X-Men is a foundational text of Marvel movies.
Despite not officially being a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was one of the first big "superhero team-up" movies following the success of standalone heroes like Superman and Batman. There wasn't just one star, it was a genuinely ensemble-fueled film, paving the way for everything from Marvel's monolithic Avengers to Amazon's subversive The Boys. It's also the most successful superhero movie that I've never seen.
To be fair, I was only two years old when this movie first came out, so most of the hype I've heard surrounding X-Men has been tongue in cheek, making fun of the dialogue, the special effects, the plot, and Halle Berry's Storm. Mentally, I've always thought of it as "the movie that made Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan friends." I'd seen X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past, and considering how they dealt with the foundation of the X-Men as a group, I just didn't think the original film was essential viewing. I was wrong.
So, in honor of its 20th anniversary on July 14, 2020, I powered up HBO Max and finally watched X-Men.
From the very start, I wasn't getting that distinct "Marvel movie" feeling. There was a bombastic and emotionally powerful opening scene, one that had MCU written all over it, but something in the presentation seemed...off. By the time I got to the senate scene, this felt less like Avengers: Infinity War and more like The Manchurian Candidate.
The more the plot moved along, the more I realized X-Men isn't at all structured like a Marvel movie. It's more like a political thriller or a James Bond movie. Sure, the allegory was heavy handed, but that's the X-Men for you. The fight scenes haven't aged well, but this film is less interested in its set pieces and more focused on its oppressed group of superheroes fighting for survival while trying to save a world that hates them.
X-Men exposes a flaw that's ingrained in modern Marvel movies: the predictability that it will be like all the other movies that came before.
The "Marvel movie" has become its own genre, an archetype for polished, epic, action-packed, films filled with one-liners. Despite some aesthetic differences, each MCU movie slots into this style with little to no resistance.
Before watching X-Men, I would have simply described Marvel movies as "superhero movies," but that's just more evidence that superhero movies don't have to be the soaring score, sparks flying masterworks we've come to expect. Movies like X-Men, Into the Spider-Verse, and Logan remind us that a superhero movie isn't a genre. It's a trait.
With nothing to build on X-Men was free to branch out into different genres and themes, which guided the franchise through its soaring highs (First Class, Logan) and confounding lows (Dark Phoenix, X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Compared to these movies, Marvel's 23 intertwined movies look nearly identical.
Sure, X-Men isn't the funniest movie I've ever seen. It doesn't have the best action either, and that line about toads and lightning is a total clunker. But I honestly didn't want a witty and clever one-liner at that moment. It would have made Storm's big victory feel rehearsed and scripted, while this poorly written dialogue gives the scene some unintentional extra realism. (Iron Man might always have a quip locked and loaded, but the X-Men are awkward idiots like the rest of us, just with superpowers.)
Then again, if Storm had followed that "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning?" with something clever like, "It croaks," I would have appreciated the wit. Realistic or not, X-Men was anticlimactic and a little dull. By the end, I was missing Marvel's brand of humor.
Superhero cinema may have outgrown X-Men, but they still have something to learn from the original team-up movie. Leave the bad special effects behind, sure, but maybe what Marvel needs more than anything is a little bit of awkwardness.
WELCOME TO X-MEN WEEK, INVERSE'S CELEBRATION OF THE FILM THAT KICKED OFF MARVEL'S MOVIE DOMINATION.