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Credit: 20th Century Fox

'Mutation, it is the key to our evolution': How X-Men invented the modern superhero movie

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Jul 14, 2020

X-Men turns 20 years old today, July 14, and with it, so do modern superhero movies. Yes, superhero movies existed before this century — there's Superman, and Tim Burton’s Batman is a classic amongst a few dozen cringe-inducing flicks, and many people point to Iron Man, Avengers, The Dark Knight, or the general rise of the MCU as being the real turning point for superhero movies. However, back in the year 2000, X-Men figured out the basic formula that all of the modern-day successes have borrowed from.

While comic books themselves have tackled an array of gritty subjects since their conception, comic book movies pre-2000 always seemed to equate "comic book" to "cartoonish." Even the gothic tones of Burton’s aforementioned Batman features wacky and over-the-top characters with pulp fiction storytelling. X-Men, starting off in Auschwitz, immediately signals itself as something very different.

In Auschwitz, we get a hint of young Magneto’s powers, tying his superhero abilities to a time of deep and real-world anguish, and giving us a character grounded in one of the most insidious atrocities the human race has ever committed against itself. From here, we’re whisked away to the floor of Congress, where closeted mutant Jean Grey is speaking out against mutant registration before Senator Kelly, one of the most ardent supporters of the bill. 

These scenes introduce two of the elements from the modern superhero movie formula: They exist very much in our world, and they deal with politics. 

First, there's real-world drama, which isn’t just established through politics, but through the monotony of everyday life. Rogue's biggest problem is she can’t kiss her boyfriend. Wolverine is scraping a living by abusing his healing and metal skeleton to win bar brawls. Other superhero movies have followed suit. You don’t need to take my word for it either; Christopher Nolan agrees, and even feared he’d never get to make his Batman movies because X-Men had beaten him to the punch. On the DVD commentary — remember those? — of X-Men, Hugh Jackman recalls Nolan’s comments while they were working together on The Prestige.

“Even way back before 2000, he had the version of Batman that he ended up making in his head. He said, 'When I went into the cinema and saw X-Men, I thought "damn, that’s my idea,"'" Jackman recalled. "The idea that you could really dive into the emotional life, to the vulnerability of these characters and that, as well as being fantastical, amazing, and action, is what’s going to hook people and make them care."

The introduction of politics largely establishes that this movie is set "in the real world," even if the Nazis and senators are somewhat tailored toward the needs of this particular superhero story. Future movies would follow in X-Men's tradition of having some relevance to the real world. X2 (2003) swaps the racism parallel of mutants for homophobia as it zooms in on Bobby "coming out" to his family. Modern superhero movies often involve geopolitics (Iron Man, Black Panther, Avengers: Age of Ultron), feature actual wars (Wonder Woman, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Wolverine), or serve up metaphors for our current political climate (Captain Marvel with refugees, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on unchecked power, Spider-Man on the post-9/11 spirit of New York); while superhero movies still often operate in a good vs. bad dyad, they often seek to raise questions about the world around them. Ink and paper comic book stories have been doing it for decades, but it took X-Men for film reel stories to catch up.

It raises these moral questions in a slightly ham-fisted way, admittedly, but clunky political metaphors are a huge part of the modern-day superhero movie too, so that all tracks.

Inside that good vs. bad dyad, you’ll find the third element of the modern superhero formula: the counterpart villain. The MCU has flagrantly overused this trope (granted, to great effect), but its superhero screen roots trace back to Professor X and Magneto. 

Magneto is the bad guy of this movie; he and his henchmen fight the heroes, and there’s even a scene wherein he uses his power to shoot someone and make the bullet slowly bore into their forehead. He’s the baddie, and the X-Men are the goodies. But he’s introduced to us as a survivor of Auschwitz before the film skips several decades forward and shows that his new country, the land of the free, is openly debating rounding up his kind and putting them all on a list. He’s a sympathetic villain, at least.

This basic idea of a very human villain is not part of the formula, though you could argue it is part of the process. Instead, what X-Men introduced to mainstream superhero cinema was a hero and villain positioned as mirror images. Both Professor X and Magneto are mutants, both seek to mentor and protect their kind, and both feel a conflict with the humans is imminent. While Professor X would rather discuss these tensions and live peacefully, Magneto would rather take the battle to the humans and defeat them by force; in this movie, specifically, his plan is to turn everyone into mutants. The duo of Professor X and Magneto has been compared to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (despite the popular myth, the two civil rights leaders were not Stan Lee’s inspiration), and while that’s a little reductive and casts Malcolm X as a villain, it holds water as a basic comparison; Professor X and Magneto are two sides of the same coin.

The MCU refers to HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. as being two sides of the same coin, too, but mirroring the hero is a very popular theme in the MCU across the board. Tony Stark shares a lot of characteristics with both Obediah Stane and Justin Hammer, while Captain America and Bucky Barnes go from best friends to enemies with a little bit of Winter Soldier brainwashing between movies. Thor and Loki speak from themselves. T’Challa and Killmonger grew up apart but are deeply affected by each other. Ant-Man and Yellowjacket use the same tech. Doctor Strange and Kaecillius are both sorcerers who broke the rules. The DCEU plumbs these pipes less often, though Aquaman’s use of it — Arthur and Orm, anyone? — is as obvious as any in the MCU.

There are other facets to the formula, as well; wanton destruction of a public building nobody seems concerned about, a spirit of teamwork, meta-references, some sequel bait... there’s also the leftover funk of the movies before X-Men through some terribly cheesy one-liners. On the whole though, by establishing a foothold in the real world, tackling meaningful issues — however clumsily — and offering up an antagonist in the shape of the hero’s mirror image, X-Men set out a roadmap for the modern superhero movie which few have successfully deviated from since. Without it, who knows what superhero movies would look like today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.

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