These days, comic movies are a dime a dozen, where nearly any monthly franchise has the potential (or intention) to be adapted to the silver screen. But it wasn’t long ago that the entire sub-genre was in great danger. The Superman and Batman films both started with great success, only to devolve into disasters that nearly destroyed each franchise. Marvel comics, despite their decades old libraries of fan favorite heroes and villains, did not put their bestselling superheroes in films like DC did; instead, the titles adapted included abysmal films like ‘Howard the Duck’ and the Dolph Lundgren blasphemy that was supposedly ‘The Punisher.’ While ‘Blade’ took the first step of bringing their comic films as a whole into the mainstream, appealing to comic fans and general film-goers alike, it wasn’t until ‘X-Men’ hit theaters as both a critical and financial success, that the floodgates opened for nearly the entire Marvel stable to hit the silver screen.
An X-Men film was long overdue. The comic, Uncanny X-Men, which originated in 1963 (the year many of the greatest Marvel comics began), sputtered in its early years, but came back with a vengeance in the ’70’s, which eventually led to countless spin-offs and new teams. The world’s favorite mutants hit television a few times in the ’90’s, with the Fox animated series (which was far superior to the Spider-Man animated series that aired along with it), and a made-for TV film (‘Generation X’) that focused on a group of mutant youths coming to grips with their powers, named after the comic series with the same plot. The ‘X-Men’ film was also much clamored for, as it contains quite possibly the single most popular comic book character of all time in Wolverine, the heroic antihero with an attitude as sharp as the blades that protrude from his hands.
Like other male escapist fantasy yarns, the somewhat tangled story for the film requires some suspension of belief. Evolution has created an anomaly, where some humans are born with powers that will trigger later in life; these powered beings are known as mutants. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is one such mutant, who has created a school for these special youths to help them control their powers and learn to live in a world that fears them. The teachers at the school are mutants as well, some of Xavier’s oldest students.
These special children aren’t openly accepted, as their powers bring fear and doubt into the minds of the rest of the world. Most mutants keep their powers secret, due to the repercussions for exposing themselves for who and what they really are. One such mutant is a drifter with a mysterious past (Hugh Jackman as the ever popular Wolverine, also known as Logan), who is equipped with retractable claws in his hands, the ability to regenerate, and, though not a part of his mutation, a skeleton that has been fused with the unbreakable metal adamantium. While traveling the frozen countryside, Logan encounters a younger mutant named Rogue (Anna Paquin), who is still coming to grips with her powers, and both eventually end up at Xavier’s school after an ambush by Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), a mutant who uses his powers to hunt.
When the powerful mutant Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), whose ability is that he can control metal, hatches a plan that would forever alter the world and its human/mutant relations, it is the job of Xavier’s assembly of mutant heros (including Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen)), and the outcast Wolverine to stop Magneto and his brethren of sinister villains from using their hate as a weapon.
The theme of the X-Men comics has been diversity ever since the Giant Sized X-Men #1 (before then, the group was solely comprised of white heroes, mostly male), when the team became more like a superpowered adaptation of the Village People. This theme of diversity has created one of the longest lasting themes/story lines in comics, that of the Mutant Registration Act, where “normal” humans want to know who around them are super-powered, or “different.” The premise of registration of super powered individuals even leaked into the Marvel universe as a whole, involving all humans, mutant or not, who were extraordinary.
‘X-Men’ doesn’t truly embrace the ideal of acceptance of others to the extent that the sequels did. The main conflict in this film doesn’t involve the anti-semitic, anti-gay/lesbian feelings that have real life parallels that are less than veiled in the later visits to the material. It is not out of the ordinary to see a group of people want to exterminate an entire other group, which is the plot of both sequels, and a recurring theme in history. If anything, ‘X-Men’ has more of a religious parallel than a social one, as the story more closely parallels the idea of converting the masses to a new doctrine and lifestyle, rather than slaughtering them.
What ‘X-Men’ did right is to portray the fear-mongering done by politicians against those they fear, influencing those around them to their rallying cry. Homosexuality is an important analogy in the comics, with the “mutations” developing later in life, that can lead families to disown the family member who is “different.” There are groups championing rights, while others are rallying for more and more ways to remove rights from these people. The comics even went so far as to introduce a mysterious, possibly incurable virus that was believed to only affect a specific group of people, paralleling the AIDS virus and the early misconceptions of those that believed the disease was exclusive to gays. The theme put forth in this first film, as somewhat of a coming out party, where being open about being different leads to persecution, was perfected in ‘X2,’ but is presented in a matter that doesn’t beat one over the head with its obviousness.
The film suffers from a stereotype that was inherent in the majority of early comic films: camp. ‘X-Men’ tries to communicate an important message, but seems to keep reminding itself it comes from such cheesy origins that it can’t evolve and tell its story seriously. Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants are always less than menacing, and their interactions with the heroes of the film feel episodic, to the point that the only thing missing is Magneto cursing the X-Men (and their little dog, too) for foiling his schemes. Toad (Ray Park) dances in the middle of his fight with Storm, and proceeds to bust out a staff move that pays homage to Park’s previous role as Darth Maul. Sabretooth exists to be a manicurist’s nightmare, as his only mutant powers on display are his lion-like roar, while every shape shift the azure skinned Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) performs is treated like the audience members are morons, as the character’s eyes absolutely must flash yellow, otherwise it just cannot be her.
Despite the camp, ‘X-Men’ does put the characters into our universe in a matter that makes them feel a bit more realistic than their comic counterparts. Rogue, in particular, has been powered down, removing her super strength and flight powers that were stolen from Ms. Marvel, leaving her as just a power-stealer. Xavier’s massive powers are hardly showcased, as he is a leader with his words, not his mental abilities. He is used as an expository character, who spouts plot like he's getting paid by the word, and a mentor to all those around him.
While the second film in the series did perfect the formula by creating a much more accessible conflict and fully fleshing out more of the mutants fans love, the first film has the task of creating the world the characters live in, making it believable, and introducing the genetic anomaly in a way that made the audience feel as though the events portrayed within could actually happen, and as such, ‘X-Men’ is a success, even if it does miss the point at times, and barely skims the surface of the source material’s potential.
‘X-Men’ arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080P/AVC MPEG-4 encode in its natural 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with a video transfer that won’t disappoint fans by any means, but falls short of perfection.
From the start, we know we’re in for a visual treat. The opening (post-credits) scene, in the concentration camp, is draped in bleak blacks and blues, yet the yellow patch of the Star of David on the attire of those being “sorted” stands out as a real focal point. Colors for the rest of the film are bright, vivid, and realistic, nowhere near the campy level of the comics that utilize every color of the rainbow in the costume lineups.
Close ups and midrange shots can be strikingly sharp, though distance shots were a bit dull, and establishing shots were an absolute wreck. The detail shown on this Blu-ray is a solid and fantastic upgrade from the DVD’s, though the enhanced visual clarity also creates a small problem: it shows how cheap/aged most of the effects look. At times, I found myself laughing at Wolverine’s claws, I was aghast at how ugly shots like Pyro’s fireball in class looked now, and Mystique’s costume/make-up effect stuck out too far from her natural skin, making it look like someone painted little toy jewels and glued them on Romijn-Stamos in an hour or less. Still, I was amazed at one silly little shot. When Sabretooth grab’s Senator Kelly’s hand, I could see little splashes of moisture popping out from his fingers, an effect I had never seen in countless viewings of the DVD.
Blacks look good, though unspectacular, as they at times carried a blue or purple tint. There is a bit of noise in some shots, and many shots in the Cerebro room had a bit of a glare to them. Skin tones fluctuate, often absorbing the lighting of their respective scenes, though they also run a bit hot at times, in shots that aren’t bright. There is an occasional dirt speck or imperfection, though very infrequent. If I had to register any serious complaint, it would be that many shots in Magneto’s island lair are a bit underwhelming and soft, but as a whole, this Blu-ray is a fantastic upgrade from the DVD releases, is free from artificial enhancement, and does the film proud, even if it isn’t perfect.
From the moment the film starts, you know you’re in for a treat with this DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. The opening scene sets the bar high, with fantastic surround use, and a fantastic dynamic range. The track takes these themes and rolls with them, throwing in some amazing bass rumbles from the subwoofer to boot.
Both the high and low end sounds are well defined on this release, creating a sonic masterpiece. Dialogue is perfectly clear, and balances with the score seamlessly. Random atmospheric effects are apparent and realistic throughout. Sounds jump from speaker to speaker fantastically, especially in shots that show off Xavier’s mental powers, and in the train sequence where Magneto suspends Wolverine, there is a flat out awesome bass pulse that brought an eery feel, especially to a comic nerd such as myself who knows what Magneto can do to good ol’ Logan. I was a bit disappointed in the cage fighting scene, as the sound was front heavy at first, and only permeated to the rest of the speakers in the middle of the sequence. Still, that little gripe doesn’t take away from how fantastic this release sounds. This is demo material, just as the other X-Men films have been dubbed.
This is where ‘X-Men’ drops the ball, and makes me angry. It shouldn’t have made me angry.
Yes, I know, wrong comic property, but Bruce Banner’s signature line applies here. Don’t be fooled by the fact that this release has three discs. The entire supplement package is a rehash from the ‘X-Men 1.5’ DVD release, so much so that the features function the exact same way, as Fox didn’t take the time to create a Picture in Picture track. Wait, I take that back....they did. It’s on the UK version of the disc.
Though it is flawed and a bit dated, ‘X-Men’ holds a warm place in my heart, as the film’s success made all the other Marvel Comics adaptations possible. The film may as well be the set-up piece to the superior ‘X2: X-Men United,’ as it accomplishes little in it’s runtime other than establishing the world these mutants live in. This Blu-ray features good video and fantastic audio qualities, though the extras package is dated, and is a wimpy cop-out, with no actual new content to be found. This disc is easy to recommend, but it easily could have been much, much more.