It’s been 20 years since the X-Men first debuted on the big screen. Yet, what 21st Century Fox managed to achieve with that first movie, none of the sequels or spin-offs managed to. In the last two decades, Fox’s X-Men franchise has successfully managed a highly diverse cast, called out homophobia, and has become a cult-representation for LGBTQ people. The Franchise brought joy to fans and critics alike.
Back in 1963, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko were on a mad magical spree of birthing amazing characters for Marvel Comics. The trio brought to life iconic characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, Fantastic Four, Thor, and Iron Man. These characters today are the cornerstone of decade long Infinity Saga by the Marvel Studios.
Watch: X-Men Cast Reunites
The trio, between assembling a new team called Avengers and writing The Amazing Spider-Man No. 4, found the nerve of the readers with a new set of characters. Mutants they were called, who were informed by the 1960’s Civil Rights movement.
The True Origins Of Marvel’s X-Men
These Marvel characters weren’t all-powerful. They felt pain, numbness, regret, deceit, and more. Lee’s characters were swashbucklers with a humane bent. In a 2017 video by Marvel, Lee explains, “Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin.” The only thing Marvel Universe didn’t have the room for was bigotry, intolerance, and hate.
Watch: A Message From Stan Lee
The story of X-men is set in a grey area – the team of teenage mutants is led by Professor Charles Xavier who represents the nexus of the Human-Mutant relationship, similar to Martin Luther King Jr. On the other end of the spectrum is Magneto, with his radical attitude for the defense of mutants which reflected Malcolm X’s philosophy. And that isn’t it, the mutants are hated by the very humans they defend. The theme of X-Men struggling in a world defined by systemic persecution outlasted the Civil Rights era too. The central theme of acceptance and equality rings true today as well!
When the movie first hit the theatres in 2000, Stan Lee told Guardian, “I loved that idea… it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the Civil Rights Movement in the country at that time.”
Fox’s X-Men Franchise
Building on the central idea of X-Men, Lee since long wanted to make a movie but the project saw the light of the day only in the year 2000. The movie was a melting pot in Hollywood, helmed by The Usual Suspects fame director Bryan Singer.
He impeccably cast an Australian Hugh Jackman as Canadian Wolverine, British, and openly-gay Ian McKellen as antagonist Magneto. Another Brit, Patrick Stewart was cast as New York-based Professor X, New Zealander Anna Paquin as country girl Rogue and the first woman of color to win an Academy Award, Halle Berry as Storm.
God, who knew the same Bryan Singer will lose his Academy Award nomination for Bohemian Rhapsody due to a #MeToo allegation!
Anyway, the X-Men daringly opened with a Nazi camp – a young Magneto separated from his mother in a crowd, fearful, withers in the pain of separation. He pulls and an entire Iron door towards himself, following his mother’s screams to reunite with her. That’s the threshold of his powers bursting out of him, the outburst of rage! He later learns that true power resides somewhere between rage and serenity.
Watch: X-Men Opening Scene – Magneto In Extermination Camp
The movie sets the tone very clearly with its opening shot. The fear and paranoia of being the odd one out, the world is against you just because you’re born a certain way. The film goes along and shows us different characters with their own strengths and vulnerabilities.
And it ends beautifully on The Statue of Liberty – America’s monument for immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity! The climax shows the team saving the day but for that, Wolverine had to put an Adamantium claw through Lady of Liberty’s Crown. And with that, the movie sets its most important message: Save the statue but leave your impression on it. (20 years down the line though we’ve resorted to taking down the statues altogether!)
X-Men’s debut on the big screen was more meaningful than that. The success of the first movie proved that a comic book movie can stand for itself without a Superman or Batman. It laid the very foundation of the superhero world as we know it. Interestingly, Marvel Head Kevin Feige was part of the movie in the capacity of Assistant Producer.
In a span of 13 movies and 20 years, the X-Men franchise has had its own subtle and not so subtle messaging. In Singer’s second movie, they pushed the narrative further and tackled homophobia. A mutant’s mom asks, “Have you tried not being a mutant?”
The very theme of the X-Men is the reality of many living around us. In today’s ‘woke’ age, the issues aren’t much different from the days of Stan Lee’s inspiration. We still have to protest to send out the message loud and clear – Black Lives Matters! Bigotry, racial injustice, indifferences, inequality, discrimination are still society’s prevailing evils. And for God’s sake, a virus is spreading, engulfing millions!
Marvel’s New Approach With The Mutants
A couple of years later after writing the X-men, Lee and Kirby came up with another character, The Black Panther, a Black superhero. He’s the king of a futuristic nation called Wakanda. And soon coming up with an insight about inequality and injustice in his Soapbox Column, Lee said, “It’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race — to despise an entire nation — to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, if a man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.”
As soon as the New Mutants hit the theatres, the Fox X-Men franchise will technically come to an abrupt end. From there on, X-Men will belong to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And going by Disney and MCU’s history – they’ll never produce a movie as offensive as Deadpool, as stylish as First Class, as serene as Wolverine or as heart-wrenching as Logan.
Though Marvel Studios has its own approach to inclusivity and diversity… The True X-Men Shall Be Missed…