Director: Bryan Singer*
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Anna Paquin
Have I Seen it Before: Oh, gosh. The memories. With driver’s license freshly in hand, this was the movie I first went to see under my own power. My, how far we’ve come. I am, of course, looking in your direction, Dark Phoenix (2019).
Did I Like It: There are, of course parts that don’t age so gracefully (see that footnote), but by and large the things that were done on purpose in this film work, while the things that are simply a reality of when and under what circumstances the film was made, not so much. But then again, I’m thinking that way back in the last year of the old millennium, the ratio of things that work to those that don’t probably stayed about the same.
If Toad (Ray Park, living his best life in the late 90s/early aughts, to be sure) stole Cyclops’ (James Marsden) visor during the fight at the train station, why does he have it back as they head to Liberty Island? I mean, I guess, he has spares… But, still.
Now that the one true nitpick I have for the film is out of the way (excluding any toads struck by lightning), let’s get to the heart of the movie. And it is truly in the heart where this series is launched with the best of intentions. As an action movie, it is a product of it’s time, trying to echo some of the sensibilities of The Matrix (1999), but only managing to mimic, not capture the leather-clad wire-jumping spirit of that film. The plot is also insubstantial to the point of floating into the wind under the slightest scrutiny. It’s a 90s movie at the beginning of a decade that wanted something else. We’d have to wait for the sequel for the series to fully deliver on that promise, and another fifteen-or-so years for it to squander that promise and go out with a whimper.
And so the film is left with casting and the interplay between the characters. Here, it is successful. Patrick Stewart reaches his cinematic destiny, bringing all of his stern, yet patient leadership (and GOAT sitting in a chair skills) as Xavier. Ian McKellan might have seemed like an odd choice to play Magneto (in fact, the sort of Adonis-like Michael Fassbender seems more on-point), but he plays the man vacillating between compromise-averse crusader and egomaniacal tyrant with a deftness that any lesser actor may have whiffed. Anna Paquin… Well, there’s something about Anna Paquin’s Rogue that reminds me of thoughts I might have had as a younger man, that might be unseemly now, although they would have been age-appropriate at the time. Let’s just say that she inhabits the vulnerability of the role fully, and I really like scarves.
And then there’s Hugh Jackman, who arrived as if from nowhere in this film as a fully-formed movie star. He almost didn’t have the role, and it’s hard not to think of how bereft Dougray Scott must feel at having just missed out on what would be a 17-year franchise and a career as one of the most bankable movie stars of all time. It might be reductive to say Jackman glowers around the film like a young Clint Eastwood, but his magic is in the interaction with the other characters. His absolute infatuation with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) feels real, his big-brother affection for Rogue is earned in every frame, and I absolutely believes that he just doesn’t care for James Marsden.
Is this a thin film in retrospect? Probably. But it delivered on the things that could work in an X-Men film, and left the stuff that didn’t have much of a hope of translating for later entries in the series.
*It’s just going to be ugly to have to watch his credit come up in films from here on in. It is of some small comfort that, in retrospect, some of his best films may have had less to do with his contribution than we might have been previously led to believe.