There was a time not that long ago when Marvel Comics movies didn’t dominate the cultural landscape. Quite the contrary, in fact. When even attempted, they were straight-to-home-video embarrassments like the American-Yugoslavian co-production Captain America or The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren. Some weren’t even released at all: see Roger Corman’s infamous The Fantastic Four, if you can find it. By the early ‘90s, the only superhero films to garner critical and commercial success came from rival DC: Richard Donner’s wonderful Superman and the dark-yet-comical duo of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Though Marvel’s properties dominated the newsstands, none of their myriad heroes and villains could break into America’s moviegoing mainstream.

And then came Bryan Singer’s perfectly adequate X-Men, which instantly upgraded Marvel’s cinematic prestige in 2000, as did Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man a couple years later, even if both weren’t produced in-house. It pioneered the team superhero picture, a sub-genre Kevin Feige would methodically build toward with the first phase of MCU installments, culminating with The Avengers and the corresponding “Infinity Saga.” X-Men endures as a proof of concept, a work of popcorn cinema that at least flirts with grand themes (racism, extremism, political Machiavellianism) that still resonates today. It’s spawned a handful of worthy sequels (X2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and at least one true masterwork (Logan), not to mention a whole lot of dreck (let us not speak of X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Apocalypse, or Dark Phoenix).

So X-Men’s legacy and quality remains similarly mixed. The core cast is superlative: Ian McKellen (Magneto), Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier), Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Anna Paquin (Rogue) and Halle Berry (Storm) approach the material seriously. Except the material itself (screenplay by David Hayter), so stilted and expository, frequently fails these celebrated thespians. We get something like an origin story for Magneto and Rogue, but the remaining characters (including James Marsden’s Cyclops and Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique) are introduced as if regular filmgoers were already clued in. “No doubt fans of the comics will understand subtle allusions and fine points of behavior,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review. “They should linger in the lobby after each screening to answer questions.”

To its credit, X-Men’s stakes are comparatively low compared to the potential universe obliterating outcomes of most superhero movies. Hanging in the balance is a UN delegation on Ellis Island, and the entire population of Manhattan (with the Twin Towers still rising as a real-world contrast). The ultimate battle occurs within and upon the Statue of Liberty. Wolverine regularly slices and dices Bartholdi’s copper masterpiece with sheer abandon. The sequence feels like a distant echo of the immortal Mount Rushmore scene from North by Northwest.

That the X-Men never combine forces to fight their primary antagonist, Magneto, during the grand finale is, in retrospect, baffling. Those fireworks would have to wait for the next installment. This was merely a spark. One that would also herald Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. And, in turn, a whole new Marvel dominance.

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