There are some who say that 2007’s Iron Man was the beginning of the modern comic book movie. Others argue the start of the grittier, more grounded, versions of the genre came with Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins. I disagree. It started years earlier with a story about evolved humans, the prejudices they faced, and how they chose to deal with them…It started with 2000’s X-Men.
Fantasy Meets Reality
Prior to X-Men there were comic book movies, but most stuck firmly to their initial comic appearances. The Gotham cities of the 1990s and earlier were Gothically over-the-top and its citizens even more so. Rarely was there a character that wasn’t somewhat cartoonish with outrageous costumes, scene chewing behaviors, and melodramatic speeches. Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face had a scar with a bizarrely hot pink hue in campy Batman Forever while Terrance Stamp’s Zod in Superman looked something like a space pirate as he declared “Kneel before Zod!”.
This changed with 2000’s X-Men. While remaining faithful to the characters, with their extraordinary powers and (occasionally) appearance, the story was set into our reality. The sets became gritty with realism – and history in the case of a flashback to The Holocaust – and characters followed suit. Even the most outrageous of characters – such as the reptilian Toad – seemed more realistic as they opted out of wild colors and costumes in favor of darker tones and street clothes. Characters managed to be impactful, to own the screen, while remaining relatively subdued; rather than grandstanding and blowing up buildings there was evocative dialogue and…okay, people still blew things up, but even the explosions came across more realistic.
In 2005’s Batman Begins this influence is seen by a Gotham looking and feeling like a real city (specifically Chicago, where much of it was filmed) and not a series of set pieces. Batman’s no longer a random wealthy guy playing hero, but a well-trained vigilante complete with an armored suit (that just happens to make him look like a bat). Even intergalactic characters from Thor and their home planets manage to feel as realistic as the Earthlings and cities of our own world. As technology advances so does the realism and this idea of pulling from the comics and basing it in our reality all started with X-Men.
Motive With Deeper Meaning
Early comic book movies tended to have villains with fairly simple goals. They either wanted to unmask the hero (Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc) or they wanted to take over Earth on whole. Their motives tended to be as superficial. They snapped after a trauma, they were greedy, or just because. There’s nothing wrong with a nice, straightforward, plot, but there isn’t much for an audience to learn from it. There’s no real connection to the every day world people live in and there’s no conversation to be had after the film beyond whether or not it was entertaining.
X-Men went deeper than the basics. This wasn’t just the villainous Magneto snapping and trying to take over the world after a single incident of trauma. Erik Lehnsherr had a very specific and totally understandable view of the world that came from a near lifetime of terrible prejudice and abuse due to who/what he was. As a child he was sent to Auschwitz (where he lost his family) for being Jewish and, after, he experienced and witnessed similar treatment towards mutants. He doesn’t wish to take over the world, but instead turn the population of the world into mutants in effort to eliminate that prejudice. Magneto isn’t a villain to be a villain, he’s a villain because he has no limits in how far he’ll go to save his kind. …He’s a villain whose actions can and should be debated and the movie, on whole, builds on that. It deals with the concepts of prejudice, the politics of safety and freedom, and at what point those two intersect in both negative and positive ways.
Playing with the deeper motives of villains and gray areas of all characters, regardless of the sides they take, continues after X-Men‘s release. Thor’s Loki isn’t just motived by a desire for power, but also feelings of hurt and betrayal upon discovering his (adopted) father has been lying to him his whole life. Batman Begins‘ Ra’s Al Ghul wants to destroy Gotham as a “cutting out the cancer” way of healing the rest of the world while Iron Man 2‘s villain, Ivan Vanko, is motivated by vengeance for the death of his father. And, as villains are given deeper motives, the movies also examine the darker sides of the heroes. The Iron Man films never shy from Tony’s alcoholism and PTSD while Chris Nolan’s Batman is shown as almost dangerously obsessive in his desire to root out all crime in Gotham…in fact, The Dark Knight shows Batman’s relentlessness did harm to the city by enticing The Joker onto the scene and opened up conversations about how far is too far concerning security measures and their use in the face of terrorism.
Prior to X-Men most comic book films focused on a single hero. Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and Blade (in the 1998 film of the same name) were all loners…even when given sidekicks they did the heaviest lifting on their own and, all too often, had to save their supposed help. No matter the number of villains or the perilous nature of the task, in the end, being a hero was a one-person job.
With the X-Men, you’re a team or you’re nothing. Professor X might be the “leader” of the mutant group and Wolverine might be a key heroic figure, but neither them nor anyone else is saving the world all on their own. They need each other and everyone has to do their job to save the world. …Beyond the simple fact of X-Men introducing the idea of a team, it introduced teamwork and trust as major motifs. Instead of the lone hero putting the weight of the world on his/her shoulders people banded together, complimented each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and learned to trust that, if one person failed, the others would be there to support him/her. This way of working opened up comic book films to the idea of family as not just something to lose when becoming a hero, but something to gain.
The Avengers follow up on this concept by throwing together numerous heroes who don’t initially get along, but band together as a team to successfully save the world. They bond, become a makeshift family, and share things they’d otherwise keep hidden as a lone hero. By Avengers: Civil War even Spiderman is working on group projects with Iron Man as his mentor. More recently studios were able to expand on this idea by creating hero groups even within singular-focused movies – such as having Thor, Hulk, and Loki (and possibly others, I’m not risking spoilers) teaming up in Thor: Ragnarok. This film is perfect for examining trust and family given Thor and Loki’s complicated history and Hulk being…a giant, green, rage monster. And, on November 17th, The Justice League will throw the stubbornly suspicious loner, Batman, into a team of his own making…it will be intriguing to see what issues will be examined in a film that includes a number of characters with strong beliefs that, quite honestly, don’t always match those of others in the team.