X-Men at 20: A Look Back

Twenty years ago today, Bryan Singer’s X-Men arrived in theaters and it’s not hyperbole to call it one of the most influential pictures of the 21st century. The 20th Century Fox release found the comic book genre at a rather low point at the end of that said century. While Blade was a nice size hit in 1998, the years prior found at a lot to be desired with the quality of the genre. 1995 brought us Judge Dredd and 1997 saw the release of Batman and Robin, which found the Caped Crusader with Bat nipples and bad reviews.

X-Men, though it’s hard to remember now, was released at a time where the idea of superhero tales was an uncertain box office prospect. This is two years before Spider-Man broke all kinds of financial records. This is five years prior to Christopher Nolan reinvigorating the Bat franchise with his Dark Knight trilogy. And this was eight years before Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man, officially kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In the summer of 2000, X-Men was by no means a guaranteed hit. It did, however, have credibility with the behind the scenes talent and cast. Bryan Singer was known for his heralded The Usual Suspects. Acclaimed actors Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen (fresh off an Oscar nod for Gods and Monsters), Anna Paquin, and Halle Berry were among the onscreen players. And it was another casting decision that provided its most enduring legacy. Russell Crowe, who headlined that summer’s Oscar winner Gladiator, originally turned down the part of Wolverine. Dougray Scott was then cast in the role, but had to drop out when his role as the villain in Mission: Impossible II (also out that summer) prevented him from filming. So it was the unknown Hugh Jackman who donned the claws. He would go on to make it his signature role as he played Logan/Wolverine in numerous sequels and spin-offs (including three stand-alone projects of wildly divergent qualities).

Let’s back up. Before the 2000 release, X-Men was in development for over a decade and a half. At one point, James Cameron was slated to produce with his then wife Kathryn Bigelow attached to direct. Later on, Robert Rodriguez turned the project down. A gander at the pic’s Wikipedia page is an entertaining read (Mariah Carey was in the mix for Storm at one juncture and Angela Bassett was first choice). X-Men was rushed to make its summer release date 20 years ago today after it was originally intended for Christmas 2000.

That rushed feeling does show on up on screen a little, but the overall end result speaks for itself. What occurred two decades ago is a major mark in the comic book movie renaissance that continues to this day. The franchise has certainly had its ups and downs. X2: X-Men United was the first sequel in 2003 and it is generally considered a high point. Three years later, Brett Ratner took over directorial reigns with The Last Stand and (while a huge hit) the quality took a dip. Matthew Vaughn would reestablish critical kudos in rebooting the series in 2011 with First Class (bringing Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence to the screen playing younger counterparts to key characters). Jackman’s first spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine faced deserved backlash while 2017’s Logan was lauded and landed an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. And a cheeky and R rated offshoot called Deadpool with Ryan Reynolds would dazzle audiences and critics alike. Last summer’s Dark Phoenix didn’t do any dazzling and was another low ebb in the series. Spin-off The New Mutants has seen release date changes that began in 2018 and it’s pretty much a running joke as to whether it will ever come out.

That long road began in 2000 and has shaped the cinematic universe since. And if you had to mark a spot for the comic book landscape today as it stands now on the screen, it started that day.

Summer 1998: The Top 10 Hits and More

Continuing with my recaps of the movie summers from 30, 20, and 10 years ago – we arrive at 1998. If you missed my post recounting the 1988 season, you can find it right here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2018/07/11/summer-1988-the-top-10-hits-and-more/

1998 was a rather astonishingly sequel lite summer with only one making up the top ten moneymakers. And while 2018 will be known for its Avengers phenomenon, it was a much different story with Avengers two decades ago.

Behold my synopsis of the top 10 hits, along with other notables and flops:

10. The Mask of Zorro

Domestic Gross: $94 million

He may be playing Pablo Picasso on TV now, but Antonio Banderas had a significant hit (alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins) in this tale of the famed swashbuckler. A less successful sequel would follow in 2005.

9. Mulan

Domestic Gross: $120 million

Disney’s 36th animated feature (with a voice assist from Eddie Murphy) didn’t reach the heights of titles like Aladdin or The Lion King, but the Mouse Factory has already commissioned a live-action version slated for 2020.

8. The Truman Show

Domestic Gross: $125 million

Jim Carrey’s first major big screen foray outside of zany comedy, Peter Weir’s reality show pic garnered critical acclaim for the film itself and the star’s performance.

7. Lethal Weapon 4

Domestic Gross: $130 million

The final teaming of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover (with Chris Rock and Jet Li joining the mix) made slightly less than part 3 and was generally considered rather mediocre, especially considering the heights that the franchise started from.

6. Godzilla

Domestic Gross: $136 million

Coming off the massive success of Independence Day, Roland Emmerich’s tale of the giant green monster was expected to possibly be summer’s biggest hit. It came in well below expectations with critics and audiences. A better regarded version arrived in 2014.

5. Deep Impact

Domestic Gross: $140 million

Our first asteroid disaster flick on the list came from Mimi Leder with a cast including Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood, and Robert Duvall. Moviegoers loved their asteroids 20 years ago.

4. Dr. Dolittle

Domestic Gross: $144 million

Eddie Murphy was still in popular family guy mode with this remake of the Rex Harrison animal tale. A sequel would follow in 2001.

3. There’s Something About Mary

Domestic Gross: $176 million

The Farrelly Brothers had the comedic smash of the summer in this effort that made Ben Stiller a huge star and had a showcase role for Cameron Diaz’s talents.

2. Armageddon

Domestic Gross: $201 million

Our second asteroid pic (this one from Michael Bay) comes with Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler… and an Aerosmith ballad that played all season long.

1. Saving Private Ryan

Domestic Gross: $216 million

Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed World War II drama with Tom Hanks has one of the most intense first scenes in cinematic history. It was considered the Oscar front-runner until it lost in an upset to Shakespeare in Love. 

And now for some other notable films:

The X-Files

Domestic Gross: $83 million

Bringing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s alien themed FOX TV show to the big screen turned out to be a profitable venture. An ignored sequel would follow 10 years later.

Blade

Domestic Gross: $70 million

The vampire-centric Wesley Snipes flick spawned two sequels and major cult status.

Out of Sight

Domestic Gross: $37 million

Its box office performance was middling, but Steven Soderbergh’s romantic crime pic showed George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez at their best. Critics dug it.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Domestic Gross: $10 million

Not a success at the time, but Terry Gilliam’s wild ride featuring Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson created a serious following in subsequent years.

And now for some flops:

Six Days, Seven Nights

Domestic Gross: $74 million

Harrison Ford was flying high off the success of Air Force One one summer earlier, but audiences and reviewers weren’t as kind to this action comedy with Anne Heche.

Snake Eyes

Domestic Gross: $55 million

Likewise, Nicolas Cage experienced a trilogy of mega hits during the two previous summers with The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off. This one from Brian De Palma didn’t impress nearly as much.

The Avengers

Domestic Gross: $23 million

Not THOSE Avengers, ladies and gents. This big screen adaptation of the 1960s TV series with Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery landed with a thud in August. No sequels here.

54

Domestic Gross: $16 million

Mike Myers was coming off a little something called Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery when this pic about the famed NYC nightclub opened. Critics weren’t kind and crowds didn’t turn up.

BASEketball

Domestic Gross: $7 million

Trey Parker and Matt Stone rarely create something that isn’t massively successful – like “South Park” and The Book of Mormon. This sports comedy is the rare exception, though it has developed a following since.

And there you have it – the summer of 1998! Look for 2008 shortly…

The Superhero Sequel: A History

Currently at the multiplex, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is reigning supreme with its record-setting April debut of $95 million. This Marvel production is the just the latest example of an interesting and rare phenomenon – sequels that are considered superior to their predecessors.

However, if you take a close look at the superhero genre – it really isn’t a rare thing. In fact, one could argue it’s the only film genre in which sequels are very often considered improvements on the original. This doesn’t hold true for comedies or horror pics or action flicks. The explosion of comic book related titles (especially in the 21st century) has produced multiple examples of this.

Before we get there, let’s take a look back. In the late 70s, Superman was a massive hit and its 1980 sequel was generally considered a worthy follow-up that wasn’t quite its equal. The same holds true for the big comic book film character of the late 80s with Batman and its 1992 sequel Batman Returns. With both of those franchises – their third and fourth entries were considered highly disappointing.

This dynamic would shift in the 21st century. When X-Men jumpstarted the genre once again in 2000, it was well-received by critics and audiences and yet its follow-up X2: X-Men United earned even greater acclaim.

We would see this happen yet again when Spider-Man 2 improved upon Spider-Man.

And yet again when The Dark Knight became a beloved global hit with most believing it reached greater heights than Batman Begins.

Marvel Studios has seen this happen with both the current Captain America sequel and Thor: The Dark World from last year. And we’ll see if their trend continues with next year’s Avengers follow-up.

As you can see, it’s usually more the rule than exception that superhero sequels are thought of as bettering film #1. You could put Blade II and Hellboy: The Golden Army in there as well, according to many moviegoers.

Having said that, it doesn’t always hold true. You would be hard pressed to find many people who believe Iron Man 2 was a better experience than the 2008 original. And while second pictures have had lots of luck, third installments in the 21st century are a different story. Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and (to a lesser degree) The Dark Knight Rises were all considered letdowns. The exception is Iron Man 3, considered an upgrade over #2.

Of course, there are sequels in film history outside of the superhero genre that this applies to with The Empire Strikes Back being an obvious example. Others that come up in the conversation: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (though I would disagree), The Road Warrior, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

As far this blog post’s focus, we’ll be seeing more examples of superhero sequels within weeks with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the buzz of which already indicates it’s more solid than the original. And there’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which will try to top X-Men: First Class. We will see if the usual third entry letdown occurs with Captain America and Thor follow-ups in the next couple of years.

One thing is clear – when it comes to comic book pics – the first issue isn’t always the most memorable.