Seventeen years ago, X-Men entered the cinema, and the world of film was changed forever. Batman and Superman defined comic book movies for the twenty previous years, but now there was a new kind of superhero film.
The film’s financial and critical success helped pave the way for a more serious tone to be adopted for superhero films (for better and worse) and encourage the industry to go all in on superhero films.
For me though, the arrival of X-Men meant so much more on a personal level.
Growing up, three animated series defined superheroes for me: X-Men, Batman, and Spider-Man. The story of mutant heroes though was clearly my favorite. All I wanted was more X-Men in my life and for it to be as good as possible. X-Men not only accomplished “more” and “good” X-Men, but even eleven-year-old me could understand that this film signaled the promise of a future with plenty more X-Men films.
The film turned Wolverine into the hero of X-Men. It let two world-class actors define the iconic characters, Professor Xavier and Magneto. It let us finally get to see so many other classic mutants finally do their thing on the biggest stage possible with the promise of bigger and better things to come and a coherent vision of what X-Men was going to be.
That’s where things got complicated.
The story of the X-Men on film has been an absolute roller coaster. That first film led to a fantastic follow-up and then a near-franchise killing third film. From there, we got very underwhelming side adventures with Wolverine and then a new trilogy of X-Men films that re-charged the universe. and gave it some much-needed energy.
Despite some major successes, the X-Men franchise has never really felt like it was on steady ground much after the second film. It constantly needed to prove itself and any slight misstep was always interpreted as a major cause for concern. While that is probably mostly unfair, it is understandable due to the simple fact that X-Men failed to fulfill its promise of seventeen years ago.
The promise of a coherent vision of what X-Men was going to be on screen never came to pass. Yes, they had many good films over that time period and several significant hits. The whole franchise never felt like the cohesive whole that it could and should have been though.
For an eleven-year-old child, that promise meant everything to me for reasons that I cannot fully unpack. I never gave up on the promise of that film. Even when all hope was lost, I held onto some irrational belief that things would be righted for good. The promise was not dead for me for so long.
The vision created seventeen years ago was very much tied up with Hugh Jackman’s presence of course. He represented the success and failures of the X-Men franchise nearly perfectly.
Jackman became a star due to the franchise, and the movies became hits due to in no small part due to his rise in star-power. The attempts to focus on him too much though were tied to the franchise’s failures.
Through all of that though, Jackman was there. As long as he was making cameos or coming back to star in a film, you could cling onto the idea that the journey X-Men went on seventeen years ago was never truly over. They were still simply just finding their way.
The arrival of Logan signals finally though that the promise is gone. The dream is dead, and the latest X-Men film wraps up what remained from 2000.
The film is about Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier going on one final adventure. The world has changed though since the last time we saw these characters in the same place at the same time (that would be the end of Days of Future Past for those of you who understandably cannot keep track).
In 2024, Wolverine woke up from the Past after saving the Future for the X-Men (META~!). It’s 2029 now, and it appears that the Future has died anyway for the X-Men (META AGAIN~!).
No mutants have been born in 25 years, and there are very few mutants still alive anyway. The latter was helped in no small part by Charles wiping out the X-Men team via unintended psychic meltdown due to his unnamed brain disease. Charles is mostly a burden at this point and is something that Logan has to struggle to keep alive while not allowing Charles to endanger others.
The story gets going when X-23 shows up and forces Logan and Charles to leave behind their morbid and desolate existence. For Charles, X-23 is a chance at redemption. Another student to mold and family to create, even if for a few days. For Logan, X-23 is literally his daughter and “very much like” him.
A lot of the rest of the film plays out how you would expect based on the trailers and hype of the film. This is the end. Charles is killed about 2/3rds of the way through. Logan looks tortured throughout as all these people in his past and present keep dying. He sacrifices himself at the end to save X-23. The journey along the way was often beautiful, touching, hilarious, and tragic.
Logan is buried at the end. X-23 initially had a cross at his burial site, but she then turns it into an ‘X’ as the film closes. It was a moment that symbolized the death of the franchise’s original conception.
This was the last chapter in the original vision of X-Men. The only characters left are Charles and Logan. The film goes all in on them which is simultaneously both freeing and limiting.
The small scope allows the film to really linger on smaller moments with both of those characters to make their final journeys more satisfying. Charles gets to have one final day in the light and experience what it’s like to mold a young mind for the better. Logan gets to finally be the one who dies so that others can live. Both of their final arcs feel appropriate for the characters and make for great showcases for the actors who have stuck with X-Men through thick and thin.
While fans like myself have tried to hold on to a glimmer of hope that one day that the original ideas from X-Men would be fully capitalized on, the story here fully makes clear how that the original promise and vision died long before this one. It was just a short three years previously that we saw Charles and Logan (et co.) save the world and mutantkind in Days of Future Past. They got to give so many characters that we had come to love and care about a second chance.
In the X-Men film universe though, there is no time for their stories. We don’t get to know what became of them in any way. Here, they are just off-screen props to compete the arcs of Charles and Logan.
That is not this film’s fault obviously (they had their story and mostly told it very well). If this film kicks off an era of X-Men films that are generally episodic, that will not be a bad thing in the slightest and will certainly help to distinguish itself from the other cinematic universes approaching everything from a heavily serialized perspective.
The film just unfortunately shines a light on the macro issues the X-Men franchise created for itself with its own failures. This film was as much about how fans from the last seventeen years never came close to getting what we were teased and that contributes to film’s melancholy tone as much as anything else.