In Poland back in 1944, a group of Jews were being led to the death camps by the Nazis when a young Jewish boy was separated from his parents, causing him great anguish, so much so that the terrible emotions brought out a latent power in him that enabled him to bend open the metal gates. Now, he has grown to call himself Magneto (Ian McKellen) and is aware he is what is known as a mutant, that is the apparent next stage in evolution where homo sapiens becomes homo superior, each example with incredible abilities. However, Magneto believes the so-called normal people will never accept those with these powers in their midst, unlike his old friend Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), another mutant who wishes to live in harmony...
So who is right? This was the movie that really kicked off the superhero craze of the twenty-first century, there had been other productions based on Marvel properties before, and Blade had proved a substantial hit a couple of years before, not to mention the Batman films from DC which had recently hit a snag when they became unpopular, but it took director Bryan Singer to demonstrate you didn't have to be a comics nut thoroughly versed in the ins and outs of decades of storylines to enjoy a movie with this basis. Interesting to note the presence of director Richard Donner behind the scenes, for his Superman: The Movie had done much the same over twenty years before.
However, that blockbuster did not start a notable trend, and X-Men and its near-contemporary Spider-Man did, downplaying the quips and emphasising the allegories of prejudice to elicit a serious response in the audience. They didn't necessarily pull this off with every viewer, as it was accused in some quarters of bad taste to make connections between fictional characters and the Holocaust's effect on Europe's Jewish population, but as the franchise carried on it became more accepted that the mutants could stand in for any oppressed group in society you wished them to. In this case, Singer seemed unable to make up his mind between them being allied with the Jews or the homosexuals; you imagine creator Stan Lee would have seen the former and Singer the latter.
This resulted in imagery evoking the Jewish immigration from Europe to the United States prompted by World War Two among other things, yet also situations where the mutants were compelled to hide their true feelings to try and fit in with the community in a connection to the gay experience prior to coming out. Mind you, the antagonism the mutants suffer from the conventional population both results in Xavier's drive to be accepted as not a threat but a blessing, and Magneto's belief that they will be exterminated if they do not stand up for themselves and land the first punch, and the cynic would be siding with him as the history of the human race and their need to scapegoat and blame would be regarded as proving Magneto correct.
Did X-Men have an uphill battle that could be encapsulated in the wish for Marvel movies to be accepted too? Not quite, as while not everyone wants expressly to be Jewish or gay, you either are or you aren't, being a superhero did have its benefits, and ones which many of those in the potential audience would be keen to entertain as power fantasies. As with many first instalments, there was the curse of the origin tale to this, meaning there were threads set up that would not be resolved until you had to assume a later date, but Singer was able to make enough of a self-contained movie that it didn't become too much of an issue, after all there was no guarantee back in 2000 that this would be a "universe"-spawning success. Unlike the future X-Men entries, the tendency to sprawl was kept in check with well-cast individuals, Hugh Jackman finding his defining role as Wolverine for example, though the actresses were less fortunate in finding identifiable heroines when as often with Marvel it was a boy's club first. Nice to see genuine teamwork for the finale, though. Music by Michael Kamen.