I was first introduced to X-Men comics in 1991, when my mother brought me to her favourite hobby shop and allowed me to pick up one issue of whatever funny book struck my fancy, provided there weren’t any naked people in it. Thinking myself a clever boy, I picked up The X-Men #1, which I’d assumed to feature a one-off, self-contained story, seeing as the regular series, The Uncanny X-Men, had already reached issue 281. In retrospect, I should have gone with a graphic novel.
You see, The X-Men #1 turned out the first issue of an ongoing spinoff series starring Charles Xavier’s new strike team. Some of the characters, like Cyclops and Wolverine, I knew from the cartoon pilot Pryde of the X-Men. Others I was eager to discover because they had cool costumes and stuff. I found myself particularly taken with Gambit and Psylocke, in large part because I could relate to being French (well, French Canadian, but close enough) and an Asian ninja (well, just Asian, but whatever). I learnt a year later that Remy Lebeau actually grew up in Louisiana and that Betsy Braddock was a British white woman stuck in an assassin’s body, but by then I’d already become an addict for life.
X-Men is like a soap opera: characters come and go, switch sides every other storyline, and spend more time conveying their angst about any given problem than actually fixing it. That’s because the series hinges on a metaphor rather than a formula. Whereas Spider-Man can always be expected to rely on his aunt, childhood sweetheart, and New York friends while juggling his private life and crime-fighting endeavours, the X-Men can just as easily teach at a school for gifted youngsters, travel the world by way of an Australian aboriginal mystic, or form an island nation so long as their struggle echoes that of minorities everywhere, be they immigrants, homosexuals, or any other group feeling the sting of oppression.
Fortunately, the X-Men movies have kept true to this notion, focusing on Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) dream of peaceful coexistence between baseline humans and their super-powered brethren called mutants. Each born with an extraordinary ability, the X-Men fight to protect a world that fears and hates them from the likes of Magneto (Ian McKellen), an untypically reasoned and altruistic villain who’d sooner subjugate the human race than see mutants become the victims of its next genocide. We can see where the guy’s coming from, seeing as he grew up in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
Therein lies the charm of the X-Men franchise. Say what you will about his weird fetish for black leather or his tendency to grab iconic names from the comic book and attributing them to random background characters, Bryan Singer understands that one can’t vanquish prejudice by punching it in the face. In his films, the X-Men’s battle is presented as a personal one so that, when Pyro (Aaron Stanford) turns his back on Xavier’s dream at the end of X2: X-Men United (2003), we find ourselves mourning the loss of a promising young soul rather than shaking our firsts at his betrayal.
It’s unfortunate Brett Ratner couldn’t wrap his mind around the notion, favouring sanctimonious liberal posturing over the sort of understanding that might actually win people over. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) nearly tanked the series, forcing Matthew Vaughn to restart it all the way back in the sixties because, you know, when attending a party, it’s best to show up before someone pooped on the couch. His X-Men: Fist Class (2011) turned out a success among critics and comics enthusiasts alike, which I find somewhat ironic, given he was set to helm the third X-Men movie before the funny book community got him the boot for not being a fan.
Regardless, X-Men has proven itself a resilient franchise, owing, I suspect, to the strength of its concept. As the market saturates, super-heroes will, no doubt, come and go, but Chris Claremont’s forty-year-old vision of the X-Men transcends any one character. Long after Hugh Jackman will have retired his Wolverine sideburns, little boys wandering their mom’s favourite hobby shop will find themselves captivated by the dream of super-powered outcasts striving to earn the same acceptance for which we all secretly long.
- X-Men (2000)
- X2: X-Men United (2003)
- X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
- X-Men: First Class (2011)
- The Wolverine (2013)
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
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