We looked at the original X-Men tonight and it was a weird, if fulfilling nostalgia trip. My wife and I bonded over the X-Men, and we both credit the characters for helping us get through high school alive. Yet we’d never actually watched the first one together before, which was kind of awesome.
It’s also a quiet way of seeing just how much has changed in the 15 years since this came out. Superhero movies were dead. Joel Schumacher and Warner Bros had seen to that, and even before Batman and Robin did… what it did, superheroes were not embraced outside of a tiny handful of figures. If you weren’t Superman or Batman, chances are the public didn’t know who you were, and comic book fans were a fairly small subsection of the overall population.
And in and of itself, there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about it. It was good, to be sure – and it holds up quite well as Saturday matinee fun – but it was definitely studio product, with an undue emphasis on exposition and an unwillingness to take any big chances. They knew they were skating on thin ice, and considering some of the groundbreaking comic book movies that came after it, it looks positively timid in comparison.
But that timidity hid something that damn few comic book movies had carried before it: respect. Respect for the characters, respect for the fans who loved them (and who, again, weren’t exactly thick on the ground) and respect for the idea that a comic book could deliver some worthwhile truths like, “it’s okay to be different” and “we can do better than just hating each other. It had these notions delivered by Shakespeareans like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan , and actually seemed to care about them more than Biff! Pow! fistfights and girlfriends in peril.
And OMG, it had Wolverine! As brooding and bad-ass as he was supposed to be! Fighting Sabertooth on the top of the Statue of Motherfucking Liberty!
How the hell did something that cool actually end up on a movie screen?
Growing up with the comics, you got used to explaining to everyone who these characters were. Mention Chris Claremont or Alan Davis, and they gave you a confused dog look. You felt a little like an outsider for reading them, and always approached discussion about them with caution. And you never seriously thought you’d see them on the big screen with a budget to do them justice and a director who cared enough to apply it in the right ways. Not in your wildest dreams were you ever going to see an A-list film featuring Sabretooth and Wolverine throwing down, or Magneto and Professor X debating prejudice over chess, or Mystique – forgettable bland Mystique – stealing the show out from under everyone’s noses.
We’ve gotten very spoiled, we fans, in the ensuing fifteen years. We expect the very highest of standards from the comic book movies crowding every corner of our theaters, and when they don’t measure up, we are quick to reach for the torches and pitchforks. But in the summer of 2000, things looked very different, and the things we now take blithely for granted hit us like a thunderbolt out of the blue. Hollywood actually made this the right way. Hollywood actually nailed it.
It wasn’t always the way it is now. And bumps in the road aside, the way it is now is pretty awesome for those of us who grew up with these characters. At some point, the trend will end, but I daresay we’ll miss it when it’s gone. Drink deep my fellow comic book nerds. These are days we’ll remember.