X-Men’s Cinema of Compromise

2000’s first hero hit kept it’s distance from the comics.
X Men Wolverine
By  · Published on June 7th, 2019

Released in 2000, X-Men is notable for being the progenitor of the bonanza of superhero films in the modern era. The Marvel Comics adaptation remains one of the few great installments of the X-franchise — before its continuity became more tangled up than the roots of a kudzu plant — but it’s also a film that was afraid to adhere to its comic book origins, steering away from the source material wherever possible.

The reasoning behind this decision, in business terms, is pretty easy to grasp.

Before the turn of the millennium, superheroes just weren’t the box office draw they are today. Marvel hadn’t yet shaken up the entire Hollywood status quo, and nobody was scrambling to adapt comics into extensively interconnected cinematic universes. The most recent media portrayal of the X-Men before then was the 1992 Saturday morning cartoon, and it would be easy for the public to assume that these characters were for kids.

As for Hollywood, 1997’s critically panned Batman & Robin had set a bad precedent for superhero movies. Reviews blasted the production design, particularly Batman’s costume, and the overabundance of ice-related puns. The film did nothing good for the public’s perception of superheroes, and to steer clear from this image, the team behind X-Men opted to take a “serious” approach to the mutant team. Batman & Robin had shown that audiences, evidently, did not want to see comic-book style antics.

First and foremost, the characters wear black leather suits instead of their classic costumes from the comics. Director Bryan Singer claimed that these clothes make more sense for X-Men to wear in actual combat situations, but given the behind-the-scenes footage of the actors struggling to move about comfortably in these costumes, that idea doesn’t hold up. Marvel has since proven that iconic costuming can not only attract audiences but is a crucial element of character design and makes these characters stand out when they’re all in a room together.

In the behind-the-scenes short The Secret Origin of X-Men (2000), comic writer Chris Claremont stated of the classic comic costumes: “you can do that on a drawing, but when you put it on people it’s disturbing!” But even fan cosplay has proven that “disturbing” is merely a matter of perspective. After nearly 20 years, this statement reeks of 90’s-era homophobia at muscular men in tight costumes, as if everyone is not capable of appreciating the human physique.

X-Men is also the movie that codified the modern era’s avoidance of superhero code names. After introducing monikers such as Storm and Cyclops, it then proceeds to skirt around using them for nearly the whole film. Wolverine — sorry, Logan — goes out of his way to make fun of the X-Men for their use of them. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says. The implication is clear: Professor X and his original team are the nerds, Logan is the cool guy who gets top billing and multiple solo films.

But it’s not like the characters have these names for no reason. The comics prove that these names denote an element of their identities, beyond “Scott” and “Logan.” Both these characters are more than that; they are Cyclops and Wolverine, the eternally feuding hero and anti-hero of the X-Men ensemble. And yet, the film does its best to bypass or ignore these code names, as if they don’t matter, or as if they’re too silly for “normal” audiences to accept.

Sure, Most of the compromises from the source material were in the interest of making the movie palatable to mainstream audiences — those people who weren’t readers of the comics. Fair enough, as far as the year 2000 goes. Backstory and lore are stripped down to the essentials, and the world of the X-Men is rebuilt from the ground up as a standalone story with witty, quipping characters.

The success of X-Men would kick off the beginnings of the superhero film revolution. Two years later we would see the release of Spider-Man, and three years after that Batman Begins, which, along with X-Men’s own 2003 sequel, boosted comic book movies into mainstream popularity. These films were all notable for their relatively serious take on superheroes, following X-Men‘s example. But at the same time, they all did so while taking their source material seriously. Batman Begins adapts a large amount of material from Batman: Year One, and Spider-Man goes as far as recreating the scene in which Uncle Ben is killed. Both heroes wear their iconic clothing and are referred to by their chosen monikers; so why is X-Men so coy about doing the same?

In the context of the new millennium and X-Men being a single film, unattached to a larger cinematic universe, it’s easy to see why the production team made the changes they did. Many of them work, and they assisted the film with casting off any presumed campiness that the genre inherited from Batman & Robin. And yet, there’s a reason these characters and stories have resonated with audiences and fans for so long. There are serious and meaningful stories to be told about these characters in this setting, and nothing proves that better than… this movie itself, which hammers home the metaphor of mutants as oppressed peoples.

In the wake of Marvel’s record-busting popularity, which has treated its source material with reverence, it seems almost prudish for the X-Men to not do the same. A costume that’s faithful to the original comic’s design doesn’t make it “disturbing,” unless you deliberately read it that way. Same goes for superhero names; RDJ was able to deliver his last line in MCU canon without breaking out into laughter at it’s “silliness,” and audiences worldwide fell apart crying at Iron Man’s funeral. Superhero tropes are only as silly as you allow them to be.

Whatever roadmap the X-Men franchise has been following (or not) has been a mess of ups and downs, so why not trust the comics that have been going on for decades? These characters don’t need quippy one-liners or leather biker gear to be cool. All they need is to be themselves; the same X-Men who have sold comic books for over 50 years.

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Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy