I’m not doing a Top Ten list this year—I’ve missed too many movies. Nor am I doing a Top Ten of the Decade.
But I’d like to honor one film of the past ten years. Not the best film of the decade by a long shot; I would probably give it an A-. But it was arguably the most influential, raising a silly genre to both big box office and high art. And appropriately for the film of the decade, it came out in 2000.
The movie: X-Men.
To understand just how important X-Man was, consider the superhero movies that preceded it. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies with of the 70s and 80s played best as intentional camp, never taking themselves seriously. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman cast a dark and serious shadow over the material, but in the end, the story and characters lacked the depth to support it. The sequels were soon as camp as Superman.
But from X-Men’s opening sequence at the gates of Auschwitz, director Bryan Singer let us know that this was a story to take seriously. In the very next scene, a teenage girl kisses a boy for the first time, and nearly kills him. Superpowers never looked so much like a curse.
X-Men is at its best when it explores the characters and the society they live in, where random people are born with superpowers that make them hated and feared outcasts. The plot-heavy second half is a bit of a letdown, despite some very well choreographed fights, because what you really want by that point is more time with the characters.
But X-Men wouldn’t be my film of the decade if it was just a very well-made, character-and-ideas-driven action fantasy. It spawned a decades-worth (so far) of ambitious superhero movies. Three of them, Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight, just might be masterpieces. Other, very good to excellent titles include Spider-Man, X-men 2, Batman Begins, and Iron Man.
There were disappointments as well, of course, some from directors we expected good work from. X-Men’s own Singer helmed the limp Superman Returns. And after making one very good and one great Spider-Man movie, Sam Raimi proved the third time a curse with the nearly unwatchable Spider-Man 3. But the most disappointing of all was Hulk, because it came from the best director ever to make a superhero movie, Ang Lee.
On the other hand, if Singer hadn’t resurrected the genre and made it something better than anyone thought possible, would Ang Lee even have tried to make a superhero movie?