It’s the movie that started it all. We wouldn’t have this tight-spandex-wearing superhero craze in Hollywood today were it not for Bryan Singer’s ambitious adaptation of the Marvel wonder team (okay, Sam Raimi’s Spider Man played a part too). I don’t know what’s more surprising: that it worked at the time or that it still holds together quite well today.
It seems an odd choice for a movie to jump start a fad. The Batman and Superman franchise had died deaths nearly a decade ago (though Singer would attempt to revive the latter himself) and all of a sudden you make a movie featuring not one hero, but a team of superheroes? Fighting not one bad guy but a team of bad guys? And it has (an admittedly faint) political statement to make? And it actually turned out to be pretty damn good?
It is pretty far from perfect. A lot of the elements are fairly mixed bags. Take the casting. For every truly amazing Ian McKellen performance (he makes Magneto one of the most interesting comic book characters ever brought to screen) or surprisingly charming Hugh Jackman line delivery (really, could anyone else have played that character?) there’s a really crappy accent from Anna Paquin or Halle Berry (and those are our two Oscar winners). For every well-staged confrontation there’s a fair amount of unnecessary exposition. For every well-drawn character like Magneto, there’s a Cyclops who got the short straw when it came to editing.
Still, the movie sets the stage pretty well. The world that it asks its audience to accept may not seem too far-fetched in the years where comic book movies have become common place, but a lot of the setup established here would be paid off during the even better sequel. Singer knows what he’s doing and has a lot of faith and confidence in his actors and his script. Some of them (Halle Berry or Anna Paquin) probably could have been better directored – curbing their odd mannerisms or accents – but the real professionals (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) enjoy having room to work with.
Still, it’s an interesting construction. The action sequences are generally top notch, the mutants are designed to keep us interested – indeed, limitting the cast to about ten major mutant characters means we avoid the confusion that would marr the later installments in the franchise. The message about tolerance is straight forward, but the audience isn’t quite bashed over the head with it. The wonderful opening prologue which introduces us to Magneto makes the point clearly enough, and without a single line spoken in English. That’s quite an accomplishment.
At just about an hour-and-a-half, the movie flies by. Particularly when we’re used to the more pondersome heavy-hitters that have flooded our screens in recent years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is quite a surprise in retrospect. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the movie is missing something, but it seems remarkably straightforward for a big franchise film. The dynamic of two mutant groups fighting is interesting enough, but it really lacks a poignency until it is developed later on in the series. The notion that humans can be just as evil as Magneto adds a much needed shade of grey that seems to be lacking here.
So it works. It works very well and still works even a decade on. By no means as good as its successor, the movie can still stand tall as the proud father of the modern age of the comic book movie subgenre. It may have lost some of its punch (as the narrative conventions of these kinds of movies have moved on in recent years), but it’s still a solidly entertaining movie.