At the top of the Statue of Liberty, gusts of wind can whip so ferociously that the entire structure actually sways. The famed torch has been known to move as much as six inches when nature really howls. Naturally, this is the perfect location for a storybook Hollywood ending.
X-Men, which arrived in theaters 20 years ago today, perched its final battle at the peak of the American monument to immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity—by way of 20th Century FOX (FOXA)’s Toronto soundstages. But what you may not know about the climax of X-Men, the film that helped spark Hollywood’s modern comic book boom, is that it needed to be entirely reshot before it was ready for primetime. That’s a dreaded proposition in today’s superhero-friendly ecosystem of $200 million blockbusters. Now imagine the concern it must have sprouted back in 1999 when comic book material was still looked down upon in Tinsel Town and the creative team was locked into a rigid budget.
Yet, upon its release, the new direction helped cement X-Men—directed by Bryan Singer, who has since been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple individuals—as the most critically and commercially successful comic-book blockbuster without a Batman or a Superman. Along with 1998’s Blade, X-Men helped to legitimize the genre as a bankable lane for Hollywood that could expand beyond the cartoonish sensibilities of older comic book films. Facing last-minute obstacles of great proportion was simply par the course for the film, which had taken more than a decade to reach the big screen.
“Nobody had made those movies before, certainly not on the level that we were doing it,” the actress Famke Janssen told Observer, recalling her role as the superheroine Jean Grey. “The comic book adaptation hadn’t been done in this kind of grittier fashion.”
To unpack how the movie first came about, navigate its cloudy development process, and understand its legacy 20 years later, Observer spoke to Janssen, executive producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter as well as screenwriter David Hayter.
X-Men ran through years and years of development before landing at Fox
“Let’s just say God works too slowly.”
Marvel Comics writers and editors Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas first wrote an X-Men screenplay back in 1984 when the rights belonged to Orion Pictures. But financial woes at the studio soon put the kibosh on that project. From 1989-1990, Stan Lee and Marvel writer Chris Claremont hoped to get their own version off the ground, with Kathryn Bigelow directing and James Cameron producing. Another round of bankruptcies soon ended those hopes. But, the success of X-Men: The Animated Series on Fox Kids brought renewed interest to the project, and by 1994, Donner had acquired the film rights after then-development executive Scott Nimerfro brought the property to her attention.
“I was aware of it, but I hadn’t read it growing up,” Donner told Observer. “So I read some of the Marvel character biographies and the first one I read was Logan’s. I was immediately hooked on the character. I felt empathetic towards him because of his trauma—having his body tampered with and his unrequited love for Jean Grey. His constant healing and not wanting to live that long. I was hooked right then and there.”
Donner wasn’t the property’s only champion. Bill Mechanic, CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment at the time, had sold his childhood X-Men comic collection to fund his education at USC. So when the time came for Donner and her team to pitch the studio, they had the luck of preaching to the converted at a time when comic book films were far from obvious moves. Mechanic signed off, and the floodgates opened.
“I had a number of scripts written,” Donner said. A who’s who of screenwriting talent all took a crack at X-Men, including Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, Panic Room), Christopher McQuarrie (the Mission: Impossible films), Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Men in Black), Tom DeSanto (Transformers) and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Avengers series).
“I read some of the Marvel character biographies and the first one I read was Logan’s. I was immediately hooked on the character.” -Donner
The final screenplay credit would eventually go to David Hayter, whose involvement with X-Men began with the very lucrative and crucial role of…answering office phones.
“I knew the comic books very well, and Bryan came to rely on me to advise him on how to keep it true to the comics,” Hayter told Observer. “Eventually, I suggested a scene to him and he said, ‘Yeah, just go write that for me.’ And that’s when I started doing rewrites.”
A swarm of scribes and a tight budget from Fox meant that many ideas the creative team were excited about—such as action sequences set in the Danger Room, the introduction of Ice Man as he freezes an entire room full of people and a sequence featuring Wolverine fighting Magneto atop a series of moving buses—had to be cut. The creative team quickly learned that translating beloved comic book material to the big screen wasn’t as easy as copy and pasting from the page. What no one involved wanted was for this movie to be just hardcore homage to decades of X-Men comics at the exclusion of casual moviegoers.
Winter’s experience as a producer on the early Star Trek films helped prepare him for the challenges of providing worthy arcs to an ensemble cast while also balancing the appeal to both comic fans and new audiences.
“We knew what the bullseye was,” Winter told Observer. “We had to get to the core fans, but we also had to widen it out for others. We even made a joke about yellow spandex suits because we knew what the fans wanted. But to justify a $75 million budget, we had to widen it out so that we could explain and lay the foundation for a wider base of comic book fans and movie-goers in general.”
Though X-Men‘s call sheet benefited from a bevy of impressive names, much of the main cast was as bereft of blockbuster experience as Fox was of creating high-profile comic book tentpoles. Famke Janssen, whose breakout role was in Pierce Brosnan’s first James Bond film GoldenEye, got to contribute to the continuation of one epic franchise in 007 and the complicated birth of a new one in X-Men.
“The Bond franchise is a very well-oiled machine,” she told Observer. “They’ve been making those movies for a long time. The producers have done those movies in their particular manner for such a long time that they know exactly what they want and how to organize and do it. We were all starting something entirely new with X-Men.”
Venturing into the unknown carries with it a degree of uncertainty and complication. But, ironically, Janssen said, that infused X-Men‘s production with an “indie” spirit that made the project feel more intimate, grounded and personal.
“It was a very interesting experience because even though we were making a very big film, at the time it didn’t feel like we were,” Janssen said. “It did on certain days when we were filming these massive, massive sets and the amount of time that went into it. But the script development and how many changes were still occurring during filming and how we were sometimes flying by the seat of our pants, it just felt different.”
Casting the film meant rejecting the likes of Michael Jackson, Shaq, Mariah Carey and more
“I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school looking for trouble.”
Hollywood is a relatively insular community, so X-Men quickly made the rounds among celebrities with an existing love of comics, actors and actresses that had never thumbed a Marvel story in their lives, and stars that just wanted to hop aboard the moving train.
“I have lots of warm memories of people that came in wanting to be in the movie,” Winter recalls. “Michael Jackson was a big comic fan and wanted to play Charles Xavier. Shaquille O’Neal showed up at the offices and wanted to play Forge, who wasn’t in the movie.”
The list goes on and on. Famously, Russell Crowe passed on playing Wolverine, as did Viggo Mortensen, who was still a few years away from Lord of the Rings.
“Terence Stamp told me, ‘You know why Patrick doesn’t want to do it? Because of the chair. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the chair. But I don’t mind. In fact, I also look excellent bald.'” -Hayter
“Patrick Stewart didn’t want to [play Charles Xavier]. It took a long time to convince him,” Hayter said. “Terence Stamp told me, ‘You know why Patrick doesn’t want to do it? Because of the chair. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the chair. But I don’t mind. In fact, I also look excellent bald.’ Everyday I was surprised by the faces coming in. Like, I’d find Mariah Carey sitting in my office wanting to go talk to Bryan about being Storm or something. So that’s always shocking.”
Hayter and Singer flew to Vancouver to offer Charlize Theron the role of Jean Grey, which she ultimately turned down. Eventually, the main cast would be comprised of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn and Ray Park.
Everyone working on it knew X-Men needed to be “serious”
“Doesn’t it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that someday they will pass that foolish law, or one just like it, and come for you and your children?”
When X-Men was in development, comic book films were more kid-friendly punchlines than they were box office prizewinners. X-Men‘s successful precursors were limited to Richard Donner’s Superman films, Tim Burton’s run on Batman and Stephen Norrington’s Blade. Fox and the creative team had to battle against the genre’s stigma while also figuring out how to appeal to a broader audience. The way in, they discovered, was to ground the tale in realism and treat it as a drama that just happened to feature comic book heroes.
“The seriousness of it and the question of should we live together? Should we live apart? Echoing the comic book themes that Stan Lee put together. That’s what started to distinguish it and make it different,” Winter explained.
It’s a sentiment shared by Donner, who knew they had to differentiate X-Men from the cartoonish adaptations that had preceded it. “Some of the comic book movies that came prior to us treated the characters as though they were comic book characters,” she said. “And when I read the character biographies, I read them as real people. If we grounded the characters enough, and you could identify with them, and root for them, then you’re more accepting when they, you know, shoot lasers out of their eyes.”
Thematics were equally as important to the X-Men creators as spectacle, which is an anchor Janssen gravitated toward. “One of the reasons the X-Men comics have endured for such a long time is that it’s about the outsider,” she said. “It’s about being ostracized because you’re different. That was really the emphasis on this particular film. It was nice to make it realistic and not have it be this glossy kind of filmmaking.”
That mandate is evident from the movie’s opening scene, which sees a young Magneto separated from his mother at a concentration camp during the Holocaust. It was a stark departure from the colorful corniness that comic book films had come to be defined by.
“That opening immediately says ‘serious.’ It says this is different and you better pay attention,” Winter said. It also set the stage to humanize the film’s villain, which Donner saw as crucial.
“It’s always important to make a villain that you understand,” Donner said. “A villain that you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Of course you understand Magneto’s hatred for human beings, because his family was tortured by them. I give credit to Fox, because they let us shoot it and let us start the movie that way. That goes back to Bill Mechanic.”
That sense of realism runs throughout the remainder of the film, informing decisions related to costumes, settings, characterizations and plot. No one wanted a silly superhero story—they wanted a dramatic action movie. They wanted to treat the material like a filmmaker would treat an adaptation of Tom Clancy or Stephen King.
The studio was “extremely involved,” leading to a tug-of-war between the film’s creative and commercial voices
“Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?”
X-Men was widely seen as a costly risk when it was made. Only two of 2000’s 10 highest-grossing films carried smaller budgets than X-Men, and none of the other top-10 films that year were comic book adaptations. Today, Hollywood is disproportionately reliant on the genre to feed its margins, but 20 years ago capes and cowls were met with snickers and smiles. Still, that didn’t mean Fox was going to give X-Men free rein.
“They were extremely involved,” Hayter said of the studio. “Every word, every clarification. They were very concerned that people wouldn’t understand why there were 11 super-powered lead characters, why their powers weren’t the same, why they had different names in the street than they did at home. Everything.”
Hayter stressed that Fox provided many good ideas that helped to clarify the film and reiterated that they were good partners overall. But he also conceded that he has “never seen a studio that on top of a production since.”
It was in these battles that a future studio head with a deep knowledge of comic book lore would cut his teeth.
“There was pushback to being faithful to the comic. Kevin Feige was right there in the midst of all of that.” -Winter
“The studio wanted the widest possible audience, the biggest bang for their buck, as they deserve and require,” Winter said. “There was pushback to being faithful to the comic. Kevin Feige [Donner’s production assistant on the film] was right there in the midst of all of that. He didn’t have as big of a voice back then, but he was careful and faithful about the characters and reminding us, ‘Hey, you can do that, but here’s where the character came from. Here’s where their powers started. So keep that in mind as you go do that.'”
Part of the problem between the creative faction and the studio faction—as is the case with virtually every high-profile tentpole film of the last 20 years—was money. “The budget was a challenge,” Winter admitted. “We didn’t pay the stars much. Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, etc. They weren’t getting big salaries in 1999, ’98 when those deals were made. But it stretched out a $75 million budget and the visual effects weren’t cheap.”
Donner remembers the Fox executives being “more hands-off than they were in the ensuing sequels” (more on that in a moment) but credits the push-and-pull for creating a better movie. “Story always comes first, and then what’s ironic is that, on occasion, because of budget concerns, you end up losing a story,” she said. “And the result is that you’re tightening the story you’re telling to a better result.”
“After it was a hit, I thought the sequel would be easier. It was not.” -Hayter
X-Men wound up as the eighth highest-grossing movie of the year with nearly $297 million at the worldwide box office, which looks quaint compared to tentpole totals today but solidified the film as a success back then. Given the achievement, one would believe a looser production on any follow-ups would follow now that both sides can point to proof-of-concept.
“After it was a hit, I thought the sequel would be easier. It was not,” said Hayter, who received a screenplay and story credit for 2003’s X2: X-Men United. “Fox was once again extremely hands-on in trying to shake what they now recognized as a billion-dollar franchise. So it didn’t get easier, but they did give us $50 million more for a budget, so we did get to do some really cool stuff.”
Winter remembers it similarly but also notes the studio upheaval that took place behind the scenes. “It was pretty much the same scrutiny because they want to take credit for that success. Tom Rothman, Peter Rice and others, they had a hand in it, no question. Bill Mechanic got pushed out before the movie came out, which was unfortunate. He really put himself out there, defending this and championing it through the system. But we got $50 million more to put on the screen and I think the second movie is probably our best work of those early movies.”
Even the diplomatic Donner noticed a change as the franchise progressed. “In the sequels, as each X-Men movie made more and more money, [the studio] of course got more involved. They wanted to protect the franchise.”
Whatever the battlegrounds may have been on X-Men, it was studio executive Bill Mechanic—who was reportedly forced out of Fox by Rupert Murdoch and Peter Chernin before the film’s release—who recognized that the final climactic battle was failing as a proper payoff.
The original footage had the same basic framework: Magneto using Rogue’s power to infect New York City with the mutant virus. But they soon all realized that “killing nameless, faceless New Yorkers” whom the audience has no connection to didn’t resonate, failing to elicit the emotional jeopardy the moment demanded. In reshoots, they repositioned the climax to revolve around Logan and the X-Men fighting Magneto to save Rogue, the movie’s innocent ingenue.
In doing so, the isolated and damaged Wolverine, the film’s de facto protagonist, finds redemption and a modicum of inner peace. As Donner stressed throughout production, these characters needed to feel real and relatable. A hardened loner finally finding a home and a family after decades of rejection was exactly the type of concluding pathos the film needed.
Future X-Men films succeeded critically and commercially—and built their own mythology
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of human evolution.”
Fox’s X-Men movie franchise will have wound up producing 13 films over 20 years when The New Mutants finally arrives after several delays. The series has grossed more than $6 billion at the worldwide box office, making it one of the 10 highest-grossing film franchises of all time. Critically, the films have performed respectably, never having once earned a CinemaScore lower than a B- and averaging a respectably fresh 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is one of the few tentpole cinematic continuities not to undergo a hard reboot; on the big screen, we’ve seen three different actors tackle Spider-Man, three different actors cast as Batman and three different takes on Joker in the same span.
Yet with Disney acquiring Fox and with it the X-Men film rights, it is widely expected that Kevin Feige’s Marvel Cinematic Universe will revert back to square one and reintroduce a new version of the X-Men in the years to come. However, as we’re seeing with DC bringing back Michael Keaton’s Batman, there exists a nostalgia-driven hunger for well-received originals to return in some capacity.
“The question is more if they would have any interest in bringing me back…. I’d be curious to see what happens [with Marvel Films]. But, yes, I would be very open to it.” -Janssen
The X-Men series had its own version of this following the soft reboot starring younger versions of the characters introduced in X-Men: First Class. Would Janssen ever be willing to take up the Jean Grey mantle once more?
“I think the question is more if they would have any interest in bringing me back,” she says with a laugh. “With Days of Future Past, there was a surprise way of reintroducing certain characters that had been killed off. In some people’s cases, it was to bring them back as well as the younger versions of their characters. I’d be curious to see what happens [with Marvel Films]. But, yes, I would be very open to it.”
As the X-Men property barrels toward yet another incarnation, there is a defining characteristic of the title that she hopes is not only continued but expanded on in the MCU.
“The one thing that we can say for the X-Men is that there were a lot of women in our films. Strong, superhero women. I think diversity across the board would be amazing,” Janssen said. “There’s no shortage in any of these X-Men of what you can do and what you can find in terms of diverse characters. I’m assuming that’s what they’ll do anyway, but that is where the work should be headed everywhere.”
The legacy of X-Men has no single answer
“Every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”
Hayter looks back on X-Men and credits the film’s success for unleashing a “legion of superhero movies upon the world, for better and for worse.” Without X-Men, he’s not sure the big screen paradigm would have evolved to the point that genre expansions such as Deadpool and Logan would have been greenlit. “You’ve got really interesting variants and darker or twisted stuff, which I enjoy,” he said. “I helped win one for nerds everywhere.”
Janssen recalls that first film and acknowledges how little their expectations would match the subsequent reality. “I don’t think any of us had any understanding of how big this was going to be and how long it was going to last,” she said. “We starting something that has lasted 20 years. That’s pretty major. I hope that people will continue reinventing it in the way that the Bond franchise has been so successful in doing.”
Winter hasn’t watched the movie front-to-back in a long time, but has seen sections and clips. “I don’t know if it ages as well as it could. But I think the thematics—Is there a place for me? Will I be discarded?—make the movie relevant whether you’re 14 years old or 84 years old. I think that discussion is still going on today. How do we find a place?”
Donner believes the success of X-Men helped open the doors for Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, which laid the groundwork for Marvel’s eventual shared cinematic universe conquest. But, more importantly, she believes the message of X-Men remains its best contribution.
“The legacy is tolerance,” she said. “We’re all mutants in a way. All of us. Most of us feel like misfits, and this movie shows that we’re all good. We’re all equal in who we are and we should be proud of who we are. Intolerance should not be tolerated.”