Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
In many ways, what gives great ensemble superhero movies their uniqueness are their choices of actors. There was a time when starring in a comic-book film was seen as a step down from Serious Acting.
Now? Well, now, it can burnish your career, even give you major thespian credit. Marvel has perfected that formula over the last decade, but the X-Men movies were on this from the get-go.
With The New Mutants hitting theaters in a few weeks, we take a look today at the best acting performances in X-Men movies, including the two guys who played Magneto.
Let's acknowledge at the top that the X-Men films have never done a great job with the Phoenix character arc. And then let’s add that it's not Famke Janssen’s fault.
The Jean Grey from the original films, Janssen has always been able to project an otherworldly air, which was perfect for a mutant who will eventually be overwhelmed by her powers.
The movies tended to make Jean a bit of a damsel-in-distress character, which was frustrating because Janssen played her as one of the school’s brightest and most emotionally intelligent denizens. Still, even if Jean had to be the romantic prize that Cyclops and Wolverine battled over, the actress made the character more interesting than she was on the page.
Fassbender has established himself as one of the brightest young actors in independent film, largely through his breathtaking performances in Steve McQueen films such as Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave. But putting him in an X-Men movie, playing a younger version of Ian McKellen no less, not only gave him the opportunity to showcase his talent on a global level, it lent those movies a poignancy and depth they might not have had otherwise.
Fassbender is incapable of not elevating anything he’s in; Magneto has never seemed to have such deep reserves of feeling.
It wasn't too much of a stretch to go from Jean-Luc Picard, witty, wise and erudite captain of the USS Enterprise, to Charles Xavier, witty, wise and erudite founder of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.
Nonetheless, Patrick Stewart provided the original X-Men movies a sense of gravitas and legitimacy — alongside Ian McKellen (who became one of his closest friends), the Star Trek star was a respected, veteran actor who anchored the franchise.
Professor X is something of a Yoda-like figure, but Stewart was also able to tap into the character's moral righteousness, teaching his young mutants about the importance of doing the right thing — even when humanity wants you wiped off the face of the earth. And in Logan, he was able to give an ailing Charles a proper, emotional sendoff.
"X-Men was a gay man's delight," Ian McKellen once said, "because it was full of the most amazing divas."
Chief among them was Magneto, an eminently stylish villain with an operatic sense of evil. Few mutants enjoy wielding their power as much as Erik Lehnsherr does, and the Oscar-nominee levitated and unleashed chaos with undeniable flair. But because McKellen is gay, Magneto's anger at small-minded humans — which in the X-Men world was often a metaphor for homophobia — always carried a little extra resonance.
Sure, Magneto was the bad guy, but you couldn't say he didn’t have a point. Michael Fassbender honored McKellen's portrayal, but he could never match it.
First off, can we talk about how Jackman played Wolverine for almost 20 years? That’s not just commitment to a role; that’s physical commitment. Is anyone you know capable of playing the same, unchanging, indestructible antihero at the ages of both 32 and 50?
The character has gone through countless permutations in that time, as have the movies, but Hugh Jackman's charisma, consistency, and humanity have kept him the fulcrum around which the whole series pivots. Some of these movies haven't turned out well. But you can always count on Jackman.