There has never been a better time to be a fan of comic book & superhero films, with a huge number of potential treats heading our way. From Daredevil & The Hulk, to Hellboy, X-2, & The Amazing Spider-man, (not to mention similar concepts like The Matrix, Tomb Raider & Terminator), the whole thing will probably go to over-saturation & meltdown before Batman & Superman get around to making their much-delayed returns. When it was released, X-Men was merely the saviour of summer 2000. Now, it’s one of the most important films (in Hollywood terms at least) of recent years, paving way for the huge explosion of the genre we are currently enjoying.
And yet, X-Men was a pretty risky proposition at the time. The likes of The Phantom or The Shadow had shown how hard it is to find an audience for less well-known heroes (of course, it might have helped had they been better films), whilst the death of Batman & Robin hung over the genre like a pair of Superman’s holy old tights, seemingly proving that superhero-teams don’t work in films. Worse, the superhero-team concept had already been spoofed – usually the kiss of death – by the not entirely successful Mystery Men. Add to that the complications of having to introduce not just one, but a whole team of superheroes who were by no means household names, & played by a cast unfamiliar with the comic. Give it to a director who hadn’t read the comics, was unused to big budget projects, & who needed to prove that The Usual Suspects was no fluke.
Somehow it all came together in fine fashion. Whilst it’s not quite one of the very finest comic book films, it nestles admirably high up as a compelling & sometimes exciting slice of thought-provoking sci-fi action. The narrative, for those unfamiliar, is set in the near future as human evolution is taking a great leap forward, with the appearance of a minority of mutants who have a variety of unusual powers. Mankind is mostly frightened & resentful towards these mutants. The film is concerned with the struggle between Magneto (Ian McKellen), a cynic who distrusts men, & Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who runs a school for the gifted, staffed by his team of X-Men.
X-Men is one of the most sociologically relevant comic books around, & this is translated well onto the screen. This is a surprisingly rich & resonant film, dealing with weighty themes of prejudice & tolerance, translated into this comic book fiction world. Of course, it’s not the most in-depth treatment of such ideas ever, but its willingness to deal with such issues is a pleasant change from the rather more inward-looking nature of most comic book films. One of the most impressive things about this films is the seriousness with which it treats its main themes & concepts – this is more an adult science-fiction than the pulp comic-book fun of say, Spider-man.
On a more technical level, I really love this film for its tightness & economy. There is a quite amazing amount of exposition & set-up here. Just trying to introduce the large ensemble of characters & their own special powers could easily take up several hours, but Singer with scriptwriter David Haytor & co-storywriter Tom DeSantos fit a lot of information into a short space of time, wisely leaving the back stories of many characters untold. It’s a very intelligent piece of filmmaking, where seemingly everything is working to multiple purposes, & it actually takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate just how taut it all is. It’s a great introduction to the world of X-Men for the uninitiated, whilst not being boringly obvious for long-standing fans.
The film is enlivened by some fine performances. The decision to cast heavyweight thesps Sir Ian McKellen & Sir Patrick Stewart as Magneto & Prof Xavier really pays off, with the two giving their roles some serious gravitas. The scenes between the two are a joy. There are also a number of nice turns throughout the ensemble, with everyone seemingly getting their characters right on. In particular Hugh Jackman eats up the screen with a magnetic animal intensity as Wolverine, whilst Anna Paquin gets the most affecting moments of the film as Rogue. Unfortunately, there isn’t quite the time to let some of the others (including neat turns by the perennially underrated Famke Janssen, Halle Berry & James Marsden) actually do all that much. The film also benefits from some great cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (Fallen), some wonderful production design by John Myhre (Ali, Chicago), & from a highly underrated piece of thoroughly modern scoring my Michael Kamen.
X-Men is not perfect, however. Despite some highly amusing one-liners, it is perhaps a little too serious for its own good. It’s not without its embarrassing moments – notably the toad/lightening line. By taking such a large group of heroes, it lacks the intimacy of a film like Spider-man. And the comparative lack of action will disappoint some. Sure, the Statue of Liberty finale (with fireworks detonating in the background) is excellent, but it feels more like a pre-credits piece of action rather than the big climax. There are only really two other pieces of action in the film before this, & they both feel very brief & somewhat undernourished. Singer has said that this film is essentially just a trailer, the set-up, for X-2 when all the real goodness will come, & the film really does feel like that. Let’s just hope that X-2 really does deliver on the enormous promise on display here.
As seems to be becoming the norm, the first release of X-Men was embellished with pretty average extras consisting primarily of promotional featurettes & the like. And now, with the sequel only just around the corner, it finally gets the release it deserves. There had been talk of shooting new scenes to extend the film, & possibly having a new score by Singer’s regular composer/editor John Ottman (unable to work on the first film since he was directing Urban Legend 2, but back with Singer for the sequel) – hence the 1.5 tag. For various reasons none of this happened, but the name stuck.
The audio/visual quality is superb, as you’d expect of such a high-profile release from a major studio. The 2.35:1, 16x9, THX-certified picture is extremely vivid, & well detailed, & as good as any I’ve seen. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is excellent with some great use of the surrounds. Although I personally don’t have the equipment to use it, there is also a new DTS track that I’m told is even better. There are also Spanish & French Dolby Surrounds, with English & Spanish subtitles.
The big selling point for this new release, however, is not for the improvement in a/v quality (DTS fanatics excepted), but for the plethora of new extras, which push this release into the higher echelons of DVD quality. Leading off on the first disc, is an all-new commentary by director Bryan Singer, aided by Brian Peck since the director was uncomfortable doing a solo commentary. This is a pretty fine track, with plenty of input by the director who has plenty of interesting things to say - & is unafraid to say when things don’t quite work as well as they should (& yes, he does accept responsibility for the toad line). We also get here an extended branching version, similar to the one on the first release. There are 6 deleted scenes (all with new commentary), & when the film reaches the appropriate point it jumps across to the removed scene, & then back again. It should be noted, however, that it’s not a T-2 style seamless branching – there are significant gaps as it changes position on the disc. This feature is also a “white rabbit” job, with 17 sequences of behind the scenes footage accessible at the appropriate point. Whilst this feature is no real way to watch the film proper, it is quite informative & works well in conjunction with the commentary.
Switching over to disc 2, & we get an introduction by Bryan Singer from the set of X-2, then footage of him conducting the 20th Century Fox Fanfare on the first night of shooting X-1. Getting to the goodies themselves, there’s something of a surprise. The real meat of this disc is for some reason not mentioned on the packaging. There’s an excellent behind the scenes video diary running just over an hour, & covering everything from pre-production meetings right through shooting to the scoring stage. This is an extremely entertaining look at the making of the film that all fans will want to see. Moving on, there are a number of sleek documentaries looking at various aspects of the production, all of which come with optional “white rabbit” branching (the branched footage can also be accessed separately). First up is “The Uncanny Suspects”, a traditional 24-minute piece with interviews with most of the major players, who all have pretty interesting or at least amusing things to say. Then there’s the 23-minute “X-factor”, which looks at the evolution of the look of the characters from the comic to the screen. Next is a 17–minute “Special Effects of the X-Men”, which does basically what it says on the tin, albeit in an entertaining & informative manner. Finally, there’s “Reflections of the X-Men”, an 8-minute retrospective.
All of this is rounded out with some excellent shorter pieces, including footage from premieres in four countries, Hugh Jackman’s read-through, multi-angle looks at filming the Train Splitting, effects breakdowns, make-ups tests, image galleries and more. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s “Marketing the X-Men”, which gathers together 3 trailers, 9 TV spots & 12 Internet interstitials.
What most people will leap to first on this disc though, is the 8-minute X-2 preview, wherein Singer takes you on a tour of the partially constructed set, Hugh Jackman & Sir Ian McKellen deliver a couple of sound bites, before we see a short trailer for the film itself. It’s decent enough promotional fluff, which does its job of getting you drooling for X-2, but you won’t watch it again in a couple of months. In a canny & not entirely ungenerous piece of cross marketing, the package is rounded out with a Daredevil trailer & a coupon for $12 of entry to see Daredevil or X-2, all presented in a nice quality cardboard digipack slipcase.
Overall, this is a very high quality release. Whilst it’s slightly disappointing that the planned recut didn’t happen, there’s more than enough new stuff here for X-fans to make it worthwhile trading in the first release for the upgrade. But if you just want a copy of the film to watch every now & then, the original release is just fine. If the film were slightly less promise & a little more delivery, this would be one of the very best packages on the market. As it is, it’s a decidedly superior release that is well worth investing in.