Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.
Given how prevalent superhero movies are today, it's easy to forget just how revolutionary Bryan Singer's X-Men was when it was released 16 years ago. Before Singer took on the mutant superhero team, the only Marvel feature films that had made it to American theaters were Howard the Duck and Blade (both 1989's The Punisher and 1990's Captain America went straight to video in the U.S.). Even beyond Marvel, the most recent high-profile superhero movie was Joel Schumacher's notorious 1997 failure Batman & Robin. The climate was not exactly hospitable to superhero movies, let alone ones that took themselves seriously and attempted to address complex issues.
Against those odds, X-Men became the main movie responsible for the current superhero boom, the one that showed studios that audiences would flock to a well-crafted movie about people with superpowers wearing silly costumes and fighting each other, and that acclaimed filmmakers like Singer should be the ones entrusted with these characters. Not only did the movie succeed at the box office, but it also garnered positive reviews and pleased the hardcore comics fans who were ready to tear it apart. That level of commercial, critical and fan success has become crucial to the movies that Marvel now makes on its own.
And yet X-Men is also in many ways a modest film, since it was a gamble for 20th Century Fox at the time, and didn't have nearly the budget of a current superhero movie (even its own many sequels). Singer keeps the cast manageable, using only a handful of the dozens of mutant heroes as his main characters, and adding a few others as supporting or background players. This movie isn't trying to lay the groundwork for years of sequels and spin-offs; it's just trying to tell a solid, self-contained story about the X-Men, to introduce them and pit them against one of their most famous enemies. The climax doesn't involve the wholesale destruction of a city or the end of the world, but it still has high stakes in its more limited way. Subsequent movies would totally botch the series' continuity several times over, but here Singer keeps things coherent and streamlined.
He also lines up a fantastic cast, several of whom made these characters into definitive roles of their careers. Obviously Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is the breakout star of the film, and it's impressive to see how fully formed and commanding his performance as the character was from the very beginning. But Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are also fantastic, imbuing Professor X and Magneto with the depth necessary for the audience to take them seriously. It's a testament to their work in these films that the guys who played Capt. Picard and Gandalf are known nearly as widely for their X-Men work. I think Famke Janssen is underrated here (and in general), and she has great flirty chemistry with Jackman, without ever undermining Jean Grey's intelligence and autonomy.
There is a lot of silly stuff in this movie, including Magneto's primary plan to use some sort of gyroscope to turn all humans into mutants. But even if the action isn't as elaborate as in the later movies and some of the character introductions now seem a bit clumsy, the dynamics among the characters are strong and distinctive, the dialogue is often clever, and the story has clear dramatic stakes. The sequence featuring Magneto turning the guns around on the police officers who are surrounding him is still one of the most iconic moments in superhero cinema. There would be better superhero movies (and better X-Men movies) made after this one, but Singer laid the groundwork in a confident fashion that holds up remarkably well all these years later.