberations even into the new century. There are also reflections of the beginnings of anti-LGBT sentiment, the belief that gay men and gay women were predators that could easily ruin the “nuclear” family concept, and destroy American life. 

Even in the form of Rogue, who has the power to drain the life force from another human or mutants, we may have a metaphor for those who feel alienated from their fellow teens. Wanting to form a connection, but it being literally impossible to achieve, because of her inability to touch people due to her mutant power.

Singer upped the ante in X2, going for a ballsier, more expensive sequel that built on the introspective stone of what came before. X2 arrived in 2003, two years after 9/11, and Spider-Man had come out to rave reviews. The themes needed to be bigger, but the action did too. Singer and his writers loosely adapted the story arc God Loves, Man Kills from old X-Men stories, but beefed it into an allegory for the new “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy made famous under Bill Clinton.

Brian Cox’s Colonel Williams Stryker, a Vietnam Veteran who has designs on exploiting Xavier’s Cerebro for his own ends. The allegory is strong with Stryker, his past with Wolverine, being responsible for the adamantium skeleton that covers Wolverine’s body, his mute mutant assistant Lady Deathstrike continues the Vietnam parallels.

Moreover, the film plays up the LGBT+ themes, not just in the now-famous ‘coming out’ scene between Bobby ‘Iceman’ Drake and his parents (“Have you ever tried not being a mutant”) but in other sequences. The subplot in which Stryker reveals he came to Xavier to cure his son Jason of his mutation, only for Xavier to insist that he doesn’t need curing (and that there is no cure), is similar to how many people reacted to their own LGBT children with a desire to ‘cure’ them.

The racial themes also come to the fore more in the second film. Both Nightcrawler and Mystique are blue mutants, their skin a constant reminder of their ‘otherness’, though unlike Nightcrawler, Mystique can change and appear human. It’s not a huge stretch to see this as a metaphor for ‘white-passing’ Black people — their colour makes them a target for harassment and abuse, but Mystique being a shapeshifter, like a white-passing person, can hide from that. Her retort to Nightcrawler when he asks why she doesn’t change to appear human — “Because we shouldn’t have to” — is one echoed by many Black people who refuse to downplay their heritage, or straighten their hair.

The film really comes down to Wolverine’s choice, does he join the community he belongs to, or does he stay with people who can shelter him from potential abuse? As he holds a small mutant child in his arms, his defiant “I’ll take my chances with them” is an F you to the hate and fear that others have.

Jennifer Lawrence Mystique X Men

Jennifer Lawrence as shape-shifting mutant Mystique.

After X2, Singer left the franchise to make Superman Returns. The third film, subtitled The Last Stand, mashed together two warring storylines. The famous Chirs Claremont penned series Dark Phoenix Saga which sees Jean Grey’s Phoenix force take over and grant her unlimited power, and Joss Whedon (who provided a draft of the original film, two lines of which all that remains of his version) penned Gifted which saw a cure for the mutant X gene developed.

Both, however, provide enough fertile ground to mine. In Jean Grey we have an exploration of Mental Illness, the Phoenix force was suppressed by Xavier in her childhood without her knowledge, meaning her powers were never to their full potential. This revelation in the film, that Xavier had done something to Jean without her knowledge to protect her from power could be seen as a metaphor for mental illness, and how we hope to protect people without their knowledge, sneaking medication into their system. The idea of trying to protect someone from themselves as they hurt themselves and others can be seen in the accidental death of Cyclops. Jean’s partner is killed by her without her fully understanding her actions, the way mental illness changes our perception of our actions. Returning to her childhood home, a way of attacking her trauma and pain head on, culminates in the destruction of the one person who can help her – Xavier.

In the ‘cure’ storyline we have a standard court-mandated cure for mutation, one that the military are then equipped to use for crowd control. If you see this as a version of conversation therapy or chemical castration, looked to suppress sexuality in LGBT people, you can also see Warren’s prologue self-mutilation of his angel wings as a version of self-castration.

Thanks to the popularity of superhero films and the beginnings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was a desire to build a more expansive universe for the X-Men. With Matthew Vaughn’s prequel X-Men: First Class, co-written by himself and Jane Goldman, the setting of the 60s was used to promote the Civil Rights era feeling. The party animal version of Xavier, as well as the super-serious Magneto juxtapose the Martin Luther King / Malcolm X dynamic, while Sebastian Shaw’s former Nazi Sebastian Shaw / Klaus Schmidt is a mutant who believes in superiority, and the idea of a master race.

It’s made more explicit with the younger characters, the assertion of “mutant and proud” as mutants hold hands on the beach of Cuba calling to mind the Civil Rights marches, while the downfall of Xavier in the film is a bullet to his back furthering the illusions to MLK. The CIA agent’s horror at discovering Beast was a mutant the whole time and his “you didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell”, in reference to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule within the military all bring the themes of the repressed. While Vaughn coyly said you “could see the LGBT themes in the film if you wanted” – on the Beach, Magneto and Xavier looks inches away from kissing one another, the allegory is entirely there.

In Days of Future Past director Singer made a return to the series and melded the two timelines, by and large it’s to help clean up the frankly bonkers timeframe – though he only muddies the water further, and yet there are still allusions to the LGBT+ and Civil Rights themes of the series. Magneto’s incarceration for trying to stop the “magic bullet” that killed John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is an interesting figure in history as he was one of the President’s involved in the Civil Rights act.

In the X-Men timeline, it’s implied that Kennedy was a mutant and so would have mutant-leaning sympathy. Moreover, the idea of an extremist going so far as to kill a President – in this case Richard Nixon – that spurs the plot, and the use of a mutant-only division in the Vietnam War continue the Civil Rights allegory. Many of the famous images of the Vietnam War involve the Black soldiers drafted in to fight. Even in the antagonist role of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) we have a character who claims to find the genetics of mutants interesting. His desire to harvest them to build is mutant hunting Sentinels is one that calls to mind the faux-science that there are biological differences between Black people and white people – skull formation maybe, but really nothing that vastly different exists.

While it’s generally agreed that both X-Men: Apolcaypse and Dark Phoenix drop the ball with the series again, both have points that could have made for interesting areas of introspection. Apocalypse is set in the 1980s and could have easily been made an allegory for AIDs or the so-called “gay plague” that Reagan did nothing about. The time was ripe for paranoia too, given it was at the utmost point of the Cold War when the Doomsday clock was almost at midnight, and nuclear holocaust was on the horizon. There is something made of it by Apocalypse sending all the nuclear weapons into space as a way to render humans unable to fight back but that really is the limit of what they do.

Dark Phoenix, on the other hand, could have made more of the Mental Illness theme – Jean Grey actress Sophie Turner has spoken about dealing with depression many times. In a time when the US grow ever more concerned with sending ill-equipped police to deal with what is a medical issue, we miss out on what could have been a deep dive into what could happens when a family member gets sick. Anyone who has dealt with a relative going through a mental episode or breakdown will know the discussion becomes what is best for them, and for everyone else, and often those things appear to be at logger heads. The use of the alien Vuk also alludes to this, the villain of the film appears at times to only be in Jean’s head – which if mined for more drama could really have been metaphor for that thought that people are against you. Sadly none of this is dealt with in any meaningful way.

Even so, looking at Logan, the emotional gritty swan-song of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and there is an interesting look at legacy. The idea that some people who are at the forefront of a movement or moment become reluctant heroes. While controversial, Caitlyn Jenner has become a figurehead of trans-people, she has a platform few others have and as such what she says reflects on the trans-community. It’s an unfair situation but it’s one that stands to reason. Similarly Logan is one of the last remaining mutants, immortalised and mythologised by the comic books the young genetically engineered mutants have read.

That’s not to say the films are not without problems, every single one is directed by a white man – even the as unreleased The New Mutants, and now that the series has reverted to Marvel Studios, the Fox-iteration will always be marked by that. It also doesn’t help that Singer, director of four films, and Ratner director of one, have both been disgraced by the ongoing MeToo movement. Singer and Ratner have lost projects as a result of their actions, and have been spoken out against by the cast and crew.

The LGBT+ themes of the series continue into the casting. For a large franchise, the number of people in the community that feature in the films brings this to the fore: Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Alan Cumming, Elliot Page, Troye Sivan and Brianna Hildebrand all occupy leading roles across films in the X-Men franchise. It should also be noted that over the course of the films many of them have contributed heavily to the portrayal of their characters; in particular, Hildebrand spoke with the writers of Deadpool 2 about how to portray Negasonic’s same-sex relationship with Yukio in a downplayed manner.

After all this, and twenty years on, as uneven as the films were, not just in their quality but in their use of allegory, they still hold weight and influence on the film industry. Without them, Spider-Man would not have had the faith it got. In a wider sense, the idea of a splintering franchise with spin-offs is one that both Marvel and DC have greatly benefitted from. It might be that at the end of the series they were playing catch up to Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios, but they laid the groundwork that a big ensemble superhero film could capture the imagination of audiences, not just the die-hard fans but the newcomers to series, too.

The fact that is made both Halle Berry (still a year away from her history-making Oscar win, and Hugh Jackman who became the most in-demand actor in town following it. It also made R rated superhero movies the talk of the town with Deadpool, gave the genre legitimacy with Logan, and provided ample fodder for the neckbeards on the internet to misunderstand what the films mean.

Taking the controversy of its directors, and the quality issue, revisiting the original X-Men film still shows just how well it has aged. It’s less action-packed than most superhero films — even the climax in the statue of liberty is fairly muted — and it’s more about mood and talking, but the film has an earnest nature, it has something important to say, and says it with wit, and joy but with a seriousness of intent that can often be lost in the bright quippy nature of the Marvel Comics Extended Universe or the self-seriousness of the DC Extended Universe.

All this born from a film that began with a recreation of the holocaust, and ended with two old guys playing chess.

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